Standing to My Left and My Right: The Limits of Music Video Feminisms

Music has long been a fueling component to political struggle. That one of fully recognizing the personhood of women is no exception. And this is what I find profoundly intriguing about singer Willow Smith. A music video she released last year presented a challenging mix that was both representative of a tradition of contemporary black female artists who can effectively use the format to communicate their experiences as females and a simple visual moment that spoke volumes about the challenges facing contemporary women’s liberation–at least the visual presentation of it–in present state of advanced and collapsing capitalism.  That asserting one’s independent, female self means you will be by yourself.

It’s not a new message, that one of self-love. But the vehicle, of an 11-year old female celebrity, who declares it amidst a (arguably) boyish presentation of herself is unique. The video’s simple style and message gets complicated once put in the real-world context of who Willow Smith actually is–the daughter of celebrity royalty, as Jada Pinkett and Will Smith’s daughter. With shorter hair, the resemblance to her father is more than striking. She looks like a miniature Will Smith. And yet there’s an important message she’s trying to communicate about her desire to not have limits placed on what her outer appearance ought to be, very much in line with an intentional move on her and her team’s part to present and perform as a powerful, brilliant, creative, independent black girl. If that’s not a feminist act, I don’t know what is.

And it is still a music video. Like other media formats, it has limits. And, why wouldn’t it? Music videos were initially conceived as visual entities to promote recording artists and sell units. Period. For artists who are female, this has created a structure where, in order to use the promote themselves, they must present themselves in a way that sells. They must be made attractive.  Though this predated the music video, the video codified it, and an entity like YouTube has created endless potential for consumption.

It’s more than a little complicated to talk women’s liberation in the framework of a music video. With the emergence of the Internet, and the unlimited potential of music and image sharing, we are fairly removed from the days of media outlets like Viacom owned MTV, BET, and VH1 being at the center of discussions about music videos. But the argument that something’s being sold still has to be a part of our understanding of music videos.

That’s what we’re working with. The sentiments of any video that espouses feminism in any way have to be understood in this vein. This is true, even with the advent of social media that puts the videos much more in the hands of consumers, who can watch on demand. As such, it isn’t such a causal relationship between music video and units sold. It’s a much more webbed relationship. And yet, there has been a regular stream of black female music artists who have slipped in themes of empowerment and liberation within these vehicles where they ultimately are trying to sell not just their music, but themselves as product. What’s compelling about a Willow Smith video is the extent to which her visual contribution to this tradition appear to be a troubling indictment of what the new terrain is for women’s liberation.

Currently, the black female music video landscape–in which we are always trying to grapple with our female lives–appears to consist of women who taken a decidedly anti-female stance rather than actually challenge men or structures of sexism. To adopt the logic of male domination and female inferiority–a far cry from Queen Latifah’s UNITY:

The feel of the video reveals every bit of the nearly 20 years that have passed. Still, I know the lyrics by heart. Defiant, Latifah spits out almost every lyric to the jazz saxophone backdrop (emblematic of that period in hip hop that seamlessly finds it way into the theme song of her hit television show at that time) and demands respect for women within the framework of a song who’s title addresses the separation that sexism wields between women and men. Not bad. Not surprisingly, however, to execute this message with conviction, she has to do it within the confines of bravado, power, and threats.

Latifah, like any black female performer (or any performer for that matter) can’t necessarily be seen in that vacuum, particularly in that time period; the theme music of Living Single is clear:

“My homegirls, standing to left and my right/True blue, it’s tight like glue”

It’s an ethos missing from many current strains of “girl power” music, much of it infectious, but nearly all of it devoid of a sense of sisterhood, and a joyous at that. This isn’t to disregard a video like Destiny Child’s Girl, which is as much a celebration of all things opulent as girl “power.”  Central to their (and Beyonce’s individual) visual presentation has always been to look good while you’re doing it.

That very idea of looks, however, isn’t a benign entity when we’re talking about images intended for mass disemination. And what limits the liberatory potential of Beyonce and Destiny Child’s women’s agenda is an adherence to a visual which has been used to globally oppress and diminish women. So much of our internal and external realities as females is consumed with our external appearance. Theorist Guy DeBord once wrote of the image being the pinnacle of advanced capitalism, and it is that image that has continued to be a crucial tool of sexist institutions, in ways both overt and subtle, from the beautification industries to marriage. Overly sexualized images of women in hip hop and R&B videos informed India.Arie’s song Video, released over ten years ago. Though it stood primarily as an oppositional response, it is hard to deny it’s importance, particularly at that time.  Like Willow’s video, there is the message of standing up to the images as a single-entity rather than a “crew.”

Indeed, music video feminisms appear to be limited to being sexy savants who can have it all, and run the world, or oppositional and fighting for a profoundly basic desire to be who you are. Each is actually an important concept–but within the vehicle of media intended to sell music, they adhere to some of the very pillars of our economic system that make exploitation possible–that idea of domination or that of isolation. The idea of a joyous, united sisterhood of women, regardless of look, shape and class, fighting united for our collective liberation, isn’t likely to be presented in a mainstream music video.

Whitney Houston, of all people, came close.

I’m haunted by Whitney’s voice and memories I’ve attached to her and her music. By how her fame and wealth, compounded with being female and black ultimately lead to the fact and nature of her death.  No one says it quite that way, but when I think of reading somewhere her corpse belied the remnants of a famous woman who had the means to do the sorts of things to your body that you can do when you got money and time like that. Like old boob jobs, whitened teeth. Stuff like that. I imagine her dying alone in that bathtub and am wracked with mental juxtapositions of what I’ve long decided is my favorite song of hers.

It’s emblematic of that 90s house inspired dance music…the build up of tension in the beginning before all hell breaks loose and the real beat starts. There’s even a very young TLC (who absolutely shouldn’t be left out of any discussion about music video feminisms) dancing gleefully with scores of other black women and girls. Dancing like we do. Voguing and posing. Just being delightfully and unabashedly female.  I want to get up and dance most every time I hear this version of Chaka Khan’s classic.

I think this video should inform Willow’s next one.

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