#OscarsSoWhite (Again)

The Oscars are here: another year, another chance at a handful of firsts for diversity in the 92-year-old institution.  Parasite could be the first film to win both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film; Cynthia Erivo, star of Harriet, could be the youngest person to ever win an EGOT; and in a double first the first black president and forever-in-our-hearts-President Obama may be the first President to win an Oscar for the documentary American Factory.image.jpg

It seems odd that we should still be having firsts in an institution that started in the last century’s roaring ’20’s. The Oscars have been dragged for years now over their lack of diversity.  #Oscarssowhite has become an annual trending tag, highlighting the continued need for diversity in the Academy and in Hollywood writ large. The hackneyed excuses that there aren’t enough actors of color, movies featuring stories focused on people of color, or female directors can no longer deflect criticism: the stories and the talent are in evidence everywhere.

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The Academy has put a number of programs in place to increase diversity in nominees and awardees.  Since the creation of #OscarsSoWhite by April Reign in 2015, the Academy has invited hundreds of new members across underrepresented groups of race, gender and nationality into the voting body. Even so, the Academy membership is still overwhelmingly made up of white males.  Only 31% of Academy members are women and 16% minorities.

Efforts to diversify the voting body notwithstanding, the whiteness of Oscar has not changed much in 92 years.  Despite a wealth of amazing work by women and creators of color, the winners’ circle has remained largely the same—white males acting in stories that center white narratives. Last year’s top picture prize went to Green Book, a white savior movie a-la The Help with less pie, over cultural touchstone Black Panther or quietly powerful Roma.

We can’t go back to a time when diversity can totally be ignored by movie studios—people of color and women make up a significant portion of the ticket-buying public—but movies can try to transport us back to manifest American’s mythical destiny, letting the less-than-woke rest a little longer in Lala land. This year’s most likely winners represent an America that might be comfortable in a red hat, stories of white men from the twentieth century where they are untouched by today’s cultural complexity. These stories evoke nostalgia for a time when the voices of the oppressed and othered didn’t get heard, a dog-whistle to people who long to silence today’s resistance.

The Oscars are not the only awards show with diversity issues. This award season there has been plenty of criticism all around: the Golden Globes snubbed Ava DuVernay’s powerful When They See Us, and women directors have been shut out of Best Director awards. Even the Joker had to call out the unbearable whiteness of the awards. Joaquin Phoenix, widely hailed for his role as a white man in white face acting out his white rage with no accountability had to pause to ask for less racism in Hollywood during his BAFTA acceptance speech.

It’s tempting to just write off award shows altogether—who cares what trophies the rich and famous give to each other?  Movies, remember, are both art and investment vehicle. Studios spend big to promote Oscar-nominated movies in the hopes of earning box office revenue and clout for future productions. Prestigious awards can have an impact on the kind of stories we are likely to see in the future. Continuing to award only stories that center white men exercising their privilege and power works against the efforts to create robust diverse representation. 

In order to really move the needle in diversity in media, we need to do more than crack open the door for diverse voices.  We need to uplift stories that weave a new world—a place where black people win on and off the screen. Here’s looking forward to the first #OscarsSoDiverseForReal.

Ricky Was Right

Ricky Gervais delivered on the promise of a no holds barred takedown of Hollywood in his opening monologue for the Golden Globes but one joke got the most attention.

The left called him out for being another white man silencing the voices of people trying to make change.  The right loved him for calling out the hypocrisy of Hollywood (without, of course, addressing their own hypocrisy on the right).

Truly the headline on this joke should have read Gervais Compares Disney to ISIS, but our celebrity-obsessed culture, we were more concerned with arguing over who should talk and who shouldn’t talk to get the meta-joke that was more shocking and important than another round in who’s speech matters. Because whose speech can matter when large corporations are not listening to the cries of people for equality and justice, no matter how beautiful that voice for change may be?

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Even the most powerful producers and brightest stars in Hollywood, even Bey and Jay are beholden to large corporations who regularly deplete the environment and abuse human rights to get into the black on their books.  There is a through-line from children mining Colton to your iPhone to the Apple TV+ platform where your favorite star is employed.  There is a direct connection between Disney and the propagation of racism, antisemitism, and sexism that can’t be disconnected from The Lion King or Queen Bey.

is-dumbo-racist.jpgAnd you.   Nestled in between the mining of Cobalt and the mining of profit is you–your eyeballs turn the mining of Cobalt into the mining of cash. Your eyeballs are part of that chain of production.

Yes, stars have amazing lives of privilege and pleasure secluded from the daily reality of most people, and they too live within the systems that you do. Powerful celebrities are also negatively affected by the systems we live in, even if in profoundly different ways from the most harmed. Despite having the power and platform to address issues they care about, they still are not free from drinking at the trough of global capitalism.

No matter how luminous your favorite star looks in that pricey Haute Coture, even they have a hand that signs their checks.  Their freedom to meaningfully engage in real systemic change is hampered by the very corporations that pay them the money they donate.  In this way, like gossip, mags like to proclaim: stars are just like us!

Who holds the power to attack headless snakes, organizations where the power is concentrated but the blame is diffused?  There is not King of the North, no Thanos to vanquish.  All our superhero stories, funded by corporations that are not people, don’t teach us how to dismantle complex and powerful systems.  Infinity stones won’t help us, but neither, Rickey, will telling people to shut up.

We need, instead, solidarity.  We need to acknowledge that systems of power and privilege don’t grant full freedom even to the privileged.  Using privilege to attack the system that confers it won’t save the rich when we come to eat them.  From the most marginalized to the lionized we need to dismantle the systems of power and privilege that keep all of us silenced in a burning world.

 

 

 

Game of Thrones: The Modern Woman’s Guide to Life

Game of Thrones is back this Sunday and all the attention is on figuring out who’s going to die, but what about how GOT teaches you to live?  If you feel like you’re in a battle for your own Iron throne in the office or at home, the women of GoT can be your guide to ruling all you see.  Which Game of Thrones character is your spirit sister?

Daenerys Targaryen

Nothing says power like commanding a few fire breathing dragons.  It might be nice to fry your competition to a crisp as you climb the corporate ladder but that’s not going to play well with HR.  Instead, if you want to rule like Daenerys, remember her commitment to making the world a more just place for the marginalized.  Her advising team is diverse and her platform is freedom for everyone.  Try collaboration and teamwork to make your dream work. 

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A Dragon is not a slave.

Channel your dragon energy and don’t forget she had to be reborn before she was ready to spread her wings. 

Arya Stark

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Nimble and clever, fearless and lethal, Arya Stark keeps her eyes on the prize and her hand on her sword.  If you wrong her, you get cut.  If you mess with her people, she’s coming for you. When dealing with toxic friends and partners, channel your inner Arya.  Keep it moving when things go bad rather than hanging around waiting to be rescued. Cut people off fearlessly when you see the first red flag. Be loyal to the end to those you love, but don’t tolerate toxic traitors for a second. Master the art of staying on mission and off the radar of the haters.

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Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.

Don’t let the wolves of negativity hunt in your kingdom.  Put toxic people on your list and cut them out of your world.

Cersie Lannister

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Sure Cersie is a villain, and you definitely don’t want to follow a role model who had kids with her brother, but there is a lesson in the way Cersie never bows her head, no matter how much people try to shame her.  Everybody knows her business, but you’ll never catch her caring about what other people think.  It can be hard to rule a nation—or a slack channel, even harder still to be In a power position if you’re a woman.  Like Cersie, your smarts and determination can help force a way into the boys’ club. Always believe that you’re born to be the best. If only she would use her cunning for good.  Skip the greed and incest, but keep your head up as you pull up a seat at the table.

Quote: Tears aren’t women’s only weapon.

The is the age of powerful women. Be one.

Sansa Stark

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Look, maybe she was pretty naive, coasting on a princess fairytale for way too long, but times got hard and Sansa grew up.  Sansa is not the same person that she was, and she’s trying to find a way to have an impact, to take her new knowledge and contribute to the fight for justice. Like a lot of us, getting woke can be a challenge, but the growth that follows can be transformative. Accepting that life isn’t a fairytale is the first step to being a part of building a future for yourself and your family. Then, like Sansa, roll up your sleeves and get to work, even if you’re not sure what you’re doing yet.

Quote: If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some left of me.

Don’t forget on the other side of the fairy tales and hard times is growth and transformation.  Keep going.

Brienne of Tarth

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Not everybody is a princess, but everybody matters.  Brianna is the dream team member, loyal and hard working, ready to go the extra thousand miles to do her duty.  She may never climb the Iron Throne but there’s honor, and success in her journey.  You don’t have to rule the world, just do your part to make the people around you feel loved and valued.  Find a purpose that is your own and your own personal path to greatness will open up.

Quote: You need trust to have a truce.

Collaboration crosses interesting lines in GoT and in real life. Love all, serve a few.

Whether your plan is to take over the world or you just want to be the queen of your own castle, ditch the Disney princesses and look to these modern women.  You’ll have to tune in to the final season to see who’s approach wins in the end, and then decide how to play your own Game of Thrones

How to Make Not-Racist Fashion (And Why You Should)

The latest trend in fashion seems to be apologizing for your overtly racist design that you just didn’t notice was racist af.  Sporting the trend this week is Burberry who sent this hoodie with a noose attached down the runway at London Fashion Week.

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Hot on the heels of the Virginia Governer’s moonwalking defense of the blackface pictures in his yearbook, Gucci showcased their blackface sweater just in time to contribute to one of shittiest Black History Months in recent memory.  Prada was an early adopter, releasing their blackface space monkey keychain last year.  They are also first to move to address the controversy that embroiled them, recently moving to create a diversity council to address internal issues of racism in the brand headed by the always justice minded Ava duVernay.  Let’s hope the trend of a turn around catches on too.

What is it with these fashion brands–major design houses that have stood for decades, filtering the zeitgeist of a hundred year through their fabric?  Shouldn’t they, the arbiters of the resonant images at any given moment, be most attuned to the long-standing tropes of anti-black racism?  Are their claims of ignorance and innocence to be taken at face value? When racism is top of mind, showing up everywhere in news, entertainment and even fashion with active discussions of cultural appropriation, that’s hard to believe.  Times are changing and it’s time fashion catches up.

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My mother used to say that ignorance of the law is no defense.  Perhaps if this was 1619 when humans were trafficked to Jamestown, terrified to discover they were property in this strange land, then we might believe that the ideas and symbols that mark white supremacy had yet to take hold.   If it was 1719, before lynching became the terrorist weapon of choice in slavery and then during Jim Crow we could claim that the noose was a tool disconnected from ideas of race, and a sweatshirt had yet to mean anything; Maybe if this was 1819, when the Transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed, with European and American abolitionists pushing back against the continued expansion of colonial powers, and the rise of America’s the minstrel shows still a few years away  we could believe they were unfamiliar with the significance of red lips in black skin.  But it’s 2019.

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It’s 2019, seven years after Trayvon Martin was killed in cold blood by George Zimmerman and a jury of adults blamed a boy in a hoodie instead of a man with a gun.  There was lots of public debate about the lowly hoodie as gateway clothing to criminality: Geraldo Rivera said Trayvon Martin’s hoodie was as much responsible for his death as George Zimmerman. one of a hundred talking heads debating whether a hoodie was probable cause for execution in urban areas.  Spoiler alert we decided it was.  Just two years after Trayvon Martin was killed, 21-year old Ricardo Sans was shot for wearing a hoodie and ‘looking suspicious.” Trayvon Martins hoodie stands as a powerful symbol of the complex and problematic demonization of black people in America.  It’s hard to deny the contemporary power of the hoodie or the ubiquity of its representation in relation to race.

It’s six years after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement when black people took to the streets to demand justice and then took to the voting booth, electing hundreds of people of color to local, state and federal office, passing laws to protect the rights of black people and to curtail extrajudicial police killing.

It’s been five years since the fashion world acknowledged the shifting landscape of race.  As early as 2014 the conflict over racial violence was showing up on runways. Pieces like this protest sign inspired Chanel bag, or Pyer Moss’s in your face runway show were all over the Spring shows. Other brands incorporated the signs of BLM resistance into their work, inspiring trends, slogans on shirts, and whole collections and emerging fashion movements that appropriate ever-evolving black style.

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It’s been four years since the start of #Oscars so White,  a soul-cry calling for more- and more accurate representation of people of color in the entertainment industry.  It’s been four years of some of the best movies and TV shows made for and by black people, from Get Out to Moonlight. In the last year alone we’ve been treated to Black Panther and Wrinkle In Time, Blackklansman,  Widows and on the small screen Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Blackish, Insecure, Dear White People, The Chi, and a dozen other shows. Black artists filmmakers and writers are reshaping the image of Blackness in a glorious renaissance.  There is plenty to inspire designers far removed from the boring tropes of the past four hundred years.

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It is a year after the Equal Justice Institute opened The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, commemorating America’s history lynching.  There have been no less than 175,000 news articles about lynching in the last year alone, not including articles about three different actual lynchings of black people perpetrated in 2018.

Its been long enough for major brands to get staff, training, and resources to make sure they understand how to navigate the shifting culture their artistry seeks to affect and reflect.

While brands are quick to apologize, and some like Prada are putting resources to moving their understanding forward, brands watch from the sideline don’t have to take these hits.  Companies of all sizes and industries need to do their work to find the intersections between their work and an increasingly diverse world. For content creators that means familiarizing yourself and your team with racist tropes.  The good news is that this information is not hidden for those that seek it.  Cultural critics (like me!) been writing and teaching about racist images for many years.  Informing yourself is one part history, one part media literacy and one part acting like a frigging human.  If you are ready to go beyond googling “racism”, here are some tips for keeping your fashion house on the right side of racial justice.

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Get that it matters. The time has come to stop using racist imagery. It’s not clear from what we know that all of these fashion accidents are truly accidents.  The most generous read assumes that people just didn’t know, and frankly, in this day and age that is pretty hard to swallow.  For the designers who try to subtly slip less-than-political-correct imagery into their content, a warning: the cost for cheeky racism is steep.  After the row over H & M’s King of the jungle shirt, the company stock dropped 62% in one quarter. Boycotts are common and effective in the age of social media, not to mention the canceling power of Black Twitter is best avoided if you want your brand to flourish.  If someone on your content team thinks a subtle nod to racist tropes is edgy and will help drive traffic, its time to either drop a dime to management or dump your stock options before the boycotts start.

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Know your history. Racist stereotypes develop in cultural context, reflecting the ideas and values of their place and time.  Understanding where racist stereotypes come from and how those stereotypes supported the oppression of marginalized people can help you better understand why it’s totally not cool to use imagery like blackface or nooses in your fashion.  Stereotypes are not constructed from real common characteristics of a group of people so much as they are made of the mainstream’s beliefs about a group, a collage of assumptions and projections, not facts, that help to support the narrative that those in power want to thrive.  Blackface is a set of visual codes–black skin, red lips, wide eyes–and each part of that code was designed to communicate the marginalization and dehumanization of black people.

Understand how stereotypes function. Stereotypes are shorthand codes that communicate not only identity but also ideology.  You cannot separate the negative ideology that is the flesh beneath the stereotype’s skin. Stereotypes teach us what people deserve, and racist stereotypes effectively communicate that racial hierarchies reflect natural truths, ensuring their enduring power to define and oppress minorities. The ignorance and animalism encoded in blackface cannot be separated out from those codes.  Even if in the course of artistic examination an artist is inclined to use these images to challenge the conventions of the code, the audience is unlikely to be able to receive the code in this new way without being primed or prepared in advance to see something other than what they have always seen.   A powerful example of the enduring nature of stereotypes happened with a Swedish artist commissioned to make a provocative piece of art for a show about provocative art created a work he called Ni***r Cake, an interactive blackface cake to draw attention to female genital mutilation in recent African immigrant populations in Sweden.  At the reception, the sobering and difficult recasting of blackface was lost on the laughing Cultural minister and guests in the image below that went viral, resulting in widespread criticism of the artist and the firing of the cultural minister.  Individual design decisions are not enough to reshape the powerful coded communication of stereotypes.

Hire diverse teams. A lack of diversity in the room can lead to bad decisions, as we have seen over and over again.  Each of us has our own filter and our own blind spots.  Having a diverse team ensures a wider perspective, allowing your team a broader filter for capturing problematic content.    Hiring diverse creative talent is one way to ensure that the right ideas get through and the wrong ones get caught early on.  Diverse teams mean more than having an intern pipeline, it means diversity up and down the org chart. Hiring diverse teams at all layers of an organization creates a stronger network of fail-safes, and empowers members of your team to speak up.  This is a must–you cannot accurately and authentically represent a population without having that perspective represented in a strong way in your team and throughout your process.  And if you don’t want to reflect and connect with racially diverse populations you are shutting out a growing 40% of the American population who identifies as a minority.

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Diversity is not inclusion (and you need both).  Diversity is the mix in the room and inclusion is getting everybody active in achieving and maintaining a healthy equitable culture. You cannot hire your way to an inclusive organization without providing the training and resources to make sure all of your employees are responsible for maintaining inclusivity.  Put plainly–the white people in your company need to be as responsible for creating an inclusive environment as the employees of color.   Organizations often hire people of different races thinking their mere presence will change the ideas and thinking of other people in the room, and usually without any extra compensation for the task.  This is a set up for people of color brought into culturally ignorant organizations and prevents employees less comfortable with race from growing the skills they will need to stay relevant in an increasingly diverse environment. Instead, organizations need to provide training, coaching, and resources to support teams in doing their part to make sure every member of your organization represents your values around inclusion.

