My birthday present came a little early this year, and I didn’t even know it at the time. It came in the form of song, which is not surprising given my obsession with music. On Monday a fellow social psychologist posted the song “Accidental Racist” on Facebook. At first blush, I blushed. LL Cool J, how could you? As the days wore on and the song received a lot of attention, from academics to musicians to comedians to everyday folk, my thoughts on the song became more and more clear. And finally, on the day that IS my birthday, I’ve finally realized just how much of a gift it really is.
Two things make this present so special for me: 1) Thoughts on race in the U.S. hardly ever appear as bluntly as they do in this song, at least not in a genre like country, and 2) we hardly ever get to hear from the majority group their thoughts on race. And as happy as this makes me (I don’t have to do so much of the heavy lifting to figure out what this song is saying about race) I’m almost speechless about the information I’ve been given access to. Almost.
Let’s break down why this song, as an EXAMPLE of what many White Americans think about race and not necessarily how it will AFFECT thoughts about race, is problematic:
Slavery is Worth Remembering
The premise of the song is that the main character, a Souther White man, is wearing a t-shirt with the confederate flag, which he hopes the Black guy working at Starbucks doesn’t take as a sign that he’s someone who wished slavery was still around. Of course he doesn’t think slavery should still exist, it’s just that he happens to like a band that uses (used) the flag. And besides, it’s really just a symbol of his Southern pride, not a comment on slavery or his views on race.
One of the assumptions that this song could not exist without is that slavery is in the distant past, and we need to get over it. Paisley’s lamenting that he’s not proud of everything the south has done, that we’re still “fightin’ over yesterday,” and LL Cool J’s “if you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains,” contribute to the idea that slavery is something we CAN forget. And this is a sentiment we hear a lot. As Louis CK says: “Every year White people add 100 years to how long ago slavery was. I hear educated people say ‘slavery was 400 years ago.’ It was 140 years ago. That’s two 70-year-old ladies living and dying back to back.” Not only was slavery not that long ago, but the effects of slavery can still be seen in our country today. The wealth gap between Whites and Blacks (for every dollar of wealth a Black family has, a comparable White family has 10) rests a good amount on the accumulation of wealth that happened when Blacks were either someone else’s property or were denied property within the law (I’m looking at you Jim Crow).
But of course, remembering that slavery existed and that it was wrong means having to put the blame on someone, and White people in the south are so over having to apologize for mistakes their forefathers made. In a region of the country where family loyalty and American pride are so important, it makes sense that remembering slavery is so difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. We can remember slavery the way we remember the Holocaust: it happened, it was shitty, let’s not let it happen again. Because that’s important: slavery (and something like slavery) is not an event that exists in the distant past alone. During WWII we had internment campus where thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were kept imprisoned because Americans assumed they could be spies. Today, immigrants work long, hard hours and cannot complain because even though they keep our food costs low and do the work the average American will NOT do we call them “illegal” and deny them the right to a fair wage and decent working conditions. Unfair treatment of an entire group of people is ALWAYS possible, given the right circumstances, and we must remember slavery so that we can avoid those circumstances like the plague.
Racism =/= Slavery ONLY
But here’s the other thing. Slavery in the United States, just because of it’s obvious unfairness, is not the only form of racism there is. I mean, yes, if you come at me saying that you think slavery wasn’t all that bad I’m going to call you a racist. To your FACE. But racism now exists in many more insidious and subtle ways. So the Black guy at Starbucks might not think you’re a racist for your red flag, but he might think you’re a racist if you didn’t vote for Obama simply because he’s Black (or you voted for the other guy simply because he’s White). Or when you think a young, Black man reaching in his pocket MUST have a gun, especially if he’s wearing a hoodie. Or when you see nothing wrong when you hear the number of Blacks in prison far outpaces the percentage in the US population. Or when you assume a Black college student was raised in the poor, inner city.
Research has shown that one of the reasons Black and White relations are so tense is that Whites tend to focus on how far we’ve come (“Look, we don’t own slaves anymore! We’re awesome!”) but Blacks focus on how far we need to go (“I have a dream…”). This song is so clear in that it focuses on how far we’ve come, but many Black Americans don’t see it that way. Which leads me to LL..
