race

“Show me a good time”?: Madonna, Drake, and Police Brutality

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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About being a well-meaning, presumptuous neighbor

She asked me, “Is it true? Do your people wear loin cloths on a daily basis? Also, what about snakes? Do they slither around everywhere, like on the streets and stuff?” Having heard that, you’d expect me to be apoplectic with rage and indignation. You’d expect me to rant about India being a developing nation with world-class infrastructure, educational institutions, physiological amenities, and several other what-nots. You’d at least expect me to tell the rude lady to get her facts straight. But I did none of those. Why? Because she had just fed me a substantially large portion of her scrumptious dinner spread. But also, because she was not being mean or sarcastic. She was genuinely ignorant, and needed clarification about these absurd things she has gathered knowledge of through her American news channels (read: FOX).

Yet, she was a homemaker from a nondescript town in rural America. Right in the thick of things at one of the nation’s largest universities, a colleague complimented me on my perfect English pronunciations and diction. Of course a compliment is a good thing—not when it comes with the hint of unmasked surprise though. It was almost unbelievable to him that my spoken English was so vastly different from The Simpsons’ Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. I get it though. I mean how can an ethnic man who speaks perfect English be considered “exotic”? There needs to be at least the slightest hint of an accent.

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Pictured: A fictional character

Things get more bizarre about halfway across the world or around 8,500 miles away from here. When I was packing my bags to travel the said 8,500 miles from India to the US, a very well-meaning relative of mine quipped, “Please make sure you shower every day. It’s cold up there, so the people don’t shower every day, and they start to stink. Please don’t fall into that mold.” Imagine how surprised she would be if she visited me here and realized that the only ones who don’t shower every day are my new neighbor, my big fat cat and her husband.

However, if you thought my well-meaning relative had bizarre notions, wait till you hear what my other well-meaning relatives’ notions were. Apparently, white girls wear short dresses and lure the good Indian boys, so at no cost was I to fall into their “trap.” I am to go back and marry a good Indian girl who wears a sari and shows off her midriff because, God knows, a woman’s bare legs are more tempting and scandalous than her bare midriff.

The fact is though, if you and I sat down to analyze the psyche of my well-meaning relatives as well as that good American lady and that good white lad, we will realize that they are all inherently nice people who are ignorant of the ways of people who exist miles away from them. They were brought up on cultural stereotypes, compounded with their own embellished imaginings of what the far-east or the far-west might be like. We could shame them or reprimand them for their statements, but we know that that’d be futile. As the small community of students who have the privilege of soaking in the culture of two very different worlds, it is our duty to educate them.

We could politely tell the good ole lady that what she was asking me was mildly racist. We could tell my colleague that even though sometimes art imitates reality often it is a mere exaggeration. And we could tell my well-meaning relatives that their regressive opinions about the west could well be the reason of the growing rape culture in their own nation. It is important to use our knowledge as the ‘glocal’ citizens of this generation to engage in these discussions. It is important to help them realize the need and reality of having bridged the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It is important to initiate them into cultural and racial sensitivity that us as graduate students have had the privilege of learning and understanding. It is important to help them help us make this world a better place. After all, isn’t that what all of us as a global community eagerly want?


Images from Wikipedia and http://www.missmalini.com/


Aishik Barua is a 2nd-year MBA student concentrating on media marketing. He is particularly in love with TV shows (from The Sopranos to The Flash), books (from The Little Prince to the Harry Clifton series) and a myriad number of modern era conspiracy theories. When he is not screwing his eyes at some website’s Google Analytics page, he could be found doodling with his sketch pencils, cooking a new dish or simply engaging in general goofiness.

Rude Wastes of Space: Race, Class, and the Othering of the British Hoodie

One of the more interesting parts of writing my dissertation so far has been investigating the phenomenon of the British hoodie. My dissertation focuses on the post-2000 British horror resurgence, and the hoodie horror cycle has been one of the more prolific cycles within the more general boom.

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Menhaj Huda’s 2006 film Kidulthood is often identified as one of the first hoodie films.

