Friday, June 11, 2010
"Stop Calling, I Don’t Wanna Think Anymore"
The Erasure of Black Female Subjectivity
By: Johnathan D. Fields
In his book, Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva discusses the structure, frames, and effects of colorblind racism1. Notions of colorblindness are not new developments within American society given generation Y has been dubbed the “colorblind” generation. Colorblindness is founded on notions that race is no longer relevant and/or no longer existing. Ideologies, such as these, permeate throughout American culture, allowing for the dismissal of a historical consciousness concerning the production of racialized images in popular culture and the power inherently associated with these images. Considering mass media is a ubiquitous form of power in society, these cultural images have the capacity to disengage audiences from the historical realities. One form of disengagement is achieved through a lack of recognizing the racial notions of women prevalent in media outlets ever since they worked their way into the home of the majority of America. The media’s marketing capabilities and ability to provide easy access to these images across the globe allow for the spread of colorblind racism.
Two female figures have capitalized on the media’s promoting power and worked their way into the minds of American audiences, to the point their stage names have become household names. Stefani Germanotta (stage name: Lady Gaga) and Beyoncé Knowles (stage name: Beyoncé, and more recently Sasha Fierce) have record success and have capitalized on the opportunities they have been afforded in an industry dominated by men, sweeping in armloads of Grammys between each of the two among other achievements. Besides the fact that both of these young women have broken numerous records3, I argue they misrepresent female autonomy through their performances presenting themselves as women in complete control over there art, which relays one kind of pop feminism to their audiences and fails to account for any male influence over their productions. Alas, their individual successes, paired with their recent collaborations, not only speak to misappropriated conceptions of feminism but also perpetuate notions of colorblind racism.
Focusing specifically on their collaboration in Gaga’s “Telephone” video, this essay will examine the types of myths about feminism both Gaga and Sasha Fierce present as they relate to race and heteronormativity. “Telephone”, their most recent collaborative music video, features Beyoncé Knowles on Gaga’s track, which is the beginning of a new approach for Knowles—highly politicizing the music video. The question for this collaboration becomes: whose politics? This video was one in a two-part series that started with Gaga’s cameo in Knowles’, “Video Phone.” An interesting component of the “Telephone” music video is its length, which is long enough to be considered a short film. Speaking to its length, Gaga stated, “[I am] always trying to convolute everyone’s idea of what a pop music video should be.”4 Her statement highlights the usage of the length as intentional; it is allowed to be longer due to the underlining hegemonic meanings that are popular amongst our purportedly colorblind society. Even in its creativity it reifies racist notions found in popular American cinematic discourse.
Through the pair’s alliance, the world was presented with a new image—Sasha Fierce.5 Through an analysis of Sasha Fierce, I argue the image Knowles presents to global audiences appropriates stereotypical tropes of Black womanhood. An analysis of Sasha Fierce in both of these videos will demonstrate the pair’s usage of gendered and racialized notions that replicate historical stereotypes about Black womanhood, in its complex relationship to white femininity. Their interracial coupling will highlight historical themes surrounding interracial relationships on screen as they relate to the pairs exploitation of lesbian identity through the video’s homoeroticism, as well as Sasha Fierce’s performance of whiteface.6
For the purposes of this essay, the gendered and racialized notions are stereotypical understandings of Black womanhood whereby the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality become evident. These notions portray Black women as emasculating, evil, or hypersexual while ultimately painting them as untrustworthy and manipulative. These notions become the foundation upon which the pair’s relationship to womanhood can be racially examined. Through the development of their on screen relationship, Sasha Fierce and Gaga utilize homoeroticism to suggest a lesbian relationship with one another throughout much of the “Telephone” video; a relationship that hinges on a lack of Black female subjectivity, a theme that has existed since the beginning of media representations of Black womanhood.7 Their relationship presents the audience with images that exploit the understandings of womanhood for both Black and white women, while still operating under the guise of colorblindness. By playing off of colorblindness, the audience fails to recognize Sasha Fierce as Black8, despite the replication of stereotypical imagery.
The video’s usage of stereotypical tropes of Black womanhood is precisely what disengages viewers for the oppressive reality of these images. This essay will explore how Gaga and Sasha Fierce strategically perform gender as it relates to both Black and white womanhood; Gaga will be representative of white womanhood, where Sasha is Black womanhood. As their gender performance is executed, both women explore a homoerotic relationship that exploits lesbian identity. Their usage of popularized notions of gender and lesbianism exhibit stereotypical understandings of feminism, whereby feminism is understood as uniting women across other cultural identities, inherently tied to lesbianism, and most importantly, dangerous. An examination of Gaga and Sasha’s presentation of, what will be referred to as, pop feminism thrives on colorblindness as audiences fail to recognize Sasha Fierce as a Black woman. The video’s analysis will highlight the merging of racial stereotypes concerning Black womanhood as it exploits Blackness and further perpetuates colorblind racism.
Through an exploitation of Blackness, Gaga and Sasha Fierce use masculinity performed through Black womanhood to disengage audiences from the historical relationship between Black and white womanhood. Elisabeth Badinter says, “[The] masculine identity is associated with the fact of possessing, taking, penetrating, dominating, and asserting oneself, if necessary, by force. Feminine identity is associated with the fact of being possessed, docile, passive, submissive.”9 From the beginning of their interaction, the viewer can see womanhood as uniting the aims of these two figures. While they both potentially have ulterior motives, their foundation alludes to a strong identification with female empowerment. These motives blind audiences to suggest women are in power, but it is never a revolutionary act. The images always bring the audience back to their historical realities, that an empowered woman is a threat to society. The aim of this video involves breaking Gaga out of prison so the pair can destroy anyone who does not succumb to their mission, one that seems to rely on destroying patriarchy to implement a matriarchy. After Sasha frees Gaga from the confinement of prison, she agrees to help Gaga wipe out an entire diner full of people—no identity withstanding.
Sasha Fierce enters the video to enable Gaga’s womanhood through an exercise in her sexuality. Prior to Sasha rescuing Gaga from confinement, the viewer briefly sees Gaga send a text message to Sasha Fierce saying, “Thanks for bailing me out Sista”, letting us know the two are plotting together. Even in it’s spelling of the word ‘sista’, this snapshot suggests there is a subplot to this video despite its attempt to erase racial difference. Once the audience looks at the role Sasha Fierce plays, this scene only supports the exploitative tendencies of the video that take over allowing the racial and gendered undertones of this video to surface.
Sasha’s arrival presents the tensions of defining womanhood through a racialized lens as she commands Gaga has been “a very bad girl…a very, very, bad, bad girl.” Sasha’s assertion suggests Gaga is incapable of “real” womanhood, not without something Sasha has. Gaga’s performance of femininity, which instates her status as a woman, is crucial to her interaction with Sasha Fierce. Throughout the video, Gaga is portrayed as the ideal through which femininity can manifest itself. This is emphasized when two overbearing, dominant female prison guards strip her nude and Gaga attaches herself to the cell bars to assert her biological sex through an exposure of her genitalia. Not only is she vulnerable to assault from the guards but her usage of nudity also complicates her relationship to Sasha as Sasha is consistently covered up wherever Gaga is exposed. This suggests Sasha can only be seen as sexy as long as she is not sexier than Gaga. From the moment the pair arrives on screen together, Sasha’s utility has already been instilled. As Gaga is exiting the prison grounds, a guard tells her its her “lucky day; some idiot bailed [her] out.” The idiot the prison guard is referring to is Sasha Fierce. Not only does she bail Gaga out but throughout the remainder of the video Sasha Fierce becomes Gaga’s pawn, protecting Gaga when she needs to and fulfilling the operation Gaga sets in place. Using Gaga as a device through which to explore femininity becomes a racialized trope, if one implements the ways in which race and gender have historically been constructed.
After addressing Gaga’s performance of womanhood as “bad,” Sasha Fierce goes on to feed Gaga her honey bun, which symbolizes an exchange of sexuality. After Gaga is fed her sexuality by her Black companion, this scene offers the first time Gaga actually speaks [instead of singing] in the video. Not only does Gaga’s silence promote her subservience, she also uses her hat to hide from Sasha’s overbearing sexuality. Yet, Fierce’s sexualized tactics are what allow Gaga the voice to express her frustrations and implement her plan. Without the blessing of sexuality, Gaga would not be able to express herself freely as a woman. After feeding Gaga, Sasha Fierce throws her honey bun out the window of the truck suggesting a relinquishing of her sovereignty to Gaga and aligning her motives to that of Gaga’s. Since Gaga plays off of the damsel-in-distress, understood to be the epitome of popularized notions of the feminine, Sasha’s rescue becomes symbolic of the damsel’s masculine savior. The viewer sees Sasha as Gaga’s masculine complement through her body language, tone, and assertive responses to Gaga’s delicacy. For the remainder of the video, Sasha Fierce is used as Gaga’s accessory becoming both her masculine counterpart as well as her feminine partner-in-crime.
From bailing Gaga out of prison and feeding her, to endorsing her methods of pop feminism, Sasha Fierce becomes the subservient character in the video that is only useful when Gaga needs her. It is important to remember this release of Sasha’s power comes through her loyalty and dedication to uniting as women. However, the relationship becomes more complicated as the video’s homoeroticism is analyzed. In the scene where Sasha picks up Gaga from prison, her assertions that Gaga has been “a bad girl” feed into BDSM culture whereby pain and power can create sexual desire or pleasure. Not to mention when Sasha feeds Gaga her honey bun, the audience watches as Gaga gets a taste of Sasha’s honey. Despite the fact that neither of these women identifies as lesbian outside this video, their allusion to lesbianism complicates the manipulative measures of this video. Lesbianism allows both Sasha and Gaga to dismantle patriarchy through countering heterosexual male dominance, the power that most directly affects them (Knowles/Germanotta).
Two heterosexual women perform lesbianism as a strategy to disassemble power, suggesting two things: only the unity of women will destroy patriarchy and homosexuality is a choice that can be strategically used when necessary. As Cheryl Clarke states, “Lesbianism is a recognition, an awakening, a reawakening of our passion for each (woman) other (woman) and for same (woman). This passion will ultimately reverse the heterosexual imperialism of male culture.”10 This model of thought suggests lesbianism is a way out of male dominated culture into a female-centered arena. However, Gaga and Sasha’ usage of lesbianism plays off stereotypical understandings of feminism whereby all female feminists are pigeonholed as lesbians and/or misandrists. By this I mean Gaga and Sasha utilize a lesbian identity to promote their misunderstood notions of feminism, and lesbianism, and place them in direct inextricable relation to one another. Not only do Gaga and Sasha exploit lesbian identity, they also capitalize on the interracial tropes of their relationship to propel their plot. Thus, this video not only propagates the misusage of lesbianism as it supposedly relates to feminism but also exploits the taboo nature of interracial sexual relations.
On-screen interracial couplings have always been utilized as propaganda to instill sexualized fear. Despite the fact that mainstream couplings almost always remain heterosexual, Gaga and Sasha use their interracial relationship in support of their agenda. In her chapter “When Good Girls Go Bad”, Erica Childs discusses the taboo behind interracial romantic relationships on screen when she states, “There are virtually no films that include a happily partnered white woman and man of color within the context of a stable, middle-class world. If a white woman is paired interracially, most often it occurs in a deviant setting.”11 Not only are they performing lesbianism, the pair is also interracial—an easily forgotten theme of the video given Sasha’s skin tone. Considering the contemporary moment where homosexuality is still seen as deviant sexual behavior, the coupling of Gaga and Sasha Fierce is only acceptable because it does not disrupt what the viewer understands as comfortable. This is further supported by the fact that any hints of lesbianism are implicit within the video’s undertones and are never directly expressed. The viewer remains comfortable knowing that Gaga’s feminine, white purity is safe as her partner is neither a male nor a racial threat.