Having a “Black Friend” Does Not Make it Okay
Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic made the point that choosing one Black voice to represent all Black perspectives was actually a sign of racism itself. He wonders why Paisley didn’t choose to work with a rapper that has already said many insightful things about race within their own music (Mos Def, Talib, KRS-ONE) but the choice of LL, and the lyrics that are included in the song, are far from accidental.
LL Cool J is “the convenient thug” in this song. While the country lyrics serve to give us the perspective of the White southern man who wants to forget slavery and therefore erase all potential that he could be labeled a racist accidentally, LL’s presence on the track serves to confirm to White listeners that Paisley’s perspective is completely legitimate. His character is dressed in baggy jeans, wearing gold chains, who doesn’t want to be judged by his attire. In return for this lack of judgment he is willing to forget slavery. This character lets listeners believe that racism only exists when one person judges another negatively based on arbitrary items, like do-rags and jewelry.That this is the way that Blacks are chosen to be represented in the song (as a “thug”) is racist, not that his voice is the only one represented. As I stated before, racism is much more complicated than this song makes it seem. In a country where a White man with a felony on his record is more likely to receive a call for a job interview than a Black man with NO felony I think it’s slightly off to believe that it is simply a Black man’s ATTIRE that is being judged. Just because Paisley has a Black friend to back him up does not make his perspective the correct starting point for this conversation.
Which brings me to my last point…
Is this the conversation we want to have?
I am trying really hard to understand people’s comments on many of the articles I’ve read that “at least” this is a starting point for conversation. But is it a starting point for the kind of conversation we want to have? It’s like having someone say, “I’m willing to have a conversation about global warming…as long as we both agree it’s the dinosaurs’ fault.” And what are we having a conversation about? White, southern pride? Racism? Only “accidental” racism? The end of a conversation is completely dependent on where it begins, and if a conversation in America about race begins with the assumptions that racism is only the obvious kind and in the past, or that the current forms are simply due to individuals judging one another, then the solutions we come up with to deal with racism will be missing most of the issue itself. And that’s simply not a conversation I’m willing to have.
Okay, on this blog I try and take what most people think is innocent, light-hearted pop culture and turn it all serious. But this time I’m taking a serious issue and making it uhhh…serious-er.
Because this is my blog. And fuck rape culture.
As many of you have heard, two Steubenville football players have been found guilty in juvenile court of rape. Hence they are convicted rapists. But as some of you have also heard, they have not been treated like convicted rapists by most of the media. Instead, what CNN, ABC, and other news outlets have focused on is the “promising future” of these two young men that have been ruined by the verdict. Reporters like Candy Crawley and Poppy Harlow reported on how the two boys, after serving time in juvenile detention centers, will be “haunted” by their sex offender status since they will need to register as such (because they are in fact, rapists).
In response to this, the website Upworthy has been amazingly awesome at bringing to light just how horrible these rape-apologists have been (see here). They even came up with the following image which they posted on Facebook.
But even this image is seriously flawed. Sorry Upworthy, but rape culture is not rape. Rape culture is made up of all of the little messages that men receive on a daily, if not hourly, basis that lets them know that it is their manly right, nay duty, to take what they want when they want it. And the little messages that women get on a constant basis that if we receive any unwanted sexual attention it is completely our fault since men are animals and can’t help themselves. You want a definitive guide to rape culture? Here we go.
1. Men….take what’s yours.
The best example of the rape culture messages for men came in my coverage of this year’s SuperBowl ads. I’ll refresh your memory. In the Audi commercial that made the cut a young boy gets to borrow his father’s Audi and drives it solo to the prom where he proceeds to walk up to, and without warning, plant a kiss on the hot girl. The young boy walks out with a black eye we assume is from the boyfriend of the hot girl who is not happy about what just happened. The message is that what a woman wants to happen sexually isn’t important…the young boy is allowed to take it when he feels like he’s finally a man, and the boyfriend has to defend the sexuality of his girlfriend. Maybe she wanted it, maybe she didn’t. We’ll never know because it doesn’t really matter.
