Hard Out Here

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lily Allen’s new video, “Hard Out Here”, and all the criticism that has been written about it in the past few days. It’s centered around her choice to use women of color as background dancers in what seems to be a critique on sexism in the music industry, but then ends up focusing on hip-hop/rap video aesthetics specifically, but also manages to include one jab at Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video, which I guess would be considered ‘pop’?

Anyway, women of color as props, we all know that the good people of the internet weren’t going to let that stand.

gwen-stefani-harajuku-girls-2004-7You-shall-not-pass1But I’ve always liked Lily Allen, most of her songs have a fun, pop anthem quality to them– they’re catchy as hell and usually make some sort of “statement”, like, Hey, don’t be a homophobe or Hey, don’t be lazy, or Hey, I want to eat Chinese food.  Her lyrics have always been a little on the nose, but I guess that’s what makes them fun. She’s not a subtle person, she’s a person who has posted pictures of herself crying in bed on her MySpace blog.

me crying in bed, 2007
“me crying in bed”, 2007

The blog post that accompanied this photo explained that because of the pressure she felt to be thin, Allen was considering gastric bypass surgery or liposuction, writing: “I’m afraid I am not strong and have fallen victim to the evil machine.”

Well, we all hate the evil machine! Which is why I think we’re all on board with her in the opening scene of “Hard Out Here”, as she lies on an operating table enduring just such a procedure, while the men around her discuss how disgusting she has “let” her body become. But then comes the part where she starts to go off-topic:

I suppose I should tell you
What this bitch is thinking
You find me in the studio
And not in the kitchen
I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars
Or talking ’bout my chains
Don’t need to shake my ass for you
‘Cause I’ve got a brain

From Julianne Escobedo Shepherd at The Hairpin:

OHHHH!!!!!! FOUL, LILY. And therein begin the false equivalencies—that bragging about material goods is exclusively stupid (and not, say, aspirational or representational), and that women who dance or shake their asses are stupid. The latter is made especially ironic by the fact that Allen has chosen to populate her video with women, mostly of color, who twerk in slow motion and pour champagne down their breasts like errant ejaculate. These are all things that we have seen in rap videos, of course, but it doesn’t make it any better if it’s executed under the guise of satire…

454885004_640From Ayesha A. Siddiqi at Noisey:

“Hard Out Here” is the opposite of Mileywave. Instead of using black women as props to further her career, Allen blames them for its stagnation. In full-sleeved dresses Allen mocks her inability to twerk amidst women of color in body suits who launch into exaggerated dance moves, licking their hands and then rubbing their crotch. Her older white male manager tries to get to her to mimic them. Meanwhile she sings, “Don’t need to shake my ass for you/‘Cause I’ve got a brain.” Cut to black women shaking their ass, so much for sisterly solidarity.

(As a side note, I really hate that ‘Mileywave’ is a word, or a thing.) Both of these articles make great points. Shepherd points out that Allen’s lyrics seem to be attacking the materialism of hip-hop, without acknowledging the context of a culturally disadvantaged group aspiring for more. Siddigi’s article points out that Allen seems to go so far as to blame the other women in the industry who have succeeded by doing what she hasn’t been able to do, implying that while others twerk their way to the top, Allen is stuck at the bottom because she’s ‘got a brain’.

Allen has responded to the criticism via twitter, saying that the casting of the dancers had nothing to do with race. She went on to say:

“If I could dance like the ladies can, it would have been my arse on your screens; I actually rehearsed for two weeks trying to perfect my twerk, but failed miserably. If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too, but I do not and I have chronic cellulite, which nobody wants to see. What I’m trying to say is that me being covered up has nothing to do with me wanting to disassociate myself from the girls, it has more to do with my own insecurities and I just wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot day.”

1511lallen3“I have chronic cellulite, which nobody wants to see.” This is really sad. It really sucks that she feels that way. It seems like the song and video are the product of Allen’s attempt to start a feminist conversation about women’s bodies in the media, but then the message got muddied by a misinterpretation of feminism. Take her lyric, “You’ll find me in the studio / And not in the kitchen”. But, you can be in the studio AND in the kitchen, that’s what feminism means, it’s your choice! No, you don’t have to shake your ass for anyone, but you can if you want to, and you can also shake your ass for yourself. Allen is making a statement about her own choices but she’s tearing down other women in the process. Is Rihanna stupid? Is Beyoncé stupid? (Blasphemy)

I get what she’s saying about misogyny in the music industry, her take on how the female body is depicted in many rap/hip-hop videos is not wrong. Women are frequently objectified in those videos (and also everywhere). BUT maybe she didn’t notice that she was doing the same in HER video by including a group of dancers (mostly women of color) and calling them stupid to their faces?

