Upon a few hours of trying to process reports of offensive remarks that popular musician John Mayer made in the current issue of Playboy magazine, I tried coming up with a few clever Facebook status-updates, my favorite being that Mayer sorely needed a Racism and Sexism course. (I didn’t publish that, but I still think it’s true) Though a pornographic magazine is the (very overlooked) context for all of his statements about who he’s had sex with, how it was, and who he won’t–there remain key issues in this media event.
Superficially, it’s another example of a celebrity making a “gaffe” on race, (which never gets old) getting caught up in it, “apologizing” for it, melting down, having a moment of “clarity“.
But on another level, it’s a particularly vivid example of the freedom, if you will, afforded him, as young, white, heterosexual, and male, to freely espouse his sexual proclivities, debase women period, race be damned, claim identification with black people, promptly get hated on, have a breakdown, and in the end, remind us that he “just wants to play his guitar.” And in a span of 48 hours, no less.
The racism of his sexual aversion to black women, I’d argue, is coupled with the sexist entitlement abound in his retelling of the sexual details of his relationships with Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston, who as blonde-haired white women, already receive a particularly stifling type of media treatment. That entitlement helps explain why he was able to candidly explain the types of black women he’s attracted to, and even debase women, like actor Kerry Washington, whom he’s never had a sexual relationship with.
Without even reading his entire Playboy interview, the widely-publicized excerpts are textbook examples of intersections of racism, sexism and male domination–comparing his penis to white supremacist David Duke, crude as it is, is simultaneously as clear as many of Mayer’s most popular songs.
Global media culture has long thrived off of narrowly defined notions of who’s racist (white men only) and who’s sexist (black men only) vis a vis characters like a Don Imus or Ludacris. So when Mayer, someone outside of those types, who has built a career and image solidly as a non-threatening and introspective artist, acts out, we take notice. For those paying any attention, it’s an important moment that should have us recognize the myriad of ways that domination can be made visible.
Part of what’s critical about Mayer’s moment is that even after speaking as he did, he will be allowed to use that image as his cover. This is where nearly all public “apologies” are rendered useless–as a comedian once remarked, “He’s just sorry he got caught.” What’s really evident is that the entitlement of racism and sexism will enable John Mayer to “breakdown”, come to “terms” with his transgressions and return to modest guitar-playing.
But will Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, and Kerry Washington be allowed a (public) breakdown? I doubt it.