Hoodies are usually working-class teen delinquents who wear hooded sweatshirts. During the first decade of the 2000s, hoodies became prevalent in a variety of forms of British popular culture. There were frequent news stories citing hoodies as a consequence and contributor to “Broken Britain,” a cultural discourse that maintains that Britain is more lawless, chaotic, and dangerous than ever before. Cinemas screened films like Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006) and Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009), while various television channels produced and aired programs like Misfits (2009-2013, E4) and the reality series Kick Ass Kung Fu (2013, Sky1 HD), wherein a Shaolin monk trained hoodie-clad teens from “bad areas” to channel their aggression and stop being “rude waste[s] of space,” as one of the show’s hoodies put it. Even Piers Morgan produced and directed a documentary on hoodies for Sky1, Hoodies Attack (2005). At least one London gym began offering a much-publicized “Chav Fighting” class wherein middle class customers could learn to put the world to rights, while the Thames Valley Police had their officers swap their uniforms for hoodies and tracksuit pants in an attempt to blend in and stop anti-social behavior (though the officers did not wear baseball caps, which were thought to make them look “too American”).

Like the Teddy Boys, punk rockers, and, most recently, the club kid ravers, hoodies are set apart from so-called normal society. The Teddy Boys’ association with the rise of American rock and roll, and their reported rioting and dancing in theaters’ aisles during screenings of Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), positioned them as importing the dangerous violence of American teens via the bad influence of American rock and roll. In particular, their sartorial borrowings from the African-American community set out their cultural borrowings as dangerous not only because of their Americanized nature, but because of their origins in communities of color.

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Source: Flashbak

Hoodies are set apart by their mode of dress (face-obscuring hooded sweatshirts), their musical preferences (most often assumed to be rap and hip-hop), and an anti-authoritarian attitude that sometimes places them on the wrong side of the law. And, much like the moral panic surrounding the Teddy Boys in the 1950s, fear of hoodies belies not only a fear and distrust of young people but a fear of the Americanization of British culture.

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Still from Johannes Roberts’s hoodie horror film F (2010)

Hoodie teens are seen as having brought American gang culture, as promulgated by American rap and hip hop and American films, to the streets of the UK. In particular, the UK garage music scene was seen as, in the words of political and social commentator Deborah Orr, a “bad-seed” offshoot of UK youth culture that is heavily influenced by US gangsta rap culture (or at least seen by middle class commentators as heavily influenced by gangsta rap). Of course, UK garage music, because of its perceived links to US gangsta rap culture, made an easy scapegoat, and condemning UK garage for promoting violence was a way to more implicitly condemn the working class urban populations and racial and ethnic minorities who listened to UK garage.

Hoodie horror films often signal this link between hoodies and Americanization through rap-heavy soundtracks or having the evil hoodies listen to or perform rap in the diegesis. For example, in James Watkin’s Eden Lake (2008), the hoodie gang brings a boom box to the beach and plays rap music; this music plays at a lower level of the sound hierarchy, just loud enough to act as a menacing, unintelligible buzz that haunts the scene and foreshadows their coming attack on the middle class protagonists Jenny and Steve.

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The imagery of hoodie horror mirrors the aural distinctions between the Americanized hoodies and their respectable victims. In this image, the trailer serves as a clear visual delineation of the line between acceptable, middle-classness, as represented by Jenny on the right, and the film’s villains, on the left: the unacceptable, Americanized, working-class hoodies who antagonize and torture Jenny and her boyfriend throughout the film.

These links to Americanization make it even easier for the media (as well as some filmmakers and audiences) to Other hoodies; they are not only working-class and young, but they can be seen as more influenced by American and Americanized culture than respectable middle-class Brits. Of course, this Othering places an additional mark upon hoodies of color, who are already also Othered by their racial and/or ethnic status.


Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.

Feminism doesn’t (t)werk that way: “Booty Culture,” race, and pop feminism

As Pippa Middleton recently remarked, “What is it with this American booty culture? It seems to me to be a form of obsession.”