The truth is culture is complex, more so now than at any point in the last 50 years. The stakes are higher for brands who have to work hard to connect in our cluttered media environment, and the costs are steep for companies that refuse to acknowledge consumers’ increasing desire for culturally competent companies.  But the days of disregarding people of color, claiming ignorance and laughing at white supremacy’s lame jokes are gone. I hereby declare the moment for mea culpas over.  No more oh-so-sorry apologies for overt racism a simple google search could have averted.  Fashion brands, do you work to wake up or bear the righteous wrath of the Twitter police and the pain of the boycotts that follow.

We’re More Than Mermaids and Murderers

The New England Patriots won the Superbowl (again!) in the lowest scoring game in Superbowl history.  I don’t know if it was a good game because the NFL is racist and I can’t fuck with that, but I still enjoyed the other big game–Superbowl ads! For decades now the Superbowl has hosted some of the most expensive TV ad time; this year costS ran at 5 million for a 30-second spot.  That means Cardi B has to make 4,201,681 Pepsis skruuuttt off the shelves to pay for ad time–and that doesn’t even include paying the celebrity endorsers or the manicurist who did that to Cardi’s nails.

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There’s no room here for boring old My Pillow ads or long pharma lists of side effects.  Instead, advertisers bring their A game to the big game.   Critics Monday morning quarterbacking the ads this year said the ads, on the whole, failed to inspire much beyond the same yawn the game did but buried in the boring ads is a glimmer of America’s shifting gender landscape.

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Taken together, the ads of the Superbowl serve as a snapshot of mainstream American culture, a night when Madison Ave translates the life of the Friday Night lights crowd and sells it back to them with the celebrities du jour.  The tone of the ads is an echo of the mood of the nation, and the best ads push our imagination towards our brighter future. For much of the Superbowl’s 52-year history, the ads revolved around the man’s world–razor ads and beer ads full of “manly men’, women draped across their shoulders like scarves, mere accessories, or crave-worthy objects.  As times changed, ads gave a wink and nod to the ladies who were expected to be at SuperBowl parties, but more interested in the snacks than the sacks.

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Women make up an increasing share of the fan base of the NFL.  Just like women are getting shit done in Congress, handling business in business, and pushing social change forward, they are also watching football.  The big game means big chances for advertisers to not only speak to women viewers, but to position themselves as a brand able to address women as full humans.  So how did advertisers do ditching the stereotypes and including women in the big game? Here are the big plays:

Same Ladies, New Era

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Several of the ads that featured women could claim that they are catering to women viewers, but the ad is really just the same old same old.  Anheuser Bush pitched a new sparkling beverage targeted at women (because real liquor would mess up our little lady minds!) with mermaids twirling beneath the sea.  Mermaids are a hot trend and a cold stereotype.  Sure undulating under the wave is sexy but you can’t run shit if you have no legs.

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Stella Artois went for a land version of a mermaid featuring the demure damsel in a dress Carrie Bradshaw.  Sex in the City aired from 1998 to 2004, just a year after the invasion of Iraq and three years before social media, and Carrie Bradshaw was a woman of her time kissing frogs and holding out for Mr. Big, a guy we would call problematic by today’s standards.  Is this the best they could do for a poster woman to bring beer ads into the 21st century? And then there was Zoe Kravitz with the organic, gluten-free bedroom eyes.  Sure ASRM is science, but its arousal factor is that same old sex-sells storyline.  A beer ad with ear porn isn’t speaking to women, just whispering to the boys.

The call: fumble. Sticking a woman in an ad during a football game doesn’t automatically mean you’re shattering any stereotypes. Recycling the same old themes or celebs, breathless and prettily sipping their drinks misses the moment and the movement that women are in.

Fearless Women With Fight

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Unlike undulating fish girls, several of the ads spoke to the power that women are taking on as we push towards gender equity.  Two ads promoted upcoming streaming shows: a promo for The Handmaid’s Tale third season on Hulu and one for a new show on Amazon prime called Hanna.  Both show women who are uninterested in being anybody’s sexy mermaid.  Handmaid’s tale is a pointed critique of contemporary gender politics, pulling no punches for the Superbowl crowd, calling on America to wake up.

Image result for hanna amazon prime Hanna also paints a dark world for women, where a young girl is turned into a weapon and must fight to be free.  While this certainly seems different from centuries of submissive and subjugated women, she is still a tool, shaped by a man to have only one strategy–violence. I don’t think this is what Helen Ready meant when she sang ‘hear me roar.’

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Sarah Michelle Geller revises her role as potential home invasion victim as a masked intruder stalks her and her man.  Hiding in the bedroom, her Olay smooth face is too lovely to open her facial recognition phone, but also disarming enough to charm a psychopath.  No kung fu or social resistance here, just a beauty made more beautiful by Olay slaying and staying alive.

The call: false start. Whatever troubled world these three women live in, they have what they need to stay alive without needing to call on a sailor for rescue, but it would be nice if women could do something other than fight off sexual predators.

The New Power Brokers

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Toyota chronicles the inspiring story of football phenom Toni Harris, East Los Angeles College defensive back–no kicker avoiding the ruffing here. As one of the first female athletes to place college football, her story is certain to motivate a generation of future football stars.  Toyotas and features game footage and off the field shots standard for any up and coming football star a-la-ESPN. She is presented as powerful, positive, and inspiring without pandering or paternalizing.  Here’s hoping we’ll see her on the field in the big game soon.

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Serena Williams starred in an ad for social app Bumble and served as co-creative director off camera for the campaign as well.  Neither mermaid or murderer,  Serena plays a real authentic version of a contemporary woman in the ad, doing real things like working and spending time with family and friends.  She is not a magical creature, or a fictional femme fatal, just a person looking to succeed and thrive, using a connecting app to connect all the parts of her life, not just dating. The ad speaks to real women’s needs: the need to get shit done without waiting for Mr. Big, the need for empowerment that relies on fresh, decolonized ways of being powerful. Of all the women we see featured in their own Superbowl ads–including the lovely and underutilized Cardi B–Serena seems the most authentically human, and the one that many women who work hard and want to watch the game with her girls are likely to recognize themselves in.  The ad speaks to women in a way that is free from typical patriarchial narratives, and one that doesn’t center sex as a selling point.  The ad really does speak to women as if they are full humans, though I wonder if the NFL would have given Serena a 3/5ths instead.

The call: touchdown! The push to topple patriarchy means women are moving to take their rightful place in our culture; advertisers must keep working to write the new narratives that reflect our changing gender landscape in America.  If the Superbowl ads are any indication, we still have a ways to go to shed the centuries-old stories dotted with damsels and doll-eyed beauties. One thing I know is that when we have women behind the camera and in leadership roles on creative teams we stand a good chance of getting more authentic images, the kind that will woo consumers and inspire girls looking for images that fell like them

Surviving Patriarchy’s Soundtrack

Surviving R Kelly, a docuseries on the victims of the R and B singer, has laid out six grueling hours of salacious stories of Robert Kelly, accused child molester, intercut with people gushing– sometimes reluctantly–about how genius, how amazing, how visionary R Kelly was as an artist. Sadly, this tale lit anew by the #MeToo movement sparked less empathy that internet debate about whether he is canceled or not.  Guess not since downloads of Kelly are up a whopping 16% on Spotify following the special.  Still, one of pop culture’s favorite games is whose fault is it? The Twitterverse is alight with alternative theories of who is to blame as if that title can only belong to one person in this sordid story.  Sure enough, there is blame to go around–and around and around.

Let me be clear, Robert Kelly is wholly responsible for his pedophiliac behavior. Though he was molested as a child, he was still responsible for not working to heal his childhood trauma, and instead of inflicting it on someone else, knowing how painful and confusing it could be for the victim. Fame does not make predatory sexual behavior okay. His behavior, his fault.

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Kelly is the star of this blame game, but there were many other playing supporting roles to his behavior, each of them to blame for their contribution to the situation. I think a better question to capture the nuance and complexity is what role did ___ play? Plenty of characters in the R Kelly story played a part in letting what happened happen, from the handlers that turned a blind eye to his mall trips, to the coworkers that knew what was going on, to the fans that keep his financial empire afloat and fund his legal defense. Let’s not forget the soup that all the characters were swimming in: culture, the stage that we live on, the constant backdrop of every life, informing our beliefs and values, giving rise to our norms.

In a culture that places children over powerful pedophiles, R Kelly would have been ostracized when he married an underage Aaliyah.  Instead, they turned their ‘love’ story into hits.  Why not? Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis had burned up the charts with a child bride by their side so the wedding of a music star to a child barely registered a complaint.

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These performers were stars both to fans and to the shareholders looking for profit. Capitalism has one end goal and that is to earn money.  Men who are part of this machine are protected by it as long as they continue to feed the beast. In the music industry, a hot track could melt any moral opposition to child marriage or sexual abuse.

In a culture that prioritizes the safety and sovereignty of all individuals, especially the most vulnerable, we would not weigh Kelly’s singing skills in the balance of this case.  We would not mitigate his behavior by talking about the value he could add to a young girls career.  A man’s success at any given talent would not carry more weight than the dignity of another human, an certainly not more than a child.  But we live in a culture where the rule is powerful men are allowed to engage in taboo sexual behavior.  And the more powerful the man, the more taboo the behavior can be: teachers and teens, priests and altar boys, cigars and biting and urine.

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Coincidentally this week I am reading Pat Barkers the Silence of the Girls, an excellent novel about the sacking of Rome told from the perspective of a woman captured in combat and awarded to Achilles, a world where the women traded like trophies.  Like R Kelly, men on the battlefield expected to be rewarded with women to use, sex slaves, body slaves, subservient to every whim.  Between Troy and  Trapped in the Closet is a continuous line, year after year in Western history where power came with a side of women. Medieval kings? Check.  Conquistadors? Si. Plantation owners? Yessir.

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Powerful men reward themselves with the power to sexually control others without consequence: it is an unspoken rule enforced for centuries, dealing violence to those who dare challenge their right to the spoils of power. In every era of patriarchy powerful men have engaged in sexual terrorism to cement and celebrate their dominance. In our own modern day, we have celebrities instead of royalty–or perhaps they even are royalty.  Jaquee notwithstanding, you could easily argue R Kelly was the king of R and B, and maybe still, despite years of accusations.

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Why did so many people stay silent?  Why is he still popular after decades of accusations, stories that clearly implicate Kelly, not to mention the video evidence of him urinating on a young girl?  Why do we keep seeing this happening?  The unwritten rule is powerfully silencing.  Though unspoken, it is acted out in all our grand stories–first, you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the girls.  The end of the story–where powerful men face no consequences for their actions–is often repeated, letting victims know that coming forward won’t end well for them.

With so many men accused, so much of the art and accomplishment that is central to our culture is being removed from the cannon.  For god sake, we can’t even sing Baby Its Cold Outside.  But this is what it is: in a patriarchal culture, our very songs and stories reinforce the ideas of women as property, chattel.  Yeah, almost all of them.  Even the great ‘classics’ such as the Iliad, Beauty and the Beast and Blurred Lines, the content at the very center of our culture, are stories about powerful men using their power to trade women like so many cows.  Make enough money, conquer enough territory, rule enough men, and you can do what you want to women.

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When we try to tear down the patriarchy we find it is made, brick by brick, of the stories and songs we have come to love.  To usher in a new world, we have to dismantle the old.  We can never live in a new world based on the stories and songs of men whose greatness is sung to the tune of the degradation of others.  We can’t keep believing that the bodies of young black women are the raw material of the harmony of life.

We’ve seen 6 hours of trauma drenched stories:  we don’t need the law to tell us when to turn our backs on Robert Kelly. We need is the moral sense to say we’ve stepped in the name of love for the last time.  So I’ll ask you–is he still in your library? Stay woke, this won’t be the last artist you have to delete.

What Kanye West Has in Common With Susan Collins

Yesterday Kanye pulled his struggle bus into D.C. for a stop at the White House where he proceeded to deliver a cringeworthy soliloquy where he asked Donald Trump to love him like the daddy he wished he had in exchange for absolute fealty and an iPlane. The bizarre moment was broadcast live, sometimes with a split screen of communities wiped out by Hurricane Michael because America.  Kanye’s rant was so full of crazy soundbites it broke the internet like Kim K’s….nevermind. Clickbait?  For sure.  But don’t dismiss Kanye’s diatribe as meaningless.  Kanye, clearly, is struggling with his recent bipolar diagnosis, but what Kanye is saying is actually a window into how the elite think as they play human chess with ideas, disconnected from the material effect of oppressive ideologies on you or me.

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Kanye’s recent epiphanies about the black community aren’t crazy original, or even just plain crazy–they’re conservative talking points, Fox News’s daily mainline of ignorant and ahistorical bullshit regarding black people and the black community.  Its the elite, not the Illuminati, that fertilized Kanye’s mind with fantasies of black people living high off the welfare hog.  So before you cancel Kanye (wait till the end of the post) and erase all that he said, I suggest you take a listen to it, and a lesson from it.  Everyone is lining up to condemn Kanye (valid) but Kanye is just cutting samples from the ideas that circulate among the wealthy and white–the people he is around every day.

