Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Faatimah Solomon on 12/12/2016

The Exploitation Of Women Of Color In Music Videos Needs To End

Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' music video

Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ music video

As a black feminist who is usually conscious of how normalized our misogynistic and often racist pop culture is, I am mostly displeased by the portrayal of black women in music videos. From Taylor Swift to Jason Derulo, artists across genres and of all identities seemingly fail to recognize that the fetishization of black women’s bodies in their music videos translates into their hyper-sexualizaiton in the real-world.

This treatment is first and foremost evident in the stereotypes about black women these music videos frequently perpetuate. Such stereotypes propagated about black women include the “angry Black woman,” the “sassy Black woman,” and the “hypersexual Jezebel.” But perhaps the most typical caricature of Black women is the sassy, finger-snapping, gum-popping, grill-wearing, twerking woman. And while many Black women may self-identify under this category, this image should not be the only one disseminated in pop culture and the media. This caricature is not inherently unfavorable, but it becomes such when it is constantly exploited by white artists such as Meghan Trainor and Taylor Swift. In both Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Black women play the role of the twerking, ‘bootylicious’ women. For example, in “All About That Bass,” a white woman grabs a Black woman’s backside and looks at the camera in wonderment while, similarly, in Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Swift looks fascinated and astonished as she gapes at a Black woman twerking. Ultimately, in an attempt to create sexual appeal, these artists paint Black women with a broad stroke and hypersexualize their bodies.

Although it can be argued that these depictions are attempts to celebrate black female sexuality, these depictions become exploitative when they are so often the only popular narrative available for Black women and when they are used only to benefit white female artists’ bottom lines. The bodies of Black women — and often other women of color — are paraded around as a bizarre, “exotic,” yet still appealing, type of eye-candy. These women don’t contribute much to the thematic elements in these music videos as complex individuals so much as they serve as stereotypical tropes.

Take, for example, Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” music video. While the song’s lyrics seem to promote many feminist values by calling out “patriarchal double standards” and criticizing societal norms such as slut-shaming, the music video contradicts these very values. In the video, when Allen says, “Don’t need to shake my ass for you cause I’ve got a brain,” she is then shown dancing in the midst of a group of women of color, all of whom are scantily dressed. This can be interpreted as Allen’s attempt to criticize this type of representation of women in the music industry by parodying it. This does not excuse or justify this portrayal, but rather reiterates the hypersexualization of Black women and WoC. Because they are constantly presented in a specific role, Allen thinks it’s okay to continue to use WoC as props for this phenomenon — or even worse, to depict them as manipulated victims of the media’s hypersexualization of women, a concept that it is rather counter-intuitive to the feminist message she wants to communicate.

Additionally, this subtle mockery can be interpreted as evidence of the perceived superiority that some white women have over WoC. This depiction ignores the intersectional oppression WoC face: the intersection of sexism and racism that are far from similar to the normalized, ‘universal’ experience of womanhood that caters primarily to white women. Black women have long been seen as inherently promiscuous, sexual beings due to their physical features that the media often exaggerates (e.g. lips, butts) and exploits.

This phenomenon actually stems from colonial times: specifically back to Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who lived in 19th century in Europe, and was exploited for having a condition called steatopygia that resulted in protruding buttocks. She was paraded among the European aristocracy, where she was subjected to mockery, touching, and ridicule. This colonial exploitation helps us understand how the experience of Black womanhood has been institutionally dictated and governed by white societies. Society prizes a Black women’s ‘exotic’ and ‘bizarre’ bodies far more than they do their social and intellectual contributions, and, as a result, Black women are often reduced and defined by their sexuality.

A friend of mine once sincerely asked me,“What about Black female artists that continue to perpetuate this portrayal of Black women, such as Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and at times Beyoncé?” It’s a valid question. For the most part, I believe this depiction of Black women by other black women is usually a celebration and a claim of ownership of Black female sexuality. I won’t ever criticize a Black female artist who openly celebrates her sexuality and uses that as a source of empowerment and strength not only for herself, but for many other Black women. However, I personally think that there are more efficient ways to communicate this. I may not agree with many aspects of Beyoncé’s feminism (I am more of a bell hooks kind of gal), but I appreciate that Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki promote a certain type of Black feminism that is accessible to many Black women.

The demeaning way in which the music industry fetishizes the bodies of Black women and women of color reflects centuries of socially ingrained norms stemming from the aftermath of colonialism. The music industry is therefore accountable for continuing to reinforce these stereotypes that have a detrimental effect on how Black women and women of color are perceived in society. It is imperative that artists stop hypersexualizing Black women and women of color and using their bodies as props to ‘sex up’ their music videos.

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