In a mediascape where women are routinely sexualised and often overtly objectified in music videos, the most thoroughly tokenistic deviations can achieve accolades.
Despite no less than 40 uses of the word “b*tch”, media were quick to dub rapper Kendrick Lamar’s song Humble as a feminist triumph. Time, for example, said listeners were “blessed” with a song offering “positive body language messages”.
Vogue similarly wants us to believe that Lamar’s song suggests that “true beauty can come down to peeling back the layers of a carefully constructed persona”.
In a world where “beautiful” is a nebulous aesthetic unattainable to most women, the show of even the tiniest amount of cellulite does indeed look renegade. But that’s not the same thing as Lamar’s carefully constructed production actually being feminist.
“I’m so f*ckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop, show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor, show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks,” Lamar raps in Humble.
Lamar seems to be media literate enough to acknowledge a world replete with digital airbrushing, camera filters and the taking of at least 97 selfies before the perfect one gets posted on Instagram.
In this instance, he fails to recognise that it’s actually not all about him. In requesting an Afro, in yearning for some stretch marks, Lamar is still asking women to fulfil his wants. He’s still expecting women to display themselves to him.
For him. In our very recent past, there was a misguided attempt to flatter average and plus-size women with phrases like “real” – that curves, for example, constitute a real woman, the undercurrent being that slenderness makes a woman less so. Broadening our perception of beauty to include afros and cellulite is just a new set of grounds to appraise women, to anoint some as attractive and to dismiss others as fake.
It’s just another way to pit women against each other while continuing with the assumption that our hearts beat only for validation from men. I’d like to think feminism has moved on from there. This constant lauding of “naturalness” has also become more than a little tiresome. The “natural look” so favoured by men only appears so subtle, so low maintenance, when compared to a visage produced by Homer Simpson’s makeup gun. In truth, however, looking “natural” is often a complex and subtle affair involving lashings of make-up application finesse, not to mention very good genes.
Exhibit B – Alicia Keys. It turns out that the Grammy award-winning singer, whose comeback has been based around the concept of being makeup-free, isn’t quite as natural and untouched as she claims to be.
In an interview last October with W magazine, her make up artist Dotti revealed that Keys wears brow definer, self-tanning anti-ageing serum and mattifier that cost more than R3000.
This preoccupation with the natural, with the authentic, also problematically presumes that there exists an acceptable unPhotoshopped, unairbrushed aesthetic that is available to every woman and we should all just shake off the shackles of a tyrannical beauty cult and just embrace our “true self”.
As though now that we have Lamar’s determination, that we’re physically passable, we can stop with all our externally mandated aesthetic toil. Casting aside the ridiculous notion of there being a single authentic self – we’re each, in fact, a bunch of different and often, contradictory selves – the idea that by just getting out of bed and facing the world au naturel, we’re being our truest and best self is preposterous because not every woman looks the way she wants to without some zhuzhing and cosmetic help. And for many of us, curling our eyelashes or rouging our cheeks is something we can accomplish without actually losing ourselves to the patriarchy. In fact, for many of us, we look more “ourselves” with a swipe of crimson lipstick than without it.
Just as I thought that creepy schoolboy giving Valentine’s Day cards to all 537 girls in his school in Utah, US, to let them know they’re “special and unique” was super gobsmackingly weird, the media reported on that story ad nauseam and is reporting on Humble similarly, because our bar has fallen that damn low. (This article was first published in theconversation.com.)
Lauren Rosewarne is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia