Shake It Off

Current events locally, nationally, globally, geopolitically, and in my own personal life are a mess right now. “A mess” trivializes the realities of these situations (except in my personal life. My personal life is not a humanitarian crisis. It is just a mess.) But I don’t know how to talk about all of those things just yet. I’m still struggling through a lot of it and I’m not ready to do it publicly. So, today we’re going to talk about something I do know how to talk about: my girl Taylor Swift.

It’s all but impossible to have any conversation about Taylor Swift without somebody bringing up the Politics of Taylor Swift, which is always exhausting and almost always sexist. It seems like everyone wants to hate my girl Tay– which is what I’ve taken to calling her because all the baseless hatred has made me enormously protective—mainstream media says she’s spiteful and uses boys to get hit songs and feminist media has a habit of saying she’s an airhead who’s obsessed with boys and nothing else. Ugh, y’all. Ugh. I’m not spending much time on this today (check back for a full essay later) but I’ll reiterate what I always say: hating women hurts all women. Also, Taylor Swift is great. I love her. I write a blog called Angry Feminist Killjoy and I utterly, without an ounce of irony, adore Taylor Swift.

On Monday evening, there was this big livestream event where a bunch of information about Taylor’s (yeah, I’m first-naming it) new album was revealed. And of course I watched that live! My life is, as previously established, Not Great Bob, and I knew that Taylor Swift could fix it. She’s just that good. And she did! The livestream starts and she’s ON TOP of the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. So cool! Successful young women taking charge! My heart! And then pretty shortly she drops a brand new single and it’s so great. I just instantly love it and forget all my problems and can’t wait to get in on this new Taylor Swift Era of Good Times With Lady Friends! And then she announces her new album—which, you know, go ahead and clear my calendar for October 27. And then, because this livestream is wonderful, she’s like, PS: here’s my brand new video.

The video starts and is so great and fun and I instantly loved it just like I instantly loved the song. One of the many unfounded things Taylor Swift is constantly criticized for is her ~bad dancing~ and this video responds to that in the most fun, funny, and self-deprecating way. Here’s Taylor, bunny hopping around with professional ballerinas (an approach that probably would have made my years of ballet classes a lot more fun) and now she’s terrified in a crowd of modern dancers (which is so funny, genuinely humorous, I laughed out loud) and then she’s in this cute lil gold bob with super cool gold lips trying to be futuristic (I don’t even know what to call this kind of dance) and then she’s hanging out with this Vanilla Ice-esque group of dudes and it’s all great! It’s fun, it’s funny, it pokes fun at her own ~bad dancing~ and then…

I’m sure you know where this is going. Crashing down, is where. Crashing down horribly. All of a sudden, Taylor is facing the camera while a group of mostly black women twerk. And she’s dressed up in a really horrifying stereotypical outfit that honestly feels like it belongs in some kind of What Not To Do This Halloween List. And then, because it actually gets worse, my girl Tay crawls through a tunnel of twerking women. This is, unfortunately, the screencap for the video. The whole thing should go straight onto an Inappropriate Things For White People to Do list. The first time I watched this, I just kind of sunk into myself and deflated and thought, “Taylor, come on, no. No, no, no. Please don’t be doing this.”

I spent all night thinking about the video and sent my friends a 1000+ word email at about 7 am. Maybe we’ll end up talking about it and another post will end up here. But for now, I’m going to continue this stream-of-consciousness narrative babble. I’ve read scads of articles and opinion pieces and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to critically and fairly respond to this piece. I’ve had to dig through a lot of nonsense (but the Politics of Taylor Swift!!) to find legitimate criticism and, like all criticism should be, the conversation is nuanced. Is the twerking scene racist? Is it racist to presume that it’s racist? Is Taylor making a mockery of twerkers or is she making fun of herself for being unable to twerk? I’ve heard really compelling arguments on all sides of these questions!

Here’s where I’m at… you need to watch the video before you start talking about how much you hate it. Because, again, we’re all brainwashed into this insane Must Hate Taylor Swift zombie mode and consequentially a lot of the criticism of the video doesn’t make any sense, because the people yelling about it haven’t actually watched it. The big one here is the claim that the only PoC in the video are the faceless twerkers. That’s patently untrue. Which you would know if you watched the video.

One of my biggest problems with Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here was that she’s standing still, surrounding by twerking black women, while literally saying, “I don’t shake my ass because I have a brain.” So in that case, it’s clearly sending a message that the twerking black women around her don’t have brains. With Miley Cyrus, I’m constantly bothered by the way she attempts to claim black culture as her own. She wants to ‘celebrate’ it, but ends up appropriating it. I listen to Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus and I genuinely like both of them as musical artists. I’m not trying to say that they’re the real villains and Taylor Swift is exempt. She’s not. The makeup and costuming and tunnel… not okay. But I do think there is a marked difference in intentionality—not that intentionality matters most of the time. Ie: I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings, but that’s what I did so now I have to take responsibility for that. My point is, I think this case is a bit more complicated than some of the others we’ve seen.

