Hypothetical scenario; you used to be a child star. Maybe you were on a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel show. Now that you’re in your late teens / early 20s, it’s time to rebrand. As the OG teeny bopper said, you’re “not a girl, not yet a woman”. You’re a human adult, and it’s time to show the public that you’re all grown up, whilst still remaining in the public eye.
What’s the next step? Maybe some emotionally mature stripped-down music, maybe some Oscar Bait-y roles, or maybe some good old-fashioned cultural appropriation.
In recent weeks, people have been noticing Ariana Grande’s complexion magically darkening. Not only is she barely recognisable from her early Nickelodeon days, but she’s barely recognisable from her TIME magazine cover in 2018 (how convenient, she’s white and blonde when on the cover of a magazine being labelled as a future leader). Between the tanning, the vocal affectations (as seen here), and the musical shift from pop to Soulja Girl, Ariana has been rightfully accused of blackfishing.
Blackfishing came into the public lexicon late last year when several Instagram influencers were noticeably darkening their skin and wearing traditional black hairstyles to appear ethnically ambiguous. They are capitalising on the appearances of women of colour without having to live their experiences; all this while women of colour don’t get the same opportunities handed to them. “It was just kind of annoying because [Emma Hallberg, IG influencer and blackfisher has] gotten so Instagram famous off what black people have. Not even black people get the same amount of attention she’s getting”, said college sophomore Deja to Teen Vogue.
With Ariana Grande, people have genuinely been shocked to hear that she’s white; the general assumption is that she’s Hispanic or mixed race, and she’s not exactly making press conferences to change that assumption. She’s made public jokes about her quinceñera and her latest songs have leaned heavily into hip hop and trap (?) to the point that the likes of Soulja Boy and Princess Nokia can’t help but note the similarities. Not to mention the wildly embarrassing tattoo situation.
(Also 7 Rings is a terrible song, good god).
But this has happened before. And it will happen again. Pop girls using women of colour – in particular, black women – isn’t exactly a novel idea. I take you back to 2013: Obama was in his second term as president, nobody had coined the term Brexit yet, and the world was subjected to this caucasity:
6 years later and the second-hand embarrassment is still strong.
This wasn’t an iconic feminist move of a woman reclaiming her sexuality. This was white appropriation of black bodies. To fully shed her Hannah Montana teeny bopper skin, Miley’s new sound was “black”, (her words, not mine.) She said that she wanted to sound “hood” & “urban” and in her infamous VMA performance, she was using black women as props. The plus sized black women back up dancers were not glorified or empowered (see any Lizzo video for examples of that), they were demeaned and commodified; they were the butt of the joke. Speaking of butts, remember the whole “Miley invented twerking” narrative that was spewing around the internet. No, black women invented twerking, Miley was just doing weird body gyrations in public.
In the past six years, Miley has shed that skin and gone back to her white girl roots. For women like Miley, blackness is simply an identity that they can shed whenever they tire of it. I’m sure when the backlash gets too much, Ari will ease up on the bronzer and go back to being the innocent little white girl.
Using women of colour as props isn’t exactly new either. Remember Gwen Stefani? In 2004 she was (for some reason) trying to shed all of her indie cred from No Doubt, and decided to go into pop. She had some absolute bangers, but the aesthetics of hew transformation were problematic to say the least.
During the release of her album, Gwen had an entourage of four Japanese or Japanese-American women. These “Harajuku Girls” were nameless; instead they went by Love, Angel, Music & Baby, the name of Gwen’s album. In the background of her interviews and press releases, the women didn’t get voices or opinions – instead, they stood in the background voguing and posing silently while Gwen concocted the fantasy that they weren’t real, and were only a figment of her imagination.
I mean, GIRL. What was wrong with us in 2004 that she wasn’t immediately cancelled?
When asked about it in 2014, Gwen didn’t seem that remorseful: “For me, everything that I did with the Harajuku Girls was just a pure compliment and being a fan. You can’t be a fan of somebody else? Or another culture? Of course you can. Of course you can celebrate other cultures”.
There’s nothing complimentary about being caricatured while you pose silently as a white woman pretends you don’t even exist. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating other cultures, but, as MiHi Ahn wrote in 2005, this wasn’t appreciation. This was “modern-day geisha.”
I’ve barely even scratched the surface! Remember Xtina’s Xessive bronzing white girl dreads [pictured above] and this nonsense, or Katy Perry’s geisha outfit? Or even Cher’s “Half Breed”. You could even argue that The Beatles were the OG appropriators with their whole journey to India phase. Pop music has long lived on the commodification of other cultures without lifting them up. This has happened before. And it will happen again.
Anyway, go listen to the new Carly Rae Jepsen song as a palette cleanser.