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Who doesn’t love the booty?**

Whether we’re talking about Miley Cyrus’s twerking, Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea’s “Booty,” Kim Kardashian’s “break the internet” photos, Rihanna and Shakira’s “Can’t Remember to Forget You,” or even Taylor Swift crawling between the legs of her mostly black twerking dancers (whose faces we never see) in “Shake It Off,” the discourse of the “booty” is currently almost everywhere in mainstream American culture. One half expects to see mainstream television programs take up the issue in a bid for ratings. Next week on Modern Family: the token angsty teen girl is even more angsty than usual because her step-grandmother has a better butt than she does.

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Image credit: A-Little-Kitty

Vogue has declared, in fairly jejune fashion, that the booty obsession is just the fulfillment of discourses we weren’t ready for 13 years ago — we weren’t “ready for the jelly” in 2001 when Destiny’s Child came out as “Bootylicious,” but we are ready now that J.Lo and white rapper Iggy Azalea are asking us to “Throw up your hands if you love a big booty.” Nicki Minaj is the fulfillment of the promise of J.Lo’s green Versace dress.

Others, including Yomi Adegoke and Susana Morris (of Auburn University, and co-founder of the generally awesome Crunk Feminist Collective) have discussed the booty obsession as cultural appropriation of what has been a desirable body type within black American culture. This appropriation was made perhaps most clear when Miley Cyrus, who has been donning the trappings of black rachet culture for several years now, photoshopped Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” cover photo, literally whitening Minaj’s skin and replacing Minaj’s face with her own. (The racism in the Kim Kardashian photos is also strikingly baldfaced.) The racial appropriation within “booty culture” is more than troubling, particularly during a time when the most pervasive images of black people within mainstream culture are photos of men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, or the young Cleveland boy with a toy gun who was shot seconds after police arrived on scene. What has come to be thought of as the “black body type” in our culture has become acceptable and celebrated in the mainstream, but this (and other) cultural mainstreaming has not affected the systemic racism that oppresses black Americans. Mainstream culture incorporates and makes equally-available the body type without truly incorporating or making equal the bodies themselves.

Also, the sudden pervasiveness of “booty culture” seems suspicious given how it has taken focus off of the previous, somewhat overlapping female pop star controversy: contemporary feminism. Regardless of whether we personally think Beyonce‘s, Taylor Swift‘s, Miley Cyrus’s, Pharell‘s, Rihanna’s, or Nicki Minaj‘s feminism is substantively advancing equality or just substantively cashing in on millennial desire for commodity activism, conversations were taking place. There were daily opportunities to discuss *feminisms* and break out of the post-feminist backlash discourse of “one man-hating sexually-repressed feminism only for women who are just angry that they can’t consume their way to pretty.” The everydayness of pop feminism, and yes, the trendiness, created space for these conversations to be framed as relevant and timely.

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Over the summer, articles were calling 2014 the “year of pop feminism.” Now, it is the year of the booty. Yes, the booty obsession has emphasized “different body types.” But the focus remains on the body. For women, the body is an asset, a marketable commodity, but that also makes women, to some extent, an object, playing into the traditional “to-be-seen”-ness, the “desire to be desired” (to use Mulvey and Doane’s phrases).

Thus, Beyonce’s last album, which contains a voiceover with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explaining the definition of feminism, discursively becomes the album wherein she started a song with the lyric “Let me sit this ass on you.” Tthe conversation returns to its cultural comfort zone — not how we could achieve gender equality so neither women NOR men are disciplined or punished into outmoded and damaging gender roles, but how women can empower themselves by, in bell hooks’ words, playing into “tropes of the existing, imperialist, white supremacist, patriarchal capitalist structure of female sexuality.”

 

** This post contains no photos of booty. The writer does not wish to participate in the continued objectification of other women by including gifs or images that turn those women into faceless body parts or mark out their bodies as exchangeable.


Lindsey Decker is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying Film and Television in the Department of English.  Her dissertation examines questions of transnational cinema in self-reflexive British horror films.

