The horrors of power

So here’s the video that blew up my Facebook feed a few days ago, first with a long paean from Jezebel, then (more convincingly) a series of critiques of the way she uses Black women’s bodies as a punchline for a joke about objectification.

The video is disheartening on so many levels–the potential is there for something really smart and pretty radical. The opening scene with the liposuction is funny but upsetting at the same time–the producer’s line, “I don’t know how someone can let themselves get like this” seems like it was probably lifted directly from Allen’s real life, the shot of the fat getting squirted into the big plastic cylinder is creepy and awesome, and her tiny-voiced, almost-cowed response that she’s had two kids makes the moment when she stands up off the table feel that much more triumphant. And I’m pretty sure I can’t think of anything more punk rock than this image:

But then there’s this image:

And these:

It’s clear that she’s purposely going over the top here, parodying other pop stars (mostly everyone’s favorite punching bag, Miley Cyrus), but reproducing a power dynamic (clothed, tightly controlled White body, half-naked writhing Black bodies) doesn’t constitute parody–it’s just more of the same.

Anyway. I could go into more detail about the ways that Allen plays into long-established patterns of White feminist appropriation of Black women, but that argument is easy to find. What’s more interesting to me is the way that Allen’s not-apology for the video highlights her own pretty tortured relationship with her body in a way that exposes the place of self-loathing in oppression.

Allen’s statement goes through most of the standard moves of a not-apology from a member of a dominant group:

  1. I wasn’t thinking about race: “If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they’re wrong.”
  2. It’s just a joke, get over it: “Whilst I don’t want to offend anyone. I do strive to provoke thought and conversation. The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture. It has nothing to do with race, at all.”
  3. My Black friends are fine with this: “Ask the ladies yourselves @shalaeuroasia @monique_Lawz @ceodancers @TempleArtist@SelizaShowtime @melycrisp
  4. I’m not racist: “I’m not going to apologise because I think that would imply that I’m guilty of something, but I promise you this, in no way do I feel superior to anyone, except paedophiles, rapists murderers etc., and I would not only be surprised but deeply saddened if I thought anyone came away from that video feeling taken advantage of,or compromised in any way.”

But the one that gets me the most is this:  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.

It’s the inward focus of her creative process that is most interesting to me, especially since the harm inflicted by this process are so externally focused. For the most part, I tend to think of oppression as something outwardly focused–x or y group is linked to a specific set of characteristics, probably on some unconscious level, so people use those bodies to fulfill some kind of archetype (the Mammy, or the Dragon Lady, or the Thug, or the Terrorist–the list goes on and on). It’s like how when we go visit my family in Texas, people seem unable to understand that my partner eats pork, even though she’s Jewish. The job of dismantling racist thought patterns then begins with breaking down those associations and seeing the multiplicity of human experience more fully.

But what Allen does in her apology exposes some of the inner workings of objectification in a way that highlights the way that in the case of this video (and maybe all the time) racism is immediately linked to self-loathing. The frame story of the video as well as the language of her apology both showcase this sense of horror: as I mentioned, the lipo scene is so effective because it’s so gross, and thus captures a core element of that sense of being alienated from your body that is so central to oppression around race and gender both. And, of course, Allen’s own comment, “nobody wants to see that” is hardly different from the record exec’s disgusted question, “How can somebody let themselves get like this?”

It’s the one-to-one link between the fears expressed here–that her body needs to be sexualized in order to be marketable, but that the effects of that sexualization (the changes to a woman’s body after childbirth) are precisely what makes her body disgusting–that then get played out on the bodies of the backup dancers, especially in the shots of their jiggling asses. While Allen’s cellulite is something no one wants to see, the jiggling flesh of her backup dancers is the image she’s trading on to reassure her audience that this is parody–that she’s “playing on” racism, not reproducing it.

At the end of the day, what all this has me thinking is that perhaps the focus needs to change in terms of anti-racist work, in a way that follows through on the logic of nightmares and horror movies more closely, really taking seriously the place of abjection within the construction of racist paradigms. The moments in the video that follow through on its radical (and artistically interesting) potential are the moments when Allen allows herself to play out the horror she feels at her own body and how it’s changed–the squirting fat, the Baggy Pussy. If we people in positions of relative power (I’m thinking primarily of my fellow white ladies here) do our best to articulate these fears of abjection as they relate to ourselves, we can both make more interesting art but also at least begin to dismantle the structures that keep us all down, since throwing other women under the bus of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy never ends well.