Bodies, Power & Caribbean Feminists on Lily Allen’s Hard Out There

There’s a very vibrant Caribbean feminist cybersphere of networked bloggers, #catchafyah twitterati, activists, academics and members of online feminist communities. And we’ve been generating quite a bit of chatter about the Lily Allen video (and the larger issues which it presents).

Amina shared the video stating:

damn though. i used to be ALL for lily allen…then this…Black women (and our asses) of course as accessories

Barefoot Contessa responded that she felt the lyrics were feminist and the video a parody and asked for others to contribute:

Amina, i got the impression that she was playing on the stereotype of Black women as “video girls” and the video acts as a kind of parody, no? the lyrics are overtly feminist.

Charissa explained that:

I was extremely put off by the lyric: “Don’t need to shake my ass for you, cause I’ve got a brain” while they showed lewd close ups of the black girl twerking. What does she mean by that?

Is she mocking Miley for appropriating hip hop culture or is she mocking her for wanting to be be like those “stupid bitches”…..AKA WoC? To me, it seems like she’s elevating herself at the expense of black women. Why are we back to this binary all of a sudden? Why is it always assumed that women when BW dance overtly sexually it’s objectifying and for the male gaze? Weren’t people JUST defending Miley’s twerking as ~sexual expression~ and calling out slut shamers. Does the slut shaming analysis just NOT apply to black women in mainstream feminism? Hm.

Tonya drew reference to Lily Allen’s ridiculous defense of the video:

big dutty stinkin stupse @Lily Allen & at being forced to discuss miley cyrus against my will :). please tell Lily Allen that there is no such thing as chronic cellulite. there is chronic illness, chronic fatigue, chronic pain but cellulite is just fat and yes, some people love to see it. Lily Allen did a satirical piece about how hard it is for white women in the music industry & how easy it is to cast black women as props who shake their asses for lack of a brain that would permit them to do anything else. Clearly, there is more than one way to “eat the Other”.

Patrice questioned Lily’s ally currency:

does Lily Allen have the “ally currency” to do this? Has she done enough work and shown enough solidarity with Black women’s struggles so that it would be obvious to all and sundry that this is satirical and she is making a commentary on the use Black women’s bodies in music videos? Yes? No? Because it looks to me like she is simply using Black women as props to make a point.

Tonya replied:

She said the women were not selected because they were black. this had nothing to do with race. it was a twerking meritocracy & black women just happened to win out. you can ask them. Lilly Allen provided their twitter handles so you could do just that. she also said she would have been right there in a thong twerking with the raceless top-tier twerkers but she cannot twerk (she tried!) and she suffers from chronic cellulite which no one would want to see. ally currency or not, she and miley cyrus share the same political consciousness (or lack thereof). the only difference is that Lily Allen seems genuinely surprised that ALL women aren’t collectively high-fiving her.

Debra pointed out that the theme of the song was pretty played out. Done already and better by others:

this theme has been tackled by other artists who did not need to rely on fetishizing black women’s bodies to make their point. Why do I feel that Pink did the same theme only better and without this fetishization of black women’s bodies thinly disguised as satire?

WomenSpeakPro felt that we were somewhat hypocritical in directing all the criticism at the Lilys and Mileys of the world when black women themselves self-objectify:

this is different from rihanna’s video how exactly? I get what you’re saying to a point but then is it ok for a black women to perpetuate this same kind of sexual fetishisation of black women? I have to say I find all these videos including the Miley bruhaha to be quite boring. Is this news? That women get naked for publicity? That black women are degraded in videos? I have lost my sense of outrage a long time ago. Can we blame women for selling sexuality in a world where it is their most sell-able asset? And if we are to be outraged about this prostitution, who are we asking to make it all better?

Patrice responded that Rihanna makes no claims to self-righteous social justice critique:

This is different to a Rihanna video because Lily is attempting to be enlightened, social justice oriented and empowering to women and, in the process of doing so, perpetuates the same dynamic she overtly claims to be fighting against, thereby demonstrating that her feminist struggle does not include the empowerment of Black, female bodies and highlighting the racial chasm that can exist in feminist discourse when it ignores intersectionality .

Rihanna’s videos make no such claim.

Tonya suggested that not all black women’s performances should be read in a unitary way:

i’m not at all against women’s sexual expression through dance. i find wukking up to be one of life’s greatest pleasures. i objected to the self-congratulatory tone of Allen’s vid especially as it relied on the same eating of the other as Miley’s did. bell hooks offers the concept of eating the other to account for both the consumption of black bodies by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy AND the ways in which white people deflect their own sexual desires onto black bodies. nonetheless, that does not mean that that is the only way in which black women’s sexual performance is to be read. our performances may be queer, transgressive, liberating or just plain pleasurable. despite the fact that our bodies are always already marked by race, gender, class etc does not negate our capacity for agency. Another writer noted that in Rihanna’s pour it up she identifies with the strippers rather than objectifiying them or assuming a masculinist gaze. I think this is an important reading that demonstrates that black women’s performance cannot be all read in a single way. and that there is a difference between being a performer in your own right and being a stand-in for some white woman’s sexual maturity.

