(Lesli-Ann Lewis is a small, queer and brown invader of homogeneous spaces. Fancying herself a burgeoning writer, this is her first piece for Hood Feminism. She can be found on Twitter, all too often: @lesellele.)
Remember several weeks ago when blogger and writer Jincey Lumpkin called Miley Cyrus a feminist icon? Outspoken Black feminists took her to task for ignoring Miley’s exploitation of Black women. The backlash was so fierce that Jincey apologized.
Fast forward to November 13th, an ordinary day made extraordinary by the declaration of Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” as a feminist anthem and her video as a “genius” satire of pop videos. The video swerves into Miley’s lane featuring a relatively covered pop singer surrounded by scantily clad Black women. It features close-ups of Black women twerking, a long-standing hip hop dance for which has bizarrely been given credit Miley Cyrus. Lily Allen herself claims it’s satire but, given her iffy take on the black female body during a spat with Azlia Banks and the lyric “I don’t need to shake my ass for you because I have a brain,” timed right as one of her Black dancers bends over, it’s unclear what she’s satirizing, exactly. What is clear is that Jincey should have never apologized. Miley Cyrus IS a feminist icon and now, so is Lily Allen. They are feminist icons, and that feminism is White, cis, well-to-do and disingenuous.
Black women have been fighting for space in feminism since Sojourner asked anti-abolitionist suffragists “Ain’t I a woman?” There is a long, sad, and complicated history of white women being active participants in the (ongoing) colonization and exploitation of Black and brown women the world over. Funnily enough, Lily Allen sings in her slut-shaming “feminist” anthem “We’ve come a long way, and if you don’t see the sarcasm in that, you’re missing the point.”
We see this history come out to play when mainstream feminism shuns Black celebrities for the very things they laud their White peers for. So far, the list who gets the feminist badge looks very Caucasian and contradictory. Miley Cyrus is a feminist icon for getting naked. Lily Allen is a feminist for slut-shaming Miley Cyrus.
With this happening so frequently, it begs the question: what is the standard for mainstream feminism when it comes to claiming pop singers and celebrities?
It seems that any white celebrity who is both successful and female gets branded as some sort of feminist whether or not she has even called herself one. Looking at the low standard for who gets to be a feminist pop icon, I’m left wondering why Rihanna hasn’t gotten her badge yet. Rihanna has done more work in the field of feminism than any of the pop stars in her age group. She quite eloquently discussed rape and rape culture in her Man Down video. She chose to address domestic violence in her “We Found Love Video.” Most recently she centered the female gaze AND celebrated the athleticism of strippers in her Pour It Up video. Since the infamous domestic violence incident, Rihanna has made a commitment to live her life on her terms. It permeates her every choice, especially the ones we, the public, do not like. That alone is a powerful statement to other survivors of domestic violence, like myself.
All Miley had to do was sit on a wrecking ball, naked.
While almost every White pop star gets rewarded a feminist badge, the list of who mainstream feminism has declared “bad for the movement” looks quite uniform and Black. Beyonce suffers from internalized misogyny. Nicki Minaj is oversexed and suffers from internalized misogyny. Rihanna is a confused, oversexed victim…who suffers from internalized misogyny.
The fact is, Rihanna doesn’t get dubbed as a feminist icon for the very same reasons her white peers do: the black female body is deemed as overtly sexual. So much so Miley Cyrus can derive a sexual identity just by associating with Blackness and Lily Allen can make a critique of hyper sexuality on our backs. Rihanna being Black and female must work from proving she isn’t just a sex object. Miley gets to be naked and feminist because it is presumed that she is “innocent” and that enjoying sex—for White women like her—isn’t the norm, but a revolutionary act. This was the justification for the rape of Black women, the very reason Saartjie’s genitals were carved from her body, to prove our inherently sexual nature and to prove the White woman’s asexual (and therefore, pure) one.
When pop stars are declared to be shining examples of feminism while continuing a legacy of shaming and sexualizing black bodies, mainstream feminism is sending a clear message: we still ain’t women.