“Hard Out Here” is basically a convoluted (albeit fun) song with a mixed message and problematic video. It starts out as a story about Allen’s experience with industry pressure to be thin, but then changes into a conversation about a musical genre that she is not even a part of, therefore it gets racial, and ends up skewering the totally wrong people in the process.

Let’s conclude with a Fun Fact: Alfie Allen is Lily Allen’s brother. You’re welcome.

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Did you pay the gold price or the iron price for those chainz??

Judging the Cover by the Book

Karen LordToday in the first ever (woot!) edition of RLB Book Club, we have The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013) by Karen Lord on the table! Or, maybe it’s in your lap as you lay in a hammock? Spring!

This is Lord’s second book. Her first, Redemption in Indigo, won boatloads of awards, including: the 2011 William L. Crawford Award and the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.

And because this book’s cover is Bananas, we’ll also be discussing the state of book covers & the publishing industry.

THE BOOK

This is a smart, and, at times, quite sexy, piece of science fiction which follows a team of government officials in their mission to aid a certain group of humans, called the Sadiri, who have been recently displaced due to the cataclysmic destruction of their home world. With their population all but destroyed, the surviving Sadiri, who are mostly male, are attempting to rebuild their society with the help of the government on the planet Cygnus Beta.

In this universe, there are several different strains of humanity which seem to have been evolving separately over time, developing unique cultural, physical, and mental traits. For example, the Sadiri are telepathic, and this aspect is a key component to the success of their society. Telepathic bonds form the basis of their relationships, and the Sadiri would be incomplete without them.

The story is told from the point of view of First Officer Grace Delarua, a government official who serves as a cultural liaison on the mission to discover any surviving Sadiri attributes in other human populations in order to preserve the Sadiri way of life. If they find traces of the Sadiri ability to form telepathic bonds in the population of Cygnus Beta, the Sadiri may be able to preserve their cultural practice of telepathic bonds by intermarrying.

Now this all might sound a bit serious, and it is, but due to the fact that Grace is a very likable and amusing protagonist, her warmth and humor bring a lot of emotional depth to the story, making it feel downright Jane Austeny at times. Jane Austen in space! Who could resist?

Now, keep in mind that this book is about preserving cultural identity as we move on to:

THE COVER

Cover

I know. What? What? Okay, so it’s overexposed (so you know it’s about the fuuuuuturee) and the font is a horrible computer-y font on top of a half-face and a tiny clip art elephant.

What I really must call shenanigans on is this cover model. This cover model is someone who I DO NOT KNOW after having read this book. Is she supposed to be a robot? (And if so, where is she going in that great smokey night-eye?) Spoiler: There are no robots in this book! Certainly this cannot be officer Grace Delarua, who describes herself as being brown haired, browned eyed, and cedar brown skinned?

Whitewashing characters on book covers is not a new problem. Take for example the original cover of Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987), whose protagonist is a black woman:

DawnWHERE IS SHE?? Hmm??

Author N.K. Jemisin mentions Dawn (and its cover) in this excellent blog post on the practice of whitewashing book covers. She describes how the discovery of Dawn changed her life:

“I didn’t realize the protagonist was black until 20 pages in. Didn’t realize the author was black until years later, though I suspected it after reading the book. (Gay people have “gaydar”; black people have “blackdar”. Trufax!) But reading this book, and the author’s subsequent books, rocked my world. I realized, thanks to Ms. Butler, that I could write science fiction and fantasy if I wanted. That we have a place in the future too, and our past is more than slavery and Civil Rights. I will say this point-blank: if I had not discovered Octavia Butler then, I would probably not be publishing a novel now. Might not even be writing.

Obviously I would have found her more easily if the cover art had been representative. I can’t help wondering how many other kids like me missed the chance to see something of themselves in SFF [Science Fiction & Fantasy] back then, because they had no idea SFF was about anything but white people.”

N.K. Jemisin’s experience reading Dawn is a perfect example of why young people need books. I also remember the first time I read a book that really spoke to me in this way. It was the first time I recognized something of myself somewhere outside of my own head. That experience is such an important part growing up: realizing there’s a place for You. That is huge. Huge for any young person, because we all felt (& feel) like weirdos, but super huge for a person like N.K. Jemisin, who didn’t know it was okay for her to enjoy an entire genre because that genre didn’t seem to include anybody besides white people in jumpsuits. I cannot stress this enough: I felt like a complete weirdo as a teenager in many, many ways (and frequently still do) and this feeling was offset (and still is!!) by reading stuff that I identified (identify) with.

