Black Fridays: What’s Race Got To Do With It?

I read a fantastic piece on Jezebel several months back, written by Danielle Belton of The Black Snob. The article was about the tiers of commercial celebrity gossip which exist within mainstream media. Citing the then-recent Alicia Keys/Swizz Beats nuptials, Belton explained why the mainstream media did not mention the controversy surrounding their union – alleged infidelity, the illegitimate children, the scorned wife and the public ‘Jolene’ letter from one woman to another, (asking her to allow her and her husband space to resolve their issues). She pointed out that their story didn’t cross over – despite having the same elements of ‘classic’ tabloid fodder as other celebrity hookups. By all means, cite economic reasons and celebrity reach and so on, but the underlying reason was simple – race. Yeah, she said it. Fight her. (But also feel free to challenge me, for I echo it and believe it to be true)

The comments beneath the piece were tiresomely typical – unacknowledged white privilege, misplaced anger and unenlightening segues. But then commenter BullyTerrier wrote something that caught my eye:

I’ve always wondered why the media is so quick to criticize the overly sexual antics of such tween stars like Miley Cyrus, and all but ignore the Rianna’s[sic] of the world. Both grew up in the spotlight before our eyes, yet all we can talk about is how scantily dressed Miley is while I do not recall any backlash when Rianna [sic] was doing the same when she was around Miley’s age. Is it because we view young, white girls as innocent and want to maintain that image? Do we just assume that Rianna [sic] is heading down a path that will eventually lead her into doing rap videos where she shakes her ass, and mounts anyone and anything in it?

YES. THANK YOU.

This issue has been on my mind for so long, and I was so grateful this comment gave me an in to talk about it.

Is it just me, or is anyone else wondering what is UP with the seemingly easy sexualisation of black teen stars? The expectation that black stars will inevitably and eventually go down the route of ass-shaking and camera-humping is unspoken but overwhelming.

Rihanna performing on X Factor, 2009

Sure, almost all tween stars – almost always female, sigh – go on to do the infamous “Look, I’m grown!” music video which usually incorporates one or all of the following elements: nudity, a pole, a cage, baby oil, wet t-shirt, a bath, mud/jelly/foxy wrestling/boxing, midgets, a dominatrix ponytail, leather, pleather, candle wax, fire and muscle cars. But the brouhaha that accompanies say, Miley Cyrus’s foray into this frothy mix is deafening when compared to, say, Rihanna. Or that chick Kiely from 3LW and Cheetah Girls.

Kiely Williams

When I wrote a piece about my experience of online dating as a black woman, I interviewed many black women who told me they felt very much like they were seen first and foremost as overtly sexual. After the feature was published, I had more write to tell me they often felt like it was assumed that they were sexually voracious. And I don’t think I need to tell you of the hypersexual stereotype that dogs black men. I have grown weary of this. I hate that it’s being actively reinforced. I hate that it’s being reinforced on the DL. I hate that it even exists.

Miley Cyrus at Teen Choice Awards 2009

Look, I am aware that there are other damaging cultural memes alongside this one, and perhaps this isn’t the most important one to focus on. But it really gets my goat. I hate that people are still allowed to define us this way, and I’m annoyed that we’ve allowed generations of little black people to believe that their worth doesn’t really amount to much more than ass-shaking or hip-thrusting ability. If Justin Bieber gets to sing songs with lyrics like: “She made my heart pound/I skip a beat when I see her in the street/And at school on the playground“, then how come the black boy his age (or just older) is singing or rapping about tapping someone’s ass and breaking some poor girl’s back till dawn?

Won’t somebody think about all the little black children?!

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6 responses

  1. Maybe it’s old age, but damnit kids, keep your clothes on! I don’t want teens being seen as sexual objects. It’s gross.

    As for your point, I think it’s steeped in American history, sociology, and economics. No matter that a black man is the President, I think cultural and class hangovers are alive and well when considering black people as equals. Black people, and perhaps especially black women, are seen as less than, not equals. A hit-you-over-the-head example of this is in the film Crash, and the conversations between Ludacris and Larenz Tate’s characters and the actions of Sandra Bullock’s character. Therefore it doesn’t surprise me when nobody bats an eye when Rhianna was wearing next to nothing at 16, but there’s an outcry when a Disney Kid(tm) is wearing nowt. As with all things human, it’s a pretty complicated mess to pick apart. Race is, of course, only part of the story!

    Gosh, this is probably the longest post I’ve had on here in awhile… I must be busy and therefore procrastinating! On another note, YAY for black fridays! :)

  2. I am absolutely sure this is about race, but I think all the Disney teens get a tougher time than no Disney teens. There’s a juxtaposition of the House of Mouse stamp of purity and then growing past its artificial prudery when Miley goes leather or Demi Lovato has a sex tape supressed.

    I think there’s also the fact that in the States at least, the Disney crew reach such a massive audience that there’s also a bigger critical mass complaining that Hannah Montana’s wearing a bustier then people seeing Rihanna do the same at the same age…but since that’s ultimately race relations making black women less socially visible so even thought it looks like I’m arguing, I’m actually agreeing.

    I also liked this piece and I am so sorry to defile your beautiful blog with a Daily Fail link, but Raven Symone is so bad ass I have to link it. I wish more girls of all races would follow her example!

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1344761/Raven-Symone-I-thought-I-looked-fabulous-I-heavy.html

  3. There is things I like about this piece, but Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears were “national treasures” in the same way Rhianna and Keily is not.

    That said, I couldn’t actually think of any other young black female teen stars that were “national treasures” before they had their “Look, I’m Grown” moment. So i’m not saying this is not the case, but just don’t think your using a fair comparison.

    That said, it would be interesting to see how Willow Smith manages such a transition.

  4. I agree with you, James, that the cultural and class hangovers remain in rude health. The tools with which one would dismantle them are blunt and clumsy, as evidenced by this blog post… ;-)

  5. You’re right – Disney teens do get a rougher ride, because they tend to grow up in front of the camera and (the substansially sized) audiences feel they ‘own’ them. But yeah, even taking away the Disney halo, I still feel that there is less surprise when black stars go ‘adult’…
    PS – I love Raven-Symone. I watched her on Black Girls Rock and re-fell in love with her. See here (her bit starts around 8:06 in)

  6. I take your point – perhaps it was clumsy of me to conflate the likes of Rihanna with Miley Cyrus, but I still think my larger point stands. ‘National treasures’ or no, the mainstream audience seems, I don’t know, readier(?) – in my view – to accept the image of a sexed up black teen star (as if it’s a default destination anyway) than they are with a white teen star.
    I hope Willow Smith evolves into a young adult with minimal fuss and maximum responsibility. One would hope her parents are steering her so that her best interests win out. ;-)

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