Wendy O. Williams, Madonna, and Miley Cyrus: what do they all have in common? Well, to state the obvious, they are all singers/musicians. However, they all also have a socio-political commonality: they are all white women who use/used their bodies and sexuality to promote sex positive feminism in their stage performances and music videos. Sex positive feminism holds the credo that all sex, so long as it’s consensual, is good. Whether you agree with the sex positive mantra, the fact remains that all three of the aforementioned white, female musicians have used sex positivity as a platform to influence young women to embrace their sexuality. Embracing sexuality can also mean embracing your body in all its flaws, learning about what you want in bed, and asking for it.
There can be power in sex positive feminism. Some female-identified people may experience agency from exploring their sexuality and identifying what makes them sexually fulfilled. Of course, there are many opponents within the feminist community who say that women are never free of the male gaze, and for that reason sex positive feminism is a myth conjured up by the patriarchy. But this article is not about whether sex positive feminism has got it right.
Instead, there’s something bigger yet more subtle at play here. When pop culture is confronted with female artists who embrace their sexuality, there’s a double standard. Women like Wendy O. Williams, Madonna, and Miley Cyrus are displayed as champions of sexual liberation within white, sex positive feminist circles, but artists like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and Trina are often vilified and harshly criticized for the same actions and messages. Now, it’s well known that any woman who dares to bare herself in public is in for a backlash; culturally, women’s bodies are seen as obscene. However, many feminists will come to the defense of white female performers who are unabashedly afraid of showing everyone in the world just how much they have embraced their sexuality. When black female performers take that same platform, they’re not given the same credit as white female performers.
Here’s a case in point: back in 2014, two articles surfaced that show the double standard placed on black women in entertainment. In the linked article, you can find details about how each piece presented two female entertainers; one (Cyrus) is lauded as a “feminist icon” for her stage presence, her sexual agency, and her messages to women worldwide. One the other hand, Minaj is basically mocked by the author of the second article for wearing a blazer without a top or bra to publicize her fashion line.
You might be thinking, “Okay, so what?” The problem is that blackness is often conflated with sexual promiscuity. This stereotype has been used to discredit rape accusations by black women for nearly all of American history. As this article from the Medium puts it: “The Jezebel is the representation of black women, which includes the sexually promiscuous, the insatiable, and the unrapable as a way to justify the sexual exploitation of black women.” By elevating sex positive white women and denouncing sex positive black women, this destructive stereotype is reinforced. This double standard essentially says that if white women express their sexuality, they are acting with agency, but if black women express their sexuality they are lewd, crude, and lascivious. This duality exalts white women seeking sexual agency, while denying black women this same intention.
Most likely, critics of black female performers don’t realize that their actions are perpetuating an age old oppressive stereotype, but nonetheless, this double standard shouldn’t exist. It’s impossible to put some women on a pedestal and some women on media trial for similar practices and methods. Hell–no one should be put on media trial for expressions of their sexuality. But when white feminists exercise a sex positive double standard, the effect is paramount to the struggles of black women who are culturally debased due to racist ideologies that permeate society. Feminism is supposed to seek the social, political, and economic equality between the sexes, and that doesn’t stop at white women.
After the exchange on Twitter yesterday between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, I was reminded that this double standard continues to exist, and white feminists often just don’t get it. Sometimes they feel a bit attacked, like Swift initially did. After some schooling from Minaj, though, Swift quickly changed her tune. Remember: calling out racism in your industry doesn’t mean calling you out specifically, unless you’re the one expressing the double standard. Minaj’s initial tweet discussed this double standard pretty succinctly, stating that if she were “different kind of artist” her video for “Anaconda” would have been nominated. Swift took this, and many other of Minaj’s tweets on the VMAs, personally instead of dissecting the intersectional web Minaj was weaving.
It’s not to say that sex positive feminism shouldn’t be analyzed for the effects it has on feminism and culture. At the same time, this article should not serve as an indictment of Wendy O. Williams, Madonna, or Cyrus. However, sex positive feminists shouldn’t be picking and choosing their poster children based on race. And anyone who says it is not based on race, but rather taste, sophistication, or some other excuse is hiding their racism. When you see a black woman shaking it fast, think about why you see her the way you see her, and ask yourself if it has anything to do with her race. The same goes for a white woman. If you see one as a pariah and the other as a savior, then a sex positive double standard might be deeply ingrained in you.