The Backlash to Lizzo’s “Rumors” is a Reminder that Visibility Isn’t the Same as Progress

Representation is an important goal—but it’s only the first step toward an equitable society.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Aug 20 2021

11 mins read

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Content warning: This newsletter contains references to fatphobia.

 

When I first started thinking about starting a newsletter, one of the first things I did was make a list of potential ideas. I knew most of them wouldn’t be timely by the time Friday Things actually launched, but I found it helpful to think through the kinds of things I’d want to write about—that week in 2018 when everyone was fascinated with Bella Hadid’s fridge, for example, or the collective amnesia that allowed Snoop Dogg to evolve his public image into some kind of hip hop uncle. And at the top of my list was one question: what comes after representation?

 

It’s something I have been thinking about for a long time: the power and limits of representation, and why simply seeing ourselves in places and roles that we hadn’t previously been able to occupy, while a good start, isn’t going to solve racism, sexism, ableism—or fatphobia. And wouldn’t you know, that question became newly, and sadly, relevant this week thanks to the backlash around Lizzo’s new song, “Rumors.”

 

It all started with a now-deleted tweet

The song is Lizzo’s first release in two years. In the video, she and Cardi B are their best, most badass selves, sending up the criticism they’ve received about their bodies, fashion choices and career decisions while decked out like literal goddesses and surrounded by more than a few dick motifs—you know, just for funsies. Lizzo references the criticism she received after talking about doing a juice cleanse in 2020 (Readin' shit on the internеt/My smoothie cleanse and my diet), dismisses the idea that who she has sex with plays any role in her success (No, I ain't fuck Drake yet (Ha)) and reminds haters that she doesn’t make white music (Black people made rock and roll, yeah). On Cardi’s verse, she tackles plastic surgery rumours (Fake ass, fake boobs, yeah), her past gig as a stripper (Made a million at Sue's, yeah) and being sued by the FCC over “WAP” (Last time I got freaky, the FCC sued me). Overall, the song was clever, fun and cheeky—so of course it pissed some factions of the internet all the way off.

Proving once again that there’s a vocal slice of society that feels uncomfortable when women—and particularly Black women—are unapologetically happy and love themselves, Lizzo received a flood of fatphobic, colourist attacks about “Rumors,” to the point that Facebook and Instagram eventually stepped in to remove abusive comments from her social media accounts. (The fact that neither platform tends to do that for the multitudes of non-famous racialized women who face trolling and abuse is a whole other story.) Perhaps the most egregious example was a post by Twitter user @TheFineFeminine, who published a now-deleted tweet just after the video dropped, saying, “No shade but L**** is a mammy for the white gaze. Only reason her act is marketed and executed like that.” However, she wasn’t the only one sharing cruel takes on social media—and Lizzo made it clear that, despite her usual refusal to feed the internet trolls, these comments do affect her mental health and sense of well-being.

 

On Sunday, the singer posted an emotional Instagram Live saying, “People saying shit about me that just doesn’t even make sense. It’s fatphobic, and it’s racist, and it’s hurtful. If you don’t like my music, cool. If you don’t like ‘Rumors’ the song, cool. But a lot of people don’t like me because of the way I look... What I won’t accept is y’all doing this to Black women over and over and over again—especially us big Black girls. When we don't fit into the box that you want to put us in, you just unleash hatred onto us. It's not cool. I'm doing this for the big Black women in the future who just want to live their lives without being scrutinized or put into boxes."


Then on Wednesday, she appeared on Good Morning America to further address the bullying, where she said, “People are like, don’t let ‘em see you with your head down. My head is always up. Even when I’m upset and even when I’m crying, my head is up. But I know it’s my job as an artist to reflect at times, and this should not fly. This shouldn’t be okay.”

 

This shows why representation isn’t actually enough

Obviously, she’s right—it shouldn’t be, and in fact isn’t, okay to be cruel to people, especially not over the size of their bodies or the colour of their skin or any other inherent facet of their identity. But there’s another factor at play here. As Craig Jenkins pointed out in his review of “Rumors,” “the eagerness to take Lizzo down a peg for some perceived affront to decency, sparked by behavior [sic] as benign as displaying a bit of ass, says much more about us than her. We’re not as forward-thinking as we fancy ourselves. We’re still beholden to outdated 20th-century attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and gender roles, and all too eager to project this baggage on others.”

 

In short, Lizzo’s experience this week is a reminder that for marginalized folks, visibility doesn’t necessarily mean that progress has occurred.