In order to understand why race is essential to Sasha's character, the construction of Black womanhood must be examined in context to slavery as well as in relation to white womanhood and white establishment. The characterization of Sasha Fierce is not anything new to American cinematic performances of Black women. In fact, Sasha really becomes the product of three main stereotypical tropes merging, the mammy, the matriarch and the jezebel. Patricia Hill-Collins states, “From the mammies, Jezebels, and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes, and ever-present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, the nexus of negative stereotypical images applied to African-American women has been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.”12 These negative depictions have often linked Black womanhood to gender and sexuality in their portrayal as emasculating, evil and hypersexual. The ways in which white womanhood and femininity were constructed was through dissociation from Blackness. As Erica Childs states, “Black women were portrayed as either dark-skinned, sexless mammies, oversexed Jezebels, or tragic mistresses, with the last two options reserved for light-skinned women.”13 Given her collusion with Gaga’s plan to emasculate the world and her skin tone, Sasha Fierce becomes the symbol of the mammy, matriarch and jezebel’s union.
Considering the historical value in definitions of womanhood, whereby white womanhood was defined in its distance from Black womanhood, Gaga’s desperate plea to prove her womanhood in the opening of this video becomes significant to the intersectionality of race and gender, which becomes the video’s subtext. Lorraine O’Grady gives an analysis of Western culture’s racial division of the female body when she states:
“The female body in the West is not a unitary sign. Rather, like a coin, it has an obverse and a reverse: on the one side, it is white; on the other, not-white or, prototypically, black. The two bodies cannot be separated, nor can one be understood in isolation from the other in the West’s metaphoric construction of ‘woman.’ White is what woman is; not-white (and the stereotypes not-white gathers in) is what she had better not be.”14
As O’Grady’s analysis points out, womanhood has consistently been examined through a lens of whiteness and a distancing from Blackness. Ultimately, Gaga’s desperation to prove her womanhood becomes dependent upon Sasha Fierce’s racial identification as the release of Sasha’s subjectivity into Gaga’s hands allows for the execution of patriarchy.
Sasha’s hesitancy to partake in Gaga’s plan to eradicate the patriarchy manifests itself in a scene where Sasha and Gaga are driving together. After her release from prison, the duo makes their way to a diner to fulfill Gaga’s mission. As they drive, Gaga asks Sasha if she is certain she wants to engage in, what the audience will see, is a “mass homicide.”
Gaga: Are you sure you want to do this?
Sasha Fierce: What do you mean, ‘Am I sure’?
Gaga: You know what they say, ‘Once you kill a cow, you gotta make a burger.’
Sasha Fierce: You know Gaga, trust is like a mirror—you can fix it if it’s broke.
Gaga: (angry) But you can still see the crack in that motherfucker’s reflection!
After Sasha sees the vengeance in Gaga, she relays a look of unease suggesting she recognizes Gaga is using the tools of the ‘enemy’ and is uncomfortable partaking in Gaga’s arrangement. Despite her hesitation, Sasha Fierce proceeds to act as Gaga’s tool thrusting her into the plan’s spotlight while Gaga, the mastermind beyond it all, escapes into the background to concoct her strategies.
In the video, Sasha combines the mammy and matriarch to operate differently depending on whom she is engaged with. In her communication with Gaga, Sasha Fierce represents the mammy when she acts as a tool to thrust her white companion’s plan into motion through a release of her autonomy. Within media representations, Black women were historically offered little visibility and when they were offered visibility the roles were limited. In particular, the mammy and matriarch are directly related as they are similar figures that function differently depending on the environment. Yvonne Atkinson states, “The Mammy figure is a stereotypical figuration used as a background to foreground the pre-eminence of White womanhood”15, while the matriarch is “unfeminine [and] castrating.”16 Sasha’s shift to the background to promote Gaga’s destruction of patriarchy emulates the mammy. She fails to enable her own autonomy and instead chooses to collude with Gaga’s assertions of superiority. Patricia Hill-Collins points out the distinction between the mammy and matriarch when she claims, “The mammy typifies the Black mother in white homes, and the matriarch symbolizes the mother figure in Black homes. Just as the mammy represents the “good” Black mother, the matriarch symbolizes the “bad” Black mother.”17 However, the mammy and matriarch are never mutually exclusive for Sasha as she enables the matriarch image when she enters the diner. She utilizes her femininity to emasculate her Black male lover as it promotes Gaga’s attempts to dismantle patriarchy. Cheryl Gilkes points out, “the public depiction of Black women as unfeminine, castrating matriarchs came at precisely the same moment that the feminist movement was advancing its public critique of American patriarchy.”18 The usage of these images is explicitly linked to the video’s attempt at exploring feminism. Its mishandling of contemporary feminism is further asserted in Gaga’s usage of Sasha as nothing more than a tool to execute Gaga’s mission which replicates outdated assessments of feminist discourse that hinged on Black female objectivity in order to gain momentum.
Sasha’s relationship with Gaga not only implements a union of the mammy and matriarch but also the imagery of the jezebel. While Knowles and Sasha Fierce have both utilized their sexuality prior to Knowles’ collaboration with Gaga, the Gaga/Sasha pairing demonstrates the first time Sasha Fierce loses her autonomy to her video counterpart—a loss that reinforces white privilege. Within the family of Black stereotypes, the jezebel is the sexually aggressive Black woman. Not only does she use her sexuality to her advantage, but she is also a threat to patriarchy. The relationship between these images as they relate to sexuality shows the deviancy inherent within their representation and the need for control over her body. Patricia Hill-Collins speaks to this when she states:
“Because jezebel or the hoochie is constructed as a woman whose sexual appetites are at best inappropriate and, at worst, insatiable, it becomes a short step to imagine her as a ‘freak.’ And if she is a freak, her sexual partners become similarly stigmatized. For example, the hypermasculinity often attributed to Black men reflects beliefs about Black men’s excessive sexual appetite. Ironically, jezebel’s excessive sexual appetite masculinizes her because she desires sex just as a man does. Moreover, jezebel can also be masculinized and once again deemed ‘freaky’ if she desires sex with other women.”19
As Hill-Collins points out, the jezebel’s masculinity only reinforces the dependency of binaries for race, gender, and sexuality. She goes on to state, “[the jezebel’s] insatiable sexual desire helps define the boundaries of normal sexuality.”20 The appearance, as well as the meaning, of these images are crucial to understanding Sasha’s performance in this video. Not only is Sasha an object for Gaga to use, she is the very being the Gaga is dependent upon in order to accomplish her goals. If Gaga begins to control the plan which Sasha has released her autonomy onto, she becomes the controlling force. Thus, Gaga’s control combined with the controlling images of Black womanhood must examine color as it relates to control.
Control is at the heart of this video’s plot. While Gaga is fighting for control, she is dependent upon Sasha’s release of control. The controlling forces of these images aid in the destruction of masculinity, including Black masculinity. Immediately following this scene, the viewer watches as Sasha poisons Tyrese Gibson, because she “knew he’d take all [her] honey.” Sasha fails to realize instead that it was Gaga who took all her honey. While Gaga was referring to male trust being broken during their drive, the trust between white women and Black women was being broken to advocate on behalf of self-interest. The video suggests men are incapable of having feminist interests; instead, that Gaga and Sasha have more political interests in common. Not only does “Telephone” assert what a feminist looks like, it also assumes the relationships between Black [heterosexual] men and women operate in a similar fashion, with similar histories as white [heterosexual] men and women. Patriarchy has affected men and women differently depending on their racial positionality. Andrea Hunter and Sherrill Sellers, a psychologist and sociologist, did a study on feminist attitudes among African American women and men. Their findings conclude, “African American men’s conceptualizations of manhood indicated an endorsement of equality, justice, and free will in the public arena that was not gender specific.”21 Gaga’s video essentializes manhood and refuses to take into consideration racial inequities that divide men; in the same way it refuses to address the inequities that divide women, particularly Black and white women. The pop feminism both Gaga and Sasha Fierce present is engaged with dismantling patriarchy, however Gaga’s plan uses the same tools as patriarchy only guided by women. These popularized, usually mythical, notions of feminism feed off an understanding that feminism is for women—white women, or those racing towards whiteness.
While Knowles naturally fits the declaration Childs’ made earlier about the jezebel typically being light-skinned, she also appears to have further lightened her skin for her Sasha Fierce performance. In the same token, Knowles has always been dependent upon her sexuality as it has been her biggest marketing tool. This suggests the introduction of Sasha Fierce presents the audience with a new image that amplifies control over Beyoncé’s sexuality while ignoring the historical implications it has. Given the jezebel has always been reserved for light skinned women, Knowles has chosen to further lighten her skin and present a new look. This look is what Dr. Kathryn Kane calls “whiteface”, whereby “people of color are encouraged, not mocked, for their attempts to act white.”22 Ultimately the viewer watches Sasha as she races towards whiteness. By whitewashing her presentation, Sasha Fierce erases the subjectivity Knowles once held as a chart-topping, semi-autonomous Black entertainer. The performance of whiteface by Sasha Fierce tells the audience inclusion into this pop feminism comes through the unity of a female identity, through the dismissal of one’s racial identity by non-white women, as well as an assimilation towards a Eurocentric aesthetic. Since the audience is not visualizing Sasha Fierce as Black, therein lie disconnection between the visual and any historical consciousness surrounding the imagery.
The physical aesthetic presented with Sasha’s performance is where colorblind racism becomes most salient. Not only does the audience23 see the merging of three stereotypical images, they also fail to recognize Sasha Fierce as a Black woman.24 Following the murder of all restaurant patrons unwilling to subscribe to their pop feminist tactics, Gaga and Sasha Fierce break off into a dance scene where both are dressed in American patriotic attire, which seemingly portray the image of Wonder Woman. Showcasing personas that have historically been European women is not a new approach for Knowles.25 However, her work typically created a balance of including interracial tributes to expand her brand to both Black and white markets.26 Besides the set-up of this dance scene reaffirming the presumed superiority of Gaga, through its positioning Sasha behind Gaga, Wonder Woman demonstrates Sasha’s performance of whiteface.
The encouragement to “act white” is seen in Sasha Fierce’s continual usage of popular white icons. In her “Video Phone” video, Sasha Fierce presents audiences with a new tribute—Bettie Page, one of old Hollywood’s the most famous pin-up girls. The cropped bangs, bright red lipstick and bikini tops are only a few of the commonalities between Fierce and Page’s look. The “Video Phone” video marks the beginning of a relationship where Sasha Fierce and Gaga are being looked at in relation to one another. Whereas, “Video Phone” shows a considerable difference in skin tone between the two figures, the “Telephone” video presents Gaga and Sasha as practically the same hue. Audiences do not see Gaga darkening her skin; instead they see Sasha/Knowles lightening hers. The “Wonder Woman scene” in Gaga’s “Telephone” video has a deeper meaning for Gaga and Sasha’s relationship. The outfit Sasha wears in this scene emulates the patriotic one-piece Lynda Carter wore in her best-known role, as Wonder Woman. However, the video fails to address there is a Black Wonder Woman—Princess Diana’s twin sister, Nubia.27 DC Comics introduced Nubia to the storyline to restore Diana’s powers that had temporarily vanished. The Diana/Nubia relationship overlaps with the video’s diner dance scene. Yet, just as Diana and Nubia had to fight for who the ‘real’ Wonder Woman was, so too do Gaga and Sasha. In the same way Nubia was used as a tool to restore Diana’s power to fight male-dominated oppression, Sasha’s utility to Gaga is presented in the same fashion. The dance scene provides the climax of the video where audiences see both characters together without their patriarchy plotting. While the hidden message of this scene is in the battle for power between white and Black womanhood, this moment presents the climatic moment of tension where Gaga and Sasha can appear as the video wants them to be seen—as sisters. This sisterhood becomes difficult when both women fail to acknowledge the racial differences that divide them. Just as the relationship between Wonder Woman and her sister Nubia was divided by power, so too is the dynamic between Gaga and Sasha. For both pairs of women, the bond of sisterhood employs the misusage of feminist ideals.
