Just one short year ago, Beyoncé stood on the MTV Video Music Awards stage and stopped the world. Not for the first time, either. During a 15-minute long medley performance on the occasion of winning the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the event, she stood in silhouette against the backdrop of the word “FEMINIST in giant letters. Never saying the word aloud in her own voice, she advocated feminism rather than proclaim her own identity as an individual feminist — to the immediate audience and to millions of viewers at home, just as she had been doing since the release of her fifth solo album, BEYONCÉ.
This bold, brave gesture beamed Beyoncé’s particular form of black feminism into living rooms around the world. Don’t forget, before Beyoncé’s feminist declaration via “***Flawless” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2013, no mainstream performers were cheering feminism: it was seen as a scary, decidedly anti-men politics, a threat. Actresses and pop stars couldn’t distance themselves from the word fast enough, and often they used tired stereotypes and generalizations to explain why they might believe in equality for all, but would never (gasp) call themselves a feminist. Beyoncé changed the feminist paradigm in pop culture. Never forget.
Today, artists like Taylor Swift, easily preach their version of feminist politics, never remembering the big bad years before 2013 when that word sent them running for the hills. Beyoncé’s announcement aligning herself with feminism in song, and then again visually at the 2014 VMAs was monumental and much criticized, because Beyoncé is a black women and Beyoncé’s feminism is specifically black. And I use black intentionally, over the more social justice buzzword-y “intersectional,” because intersectionality itself was coined as a black feminist term by Kimberlé Crenshaw, formally, in the late 1980s. Though, in practice, the concept of intersectionality is evident in black women’s organizing throughout American history. Using “intersectional” to refer to a feminism that interrogates race, class, sexuality, ability, and many other axes that come together in some of the most insidious forms of interlocking oppression as intersections for the most vulnerable populations erases the black origins of the framework. Ironically, intersectionality often erases the very specificity of the black women that lived, coined, and continue to mobilize the analysis. And after all, in today’s increasingly anti-black America, that’s really what scares people about Beyoncé’s feminism: the fact that she and her feminism are black.
As much as was gained in that now iconic moment on stage from the 2014 VMAs via Beyoncé, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that even came within spitting distance of a black or intersectional feminist politics anywhere throughout the entire broadcast of the 2015 VMAs. It was as if MTV decided to actively chip away at anything gained through Beyoncé’s “feminist moment” in favor of explicit racism and bigotry perpetuated by white women on the stage over the course of less than three hours. Looking at the two shows side by side, you’d never guess that 2015 followed 2014; it was actually a giant leap backwards.
To begin, host Miley Cyrus appeared in various versions of matted faux dreadlocks, a visual appropriation of black women’s hair that was only the tip of the racist iceberg over the course of the show. While Zendaya was ridiculed less than a year ago for probably “smelling like weed” by Guiliana Rancic because she wore dreadlocks to the Oscars, Cyrus mentioned her penchant for smoking marijuana (and ingesting it other ways) countless times and was never once called out for her dirty-looking or “smelly” locks. Racist double standard in full force. The appropriation of black women’s hair has been an especially hot topic in pop culture news — Cyrus is certainly aware of that so her choice to appropriate faux dreadlocks is especially salient; it was all in service of ultimately bolstering her own image as an edgy, rave girl. Meanwhile, black women wearing the style, natural to their hair but not to Cyrus’s, are condemned.
Flaunting her awareness of the sensitivity of this issue and just not caring, Cyrus also went on to adopt an offensive “black-cent” in a sketch with Snoop Dogg (also about marijuana), and refer to her “mammy” — a term that no matter how clueless you pretend to be can not be disassociated with its stereotypical racist connotations. On top of all that, during the one real and political moment of the night — when Nicki Minaj won Best Hip-Hop video for “Anaconda” and called out Miley Cyrus for her racist remarks to the press about how Nicki “should have” behaved when calling out racism and sexism in the music industry, turning to Cyrus and demanding “Miley, WHAT’S GOOD?!” — Cyrus spat back, dismissed Minaj’s critique of the industry saying that her own words had been manipulated, while, the entire time, twirling her faux dread locks. Cyrus was aware of exactly what she was doing and she was using her own racism to get attention.
As disgustingly racist as Cyrus turned out to be as host (and ironically transphobic as well given a particular distasteful comment about Jared Leto; ironic given her alleged championing of the LGBTQ community as of late), I was even more disgusted with the entire format of the show which was created and determined by MTV themselves: it worked to absolve Taylor Swift of all her own racism and glaring omissions in the practice of her particularly uneducated version of white feminism over the past months and years. Absent Beyoncé’s black feminist politics of last year, MTV doubled down on a white feminist racist blindspot and celebrated one of the most overrated, untalented, pretentious, and yes, racist stars of recent memory: Swift herself.
This T. Swift celebration was sadly obvious before the show even officially started. Swift one an award for Best Pop Video during the pre show which was then used to announce the world premiere of her new video for (insert generic song title here). The deck was already clearly stacked from Swift. Nicki Minaj opened the show with the only performance that had integrity and creativity. That is, until Swift joined her on stage. “Singing” vocals to “The Night Is Still Young,” Swift joined Minaj on stage as a surprise guest before segueing into her own “Bad Blood.” MTV then used this performance to tout that Minaj and Swift had squashed their “girl beef” and ask “what other girl beef will be squashed tonight?,” setting the entire broadcast up as a particularly antifeminist competition between women.
