In a mediascape where women are routinely sexualised and oftentimes overtly objectified in music videos, the most thoroughly tokenistic deviations can achieve accolades.
Exhibit A: Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”.
Despite no less than 40 uses of the word bitch, media were quick to dub the track as a feminist triumph.
According to Time for example, listeners were “blessed” with a song offering up “positive body language messages”.
Vogue similarly wants us to believe that “Humble” 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 fuckin’ 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 seems to be media literate enough to acknowledge a world replete with digital airbrushing, camera filters and the taking of 97 selfies before the perfect one gets posted on Instagram. He’s just not savvy enough 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 heart beat only to vie for validation from men.
I’d like to think feminism has moved on from there.
This 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 make-up gun.
In truth however, looking “natural” is often a complex affair involving lashings of application finesse, not to mention very good genes.
Exhibit B: Alicia Keys.
This preoccupation with the natural, with the authentic, also problematically presumes that there exists an acceptable _un_photoshopped, _un_airbrushed aesthetic that is available to every woman and thus we all should 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 oftentimes 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: not every woman looks the way she wants to without some zhuzhing. 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.
I don’t want, nor need, Kendrick bloody Lamar to validate the fact that I don’t look like a model. My sense of self doesn’t come from him. And just as I thought that creepy school kid giving Valentine’s cards to each girl in his school to let them know they’re “special and unique” was super gob-smackingly weird, the media reported on that story ad nauseum and is reporting on “Humble” similarly, because our bar has fallen that damn low.
Encouraging women to keep focusing on their appearance, to channelling energies into complying with labels like “natural”, “real” or “beautiful” isn’t feminist. Waiting for Kendrick Lamar to gives us the nod that we’re okay too certainly isn’t progressive either.
Allowing the wallpaper-esque models in a music video the opportunity to have a little cellulite misses the point, Lamar. Better luck next time.
Authors: Lauren Rosewarne, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne