[Ed note: Voice Clubs Editor Brittany Spanos offers a counterpoint to this essay. ]
The chic thing to do on the internet this week is to moan about Katy Perry’s Prism tour backup dancers. According to all the Wendy Whiners out there, because the faceless dancers are endowed with large bottoms and breasts, plumped up lips, fake nails, and hoop earrings, they must be caricatures of black women. Ahem. I find it somewhat reductive to simplify race to these stereotypes, and maybe as a white woman I have no place deciding what does and does not constitute “black.” But that’s what the internet is sometimes (and exceedingly so in this case): white chicks having opinions. And kittens, don’t forget the kittens.
See also: “That Just Feels Dismissive of Real Pain”: Why Katy Perry’s Mummified Dancers Are Racist
Contrary to what big ticket commentators on things to do with women and race, like those at Jezebel, are saying, I don’t think there’s very much at all racist about Katy’s dancers. Everyone needs to calm down and think for a minute, and attempt to divest of the need to make absolutely everything political, all the time. Racism, whether intentional or not, still occurs in pop music. Miley Cyrus accessories with black women. Selena Gomez co-opts saris and bindis for her performances. Lana Del Rey wears a Native American head dress. There was a time when Gwen Stefani rocked up to every party as an imperialist Queen, surrounded by her personal gaggle of Harajuku Girls. But all this doesn’t mean that racism is ALWAYS occurring in pop music. Sometimes pop music and pop performance is stupid and fluffy, and there’s absolutely nothing to be read into it at all.
In the curious case of Katy’s mummified dancers, the women in question aren’t even attributed a color, but instead appear wrapped in bandages. They have other defining characteristics — including the aforementioned enlarged breasts, lips and bottoms, wigs, nails and earrings — which critics are associating with color, which to me says more about the latent racism of critics than anything else. To look at large bottoms, hoop earrings and long fingernails and immediately announce “black” is a huge disservice to black culture, and perhaps just another way that we reduce and compartmentalize everything that isn’t inherently white into arbitrary and easy to digest symbolism. Heaven forbid there might be more to race than a smattering of superficial aesthetic signifiers.
Speaking of which, the most famous large ass in the world is stuck to the behind of an Armenian woman (Kim Kardashian), who is most definitely not a black lady. Iggy Azalea, while a great rapper, is mostly known for her big butt, which is swathed in lily white skin. Hell, I come from a long line of Greek women and I’ve never seen anything less than a bouncing booty on one of them. Yes, some black women have large behinds, but some don’t. Some white women have big butts and some don’t. It’s reductive that we’re now branding other women’s bodies not just by the old fashioned fat/thin binary, but also by a white/black one, especially considering that most critics in this dialogue are also quick to argue for feminine bodily autonomy, free of stereotyping.
As for the nails, lips and hoop earrings — give me a break. Accusing these of being exclusive to black culture makes me feel that Miley Cyrus’ twerking with her posse of black women has been more damaging to the common consciousness than we even initially conceived — it seems almost as though she’s managed to reconstruct and popularise an image of blackness that we’re now imprinted with an unrelenting bias towards.
Katy’s show was also criticized for accompanying cartoon graphics, which only included one blonde girl amongst several dark haired girls. Even though the girls in the cartoons all have white skin, they are still being criticized as representations of black women because of their big bottoms and dark hair. If you want to yellow card anything here, it should be the damaging way in which the female body is so often irrationally idealized in its cartoon iteration. Regardless of race, comic book cartoon style has always created a fantasy image of women designed explicitly in the objectification of the female body, often ignorant to race, occupation or even personality in favor of inflated boobs and asses. There’s something sinister and creepy about these ejaculatory cartoon representations of the feminine physique for sure, but I’m just not convinced that it’s racist.
Look: I don’t want to defend racism in pop music or performance. Katy Perry has made some wonky choices in the past (the song “Ur So Gay” and her performance as a Geisha immediately spring to mind), and isn’t beyond reproach for the question marks on her resume. But in this particular instance, I can’t see how there has been either an intentional or unintentional racism. I can only see that meaning, very tenuously, has been attributed to the imagery on Katy’s stage as the outraged scramble to be outraged. Not everything is racist all time, and being the boy or girl who cries racist in every vague scenario is the fastest way to diminish what racism actually is. The mummy costumes in Katy’s performance are mummy costumes. They have exaggerated, cartoonishly idealized bodies and are kind of stupid, but that’s it.