How about we teach young men how to tell when a young woman is interested? How much better sex is when she’s into it? How about we teach EVERYONE that sex can be fun for women too?
2. Man Up!
Rape culture isn’t only in the little narratives we see in 30 second ads. It’s also in our language. Think about the following phrases: Man up! Grow some balls! Don’t be a pussy! Be a man!
The ultimate manly trait is to be as agentic as possible. That means to be the one in control and making things happen; don’t let the world happen to you. (And women are not allowed to be agentic…duh.) In our culture this means that men are always expected to make the move on women and whenever possible make sex happen. I’m not saying all men act like this. But this is definitely what is meant by “being a man.” See #1.
How about we all follow Betty White’s advice and start calling people vaginas when they’re tough? Because those things can take a pounding.
3. She asked for it
Rape culture defines not only men’s behavior, but how interactions between men and women “should” go. Women should sit around like beautiful, non-sexual flowers to be “picked” by agentic men (Twilight anyone?). Anything else, and she’s asking to get raped. If you think about that last sentence logically, it actually contains no logic. But this is not only after the fact when people bring up over and over and over and over (ad nauseum) that the 16-year-old Jane Doe made the decision to drink as much as she did on the night that she was sexually penetrated while she was unconscious. This is when a woman wears a skirt to work and has to endure catcalls on the street (“She must want it if she’s dressing like that right?”). This is when a woman takes a free drink from a guy and is called a “bitch” when he asks to get her phone number or to have sex with her and she says no (“Why ELSE would I buy her a drink?”). This is when men assume that a woman who comes over to his apartment definitely want to have the same sexual experience as he does (“What do you mean you only want to make out? Why are you here then?”).
How about we teach men that what women want most is not sexual attention but respect. Aretha Franklin blaring Clockwork Orange style maybe? And how about teaching women that even when HE’S interested that doesn’t mean she has to be. She has agency too.
This is a short list but it’s a good start. When we see rape culture let’s at least do our part and call it out. Rape culture is NOT rape. Rape culture is in any way whatsoever making men think rape is only a problem if you get caught and that women were likely asking for it or deserved it for not following the set gender rules.
If we get our act together maybe one day Jane Doe won’t be seen as a hero for the simple act of speaking up for herself against something that is morally and legally wrong. Because fuck rape culture.
As many of you have heard, Beyonce recently announced a world tour that came with the above image of her wearing some serious royal regalia. But people, especially some feminists who were pretty excited by her “Run the World” type music, were confused by the title of the tour: The Mrs. Carter Show.
Of course the name is a nod to her being the wife of Jay-Z, or Shawn Carter. While others were wondering why she would put herself “down” by acknowledging her marriage I thought it may have been a way to tell the world that she’s a grown woman. Perhaps she’s letting us know that marriage has affected her by making her feel like she’s the queen of a castle. I’m one of the last people in this world to tell you that marriage means anyone is more adult or grown or mature. But if marriage, or any relationship for that matter, is done right it should change you as a person because you have to work so hard to keep it going (see: Ben Affleck’s Oscar acceptance speech).
But that’s beside the actual point of this post. Beyonce has now released a snippet of a new single called “Bow Down/I Been On.” And she is stirring the pot with this one!
Here are the lyrics that open it up (listen to the song below):
I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world
Don’t forget it, don’t forget it
Respect that, bow down, bitches
I took some time to live my life, but don’t think I’m just his little wife
Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down, bitches
H-town bishes, H- H-town, bishes
I’m so crown, bow bow down, bitches
Damn. Okay, so the Queen Bey is not happy that anyone is saying all she is is Jay-Z’s wife. And not in a “let’s all be nice about this” kind of way. She is literally singing to women who have not been as successful as her to bow down to her, as if she was a REAL QUEEN you guys.
In a way, this song is surprising because she does a whole lot of work to come off as squeaky clean to her fans and the world. She has no known vices, she comes off as sexy but not dirty or trying too hard, and the pictures that she posts to instagram of her with no make-up show off her baby face. But in another way, this song isn’t that surprising. Beyonce has been working hard the past few months to let the world know just that: she works really, really, really hard to have the success that she does. Anyone saying that she’s riding her husband’s coattails is saying the exact opposite. And apparently, Bey don’t play that.
And as much as I would like to say that I don’t like this side of Beyonce, most of me kind of does. A lot. Because I think she’s right: let’s not get it twisted. Women who succeed, especially in a world like the entertainment one or in any other world where men make the rules, may have a lot of luck but they also have to put in a lot of work. And BOTH should be acknowledged. One of the problems feminism has right now is that women are often at each other’s throats, tearing each other down. And while Beyonce’s song may just sound like another version of this problem, I think it’s also a call to arms. If you don’t want to be bowing down to anyone else, including men, then you better learn to work as hard as the ones who are making the big bucks or who are the ones making the big decisions. And if you don’t want to work that hard that’s completely fine…but you better shut your trap about whatever you think is going on.
I believe that to be a good feminist you need to help other women as much as you can, and that includes acknowledging when another woman has done well for herself even if she does it differently than you do, or than you would. And I also think that it means when you’re not getting the respect you deserve…you should be able to call people on it, men and women alike. And Beyonce has certainly tried to do just that.
First, a big thank you to those of you who followed me on twitter for my live analysis of the superbowl commercials. Being a football fan meant that my eyes couldn’t leave the screen at really any point but it was fun!
If you were following you know that most of my analysis didn’t need to dig that far to uncover that most of the commercials were aimed at roughly the same demographic that has been targeted the last few years: pathetic, White men. Although this year it did seem to be aimed at rather young, pathetic, White men. Much like the last time I wrote about superbowl commercials, the message is that even if you’re not one of the guys on the field there are still ways to be cool (and I do believe coolness = manliness). Audi was one of the most offensive with their young protagonist forcing himself on the pretty, and one can assume popular, girl at his high school prom after he gets brave while driving his father’s car. As I mentioned in my tweet, this promotes a culture in which men think of women as prizes that are attainable once they drive the right car, have the right job, or have the right amount of money. This “rape culture” thinks of women as objects to be obtained and men are encouraged to take what they “deserve.”
Volkswagen decided to define coolness by using one of the most cool stereotypes: laid back Jamaicans. In their commercial a young, White man is lazily rebelling against his rat race cubicle job by taking on a Jamaican accent (and the laid back attitude that goes with it) after buying his Volkswagen Beetle (???). Outside of the Asian man who gets a ride in the Beetle there is little diversity. The Jamaican way of life just seems so foreign, exotic if you will. Which is what makes that ad offensive as it promotes the idea that some cultures you can easily “put on” or “take off” as if they were winter coats, or summer flip flops I guess. But of course being White remains the neutral standard.
Other companies had similar themes of “buy this product and you too could be cool!” (Godaddy with their awkward kiss scene, Axe body spray letting the nerds know astronauts are cooler than hot guys on the beach, etc.) but one ad caught my eye for combining the “rape culture vibe” with the “minorities are cool” vibe. That was the ad for the Mercedes CLA (above). A young, White man is sitting at a cafe looking at a billboard featuring the new car when Willem Dafoe, playing Lucifer, offers him a deal for the car “and everything that comes with it.” The man then imagines what his life will be like with the new car. Of course, the first thing is a beautiful blonde; women are the prize for being the man with the cool car. There are more scenes including one in which the young, White man realizes that he can dance like Usher which, if you’ve ever seen Usher dance, is quite the feat. And this scene, while short, is an important one. Because this scene invites us to understand what is being said about race relations in the United States in 2013: Black men are cool, but White men have power. And while White men can borrow being cool, the opposite is not true: Black men cannot borrow power.
And to be honest, when you think about the segregation of the SuperBowl, it instantly becomes clear. I was proud to see that no fewer than three Black female singers graced the stage at the opening and at halftime (five if you count Kelly and Michelle), especially because the Superbowl prides itself on being such an American tradition. But at the same time it was hard not to notice that there were distinct spaces for different groups. Black men and women were on the field serving as entertainment. And given that a majority of the ads were directed at White men then it must follow that White men are the ones being entertained. They are the ones with financial power.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know these are not clean lines. There were plenty of men and women of color watching the game (hello….me!) but the companies that make these ads must get the most bang for their superbuck. Even when men of color were featured, women paid the price. Like when GoDaddy featured men from all over the world having the same great idea and their wives simply serving as the nags (and other women serving as the prizes for cashing in on the “big idea”). Ugh.
