The public response to Taylor Swift’s most recent video, ‘Shake It Off’ (the first single off her new album), has garnered the kind of response that has become sadly typical in today’s social media setting where internet trolls looking to generate traffic for their websites and get followers for their Twitter accounts rely on shocking, polarizing and frankly ignorant comments to create frenzy and get attention. Swift’s video is not one I find particularly entertaining, and the music is not the kind of fair I enjoy, but the claims that the video is ‘racist’ only serve to show how many still insist in suggesting that particular cultural phenomena exists in a vacuum that certain ethnicities have exclusive rights to engage in conversations about them. What Swift’s video is ultimately about is shattering stereotypes, not reinforcing them, and suggesting that people don’t typically fit the mould others might project onto them.
The video is a montage of a variety of dancing styles. There are several specific groups dancing: an all-white group of ballerinas in costume, an ethnically diverse group of ballet dancers both male and female, ethnically diverse group of break-dancers, an ethnically diverse group of cheerleaders, an ethnically diverse group of ‘twerkers’, an ethnically diverse group of musical performers, and an ethnically diverse group of female gymnasts performing with ribbons. The focus, though, has been almost strictly on the women of colour in the ‘twerking’ group. To suggest that this is ‘racist’ is problematic because it takes a single frame out of a longer work and then projects a different context onto it, manipulating its meaning. In context, the video suggests that women of multiply ethnicities can indulge in any form of dance. Women of colour, for instance, can be in ballet, cheerleading, breakdancing, or gymnastics, as can the ‘white’ women who dance with them. This is not pigeonholing a specific ethnicity to a specific kind of dance, and the fact that women of multiple ethnic backgrounds are dancing in each form together encourages a breaking of barriers and a unity that transcends ‘colour’.
Given that Miley Cyrus has recently been accused of cultural appropriation with her incessant twerking, I understand the temptation to frame this in a similar context, but the issue is that some are looking at this in Cyrus’s context and not Swift’s. I realize all these white female pop stars look alike, but there are differences. A prime example of the problems with such conflations is Twitterer @earlxsweat. He tweeted that he hasn’t “watched the taylor swift video” and that he doesn’t “need to watch it to tell you that it’s inherently offensive and ultimately harmful” (sounds like Spike Lee talking about Tarantino’s Django Uncahined). He also doesn’t believe in uppercase letters, but I respect his choice to abstain from uppercase letters for the post-modern challenge academia’s prescriptions on language that it is. The content of the tweet, however, is a classic case of prejudice as the person literally has prejudged a video without watching it, concluding that it is harmful and offensive. I would suggest prejudging something is offensive and harmful, but that’s just me. As to the video, I have several questions for @earlxsweat: Is it harmful to promote a diverse array of women of colour who engage in gymnastics and ballet side-by-side with women of other ethnicities? Is it harmful and offensive to promote unity among different ethnicities? And to portray women of colour in a variety of settings rather than pigeonholing them to urban dance exclusively? I would suggest not. But @earlxsweat suggests the video is “perpetuating black stereotypes”. How? Is placing a woman of colour in ballet perpetuating a stereotype? Does this then make Beyoncé guilty or perpetuating stereotypes of women of colour with videos for songs like ‘Bootylicious‘ and ‘All the Single Ladies’ that features women of colour dancing? The truth of the matter is that in the same week that Swift released a video portraying an ethnically diverse groups of women performing diverse styles of dance, Nicki Minaj (who I love) released her video for her song ‘Anaconda‘ the same week and has almost double the views whilst featuring only women of colour doing nothing but twerking. Which of the two women should be accused of promoting stereotypes of women of colour? I wouldn’t suggest neither woman is. I would suggest that both women are expressing themselves as they choose. However, to suggest that Swift is guilty of this without mentioning Minaj seems unfair.
One of the problems inherent in accusing the video of being racist and promoting stereotypes is that it serves to insult the autonomy of the dancers in the video. There are a number of women of colour in the video who have chosen to participate in the video. To suggest the women of colour who twerk are promoting stereotypes is to reduce the manner in which they express themselves as nothing more than a stereotype and not an artistic expression. It also suggests that these women were either cognitively incapable of realizing that they were being ‘exploited’ to promote stereotypes, or that they allowed themselves to be complicit in promoting stereotypes about their own ethnicity in exchange for a paycheck. Either way, this is an extremely insulting assumption that is inherent in such a claim. In the broader context of the video, it also serves to ignore the women of colour performing ballet and gymnastics and suggests that their efforts to express themselves in a manner outside of urban dance is a promotion of the stereotypes they so clearly transcend. If one watches this video and suggests it promotes stereotypes, it either suggests that the viewer was willfully blind to the performances of these other women, or that they dismiss the performance of these women as being inferior and not challenging the stereotypes, but rather reinforcing them. That seems overtly critical of the clear talent that was on display in the video.
In terms of framing Swift in the video, it is clear that she is an outsider in every group she engages with other than the musicians. Yahoo reports that Pitchfork and Rookie editor Jessica Hopper (whoever she is) argues that the confused ‘smirk’ Swift offers when crawling under the Twerkers “highlights the chasm between the guileless white pop star” and other ethnicities, but this fails to take into consideration the context of the rest of the video. In the closing scene, Swift falls down amidst a group of white ballerinas, demonstrating that she is equally an outsider in this groups as well. She is likewise unable to keep up with the choreographed moves of the cheerleaders. Swift is not only ‘guileless’ among women from other ethnicities, she is even more guileless among people of her own ethnic. So while Jillian Maples suggests that Swift is a “basic bitch who might ask a woman of colour” to teach her to twerk, Hopper and Maples both seem to miss or willfully ignore that Swift’s character in the video also fails at ballet and cheerleading and that there are actually ‘white’ girls twerking in the video as well. The video is not about promoting stereotypes, but rather about how individuals struggle to define their identity against the groups with whom they interact. The video is likewise as statement about the performative nature of culture, which is likewise part of the reason that Australian recording artist Iggy Azalea has likewise been the victim of unfair criticism related to cultural appropriation. In each group, be it the ballet, cheerleading, gymnastics , or the urban dancing, there is a diverse group of people from varying ethnicities that excel in the manner in which they have chosen to express themselves, both in terms of dance and dress. Perhaps this notion of culture as performance is offensive to some, but the bottom line is that America no longer the melting pot it once aimed to be, but a patchwork of ethnic identities that everybody engages with and borrows from. American music, and dance, and art is like a potluck where people from every part of the world have brought pieces of their identity and everybody leaves with a piece of what everybody else brought to share. To take offense to this is to reinforce constructed barriers and is an attempt to maintain ethnic divides and the barriers of perceived race.
The video is a mosaic of culture where each person, regardless of skin colour, choses the form of expression that best suits them as an individual, and to show this, Swift, in character, travels through each group trying to find one the works in concert with her own essence. It is an existentialist journey, just not a nihilistic one. Far from promoting stereotypes based on perceived race, the video is trying to transcend them by offering representations of diverse forms of expression with a diverse group of artists. To suggest that the video is ‘racist’, it to demonstrate that one has no understanding of the word, or of the intent of the video. It is a lazy, reactionary response to a video that, whilst perhaps not entirely original or innovative, has a progressive and inclusive intentions. If somebody wants to piss on that, then it is clear they are more interesting in reinforcing issues of perceived race and not working toward a solution, or that they simply are will to act the part of hate monger to generate traffic for their websites.
All that said, Kayne was right… Beyoncé’s had one of the best videos of all time !
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