I’ll be the first to say it: I really like Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989. The songs are really catchy and some of her lyrics have a feminist message! What’s not to like, right?
Despite the “sick beats,” I’m afraid to say that my love for Taylor is dwindling. She, like so many other white women in the music industry, has been guilty of appropriating black female bodies in order to make a profit. In “Shake It Off,” Taylor can be seen shimmying around in front of a line of twerking dancers. There is a scene where she is literally crawling on the ground through the dancers’ legs, looking up in awe as they gyrate above her. The dancers are mostly women of color and it seems to me like she is almost making fun of them at their expense. I know a lot of people that would rush to her defense, claiming she’s really satirizing herself, but I find it hard to see a clear difference between this video and Miley Cyrus’ 2013 VMA performance, which also sparked a lot of controversy concerning her use of hyper-sexualized black women as dancers.
I appreciate that Taylor is making so many feminist statements, but I can’t get behind her when she is exploiting women to make those statements. White female musicians have been successful at picking out aspects of black culture that they like (like twerking), mass producing it and living without the consequences that African American women would face if they were to do the same thing.
“They profit from the ‘coolness’ and imagined ‘street cred’ of being The Other, safe in the knowledge that their Whiteness protects them from the racism, hyper sexism, social stigma and additional violence that women of colour live with,” Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos of Swinburne University said in a blog post.
The fetishization of African American women is not new. This is something that has persisted throughout history and we continue to see again and again in mainstream media. We saw it in November 2014 when Kim Kardashian did the nude Paper Magazine shoot. Although there was an obvious shock factor to the photos, there were deeper racial implications at play. Jean-Paul Goude, the photographer who shot Kardashian, is infamous for a 1982 book of his work titled “Jungle Fever.” The cover of the book featured his wife, Grace Jones, posing nude in a cage surrounded by meat with a nearby sign that reads “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMAL.”
One of the images from Kim’s 2014 shoot was a direct recreate of an older work of Goude’s. “Carolina Beaumont” or “Champagne Innocent” (1976) was originally depicted with a nude African American model balancing a champagne glass on her behind and shooting a stream of champagne into the glass. Many critics believed that Goude’s photography displayed blatant fetishization of black women and people were offended and outraged that he would use such distasteful imagery of the women to make a profit.
“That a non-black woman would be able to kind of recreate the imagery that was so painful for us for so many years – somewhat flippantly – is, I think, why so many black women are taking this issue to heart and have a lot to say about it,” said Kierna Mayo, vice president of digital content for Ebony in a Washington Post article.
I almost feel like I’m at odds here. On one end, I think that a woman should be at full agency to use her body however she feels is appropriate. Women are now able to utilize their bodies in a way that they have not been able to in the past. Artists like Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, Rihanna and Lady Gaga all use their sexuality as one of the driving forces in making their art. In sharp contrast to female performers of the past, they are also some of the richest women in the industry. But, on the other hand, I think we should beg the question of whether or not that agency truly exists.