17 June 2011

White d00ds Posing as Queer WOC—or, postmillennial hipness strikes again

In this post, I want to talk about several recent phenomena that I think are, if not best, at least usefully interpreted through the lens of my concept “postmillennial (black) hipness”. These phenomena include the “Gay Girl in Damascus” fiasco, as well as the official video to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” and several disparate discussions of raced and gendered appropriation in music.

First, I’ll review what I mean by “postmillennial hipness”:

I’ve posted about postmillennial hipness before on this blog. You can find a more extensive (and academic) discussion of hipness in my article published online at Contemporary Aesthetics. With all this previously published material, I’ll be very brief here. All forms of hipness share a logic: a (relatively) privileged subject identifies with and appropriates (relatively) less privileged/more marginalized identities; the hip subject dis-identifies with some mainstream/norm in order to prove his (or her, sometimes, but mainly his) elite status over and above other relatively privileged subjects. So, for example, white d00ds appropriate stereotypical black masculinity in order to both (1) dis-identify with “square” white culture, and thereby (2) demonstrate their superiority over other, “normal” white d00ds. Postmillenial hipness is an attempt to dis-identify with a newly mainstreamed and normalized image of ghetto black masculinity. So, while traditional hipness is an attempt to disidentify with mainstream white masculinity, postmillennial hipness recognizes that black masculinity is no longer necessarily oppositional. In a context where hip hop is mainstream Top 40 pop, where Ice Cube stars in family comedies and Ice-T has been on Law & Order SVU than he was ever a rapper, and the president publicizes the fact that he likes Jay-Z’s music because this is a more or less uncontroversial, safe choice, “hard” or “ghetto” black masculinity is no longer necessarily or inherently oppositional. It is itself the mainstream. So, in order to dis-identify with this now normative construction of black masculinity, white and black men identify with even less-advantaged identities—mainly non-Western women of color. We see this in artist Shepard Fairey’s early 2000s prints of radicalized non-Western WOC, we see this in Kanye West’s identifications with non-African-American femininities and WOC, and we see this in white Western straight male bloggers trying to pass themselves off as queer non-Western WOC.

“Gay Girl in Damascus” as postmillennial hipness.

Many, many others have written about this and related incidents. Most accounts correctly identify the desire among these white Western straight male bloggers to reinforce their “oppositional cred”. Brian Spears, quoted on Colorlines, explains it pretty clearly and directly:

…I understand how tough it is to get oneself noticed above the din of all the other while male voices out there. We’re so numerous and seemingly unrestrained in our desire to talk about the world at large that sometimes it’s disheartening.

As Spears so clearly puts it, these white d00d bloggers are trying to demonstrate their exceptional status among other, “normal” white Western straight d00d bloggers. And, as many, many others have also noted, the effect of these sorts of appropriations is the silencing of actual non-Western WOC, both queer and hetero. I’m not going to analyze these incedents in any more detail, because others have done this more exhaustively and attentively than I can afford to. However, I do want to suggest that postmillennial hipness is a vauable framework through which to interpret this whole mess. It tells us both why these d00ds do it, and what is harmful about it.

OK, on to Beyonce, with some relatively unpolished initial thoughts:

I’ve written before on “Run the World (Girls),” but I’ve been careful to distinguish the song from its official video. That’s because I think the song signifies in ways beyond the limitations of the video. Many have commented on its orientialism. I’m not going to re-hash the commentary. I want instead to offer an alternative lens for analyzing its appropriations of vaguely non-Western styles and identities. Beyonce, as an African-American woman, is appropriating the styles of radicalized non-Western men and women of color. In other words, whereas postmillennial hipness is most often the province of d00ds, here we have an instance where an American woman of color is appropriating other femininties and masculinities of color in an attempt to demonstrate her superiority over other…who? Seriously, African-American femininity is a privileged, hegemonic norm where? Maybe in R&B, or the entertainment business…maybe. It could be a generational thing: African-American female artists dis-identify with hegemonic representations of black female artists because those are seen as tired and dated. So, Niki Minaj does some Harajuku Barbie orientalism to distinguish herself from Lil Kim, just as Beyonce dons some Beyond the Thunderdome regalia to distinguish herself from…herself, 10 years ago? I think there is certainly something to be said about the relatively privileged place of a multimillion-earning African-American women vis-à-vis men and women in Sudan, Congo, and other African conflict zones. BUT, I still think putting an American woman of color in the position of the hip appropriator changes the logic of hipness somewhat. It might not change the fact that the non-Western POC she’s appropriating are silenced or instrumentalized, but it does make the logic more complex than when it’s a man doing the appropriating.

Moreover, I think we can distinguish Beyonce’s postmillennial hipness from those practiced by white women. The Crunk Feminists have a great post “On Kreayshawn and the Utility of Black Women.” Here, CFs argue that Kreayshawn appropriates stereotypical black masculinity as a way to disidentify with both white and black femininity. This is more like the traditional 20th c logic of hipness, except instead of a white dude doing the appropriating, it’s a white woman. While Kreayshawn is consistently instrumentalizing women and men of color, Beyonce’s case is more complicated: it’s not just about race, it’s also about empire and the use of African-American music as a dimension of American/Western “globalized” imperialism.

I really, really, REALLY need to think more thoroughly and carefully about these women’s (Minaj, Knowles, Kreayshawn) uses of postmillennial hipness. But, I’ll throw this out there hoping for some feedback to guide my ongoing work.

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