A few years ago, author Kate Hart analyzed the covers of popular Young Adult books and created some depressing charts, including this one:

 photo covers-race.jpg

This chart is from 2011, but a cursory glance at the YA section in a bookstore would probably tell you that things haven’t changed much in two years. These numbers partially reflect the fact that the majority of YA books feature white protagonists. But, let’s not forget that there have also been puh-lenty of instances in which the main character’s racial identity has been completely changed on the cover, as in Jaclyn’s Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass (2011):

Magic Under GlassThere was so much backlash after Bloomsbury released this cover, which features a white model despite the fact that the book’s main character is African-American, that the cover was withdrawn and replaced.

So, that’s an example of when images of people of color are erased entirely, which is really fun! But even when a P.O.C. makes the cover, you might not be able to tell.

The Secret KingdomOn this cover, you may not be able to see the face of the protagonist, who is an African prince/wizard, but you certainly are able to see the face of that (white) witch.

Secret KingdomSame series. Again, you don’t see the face of the protagonist, but you DO see the face of a BIRD! A bird?!

A Confusion of PrincesHelloooooo over there? You, sir! Are you a person of color?

A Confusion of Princes 2Well, that’s better, except, SCARF.

moorchild+cover

So. This is the cover of the edition of The Moorchild (1996) by Eloise McGraw that I picked up at the public library in my neighborhood when I was, oh, maybe ten? Eleven? I did not have a Goodreads account at the time. I did not read book reviews in the New York Times! I picked this book out because of the cover. Because there’s a little girl in the middle of it with wild hair and brown skin, long toes, and almondy eyes, and everybody is looking at her like she’s doesn’t belong there. That is why I picked it. The Moorchild is a fantasy story about a girl who is half-human, half-fairy, and was left in the place of a human baby by the fairies, who wanted to take a human baby, to do… whatever fairies do with human babies? What I remember most is the way this story helped me begin to process my feelings of being biracial myself, (“half”), and I still remember the feeling of these ideas blossoming in my brain where there had only been half-felt pangs before: I didn’t look or feel entirely one way or the other, just like the character in this book.

“Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism….

That is what this is about: pervasive racism in every aspect of our world so that young kids grow up thinking they are inferior because they see so few reflections of themselves.”

– Justine Larbalestier, whose book, Liar (2010), was also released with a cover that she did not approve of because the model was white and her character was not.

People need books. Young people really need books. There are books being published about young people of color, DON’T HIDE THEM from the kids who are craving and needing and searching for them.

Karen Lord’s book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, (with the robot girl and the smokey night-eye on the cover) is not a YA book, it’s for adults. Her first book received tons of critical acclaim. Why the misrepresentation on her second book’s cover? It seems that even an established writer cannot escape the racism that permeates our media today.

It is heartening to know that there are publishers out there who are challenging the status quo. Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, is one example. Tu Books publishes fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels with diverse characters and settings for a young audience.

From their website:

The best way to encourage a love of reading is to provide stories that all readers can identify with. Books can be both a mirror and a window to other worlds for readers. Tu Books hopes that by publishing books for children that feature multicultural characters and settings inspired by the world’s many non-Western cultures, we can offer a mirror to some, and open a window to many.

Lee & Low is also dedicated to providing educators with tools to promote diversity and literacy, challenge stereotypes, and encourage discussion about racial issues in the classroom.

Which is great. Because we need more windows, and more mirrors. I’ll leave you with the UK edition of the The Best of All Possible Worlds, which features a hummingbird.

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Real Beauty in Advertising

By now most of you are probably aware of the Dove “Real Beauty Sketches” videos that have been making their internet rounds. This is the video that I first saw. It’s a segment from the full version.

While the majority of reactions that I’ve seen involve words like “moving” and “so important” or “tears” and “thank you”, as with everything on the world wide web, there are naysayers as well.

