In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite VHS tapes to watch was American Ballet Theater’s 1977 film adaptation of The Nutcracker, starring Gelsey Kirkland as Clara and Mikhail Baryshnikov as the prince. One of my favorite parts was the second act of the famous Tchaikovsky ballet, where the prince takes Clara to the beautiful land of Sweets, and the Sugar Plum Fairy rewards them for their courage in Act One’s battle against the Mouse King with a celebration of various coveted culinary delicacies from around the world. In the ballet's original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, there's chocolate from Spain, coffee from “Arabia,” tea from China, candy canes from Russia and marzipan from Denmark, each “performed” by a group of dancers dressed in what, within the ballet’s late-19th century, Russian imperialist imaginary, is supposed to be geographically appropriate dress. Sadly, I think one of my earliest childhood memories is watching the “China” sequence in the Baryshnikov version, where the score changes to a pentatonic register and we see two dancers prancing around in blue and white silks that looks like the patterns on a mass-produced Chinese porcelain cup, brandishing fans and bowing excessively.
It was one of my first experiences of cultural tourism. As a six or seven years old, half-Jewish white kid growing up in a middle-class household in New York City, I’m pretty sure I experienced it with as much wide-eyed wonder as Clara herself, genuinely thrilled that I was getting a chance to travel around the world, and meet all the people that resided there, while sitting at the foot of the TV in my parents' bedroom. Of course, as I grew older, the Sugar Plum Fairy celebration would become the first thing I thought of when I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of stereotyping: there's a certain representational violence involved by when we turn people into caricature-like composites of presumed physical and behavioral attributes. Now that I look back on it, though, I think the Nutcracker also introduced me to a concept that in some ways I’m still trying to understand, which is that sometimes a work of art can be racist or exploitative without intending to be, or even knowing that it is. Within the narrative framework of the original, 1892 ballet, Act Two’s “tour around the globe” is framed as a gift bestowed by the Sugar Plum Fairy upon Clara and her beau, a dazzling showcase of the world’s riches as experienced through a profusion of ethnocentric costumes, dances and sweets. Sure, it was probably propaganda for the economic and political might of the Tsarist Russian empire, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t somehow believe itself to be “celebrating” the very cultures that it was so mercilessly typecasting.
Fast forward to the present day, and for some reason, the Nutcracker paradox seems to be surfacing again and again on the pop culture front. Just last week, Avril Lavigne became the subject of numerous impassioned think-pieces when she released her video for “Hello Kitty,” inspiring allegations of racist stereotyping and tasteless appropriation with her Kyary Pamyu Pamyu-esque fantasia of expressionless Japanese backup dancers and infantilizing candy store imagery. The week before that, Sky Ferreira provoked a similar outpouring with her clip for “I Blame Myself,” a supposed re-imagining of her arrest in upstate New York last year that depicts the 21-year-old singer as the sole female member of an all-black, male gang. Before that, there was Lily Allen, who also seemed to be using her back-up dancers as “props” in her ostensibly feminist video for “Hard Out Here,” setting herself above and apart from the hyper-sexualized black women writhing in a bath of champagne spray around her. And before that, lest we forget, was Miley Cyrus, who ratcheted up the sex appeal of an onstage performance of “Can’t Stop” at the 2013 VMA’s with the twerking skills of a handful of big-bottomed black women.
As of this writing, Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video has 7,556,676 views on Youtube. Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” has a whopping 26,170,941, and a search for “Miley Cyrus VMAs” on Google produces 3,490,000 results. In a pop musical ecosystem where transmissibility is everything, questionable cultural appropriation pushes units, be it through the online outrage it provokes, the borrowed cultural caché or sex appeal it exploits, or the wider name recognition of the people who are wielding it. At the same time, as I was trying to explain with my anecdote about The Nutcracker, a work of art can be offensive without being consciously offensive; in fact, it can be offensive even when its creator believes quite the opposite to be true.
Responding to the backlash against her “Hard Out Here” video last year, for example, Lily Allen defended her choice of all-black back-up dancers as the product of her own egalitarianism and openmindedness, a desire to be a sort of pop star equivalent of an equal opportunity employer: “If anyone thinks that after asking the girls to audition, I was going to send any of them away because of the colour of their skin, they’re wrong,” she wrote in a Twitter update. If we accept her claim that the dancers she cast in the video were simply the most talented dancers who showed up to the audition, then we can hardly accuse her of deliberately erecting a racial divide between the song’s outspoken feminist protagonist and her voiceless black counterparts. Still, that doesn’t mean that we can excuse her for letting the “Hard Out Here” video happen, for failing to take notice of the messages about race and gender, however subconscious or unintentional, that her choices would be sending across.