 

I don’t say that to undermine the importance of feeling seen—as Dorinne Kondo, professor of anthropology at USC Dornsife, put it in 2019, “we all need to be ‘mirrored’ in the public sphere (popular culture, media, arts, etc.) to be considered a fully human, fully social being. Identities are formed by watching sports, theatre, TV, and YouTube; by playing video games, dancing, and listening to music. Those are more than just forms of entertainment, they stage ‘visions of possibility’ for what and who we can become.” I’ve felt that need myself, and fully admit that I regularly get emotional when it’s met by a show, movie or book depicts a family that looks like mine, or casts someone like me as the hero of the story, or, even just includes a joke or reference that sends the message that I am its intended audience.

But just because people from different marginalized groups are getting more proverbial (and literal) airtime doesn’t mean the deeply-held beliefs that shape our society and disenfranchise those of us who aren’t white, cisgender, male, straight, able-bodied, etc. have somehow ceased to exist. In fact, any time a marginalized person decides to become more public, whether they are entertainers, activists, journalists or even just very good at Instagram and especially when they talk about social justice, they know they are also opening the door to abuse because there are, as Brittny Pierre put it in an op-ed this week, "costs to empowerment." So yes, seeking more and better representation is important, but it’s only the first step toward an equitable society. Marginalized folks also need to have access to decision-making roles, unfair systems that subjugate large swaths of our population need to be dismantled—and we all need to unlearn the sometimes insidious messages we have internalized about which whose bodies are beautiful, worthy and valued.

 

About that Mammy comment…

Which brings us back to @TheFineFeminine. The person whose tweet played such a huge role in sparking this wave of abuse appears to be also be a Black woman, which is an excellent reminder that racialized people are fully capable of wielding fatphobia, colourism and misogynoir against one another. But regardless of her identity, there’s a lot to unpack about her using the word “mammy” in her tweet. For starters, it’s completely inaccurate. The Mammy trope describes a fictional dark-skinned, fat, asexual Black woman who is happily subservient to white people, prioritizing their needs over those of her community or herself. Aside from her skin tone and size, does that actually sound like Lizzo? Lizzo, who deliberately plays with hypersexualization in her work and explicitly says that she makes body positivity and confidence core parts of her music for the culture—a.k.a. Black culture? Or, and hear me out here, is it a fatphobic and colourist takedown of a woman who loudly professes self-love despite not being the size or shade she’s ‘supposed’ to be?

But it also speaks to a larger idea of what pop music is, and who it’s for. As Jenkins points out in his Vulture piece, Black artists invented both pop and rock, as well as jazz, blues, country and any number of other popular genres. (Remember the line in “Rumors” about Black people making rock and roll? In the video, it’s accompanied by a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the trailblazing singer, songwriter and guitarist who literally invented the genre.) But white theft of Black artforms (both the vibe and sometimes literal songs) has functionally erased that history, which is why Black people’s participation in those genres now gets perceived as pandering, instead of a more accurate term: reclamation.

 

Lizzo has (unfairly) been criticized for centring whiteness in her work for as long as she’s been a public figure. As writer Britney Spanos pointed out in the cover story of the February 2020 issue of Rolling Stone, “the most consistent, painful insult… is that she makes music for white people, that she’s merely shuckin’ and jivin’ for an audience of yas kween-era white feminists.” And let’s not forget that Azealia Banks characterizing Lizzo as a “millennial mammy” the previous year. Sure, Lizzo herself admits that there are “hella white people” at her shows. But the idea that her music is white just because white people like it is so illogical as to be laughable—and it’s tinted with no small hint of misogynoir, too. Or are Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper also making white music? Because their fanbases are also hella white.

Saying that Lizzo is pandering to white people implies that she’s occupying a white space—which isn’t just untrue, it’s also missing the point: pop music was Black first. What’s more, letting Black people back into the space you took from them does nothing to repair the damage taking it caused in the first place.

 

And Did You Hear About…

This very smart argument about how the U.S. used white feminism as justification for the initial invasion of Afghanistan—and how this week’s discourse on Afghan women falls into the same trap. Relatedly, my friend Shireen Ahmed wrote a super helpful piece about how we can actually help women in Afghanistan right now.

 

Toronto Life’s fascinating feature on viral IG account 6ixbuzz.


Peleton instructor Ally Love's five-day wedding—and more importantly, what it says about the state of modern celebrity.

 

Priya Krishna’s thoughtful article about the pros and cons of the grocery store ethnic aisle.

 

The guy who made a Forbes-style wealth ranking for his friends.

  

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