But at the same time, that’s why I have come to love the superbowl ads. While people tend to think of them as new and exciting, the amount of money at stake means that they cannot be entirely experimental. There must be some feeling of safety and for that, the ads rely on stereotypes and associations that are familiar to us. And that’s when we see what the most powerful people, the ones pulling the big company purse strings, really think of the rest of us. So is it really that surprising to see that White men are uncool but have power, Black men and women serve as entertainment, and White women serve as prized objects for the rich and powerful? If you see the world like I do, not really.
I once dated a guy who had I not been actively dating him, I would have assumed was gay. Very, very gay. I won’t go into all of the reasons why but I hate (HATE) to admit that his feminine behavior is to some extent what turned me off and I ended it after a few dates. Why was I so mad at myself? Because I felt that I constantly fight against the feminine characteristics I’m supposed to display, and in fact pride myself on the many masculine characteristics I have accrued (I drive stick, I deadlift at the gym, I’m ridiculously educated). But I wasn’t able to even fathom being attracted to man who didn’t really care much about masculine characteristics and who displayed feminine ones. If we can accept that straight women can run the spectrum from Kim Kardashian to Hillary Clinton, why can’t we accept that a straight man can act like Kanye West or Cory Booker?
My first inkling of an unease with how we conceptualize straight men came during the Republican presidential nominee campaign in 2011. You know where this is going right? Even Jon Stewart, for whom I would seriously consider voting for public office, joined the fray and made fun of Michele Bachmann’s husband for obviously being gay and not knowing it. The evidence? He likes to dance and has a high pitched voice. This was enough for Stewart to make the crack that he was “an Izod shirt away from being the gay character on ‘Modern Family.’” Now don’t get me wrong, Marcus Bachmann’s assertions that gay teenagers are “barbarians” and his therapy to “cure” them of their gay ways are absolutely horrific, but I’m not sure if accusing him of being gay does a whole lot for those of us who want to be accepted as individuals instead of being pegged into this or that stereotype.
Once the Cory Booker gossip machine started a-rumbling I felt that unease again. There is no way for me to know if he is straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, etc. Even if I personally had sex with him (which I am happy to attempt in order to give credence to this piece) I wouldn’t know if he was actually attracted to me or just playing the role because no non-hetero man or woman is getting voted into the Presidency anytime soon. But why this need to know?
Because we are agitated. We are agitated that he is acting like one identity (a gay man) but saying he is another (a straight man). While we may not often talk about the stereotypes of straight men, they exist. And this situation lends itself to uncovering them because stereotypes are easiest to spot when the expectations they set up are violated. And Booker with his single life, person and puppy heroics, food stamp budget, and overall compassion for other human beings seems to violate the expectations we have of straight men.
Booker seems to pull back the curtain on our expectations that straight men have no business truly caring about the lives of other people (or animals for that matter) and having perspective on the experiences of members of other groups, especially people with different sexual orientations than their own. How could a man like that be single? I have no idea, but aside from the possibility that he’s gay and hiding it because he knows it will negatively affect his political career there is the actual possibility that he’s straight and hasn’t met the right woman, for whatever reason (the man is pretty damn busy).
In case it’s the latter and he’s reading this (he’s kind of known for being on the internet a lot) I’d be happy to take him for a drink in California where we can talk about breaking stereotypes and bond over our mutual alma mater.
Around this time of year I watch television ads like a hawk. If you’ve read this blog in the past you know I have a hate-hate relationship with the diet industry. And right now they are making money hand over fist as they convince the nation that THIS year some new crash diet or workout craze (or dangerous pill) will be the answer to their weight lost pleas. But this year, even though the ads are pretty similar to ads we’ve been shown in the past, what has really hit me is how much hate of their own these ads contain: the hate people should feel for themselves that serves as “motivation” to lose weight.