Debra pointed out that what was at issue was:

I think the point is this video claims to be a statement against the objectification of women’s bodies and against the exploitation of said bodies for the purpose of capital while ironically doing the same. Its aims of high satire fall flat when you dissect its images and when you think about how power works. The satire also falls flat when you take a closer look at the images and read the lyrics of the song and see the inconsistencies. I can’t speak to Rihanna because for the most part I do not look at her videos. She is just as enmeshed in the music industrial complex as Allen and Cyrus. The only difference is she isn’t trying to mask this with some lame attempt at satire.

Lina was adamant that she had better things to do than discuss Lily Allen. And one young Caribbean blogger took issue with the distinction between issues that were deemed worthy of Caribbean feminist attention and those that were not.

I put this post together because I was dissatisfied with the way in which Sociological Images chose to report audience responses to the video.  I found their approach to be uncritical, apologetic, sympathetic even and extremely weak on the analysis of race and power.  After seeking permission I made this “private” conversation among Caribbean feminists a public commentary that goes beyond the Lily Allen video to think about black women’s sexual expression in the face of social relations of power of gender, race, class, among others.

Big Up Batty Mamzelle for excellent commentary always. Our convo would not have been the same without it.

Shout out to WOMANTRA, the Caribbean feminist online community that hosted this conversation.

Ayesha Siddiqi breaks it all down beautifully. From Allen’s cheap jabs at consumerism in hip hop culture to her implicit blaming of black women for the misogyny in the music industry.

2 thoughts on “Bodies, Power & Caribbean Feminists on Lily Allen’s Hard Out There

  1. Dani says:

    Please forgive my lack of coherence or eloquence here, especially compared to the posts above me, but I’d still like to make this point:

    One of the biggest misinterpretations of the song and video is that line about arse-shaking. She says “Don’t need to shake my arse for you ’cause I’ve got a brain.” There’s a difference between wanting to shake your arse for your own pleasure and feeling like you need to, in order to please other people and gain any value in their eyes. That’s what she’s getting at. The video covered the ways a lot of women are exploited and objectified in the music industry, namely the obsession with women’s bodies. Women feel the need to diet and stay extremely thin, and people are fixated disproportionately on black arses when it comes to twerking. The executives themselves (exemplified by the old white dude in a suit in the video instructing the girls on how to dance) don’t want to show women doing anything but being sexual.

    To be clear, I don’t think Lily is actively trying to be a “black feminist ally” in this video. But must everyone need an arsenal of ally activism to satirically point out some unfair absurdities that affect people who don’t look like them? Besides, when it comes down to it, this song and video are about her. The issues she mentions, like body image and sexual double standards, are directly relevant to *her* experience. Which is fair – it’s her song, and we like it insofar as it relates to us. I think there were several ways in which she could have portrayed black women in that video, many of which would be exciting to we black feminists and our true allies. But I don’t demand that she focus her efforts in doing so, as long she’s not trying to culturally appropriate, demean, or subjugate these women.

    I think we can agree that at worst, Lily Allen is using black bodies to point out the sexually exploitative use of black bodies in the music industry. It’s not perfect, but both the message and delivery are distinct and even worthy enough to dissociate from the racial power structure that was so disgustingly obvious in “We Can’t Stop”. The exaggerated twerking and close ups of jiggling arses in the video are meant to satirise the music industry’s obsession with sex and sexualised female bodies. For better or worse, black women twerking in music videos is one of the most socially prominent examples of this. Therefore, the best way for her to communicate her critique was by using black dancers. Think about it: could she have made the same point using nonblack dancers? To me, that would’ve looked like cultural erasure. So maybe her route wasn’t perfect, but it was practical. For example, where I’m from, the vast majority of the domestic help is comprised of poor Hispanic women. In a video satirising the poor treatment of domestic workers, it wouldn’t be as relevant if you didn’t show an image of Hispanic women cleaning. It’s not the satire that’s deplorable or uncomfortable; it’s the reality.

    At the end of the day (and of this winded ramble) there is a HUGE difference between Miley Cyrus hiring a bunch of exceptionally endowed black women for no lyrical reason and gratuitously rubbing her face in their arses to show how “different,” “weird,” “edgy,” and “liberated” she is while singing a song about drugged-out debauchery, and Lily Allen hiring dancers, most of whom were black, to satirise the absurdity of this kind of exploitation of female bodies.


  2. Diana Swan-Lawrence says:

    Thanks to redforgender, womantra and other feminist activists for keeping the conversations flowing. The questions posited by women speak pro are profound. Can we blame women for selling sexuality in a world where this is their most sell-able asset? And if we are to be outraged about his prostitution who are we asking to make it better?
    It is evident that most men hold the key to the woman’s future and the woman is unable to say no. This happens in workplaces, homes and the entertainment industry. It is about power and control where victims feel trapped and unable to escape and their esteem often reach rock bottom. We all need to support each other to reach to that place where we can look at ourselves, our skills, our person and say confidently “I AM WORTH MORE THAN THAT’. And I agree with Tonya,’ wukking up feels good’ and I believe it is good for all kinds of health reasons and we look good doing it.


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