Here’s my initial disclaimer: Yes, Obviously, this is an ad. It’s an ad that aims for the end result of you buying Dove products. And YES, Dove is owned by Unilever, the company that also owns hyper-sexist, patently absurd Axe body spray. Here’s what I have to say about those two things:

  • Almost everything we see and experience these days is some form of marketing, with the end goal being ‘buy this product, see this movie, read this book after you buy this fancy e-reader, etc. etc. etc.’ If you have a problem with marketing, you should probably move to Mongolia. Seriously. That documentary that followed babies for a year made it look like a really peaceful, uninfluenced place to live.
  • Dove Unilever Axe… If you really want to get up in arms about who owns what, then prepare to give up A Lot of your favorite things because guess what. There are about ten companies that own damn near everything, and when it comes to the people who control the money in those companies, that number gets even smaller.
  • Now let’s look at the number of women who have influence over what kind of media we see (including film, tv, radio, newspapers, books, magazines, communications jobs, video games, and the internet). For the 21st century, the numbers are still quite abysmal. The Women’s Media Center report, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013, points out the finding that “At its current pace, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in government/politics, business, entrepreneurship and nonprofits.”

What does all of this mean? It means that every step counts. It means that there is nothing wrong with getting excited about a company choosing this:

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 10.34.20 AM

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 10.33.26 AM Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 10.34.06 AM

Over this:

Kate-Upton-Guess-Ad-Campaign-Photo-Shoot-2011-Photos-6
Of all the naysaying, there is a key issue that is very elegantly addressed on this tumblr, and that (unsurprisingly) is the issue of race. I am in complete agreement that the Dove ‘real beauty’ ads consistently do not reflect the true diversity of the population. This video in particular features women of color for about 10 seconds in a video that is over 6 minutes long. The man drawing the women appears to be Hispanic, but he is not the target of the ad, he merely plays a role in it. I was hoping to see more from the women of color in the full version of the video, and I was disappointed to see that it was in fact more women who were white, most of whom were blonde.

I then read a comment on FB from my friend Anne who said she was on board with the video until her daughter, who is nearly seven, asked what she was watching. At that point Anne realized, “…as I explained it to her, it became clear to me that the video’s very narrow definition of what beauty looks like, as well as the idea of its supreme importance to a woman’s life, are actually antithetical to what I try so hard to pass on to her.”

Again, I agree. The idea of beauty’s ‘supreme importance’ must be turned on its head before women will be taken seriously as complex individuals with a great deal to offer the world beyond their looks. The unfortunate reality is that there is currently an intense amount of emphasis placed on a woman’s beauty, and this emphasis is Everywhere. Any instance of encouraging women to feel beautiful in their own skin should be built upon to challenge the current ideals even further. Celebrate and promote instances where you think media is doing it right, and call out the instances that aren’t. Go ahead and contact Dove and say “Your real beauty sketches ad had great intent behind it, but it’s a shame you didn’t see fit to be truer to your own message and feature a more diverse group of women. I’ll consider buying your products when I see genuine diversity in your ads.” Or something to that effect.

Anne then referenced a friend who questioned what the Dove ad means for women who “actually look like the photo on the left”…and honestly my first thought was, ‘but do you? Do you look like one of the photos on the left, or is that only your impression of yourself?’ I have to stand behind this campaign’s challenge to women to Be Aware of how you see yourself versus how others see you. This blog was started based on the frightening statistic that 97% of women, on average, have thirteen or more negative thoughts about themselves every day. Even more disturbing to me has been the number of women I know who hear that statistic and are entirely unfazed, because that sounds normal to them. It has become a personal ambition of mine to reverse that statistic, until 97% of women have an average of thirteen positive thoughts about themselves every day. In this endeavor, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Issues of gender and race are huge, complex, and deep-rooted. It is always important to question and challenge what we’re exposed to in this era of mass information, and to exercise our media literacy. When it comes to representations of women in the media that aim to be positive, I believe we need to acknowledge them and push for them to go even further. As I see it, the ultimate goal is to free women of the preoccupation with how we look. If in fact only 4% of the world’s women think they’re beautiful, and it’s certainly true that the vast majority of the world’s media is telling them that beautiful is what they should strive to be, that preoccupation is inevitable.

I’m compelled to quote the Contentious Ad Campaign here, because I think it’s a crucial point: Imagine a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety. If we don’t even Begin to look deeper, to build confidence, to expand notions of a woman’s worth, we will never get to the point where girls and women value themselves beyond their beauty.

My final word is this – if nothing else, I am fucking thrilled that we are having these conversations. Any and all opinions are welcome here.

Now go forth, and be your amazing self.
Note: For above and beyond the messages of Dove, Beauty Redefined has a list of “doable strategies” to redefine and reclaim notions of beauty and health, encouraging all of us to push the boundaries and “promote real fitness, confidence, happiness and love for yourself and others.”