Lily Allen and the phenomenon of white feminism through “ironic” black booty
I was never really a fan of Lily Allen. I went to a predominantly white high school where most of my white hipster friends who thought they were “weird” and “different” would throw her name around to conjure up some type of trendy authenticity. Therefore, I always associated her with the “privileged, white-woman with bangs” crowd. Little did I know that would also become the mainstream feminist crowd.
One of my professors recently told me to watch Lily Allen’s new music video. It’s supposed to be a satire of Miley Cyrus and the growing trend of sexualizing women’s bodies in music videos. It’s called, “Hard Times Out Here.”
Though the popular feminist blog Jezebel calls her song “a feminist pop anthem you can blast at parties”, I don’t even want to link to it because of its racist, sexist imagery.
Allen’s lyrics are supposed to be critiquing the consistent objectification and fetishization of women’s bodies in popular culture: “I suppose I should tell you what this bitch is thinking. You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen. I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains. Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain.”
Those lyrics become even more problematic when she couples them with hypersexualized images of black women twerking ferociously. Mia McKenzie from Black Girl Dangerous states: “Here’s yet another white feminist throwing black women under the bus because she has some point she’s trying to make about…sexism? I mean, I can hardly tell, probably because my feminism includes black women.”
There appears to be an explicit tongue-in-cheek commentary about signifiers of mainstream hip-hop like chains, cars, rims, and big-bootied women. Though there are problematic elements in commercialized hip-hop, including the hypersexualization of black women, we have to be mindful that we don’t perpetuate violence in our own critiques. It becomes tricky territory when we critique hip-hop because there’s an added layer of complexity, due to racism. We have to be careful that we don’t naturalize tropes of blackness in our critiques of mainstream hip-hop representations.
Allen relies on violent images of black women to critique a type of sexism that she says is not racialized. The black women are used to discuss white women’s objectification, and are objectified in the process. Though Allen is poking fun at sexism, she employs elements of sexism to propel her critiques. This is especially upsetting because the conversation about objectification in popular culture is necessary. Unfortunately, in order for women to be activists, or to critique sexism, they have to sexualize the message.
I get that we live in a Family Guy culture where no one wants to take anything seriously — including racism and sexism. Despite that fact that satire usually references a serious issue, it is not supposed to PERPETUATE the problem. In fact, in response to the criticism Allen received about the video, she stated, “The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture…it has nothing to do with race at all.”
In order for satire to be successful, you need to understand the problem you’re poking fun at. If you fail to realize how sexism is a highly racialized terrain, then you risk perpetuating some of the violence you’re trying to stop. The fact that black women’s bodies are overtly sexualized in most domains is not random or accidental. There’s a particular history attached to the sexualized images of black women, and having to repeat this 400,000 times to white feminists when they could simply Google this shit in less than two minutes, is the depressing job of being a feminist of colour.
Some white feminists and websites have been posting Allen’s video as some new ode to feminism even though, yet again, it’s just another video featuring a fully clothed white person touching the twerking bottoms of black women. It seems like the only prerequisite for being hailed as a queen in white feminism is to say something denouncing the kitchen. That’s it. Then you’re automatically granted feminist status by the white masses, while the feminists of colour have to focus all of our time and energy on explaining why it actually isn’t feminist.
The fact that black women’s bodies are constantly used as markers of authentic sexuality in just about EVERY video complicates and confuses Allen’s employment of their asses as a kind of satirical commentary on sexism. Allen contributes to racial violence by ignoring the racist conditions that black women inhabit, and she fails to locate how her whiteness contributes to those conditions. Race is central to Allen’s employment of black women in the video, so her dismissal of race as an issue is beyond ironic. I guess her smacking the twerking ass of a black woman was accidental. Oh, the accidental racists…
Allen’s racist, sexist video, as well as her post-racial stance on sexism demonstrates how popular feminism is hijacked by whiteness. The consistent removal of race from popular gendered analyses is reflective of the white consciousness in popular feminist media culture. This white consciousness makes it possible for Allen to deny the racialized, sexualized baggage that comes with being a black woman. Admitting that sexism is different for black women would make Allen, and other white feminists, liable for their exclusions of women of colour in their critiques and would force them to realize that they have a type of privilege that prevents them from speaking for all women. In reality, many white feminists are creating violence towards women of colour, and this must be recognized.
I get that white people think black people are cool, man. But, because we can co-exist side by side in music videos doesn’t mean that we experience systemic violence or oppression the same. This is most evident in Allen’s video where we hear her voice but see black women’s butts.
Because black women are conflated with gyrating asses, a white person learning to twerk is conflated with racial solidarity. I am so ready for a post-twerking era.
While Allen gets the privilege of talking about objectification and sexism, black women get the chance to twerk in slow-motion to her lyrics. It feels as though black women’s butts have become the new units of measurement for white success.
Since I have so much faith in popular white feminism, I can only wait for Lily Allen to wear blackface. Until then, I guess I have to keep watching black women ironically twerk in white feminist videos.
Aphrodite Kocięda is a graduate student in Communication at the University of South Florida and a contributor to the Vegan Feminist Network. Her current graduate research focuses on feminist activism in a postfeminist rape culture climate.