Coda: Asexual Awareness Week and the Future of Queer Theory

Last week, I completed the Safer People, Safer Spaces training my university offers to learn better ways to be an ally, whether you’re a member or a supporter of the queer community. One of the activities we did involved matching vocabulary words (like lesbian, heteronormativity, drag, M2F) to their definitions and then discussing what we learned and what confused us. One of the words was asexuality, and to my surprise, no one had any questions about it!

In most settings, this is definitely not the norm. Even though, as one blogger pointed out, the US is home to more asexuals (or, as some prefer to be called, aces) than it is to Muslims, breast-cancer survivors, and Yale graduates, asexuality is not on most people’s radars. Even those within the LGBT community are sometimes unaware of asexuality as an orientation — indeed, the “A” in LGBTQIA+ more often stands for “ally” than “ace.” Thus, Asexual Awareness Week (this year, October 26–November 1) occurs at the end of LGBT History Month. Today, I’m going to sketch out the ways the conversations I see happening inside the asexual community might shape the queer theory of the future.

Only a handful of scholars in the humanities are doing research on asexuality studies.1 Nevertheless, the language of asexuality as it exists in the everyday praxis of aces has been invaluable to helping me reconsider the ways we think about desire and relationships in texts. Because asexuality — that is, the absence of sexual attraction — does not preclude the formation of other attractions, aces have developed a vocabulary set to describe those experiences. They distinguish between sexual, romantic, affective (“friendly”), and aesthetic attraction, and the different conditions under which these occur and the objects that these take. For instance, “homoromantic” describes someone who falls in love with those of their same sex or gender; a “demiromantic” is someone who falls in love only after a long friendship; an “aromantic” doesn’t fall in love, but might desire intense friendship.2

These desires are not new, and certainly aren’t limited to aces: John Henry Newman’s romantic friendships look very much like the intimate relationships of a homoromantic ace, but the chaste “seraphick love” that John Evelyn and Mary Godolphin shared in the seventeenth century could be conceived of as a queerplatonic relationship of two otherwise sexual people. What is new is the way these words examine phenomena whose existence and uniformity have been taken for granted.

Sometimes, the impulse to name certain desires can overwhelm the desires themselves, but what I think these concepts highlight is the plurality of ways in which people form attractions and desires, and that their objects need not be so neatly aligned. For instance, considering the ways in which Doyle’s John Watson might be simultaneously heterosexual (marrying and having a child by Mary Morstan) and homoromantic (in romantic love with Sherlock Holmes) helps us to grasp how a person can desire two objects in different, non-competing ways. In a way, asexuality has done for romance and sexuality what Judith Butler has done for gender and sex, by uncoupling one from the other (pun intended).

But the asexual community, of course, is not without its controversies. Some people don’t think that asexuality should be lumped into the LGBTQ+ “alphabet soup” because it’s technically not a sexual orientation but rather a not-sexual orientation. This, I think, ignores the great potential for intersectional solidarity, as homoromantic and trans* aces face oppressions that are very similar to those faced by their allosexual counterparts, and heteronormativity limits the experiences of sexual nonconformists indiscriminately.

Some have also criticized how white the movement is, with writers of color like Alok Vaid-Menon describing how to claim asexuality as an identity feels like a betrayal of their race. Some identity communities have long been de-sexualized as a means of discipline and disenfranchisement. Thus, self-describing as asexual plays into these enduring stereotypes, which certainly need dismantling. The asexuality leadership has been surprisingly self-reflexive about how race and gender authorizes (or fails to authorize) the perceived legitimacy of certain sexual orientations. At the same time, however, it’s no less important for us to question those structures that make sexuality compulsory, while we remain sex-positive.

I think the definition that we had to match at training put it best: “Each asexual person experiences things like relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.” Just delete “asexual” and you’ll have described everyone. As queer studies develops, we’re thinking more plurally to account for the many and colorful ways that our experiences and identities intersect, shaping our selfhoods and our positions in our communities.


Notes

  1. NWSA’s Asexuality Studies Interest Group and the conference panels it has coordinated has been my primary source for asexuality studies in the humanities.
  2. The Huffington Post put together a handy simplified infographic to depict this.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”