Stop Using Black Women as Accessories

I had planned to write about this subject after the whole “Miley Cyrus VMA performance” happened, but I only wrote half a draft and never finished it. In light of Lily Allen’s latest video, “Hard Out Here,” and my current inability to sleep, I figured I’d be at least try to be productive. So, that’s why I’m going to call out white women who use cultural appropriation for entertainment purposes at 3 AM!

To put it succinctly: stop using women of color as props or accessories. It’s really not that hard, I promise.

To elaborate: It’s become a trend this year for pop stars, specifically white women, to have women of color dancing around them. In Miley Cyrus’s case, I think it’s her attempt to look edgy or “urban” (she specifically asked for her songwriters to write a song for her that “just feels black“). In Lily Allen’s case, I think it’s an attempt at satire– but it’s poorly done.

It seems like Lily Allen is trying to be feminist. The video begins with Lily on an operating table, having liposuction done, and her doctors and (assumed) manager are criticizing her appearance. That’s an obvious critique of pop culture/the media with its intense scrutiny of women’s bodies. There are also lyrics like: “If I tell you about my sex life/ you call me a slut.” Great! I absolutely agree with you, people are too judgmental of women’s bodies! Sounds progressive, right?

Until you get to this part: “Don’t need to shake my ass for you/ ‘Cause I’ve got a brain.”

Then, throughout the video, she has women of color dancing and twerking around her. Read that last line again. Yeah. Doesn’t seem like she thinks too highly of the women in her video.

Also, wasn’t she literally just saying that you don’t support the judgement of women’s bodies and what they do with them?

It’s so frustrating to see a woman who clearly cares about women’s rights throwing women of color under the bus to suit her agenda. Shaming women for being feminine, or for being sexy, or for having fun, or for enjoying sex, or for being a sex worker, or really, anything like that, is not feminist. The idea that a woman who is sexy or dances are certain way isn’t intelligent is both completely untrue and also very offensive. Try to tell me that Nicki Minaj, a woman who enjoys being feminine and sexy, isn’t intelligent (even when her lyrics are witty, funny, and also rated as the best rap verse of the last five years). Even Nicki knows she’s being shortchanged (she’s said: “Knowing that I am lyrically better than most of the male rappers out there…Yes, I’m gonna say it. I don’t get the credit that I deserve.”). Weird, it’s almost like we hold women to a different standard than we hold men to!

But of course, not only do we hold women to a different standard than we hold men to, we also hold women of color to a different standard than we hold white women to. “Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus: The Racial Implications of Her VMA Performance” is a great piece that dissects this topic in light of Miley Cyrus’s recent performances. Cate (the author), says,

“And if you think that I’m grasping at straws, just look at the way that the media treats Miley and juxtapose it against how it treats Rihanna. This comparison is made often, and it continues to be relevant. It can be argued that Miley has almost literally remade herself in Rihanna’s image, and yet Rihanna continues to be attacked in the media for expressions of her lived culture, while Miley, who dresses up in black codifiers for profit, skates by. Miley is very literally trying on something that Rihanna has been doing for the better part of three years, and yet it only becomes acceptable when presented on a white body, playing into the long tradition of white artists stealing and/or appropriating from black artists and reaping the benefits.”

Miley’s VMA performance wasn’t the first time she was called out for using black women as props.

I know a lot of people are defending Lily Allen’s video, claiming it’s meant to satirize. However, just repeating an offensive action (in this case, having women of color dance around a white woman) doesn’t count as satire. What is different about Lily Allen’s objectification of black women vs Miley Cyrus’s, other than intent? A good satire of this phenomenon would be a black woman, surrounded by white women doing something stereotypically associated with white women (shopping, maybe?) and only emphasizing certain parts of their bodies. Or maybe it wouldn’t be. I don’t know, I’m not a professional satirist for a reason. All I know is that what Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus both did, regardless of intent, is not okay (because, surprise! Intent is not magic.). As soon as I finished writing this, I came across this post, breaking down the video scene by scene, which is very much worth a read.

Seriously, white ladies. It’s great when you use your platform to try and make a difference. But use that platform to be encouraging or trying to dismantle harmful power structures. Don’t use it to punch down.

At the end of her song, Lily Allen says, “Inequality promises/ That it’s here to stay.” You’re definitely right, Lily, especially when you’re helping to perpetuate that inequality.


Sarah is a feminist, atheist vegan with Crohn’s Disease, and she won’t shut up about any of those things. You really need to follow her on Twitter (and probably Google+, just to be safe).

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  1. I’m happy to see Lily Allen making music again. I think the song and the video is definitely supposed to be satire and critique of the trend, but I’m not sure how she could have communicated it better. For one, she has a more diverse group of dancers than I’ve seen with other white pop stars. So it isn’t wholly just black women, but does that make it better? Probably not. She could have left out the twerking and booty shaking entirely and that may have been for the best. Lyrically, it’s pretty spot on with its criticism and musically and it definitely has its jabs as well (autotune in the pre-chorus). Some scenes are down right offensive, but others have Lily and the dancers almost practically winking at the camera. Overall, it’s a catchy song, but disappointing. Lily almost gets it, but misses the mark for sure.

  2. I’m pretty sure intent does matter, especially in satire. It seemed to me that Lily Allen was specifically using the dancers in the video to make point, as she was when she wrote out in balloons a parody of Robin Thicke’s balloon writing in HIS video.

    In my opinion – open as always to challenge and dispute – the worst you can say is that the satire fell flat in places and didn’t work, but I think it’s a bit too much to accuse her of perpetuating the use of black women as props when when she is aiming her satire directly at that topic.

    1. Intent can matter sometimes, sure. But let’s say you’re walking down a hallway and someone else bumps into you and knocks you down a staircase, and you break your leg because of it. Sure, they didn’t mean to knock you down. But they did, and now your leg REALLY hurts. They can apologize and tell you they didn’t intend to do that…but does your leg feel any better because of their intent?

      Even if you don’t intend to be racist, your actions can still be racist, which actively hurts people of color.

      1. Until you get to this part: “Don’t need to shake my ass for you/ ‘Cause I’ve got a brain.”

        Then, throughout the video, she has women of color dancing and twerking around her. Read that last line again. Yeah. Doesn’t seem like she thinks too highly of the women in her video.

        That’s certainly one interpretation of those lyrics. Another interpretation is that she’s addressing the slut/prude double-standard – the men who will tell a particular kind of woman that being sexual means they are stupid. I mean, she does walk in front of a giant balloon sentence saying, “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy.” Do you think she was saying that because she thinks it’s true. It’s more likely she’s repeating what she has been told by the ‘you’ she addresses throughout the song.

        If she seriously meant that to apply to herself, that if she was really saying ass-shakers don’t have brains, I don’t think she would have shaken her ass right alongside the other dancers at numerous points in the video. That was my interpretation of the line, “And if you can’t detect the sarcasm/You’ve misunderstood”

  3. “It seems like Lily Allen is trying to be feminist.”

    I agree that she made a serious mistake, but this condescending attitude is just not okay.

    1. I was trying to express the idea that Lily Allen’s actions were probably motivated by the right intentions. I apologize if that came across wrong.

      1. Ah. So your original comment was probably motivated by the right intentions. :P

        I’m a bit sensitive about people being dismissive of pop artists. They’re as capable of complex, nuanced thought as anyone else. We wouldn’t dismiss the views of a female politician or scientist as “trying” to be a feminist. We shouldn’t do it to artists.

        1. Uh, at what point did I dismiss pop artists or suggest that they’re incapable of complex, nuanced thought? I love pop artists. I mentioned how much I love Beyonce in my first post here, and I also mentioned how Nicki Minaj is one of the most intelligent people in music today in this post. I also quoted a piece that’s very supportive of Rihanna. Obviously, I think pop artists are capable of lots of things. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have taken the time to criticize Lily Allen. I think she’s an intelligent woman & should be better than what she did in this video.

  4. I fall on the side of “Ironic or Satirical racism is still racism”. I like a few Lily Allen songs here and there, but despite what her intent was what she’s done here is still racist (in addition to slut-shamey with the bit about being too smart to shake her ass).

    1. I fall on the side of “Ironic or Satirical racism is still racism”.

      So just to be clear, are you saying that Blazing Saddles is racist? If so, I’m curious how it’s possible to lampoon bigotry without being accused of bigotry. (And if not, and I’ve misunderstood what you’re trying to say, then I apologise in advance.)

      1. In blazing saddles, the racisim isn’t the focal point of the jokes its the set up, it drives the plot to a punchline, for example the bell scene. The prospecter saying the n word isn’t whats funny; him being misunderstood as near is funny. Going to the music video its played straight, there is no punch line, they are twerking back up dancers.

  5. That’s always the difficulty with satire. There’s always the possibility you end up celebrating the thing you’re supposed to be against. Dave Chappelle quit when he realized he was “shuffling instead of dancing”. Some, like Andrew Dice Clay, run with it. It’s a shame because the Dice Man as satire is the only good thing about the movie “Casual Sex?”, I would have liked to see more of that.

    That being said, Miley is appropriating the culture of black women, benefiting from the fact that at the end of the day she won’t have to deal with any of the problems those black women have both personally and professionally for being black. Nothing new there. Lily Allen is trying to ride the backlash bandwagon. Since there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the big winner in all of this is still Miley Cyrus. Nothing all that new there either.

  6. “It seems like Lily Allen is trying to be feminist.”
    There’s no one way to be feminist. We need to be really careful about not developing elitist language that discourages rather than encourages young women to identify themselves as such.
    Personally I’m OK with satire. But your point’s taken.

    1. I agree that there isn’t just one way to be feminist. I’m also okay with satire. In fact, I love satire! My point is that this isn’t satire. It might be an attempt at satire, but it’s not.

      1. Hey Sarah! Glad to see you actively engaging in the people who comment on your posts. Just a question about this whole situation. Can you explain what separates a white woman who has dancers that happen to be non-white, from a white woman who uses non-white women as accessories? Is it in the choice of the manner of portrayal, or the number of non-white vs white women chosen? I would imagine that many white artists actively seek to include non-whites in their performances because of the fear that a lack of visibility could, in their eyes, be interpreted as exclusion, so how does one toe the line?

    2. There’s no one way to be a feminist, but if you’re ignoring intersectionality your feminism kinda sucks.. I know she’s been pretty much bombarded today by various black feminist trying to explain to her how it’s racist (although it’s certainly not their job to constantly teach white people about racism), but thus far she’s stood by it. Hopefully she takes the feedback to heart.

    1. Allen’s comedy has always pushed to the limits of bad taste. Therefore the short answer is not a one-off. Remember she was the one who recorded the song “F*#k you very much.” Original comedy and satire are very difficult and “dangerous” in that if you fail, you really hit the wall. Making an effort to push people’s buttons increases the chances of satire going wrong. Or right. I fully realize there exists no equivalency here, but Jonathan Swift’s “Modest proposal” upset a lot of people it his day. I’m not trying to elevate Allen’s work to the same level as Swift’s, just trying to introduce some perspective. Satire that does not offend somebody fails too. It’s a tightrope act.

      (Off topic aside: what does it say about me or the world that I thought it necessary to add the “Jonathan” in front of the “Swift” after proof-reading because I was worried someone might think I was talking about “Taylor Swift?”)

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