Feminism, as defined by bell hooks, is “the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men.”28 She goes on to state, “white women who dominate feminist discourse[s] today rarely question whether or not their perspective on women’s reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group. Nor are they aware of the extent to which their perspectives reflect race and class biases.”29 The collaboration between Gaga and Knowles fails to acknowledge hooks’ inclusive definition of feminism and chooses to interact with racialized notions of gender performance in interracial groupings to employ a pop feminism, that plays off of the popularized, stereotypical understandings of feminism.
The pairing of Gaga and Sasha Fierce, two popular culture phenomena, evokes a perverted understanding of feminism whereby gender performance is manipulated through sexuality to destroy male surveillance over female bodies. Their pop feminism becomes a caricature of feminism, whereby the implication is a “softer, sexier, less active feminism.”30 The images presented relate a more digestible version of the movement that is not threatening or scary. However, pop feminism can become especially dangerous when it manipulates or misinterprets the aims of feminism. Feminist differentialism highlights some of the misinterpretations of feminist discourse that have led to pop feminism. Elisabeth Badinter states:
“If equality was only a lure, they said, this was because differences were neither acknowledged nor taken into account. In order to be men’s equals, women had had to deny their female essence and turn themselves into pale imitations of their masters. In losing their identity, they experienced the worst of alienations and gave male imperialism, without knowing it, its ultimate victory.”31
Gender performance is an essential tool to feminism as it relates to the dichotomized categories of man and woman. Masculinity is the manufactured constituency of man’s essence, what defines his manliness.32 However, Badinter states, “Woman is measured by the yardstick of masculine perfection…Far from being conceived of as an absolute, masculinity, the quality of man, is at once relative and reactive. So that when femininity changes—generally when women try to redefine their identity—masculinity is destabilized.”33 Through the video’s focus on masculinity as it relates to Black womanhood, this video shows the contrapuntal nature of gender, race, and sexuality, whereby one is defined in its relation to another.
The pop feminism presented by Germanotta and Knowles through Sasha Fierce remains unconscious to the historical relevance of the images they relay. Their interpretations rely heavily on stereotypes of feminism, and perpetuate colorblindness. Through a lack of acknowledging the racial differences amongst women, the exploitation of a lesbian identity as well as Sasha’s performance of whiteface, the “Telephone” video promotes colorblindness through its pop feminism, suggesting race is insignificant to the pair’s sisterhood. Considering the anti-intellectual era generation Y is coming of age in, it remains extremely important to critically engage with the images being presented. The complex nature of theoretical frameworks, such as feminist theory or critical race theory, leaves the knowledge gained in these areas at unconscious levels for most. Gaga’s “Telephone” project asks people to stop calling into this theory because she is tired of thinking. Yet, it is only through a historical consciousness that a truly revolutionary model of liberation can be accessed—for everyone.