What’s more is that Minaj’s original critique of the racism and sexism of the industry then got swallowed up into her finally making up with Swift, even though there was no actual problem there to begin with. Remember, it was Swift who inserted herself into Minaj’s critique of the industry, in typical white feminist fashion (“this must be about me, right?!”). Swift took issue with Minaj being mean to her when Minaj had never mentioned Swift at all. Swift never fully recognized her responsibility in the creation of this “girl beef” to begin with. Instead, she offered a curt apology days later saying she misunderstood but never interrogating the political repercussions of that misunderstanding. Then, MTV, recreated the problem in order for it to be overcome/squashed on stage — and during Nicki’s performance to boot. Minaj gives up her time to bring Swift out, even though Swift told Minaj she was welcome on any stage she herself was on in her initial back-pedaling after her unfortunate racist mistake. In a reversal of Swift’s original intention, Minaj has to give up her time to accommodate Swift and make sure the world knows there is no problem here. The black woman must accommodate the white girl once again, from no fault of her own, in order to protect her image and brand. Meanwhile, Swift would not have been impacted either way; but you better believe she was happy to get all the extra attention and publicity.
Swift has become especially notorious lately for bringing guests up on stage (even when it makes absolutely no sense to do so) during her 1989 tour. Swift postures for attention and acclaim. Some of these guests have absolutely nothing to do with music to begin with. She is just looking for cheap headlines and ways to bring more attention to herself. Worse, the media is giving her credit for coining the term “squad” and adding to it each night on stage, after the clusterfuck of celebrity that was her “Bad Blood” video. Swift is constantly trying to convince the world that she’s “down,” despite her intentional white girl posturing in the face of important critique to that image. She never takes responsibility, and that’s what I can’t abide about Taylor Swift.
On any of her various trips to the stage last night at the VMA’s, she was trying to “prove” to us that she loves black culture — all while shitting on black people themselves. In that way, Swift is emblematic of America. And she’s much closer to Miley Cyrus than it first appears. Cyrus, in trying to change her image years back, couldn’t profess hard enough how “black” she wanted to be — her sound, her image, everything. Fast forward a few years and we’ve seen the blatant appropriation and racism. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before Swift’s exact same appropriation and racism become just as explicit. But they are still there, just under the surface. Swift tried to get the world to believe the first album she ever bought was Kanye West’s College Dropout (yeah, right), that Kendrick Lamar is her most favorite person in the world, and that she so appreciates the work of everyone involved with Straight Outta Compton. I don’t buy this bullshit. She’s trying too hard, which indicates that she’s trying to prove something, which indicates she’s trying to compensate for something…and what she needs to compensate for is her unabashed racism.
While she centered herself at the beginning of the show in Minaj’s performance, MTV also let Swift center herself at the end of the show by giving Kanye West his Video Vanguard award. Why in the entire world of fuck would Taylor Swift be the person qualified to bestow this award on West? We already know the history here — West interrupts Swift in 2009 in order to offer political critique, Swifts cries for a year, Swift pens condescending racist forgiveness song to West called “Innocent.” Her mere presence bestowing the award was a racist affront on the viewer and West himself.
She of course couched her own introduction of West in anecdotes about that fateful night in 2009 — essentially making this all about her once again. West then proceeded to talk more about Swift and that night, making it all the more about her when it really should have been about his own work, his art. To his credit (and I love Kanye West), he was able to get in a lot of digs at MTV and award shows in general for perpetuating the animosity — a lesson they still have not taken to heart since they did the exact same thing with Minaj and Swift at the beginning of the show — before he nonsensically announced his candidacy for President in 2020 (I’m not kidding!). The overall thrust of the moment, though, spoke to Swift being central in everything once again, as well as her benevolence in being able to finally forgive West.
Taylor Swift never apologizes for these things. She skates on through. She did it twice during the broadcast and has done it countless other times. And this is not even mentioning her video repeatedly beating out Beyoncé’s much more feminist black feminist materialization of a “squad” in “7/11.” My question is: WHY? Why did MTV completely reverse the progressive steps they took last year with Beyoncé’s performance in 2014 and give us this white feminist shit show in 2015? Part of it is the fans — they vote on the awards given out once the nominees are chosen. And the public overwhelmingly celebrated Taylor Swift. This is real life. This is the world we live in. MTV took it even further by centering Swift where she wouldn’t have been centered otherwise, and all to the effect that she was made into the victim and benevolent forgiver, the bigger person — while the critiques of Minaj, of West continue to go unheard over weeks and years, in perpetuity. And all while a racist-as-fuck host stands on the stage serving as ring leader of this racist circus. The pendulum swung one with Beyoncé and it swung back harder than ever this year to celebrate whiteness and white women, damn the consequences.
So, reader, is this the world you want to live in? Despite the power of Beyoncé, the progressive feminist politics she centered last year were undone and completely lost this year at the VMAs. And when it’s this hard to center progressive politics in a pop culture milieu, can you imagine real life politics? This trend is indicative of what we see happening on all fronts, and I for one, do not want one more Miley Cyrus or one more Taylor Swift. Both Cyrus and Swift had every chance to shut their fucking mouths, to not do what they did last night. It’s not that hard. It requires less effort on their parts to not be racist, but they both continue to do the absolute most. They choose consciously. They deserve to be held accountable. They deserve this disdain. Beyoncé can’t change the industry alone, though she’s trying. And doing more than most could. As long as artists like Swift and Cyrus believe in their own importance above all else, though, change will be a long time coming. Hold them accountable. Call them out. They’re adult (white) women and the can certainly handle answering for their actions. We all deserve answers for their actions…