I really think Taylor was trying to make fun of herself in the video, and I think it worked brilliantly right up until the twerking scene. I’m not mad about Taylor dressing up like a ballerina or a gymnast or any of the other personas she adopted in the video. I don’t see that as appropriative. Because poking fun at ballet and gymnastics and contemporary dance doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s fun and really funny to watch Taylor fumble around before the (totally stellar) finally scene where she (in that amazing all black ensemble) dances, footloose and fancy free with her fans. All of that is awesome! Because it doesn’t hurt anyone.

Twerking is a hot topic of the cultural moment, and the conversation usually involves white women pointing at black women and laughing. So, while Taylor was probably just trying to laugh at herself—these things, especially race things, don’t happen in a vacuum. We have to consider the cultural climate and context and how that effects a message’s reception, regardless of its intention. So, if one of you could get me Taylor Swift’s personal contact information, I’d really like to relay all of this information. Actually, no. As much as I would like to have Taylor Swift’s personal contact information, I am not the person who should be having this talk. Either white people need to stop making music videos or we need to hire a Don’t Be Racist consultant to review all music videos before they are produced. That person should get Taylor’s contact info. (And that person should not be me because I am so obviously not an expert on race.)

Finally, here’s where I’m leaving off tonight: I think this video has really harmful and upsetting elements. I wish it didn’t. I wish all our celebrities were required to take a seminar on race and gender theory. I’m really glad the lyrics aren’t problematic the way the video is. Thank god this isn’t a Blurred Lines (lol, rape!) or even a Hard Out Here (I’m too smart to twerk!) situation. That makes it a lot easier for me to accept the problematic elements of Shake It Off and still wholeheartedly love it. And I want to acknowledge that as a white woman who isn’t daily and constantly affected by racism, it’s a lot easier for me to say, “Yeah, this is shitty but ~I love it anyway!!~”

And that’s all for tonight. 1500 words later… I’m going to go continue having feelings about my girl Tay, and really work on trying to verbalize my feelings about everything that’s happening in Ferguson, Gaza, Syria, and even my own inconsequential life. I’d really like to continue to have nuanced conversations about this stuff, but please, for the love of god, don’t make me delete a thousand comments about how you hate Taylor Swift because you think she’s evil.

Advertisements

Don’t Be Racist this Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo has been driving a lot of traffic to the post I made last year, about casual racism and cultural appropriation. Thanks to everyone who linked to that post and to everyone who kept me busy by leaving idiotic comments for me to delete! The comments are so close to being permanently disabled here, which is unfortunate, but I don’t know how many more times I can point to the Rules of Effective Discourse before I just give up.

Last year, I remember trying to be very gracious in undertaking a dialogue around how and why Cinco de Mayo generally does more harm than good. But since I’m still getting messages about how moronic I am for thinking so, I’ve decided to be more direct this year.

When I was growing up, there was a “Multiculturalism and Diversity!” push in public schools. Well-intentioned as this may have been, it resulted in a seriously off-base cultural education for my generation. When you have folks outside of a culture try to teach cultural traditions and practices to other folks who are also outside of that culture, what you get is a lot of stereotypes, simplifications, and flat out misinformation. For instance: how many people do you know who think Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican Independence Day? When did you figure out that Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s Independence Day?

There’s nothing wrong with being invited into a culture and celebrating in a way that is both responsible to the culture and personally meaningful. There is a problem with celebrating Cinco de Mayo by enacting a racist caricature that involves being wasted on tequila, donning a poncho and sombrero, and talking about swimming across rivers. And if you still think I’m a moron for telling you as much, there’s just nothing else I can (or want to) do for you.

But here are some fun things you can do instead of being racist today!!

  • Check out Feministing’s awesome 8 Feminist Ways to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo
  • Read this cool post that compiles one brave soul’s attempt to respond to Cinco de Mayo ignorance
  • Think about all the ways white people have already embarrassed themselves (ourselves) in the past few days… May 3rd’s Free Comic Book Day, May 4th’s Star Wars Day… I mean, just look at this. Don’t be an embarrassing white person today.
  • Don’t send me hate mail for pointing out that white people do dumb and embarrassing things.

Hard Out Here

Back in November, internet feminists had a heyday with the release of Lily Allen’s video “Hard Out Here.” My friend Sam sent a link to the video and a group of the grad students in our department tried to unpack our concerns with it over an email thread. With their permission, I’m going to reprint that conversation here. Even though this is (certainly by internet time) outdated, I think it’s interesting to consider how we collectively form our opinions and challenge each other’s ideas.