1 Bonilla-Silva discusses racism’s contemporary moment through an analysis that “assesses whites’ racial views today produce an artificial image of progress.” His usage of, what he calls, the racial structure will be pertinent to my argument. The racial structure is “the totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege.” Colorblindness perceivably has positive and negative outcomes depending on one’s position. Supporters of colorblindness see it as an act of equality that erases the racial difference in order to avoid privileging one race over another. This essay will focus on the critic’s stance, which tends to perceive colorblindness as an indirect act of oppression that involves overlooking the privileges already bestowed upon certain races over others.
2 See http://www.billboard.com/column-chartbeat/ask-billboard-beyonce-vs-gaga-vs-rihanna-1004094563.story#/column-chartbeat/ask-billboard-beyonce-vs-gaga-vs-rihanna-1004094563.story.
3 See Kaufman.
4 Throughout this essay, Beyoncé Knowles will be referred to as Sasha Fierce (Knowles’ recently announced alter ego which is also part of her latest album title) as this promotes the shift in Knowles’ tactics towards representation. The notions of feminism she presents significantly alter with the unveiling of her Sasha Fierce identity. Sasha Fierce is a break from the spatio-temporal positions Beyoncé Knowles’ political frameworks have held. Another way to think of it is, Knowles is the performer to which Sasha Fierce is the performance.
5 Dr. Kane’s usage of whiteface was mirrored off the understanding of blackface, only whereas “blackface allowed whites the chance to ‘act black’, (perpetuating racism as white people maintained control over the production of images) it coincided with movements that forcefully denied blacks that right to act out their projection of whiteness, an ‘act’ that was accompanied by social rewards.” Whiteface is, what she calls, a neoliberal multicultural twist on blackface traditions.
6 In “The Oppositional Gaze”, bell hooks states, “With the possible exception of early race movies, black female spectators have had to develop looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs our presence as absence, that denies the “body” of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white’” (119).
7 Valerius’ “The Souls of Black Girls” examines the affects media representations have on young women of color. In one scene, a young white girl makes the claim, “Beyoncé is practically one of us anyway.” Her statement advances my claim that neither Knowles nor Sasha is seen as Black given the way both are packaged.
8 Badinter, 97.
9 Clarke, 242.
10 Childs, 111-112.
11 Hill Collins, 69.
12 Childs, 21.
13 O’Grady, 152.
14 Atkinson, 1.
15 Hill-Collins, 75.
16 Ibid., 73-74.
17 Ibid., 75.
18 Ibid., 83.
19 Ibid., 83.
20 Sellers, 82.
21 Kane, 9.
22 Here ‘audience’ specifically refers to the viewing audience as well as Germanotta and Knowles. Considering the level of either’s consciousness in producing these images could not be measured, I feel they need to be included within the term audience.
23 See Valerius.
24 When Knowles was a member of Destiny’s Child, the trio addressed the lack of racial diversity on the television show “Sex and the City” in their music video for “Girl.” After Knowles went solo, she embodied a “Basic Instinct” Sharon Stone-esque scorned woman in her “Ring the Alarm” video.
25 One example is when Knowles famously quoted neo-soul artist Erykah Badu on her “BDay” album stating, “you can call Tyrone.” Another was when she interludes two of her songs on her “The Beyoncé Experience” tour with neo-soul artist Jill Scott’s “He Loves Me.” Neither of these artists have had the success Knowles has hard crossing over into mainstream (read: white) audiences.
26 The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia gives the storyline of Nubia as she relates to Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman, or Princess Diana, has a dark-skinned twin sister who was kidnapped at birth. Without any knowledge of one another, Diana won a contest allowing her to fight hate and oppression in Man’s World as Wonder Woman. The comparisons merge when reading Geoff Boucher’s interview with Knowles. She asserts it is time for a Black Wonder Woman, simulating the belief that America is beyond race.
27 Hooks, 26.
28 Ibid., 28.
29 Harris, 71.
30 Badinter, 23.
31 Ibid., 9.
32 Ibid., 9.