Gazing critically at feminism’s flaws — and Lily Allen’s video

Lily Allen. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for RedBull)
Lily Allen. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for RedBull)

My colleague, Ruth Tam, seems to think that the criticism of Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video amounts to little more than unnecessary nitpicking. That calling Allen out for her hypocritical imagery is going to result in the death of feminist goals by a thousand haterade-flavored cuts.

There’s just no way to make us happy, is there?

This isn’t just about cutting one seemingly well-intentioned feminist some slack. This is about calling out feminists using black bodies as sexual avatars (Allen said she covered up due to a lack of bravery and an abundance of cellulite), while disregarding how those images perpetuate the idea that black women are the Other.

Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound very feminist to me.

Black women are not here to be used as collateral damage in the fight against patriarchy. We’re smart, resourceful, capable allies, but that stunt Allen pulled is not ok, and hiding behind the explanation of “satire” is weaksauce, because this happens over and over and over.

Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video caught flack for featuring black backup dancers as props. It ended up undermining Allen’s protest against sexism in the music industry. But she’s hardly the only person in hot water for taking ill-advised liberties with black women’s bodies this week. Enter Pamela Noland, a self-proclaimed artist who thought it would be cute to feature a photoshopped image of a naked Oprah Winfrey on a dress she’s selling. Supposedly, it’s “philosophical.” Outraged blogger Luvvie Ajayi disagrees (link NSFW). I can’t say I blame her. Perhaps Noland should have drawn her inspiration from Cindy Sherman and featured photographs of herself.

With “friends” like Allen, Caitlin Moran, Florence Welch, Gwen Stefani (yes, Stefani’s Harajuku girls were Asian. Still props. Still unacceptable), and Noland, who needs enemies, amiright?

Feminism is not infallible. It is not some impermeable, unyielding umbrella, shielding society from the evils of patriarchy while remaining immune to critique. Treating it as such does a disservice to all feminism supposedly aims to help.

Feminism does aim to help black women, right?

This recurring argument is why so many women of color have thrown up their hands in fatigue and labeled themselves as womanists. Others have decided to forego labels entirely in the fight for gender equality. This is why #solidarityisforwhitewomen exists.

Part of the reason why I identify so strongly and so loudly as feminist is because I’m not here for a brand of feminism that either ignores or shouts down intersectionality. Women of color are not the radical insurgents of feminism. We are a legitimate force within it and we demand to be recognized as such.

This is about black women standing up and saying, “Hey, we’re here. Our experiences are valid and carry just as much weight. We’re not here to be used as props for white women, or anybody.” It’s not ok to excoriate Miley Cyrus for using black women as props in her act and then turn around and praise Allen for doing exactly the same thing.

Calling out missteps within the the feminist community is important. It doesn’t weaken it. The moment we stop gazing critically at a movement based on parity and inclusion is the moment it becomes self-important and myopic. I don’t want to see that happen because there’s too much at stake. Feminism’s goals are far too important for that.

Read Ruth Tam’s take on Lily Allen’s video.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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Joann Weiner · November 15, 2013