In a commercial for Weight Watchers that I’ve embedded below, a woman shows off her new body and rips apart a picture of her former, fatter self. We’ve seen these types of actions before and lots of narratives that describe the former, fatter self as if they are a disgusting stranger. People say things like, “That person was in pain,” “I don’t know who that is,” and “I’ll never be that person again.” As if that former, fatter person DOESN’T MATTER. As if everything else they may have had, like career success, a loving spouse, or beautiful children, were meaningless because of all. that. fat.
But if you think about it, the people watching the commercials are the “befores,” the ones who will transform once they shill out that money to join the club. They are asked to hate themselves now (the fatter self that will become the former, fatter self) to turn that into the motivation needed to become the future, loved self. What makes me saddest of all is that I know many of my own friends are thinking about their weight these days. Thinking about how much to lose, where to lose it, and (if they believe the army of weight loss ads that are currently everywhere) how much happier they will be when they lose the weight. But I love my friends. I love them hard just the way they are. And it pains me to know that companies out there are making them feel like shit because they could be thinner, if only they tried hard enough right?
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not on some sort of fat acceptance tirade. I know there is a correlation between weight and health, but it is not one to one. I think people of ALL weights should strive to be HEALTHY. And sometimes that will lead to weight loss and sometimes it won’t. (In fact, I lost weight using WW because before that I had no idea how to cook healthy food and instead ate the deadly “standard American diet.” But I absolutely hated the meetings where they told us all it took was willpower to get through). We should be thinking about how to fuel our bodies so that they can do the things we want them to do – dance all night long, hike all day long, bend into yoga positions that make us feel amazing, whatever – and how to work our bodies so that we feel good all the time, not just when we lose those magical few extra pounds.
Because I love my friends, I don’t think they’re “befores” at all. I think they’re beautiful. Right now.
Okay, so my only proof of the title of this post is that I, a person who hardly ever pays for any sort of online entertainment (music, tv, movies) that isn’t streaming (yeah Netflix!) bought not ONE but TWO songs from the Nashville show this week. And I’m not even a country music fan! What is wrong with me?
Nothing is wrong with me. I just fell victim (and am happy to because the songs I bought are AMAZING) to a new business idea: selling music that is really good but has no real connection to an artist.
As I’ve said in a recent post about Spotify‘s insistence on making music-listening a “social experience,” sometimes we don’t necessarily like a certain type of music because of what it might say about us. I might like a Selena Gomez song but owning it, or letting other people know I like it, might not fit in to my own idea about who I am. But Nashville has gotten rid of this pesky problem because the music they have on their show, and that is then available on iTunes, is all real music written by good artists but performed by television characters. I know they’re not real so I don’t feel as weird about listening to music that is detached from a specific type of artist.
Another great thing that Nashville has done is to offer up no less than five (but maybe more) types of “country” music on the show making it more likely that at least one of the types will strike a an audience member’s fancy.
Sweet, haunting love songs sung by the doe-eyed blonde and her lovestruck good boy writing partner (Scarlett and Gunnar, neither of which is played by an American actor…how’s that for not needing a connection to the artist?)
Classic country songs about love or dealing with the consequences of it performed by two “veterans” with voices that give the songs that “I’ve lived it” kind of feel (Rayna & Deacon)
The new pop country performed by Hayden Panettiere who bears a striking resemblance to current artsists like Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler. (Juliette)
A rock country that doesn’t actually sound like country at all performed by the angsty boyfriend of the doe-eyed Blonde who will do anything to catch his big break. Just like so many rock band leaders before him. (Avery)
A new empowered older woman sound that is slowly starting to show up on the show with Connie Britton’s character taking over of her new album .(Rayna)
At some point you’re going to like one of their songs and wonder if it’s available to listen to outside of the show. And iTunes will be there ready to take your $1.29 for each individual song. And if you like enough of the songs you don’t have to wait long for an entire album. The Music Of Nashville: Season One, Volume One will be released on December 11th. Just in time to give it to a special someone for the holidays.
I swear, I’m not being paid to to tell you this information. I don’t have that kind of readership. I just think it makes so much sense as a business plan that I had to share. Oh, and in case you’re wondering I bought two songs performed by the actors/singers who play “Scarlett” and “Gunnar.” Because I’m a sucker for a good, but kind of sad, love song.
All photos are from nbc.om