If you’re fortunate enough to have the self-control to avoid at least moving your cursor over the “trending” links on Facebook: apparently, Madonna kissed Drake at Coachella, and to paraphrase Drake “it was it was [sic] not the best.” I base that reading on Drake’s body language: stunned immobility, a wide what is happening gesture, and then hands on his lips, hunched over. Expertise in affect theory seems a bit unnecessary, here; his response could hardly be more overt.
I’m interested in this kiss not for the celebrity gossip, but because I see it an important piece of the current conversation about racism in the United States—and most importantly, as an important site for thinking about how to think through the intersectionality of oppression.
Walter Scott’s murder two weeks ago should ameliorate any reticence about the reality of violence against black men. As I listened to the NPR story, they announced that they were going to play an audio clip of the protesters, whom I fully expected to chant something about the police, or “black lives matter.” Instead, they chanted a different activist slogan and hashtag: All lives matter. This particular chant rose to prominence in response to the slogan “black lives matter” as a way to call attention to the broad oppression that marginalized populations face. In its brief life, “all lives matter” has received due criticism from private bloggers all the way through Judith Butler, who sums up the critique with succinctness that should shock anyone who has ever read Gender Trouble:
It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter— which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered, and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve.
To chant “all lives matter” in response to what is perhaps the most blatantly obvious in a series of state-perpetuated crimes that specifically target black men fundamentally misses the point: that these murders happen because black lives are readily swept aside in the flows of power that permeate American culture. Affirming life through mutual respect (a la Appiah) is a perfectly laudable ethics, but it does not address the tangible legal, institutional, and cultural issues that contribute to the systematic assault on black bodies. “All lives matter” is a positive message—but it but it offers a philosophical abstraction in response to a political problem.
More importantly, “all lives” flattens bodies through equivalence. In other words, in its attempt to find commonality, “all lives” erases difference. Cut back to Drake and Madonna. As the internet is wont to be, the internet was very confused about how to respond. Of course, many people suggested that Drake enjoyed it. Drake himself even posted an image on instragram, with the caption “Don’t misinterpret my shock!! I got to make out with the queen.” The picture Drake chose offers a brief moment that appears consensual in an event that seemed predominantly nonconsensual.
Some objected that Drake’s reaction implied that Madonna is disgusting, and so reinforced the idea that women cease to be attractive after they reach a certain age. The Huffington Post pointed toward John Travolta’s sexual harassment of Scarlett Johansson at the Oscars, and asked why Madonna received less criticism than Travolta. All of these responses are part of the same discourse: a discourse that flattens black bodies into mere intensities of violence and sexuality, and through that flattening, dismisses their bodies as bodies that do not matter.
Madonna’s kiss is hardly the first direct exploitation of black musicians by white musicians in recent (let alone longer) memory. I don’t mean the exploitation of culture, like Iggy Azalea’s bizarre code-switching (which Saturday Night Live fabulously lampoons), or the fact that every song Meghan Trainor sings is a poor rendition of doo-wop. I mean the exploitation of black bodies as sex-objects—the transformation of black bodies into just lumps of sexual matter. Think Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance, or Taylor Swift’s music video for “Shake it off” (intentionally not linked to images), which transform the black background dancers into mere ciphers for sex.
And here, we come to the sticking point. The Huffington Post’s article points fingers at an apparent gender bias, and asks: what if Madonna were a man, and Drake a woman? This is precisely the wrong question, driven by a similar impulse to “all lives matter.” Contrary to the impulse behind the discourses of sexual assault that have circulated around Madonna and Drake, one sexual assault does not equal all sexual assaults. Feminists, Madonna included, have struggled against the physical and emotional violence patriarchy directs at them; but that violence is fundamentally different than the violence directed at black men and women (which, of course, fundamentally differ from one another).
Madonna’s kiss was not sexual assault in the same way John Travolta’s kiss was: it was sexual assault in a different way. Violence against black men like Walter Scott is not the same as violence against black women, or Hispanic men or women: these violences differ. To argue that people should or should not be more or less upset because Madonna is a woman misses the critical intersection of race and gender. Drake is not merely a man; he is a black man in a culture that insists on coding black bodies as objects of pure violence and sex. Where a kind of pop-liberalism draws equivalence through common struggle, intersectionality underlines the political and pragmatic differences in the application of oppression.