In the case of Sky Ferreira’s video for “I Blame Myself,” things get a little more complicated. “I Blame Myself” is one of my favorite songs of Sky’s—not just for its anthemic melody, but for its candor with regards to Sky’s own conflicted feelings about life in the public eye. With its belted chorus (I blame myself for my reputation), it taps a certain culturally conditioned female tendency toward self-blame while also incarnating the empowerment that stems from baring one’s vulnerabilities plain. Taken alone, it’s a prime example of the this-world-is-a-mess-and-so-am-I honesty that makes Sky so lovable and relatable, but when the video casts her as the sole female member of an inner-city gang, there’s the feeling of two things that don’t exactly match up. Is being a downtown “it girl” and getting arrested for ecstasy possession while driving around in upstate New York the same thing as being stuck in a generational cycle of poverty and violence and being forced into a life of illegal activity to survive? I doubt that even Sky herself would say so, just as I doubt that she would be okay with the idea of perpetuating the stereotype of the violent and thuggish black male, even as the “I Blame Myself” video, the only video of hers thus far that prominently casts African Americans in a supporting role, could be interpreted as doing so. Is it possible that Sky is guilty of yet another act of unconscious racism?
It’s hard to say, and probably depends on how you experience the video. To judge from the Facebook post she wrote responding to a commenter’s suggestion that she was using her backup dancers as “props,” Sky certainly doesn’t see it that way. “Nothing upsets me more than being called racist because that is one of the most hateful things anyone can be,” she writes. “It’s also an idea that has never crossed my mind, which is what I find questionable of the people telling me that I did so. Dancers are objects?!?!?! How dare you! Dancers make things come to life.” In a somewhat less endearing vein, the video's director, Grant Singer, weighed in too, commenting in an interview with Pitchfork that "I think people are sort of bored on the internet and waiting around to be offended. I think that people look to find something to find wrong or racist." Perhaps Sky's “never crossed my mind” is key here. Making the video with director Singer, Sky says she was simply drawing inspiration from the Michael Jackson and ‘90s hip-hop videos she was into growing up. As with Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here,” there’s the sense that she simply made the choices she felt like making without considering the conclusions one could potentially draw from the end result.
Complicating the matter further, Sky’s goes on to say that the Facebook commenters accusing her of cultural appropriation and stereotyping are actually stereotyping her, because despite her light-skinned and green-eyed appearance, she is herself of Latina and Native American descent, and has several black family members, some of whom appear in the video. Can a video be racist when it is made by somebody who identifies with the ethnic group in question? I don’t think there’s necessarily a clear-cut answer to that, but the fact that Sky’s video even raises this question really drives home how subjective such distinctions can be. Depending on how you experience it, and how much information you have about Sky’s intentions, you might even read “I Blame Myself” as a video as quite the opposite of stereotyping, shattering our preconceptions about what a gang member might look like with the suggestion that someone who looks like Sky could be one, too.
That’s why I think that when we’re debating the relative racism of videos like “I Blame Myself” and “Hard Out Here” and “Hello Kitty,” what we’re really debating, or should be debating, is whether these videos might be considered good art. Good art is art that is aware of the choices that it makes, and takes stock in the way that a viewer or listener might experience them; it understands that even the smallest decision can make a big impact, and worries that a decision to only use African-American back-up dancers might be seen as a "prop" move before an anonymous commenter on the Internet has to point it out. Ultimately, I don’t see “I Blame Myself” as being all that different from Sky’s video for “You’re Not the One,” or even “Red Lips”; whether she’s imagining herself as the member of a California gang, or mining an ‘80s rocker aesthetic, or miming Shirley Manson’s signature black eye make-up and covering her face with lipstick, I think that Sky–like Lily and Avril and Miley–is simply filling her world with the cultural reference points that mean something to her. You can call that cultural appropriation, you can call that cultural celebration, but at the end of the day, what we probably should be talking about is whether all the storylines and costumes add up to something that moves us—not just because we like the cultural touchstones it's referencing, but because it vibrates with the precision of a work that's wielding its signifiers knowingly.