Originally, we all thought the use of black women’s bodies in the video was a parody of Miley Cyrus’s recent (and continued) fetishization of black women’s bodies. In the course of our discussion, Lily Allen released a statement making it clear that no such parody was intended. That essentially ended the conversation and any hesitant defense of the video. Ultimately, it’s a good attempt but the violence and privilege of White Feminism are all over the video.

Sam: It’s hard out here for a bitch.

Lydia: I have been thinking about this ALL day. On the one hand, I love it. On the other, the use of WOC feels super problematic. I think it’s supposed to be a further satirization, but there’s really no explicit discussion of it. None of the lyrics reference race or the way white artists use WOC’s bodies in music videos, it just reconstructs that stereotype. So while I feel like Lily Allen is making a comment on it, it’s not explicit and is in a way further silencing/objectifying/disempowering. UGH HELP ME UNDERSTAND, WHAT DO YOU THINK???

Sam: That’s exactly what I was just saying to Jesse!!!…she is still coming from this place of power…her appropriation, even if satirical, is privileged. I tried to think that perhaps she was trying to mock Miley’s “black women as prop” thing, but now we have it in another form because, like you say, there is no explicit discussion of it.

Mocking the appropriation by appropriating it without acknowledging the “it” really just furthers it.

Lydia: It’s so frustrating because that’s such a glaring, harmful piece of the video but I feel like the rest of it is important for a wide audience to experience. But creating an army of White Feminists is not going to help anyone. ughhhhh. My hope is that teenagers see this, feel inspired, get into a Women’s/Gender Studies class and learn about intersectionality.

Megan: Y’all…..
#1 Sam, thanks for sending this! I love this vid. New fave….Pentatonix get lost!

#2…..the satire was blatant to me, and so I’m wondering if a discussion about the appropriation is necessary? I mean, I don’t think we (the ppl on this thread) need that explanation because we get it…so I think she doesn’t need to provide an explanation to an audience like us. Her satirical appropriation speaks for itself, even if it comes from a place of privilege. She can’t help that she’s privileged…in fact, I’m reminded of an Audre Lorde quote. Can’t remember it verbatim, but it’s something like “people should use their privileges for the benefit of others (to help stop oppression).” I think that’s exactly what Lily Allen is doing here, but Sam and Lydia are quite right in saying that she doesn’t explicitly say that she’s doing this. She expects the audience to figure it out. And perhaps that’s presumptuous on her part, but I think it’s also a sign of respect for the audience, since she’s basically saying “you’re smart enough to figure out what I’m doing here. So figure it out!” However, on the other hand, maybe the general public might need an explanation. I could see a lack of discussion being particularly problematic for people who don’t understand satire and/or privilege. Okay, so maybe the inclusion of a discussion is contingent upon different audiences. I dunno.

#3 Hope y’all are having a good night. I’m eating a salad and reading Foucault….talk about the BEST NIGHT EVER!!

Just found this comment on YouTube….this user agrees with you, Sam and Lydia…

“The thing with satire is that it DOESN’T WORK IF YOU CELEBRATE THE SUBJECT MATTER! e.g. the objectification of black women. Use a bunch of white women twerking to get your satirical idea across Lily!”

Vani: I love you all for having this debate in a mass email. PLEASE STILL DO THIS AFTER WE GRADUATE. YOU MAKE ME FEEL LESS INSANE.

Sam: WE ARE MASS DEBATERS. SOMEONE HAD TO, SORRY GUYS.

Lydia: MASS DEBATING ALL OVER YOUR EMAIL RIGHT NOW.

Someone once said (lol, like I know who, what are citations???) that satire goes up, that satire is meant to critique those with the power, who create the oppression. That’s why most rape jokes are the absolute worst, but this Wanda Sykes one is SPOT ON because she’s making fun of rapists and the idea of rape, etc, etc.

So I feel that in this instance, the character of the white man directing the video should have been a more prominent figure, because HE’S the one who needed to be satirized. In this delivery, it feels too much like it’s falling back on the WOC… and I honestly think the whitewashed masses are too bought in to realize what’s happening. BLEH.

Amanda: I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I generally like what Lily Allen does. I think that her critiques of pop culture are smart and subtle. I understand what you guys are saying. I think that it’s probably true that her use of satire will be lost on some. One of the things that we’ve talked about in my classes is the idea of intentions vs. consequences.

It might be that an author’s intention was to make a certain point, but if they’re too subtle or ambiguous, what are the consequences of their text? Ultimately, the consequences are important. For me, the satire is blatant. For those that are just looking for entertainment, this may not be the case.
I guess the question is: to what extent can we hold an author accountable for their audience’s ignorance? To what extent does she need to blatantly show that she is commenting on this behavior and not promoting it? I dunnnotheanswer!

Here’s one of the better ones, I think: The Fear.

Sam: Jezebel. [This article includes Lily Allen’s response to criticisms.]

Whitney [resident punk rocker and musical aficionado]: NOT TO MENTION THAT IT’S THE WORST SONG I’VE HEARD ALL YEAR!!!

DAY TWO: After Lily Allen’s response, now we all know it wasn’t any kind of parody.

Megan: Thanks for sharing the Jezebel article, Sam! Lydia and I were talking about it yesterday….I was under the impression that Lily Allen’s video was an obvious parody of Miley Cyrus, but sadly I was wrong :/ It’s shocking that she’s like completely oblivious to what’s going on….makes me think about the video very differently now.

On a related note, you all might be interested in checking out this game….it’s “A Day in the Life with Female Experience Simulator

HAPPY FRIDAY EVERYONE!!!!!!

Casual Racism and Cinco de Mayo

I hate when we refer to the US as a “melting pot”. The Schoolhouse Rock song Great American Melting Pot sounds horribly racist as an adult. That phrase is meant to illustrate how accepting and diverse this nation is but what it’s really saying is, “Assimilate! Melt into our dominant white culture!” Mainstream United States culture is white.  There are cultural centers and ethnic grocery stores, little outposts of culture that are erased in the mainstream. We try to make up for this a few times a year by wildly celebrating “cultural” holidays.

Do Irish people appreciate American St. Patrick’s Day? Do any Mexican people appreciate American Cinco de Mayo? Has anyone ever felt honored by being worn as a Halloween costume? Probably not. Gustavo Arellano, who writes the awesome Ask a Mexican column, shared his views on Cinco de Mayo or “Gringo de Mayo” on CNN’s In America blog. Spoiler alert: he thinks it’s pointless.

Pointless? But we’re so excited to celebrate cultural diversity! Our good intentions are thwarted by a history of racism and ignorance, both of which are exacerbated by white privilege. We don’t even know we’re being ignorant and racist. This is because privilege is invisible to those who have it. White people generally can’t see whiteness, or how it constantly advantages us in society. I try to be aware of my privilege. I still mess up all the time. I make hurtful mistakes and throw around my white privilege, even when I’m trying to be conscious of it.

Just the other day, I referred to my friend as Mexican when she is, in fact, Hispanic. Those are not the same! I immediately followed this moment of racial misidentification by asking where her family was from. I was generally curious. I would like to know more about her family, about who taught her Spanish, what her experiences have been. But asking, “Where are you from?” is not the same as asking those questions. Asking, “Where are you from?” implies an inherent Otherness. My friend said, “My family is from the same state I am from, and we always have been. It was your idiot white ancestors who showed up, enacted horrific genocides, and still have the audacity to assume that any culture that isn’t your own must have come from somewhere else. Get out of my face!” …okay, she didn’t say any of that and was very kind about unpacking my moment of white privilege.

I had a moment of casual racism. It wasn’t overt or explicit- I wasn’t directly stating that I view Whiteness as superior. But that is what I was unintentionally implying. It’s hard to explain racism to white people, because we don’t recognize when we’re exerting our cultural dominance. We think that if we treat everyone the same and view everyone as a human not a race, we can’t possibly be racist. This results in a lot of really uncomfortable moments of casual racism. Those moments reinforce the dominant white narrative, and further marginalize and oppress every non-white person.

That’s why we need to be especially aware of our actions on cultural holidays. Today, Cinco de Mayo, will probably involve a lot of white people getting drunk on “Mexican” beer and eating “Mexican” food, and wearing sombreros and ponchos, never minding that most of the beer, food, and clothing are American bastardizations of an entire culture.

We need to pause when we think we’re honoring a culture, because most of the time we’re actually engaging in more of that harmful casual racism. Who gets hurt by our inaccurate and insensitive (though very enthusiastic) representations? At the end of the day, white people get to take the costume off. The sombrero and poncho get thrown in the closet, and we go on with our lives. Meanwhile, we’ve just reinforced a lot of stereotypes and historical and cultural inaccuracies that have real ramifications. Really, when was the last time you saw a Mexican wearing a sombrero or a poncho? This is the difference between talking about race (“I’m not racist!”) and acting race. For most white people, our actions and representations, which we don’t mean to be racist, show our ignorance about race.

The fact is: nobody ever dresses up like white people. There isn’t a holiday where we celebrate and embody stereotypes about white folks. This is because we don’t view whiteness as Other. In our minds, white is the de facto universal race. We see things through a lens of whiteness, which problematizes our attempts to ‘honor’ and ‘celebrate’ different cultures.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ask my neighbors to kindly stop celebrating Cinco de Mayo by drinking Coronas and eating Taco Bell while making immigration jokes in bad Spanish accents.