If you can’t stomach–or follow–the long winding tale of the tape, here are some of the highlights of Kanye’s lowlights: racism is a liberal invention to foster victim mentality in black people–effective in Kanye’s word because “we are an emotional people”; blacks are overly reliant on welfare; black on black crime is the real problem of the black community; some stuff about the 13th amendment that even I couldn’t make sense of. Painting black people as poor, violent, and not totally deserving or able to be free is a page out of the Willie Lynch playbook.

Kanye also had a lot to say about the captains of industry and their mythic position as the heroes of America.  He painted Trump as a lonely warrior on a Joseph Campbell-esque quest to make America great again.  These are not the random musings of an outlier, this is the sacred text of America’s holy trinity of capitalism, white supremacy and masculinity.

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What we’re hearing from Kanye is raw uncut American hegemony. Think of hegemony as the net of ideas that produces and normalizes the social, political, economic and cultural relationships and processes that make up the world we live in.  In order for any culture to function, we have to have a shared understanding of what is happening, but what if someone decided to write the world in their own favor? One way that people in power remain in power is they set up the rules of the game for the rest of us–and ensure that they conserve the best resources for themselves. They hide the strings of the puppetry behind stories, myths ideas, and beliefs that normalize the structures we have as the only way that things could or should be.  In a word, hegemony is the process that determines “just the way it is”.

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But it’s not just the way it is.  Science tells us every day of the expanding boundaries of our universe, a million stars with their own worlds.  Developing nations around the world develop in ways different than the colonization process that sprouted our own country. In a world where Kanye West and Donald Trump are hugging over the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, we must concede that anything is possible.  Hegemony is the factory where our current imbalanced and unsustainable systems to keep mashing up young black and brown men in the prison system, and where the response to #MeToo is ‘so what’ and where American dream is deserved only by the wealthy and not by the millions of Americans who generate that wealth with sweat and blood and time and life energy.

We don’t have to want that anymore.  It is right and proper to reject people who parrot the tales of a dying empire built by slaves on land stolen from Native Americans and nurtured by women and wave after wave of immigrants.  It’s cool to cancel Kanye (ready..now!).  While we’re at it, let’s vote out Susan Collins who would rather vote for her senate majority masters than stand up and vote for her sisters.  Like Kanye, she allowed her desire to align herself with power to be more important than standing in solidarity and unity with women across the country demanding justice free from patriarchy.

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Kanye’s comments are mostly shocking because he is black, and not just black but George-Bush-doesn’t-care-about-black-people. We expect that all people of color are woke enough to know when their own interests are being trampled but that’s not true.  Members of oppressed groups drink the same hegemonic kool-aid that everyone else does and have to do the work to free their mind from the ideas that bind them.  Susan Collins is also speaking kool-aidese, her hour-long speech echoing of the statements of her male counterparts.  Shocking because she is a woman. But both of them are seeking to be in close proximity to power, and it is power, not identity that drives their madness choices.

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When we get angry at the paper tigers or dismiss them as irrelevant outliers we forget it is the hegemonic ideology they are spouting that is the real villain.  Kanye is symptomatic of an elite celebrity class living disconnected from history and reality even as they cast the net for the rest of us. In addition to auditioning with Trump to be the mouthpiece of ‘Murica, Kanye is also a person who is struggling to accept a diagnosis, who needs the time and space to learn how to take care of himself.  He doesn’t need cameras, he needs care.  The kindest thing you can do for him is cancel him.

Anyone can ring the bell of hegemony–whatever your race or gender, you can parrot the ideas of a culture that oppresses people who look like you.  But the reverse is also true: anyone can join the resistance and seek new ideas to build a better more perfect union. You can say no to the Davey Crockett version of Trump.  You can tell people that it’s not just Kanye or Susan Collins, but the culture that they represent, the culture of power, and money, white supremacy and toxic masculinity, built on the backs of everyone that’s not them that creates these deplorable ideas. You can work with us to dismantle that castle in the sky, brick by brick.  Call out every person who stands up for oppression.  Vote them out. Stop buying their shit. Stop covering their antics. Don’t be their supporters. quit being their friend. Unfollow, block, delete. And of course, stay woke.