Racialized performances in pop music or Why are Beyonce and JLo so scandalous?

This image is approved for consumption by polite society.

This image is approved for public consumption.

Last week, Jennifer Lopez scandalized Britain with a “raunchy” performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Not only did viewers flock to social media (as you do) to complain about JLo dropping it like it’s hot in a French-cut one piece and thigh-high boots, but British  TV regulator OfCom confirmed that it has received complaints about the broadcast and is assessing the matter, but not investigating it.

For helpful context, here is the performance–labeled “disgusting” and “shameful” by some critics–that provoked an “assessment” of whether a competitive reality show violated the bounds of decency.

In my humble opinion, the only thing indecent about that performance was the tepidness of the dancing and the awfulness of the song. (But, hey, maybe it’s not for me. I’m an old–actually the same age as JLo–and I don’t spend much time at the club lately.)

I suspect the assessment of Jennifer Lopez’s performance is influenced by both race, size and age bias. But you know I’m conspiratorial that way, so I asked Andrea, my homegirl and fellow editor at the R to weigh in.

Tami: When I heard all the crowing about this performance, I recalled Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year., which also prompted cries of outrage.

Both of these performances seem astonishingly tame in the face of criticism. “Disgusting” is a pretty strong word to describe booty shaking in a body suit. Folk are generally cool with sexy (and sexist) Go Daddy commercials during the Super Bowl, but Queen Bey causes parents to “shield their kids’ eyes.”

I think the response to these performances is very much influenced by racial bias. Brown and black bodies are routinely sexualized. Latinas bear the weight of the “spicy” and “exotic” stereotypes. And those stereotypes have dogged Lopez throughout her career. The nickname “J. Ho”–a reference to the singer/actress’ alleged promiscuity and mercenary character–even has a spot in the Urban Dictionary. And I should point out, these accused character traits seem to be based on little but the skewed way this culture views Latinas.

Lopez herself told US magazine of the controversy: “I think people are so much raunchier than I am. I feel like I’m so tame. [I] wore it at Billboard and Britain’s Got Talent said they wanted exactly the same. So I thought I’d wear the outfit in black. No one complained at Billboard. I think people just like to talk. It was a bodysuit. A lot of performers wear that these days. It is standard stage clothes. I’m not going to walk down the street like that!”

JLo’s act does not seem markedly different from any other pop spectacle–no different Britney Spears’ iconic performance at the 2000 VMA’s or what this Britney impersonator did during an audition for…wait for it…“Britain’s Got Talent” in 2011.

Andrea: I agree, especially about the relative tepidness of Lopez’s performance and the non-scandalousness of her outfit.

What I think  is at play here is Beyonce and Lopez are doing dance moves that are, whether done with Beyonce’s exuberance or with Lopez’s tepidness, sexy moves that they thought of and/or approved of. In other words, they’re expressing their sexual agency. However, that’s a major no-no in a society steeped in the sexist ethos of “I can touch you, but you can’t touch yourself,” which has a long structural history in the lives of women of color due to slavery and colonization.

And this “what about the children” reasoning as to folks’ disgust with the two women’s performance brings up not only women of color doing that stereotypical thing of ruining people’s sexual “innocence” but also something of–how shall I phrase this?–an unspoken notion of the influence of images not only affecting how a person will be “brought up” to express their own sexuality but also the kind of person their brain will be hard-wired to be attracted to. If the child–and let’s be really real, kids are indeed sexual beings–is connecting their erotic feelings to seeing a woman of color dancing like Lopez and moreso like Beyonce, the parents may be thinking that their child just may act upon that attraction and–gasp!–fall in love and–clutch the pearls!–bring “such a woman” home as a spouse.

Tami: And here’s the other thing: Jennifer Lopez (and Beyonce) are not only women of color, they are also women known for having curvy body types, which are often associated with Latinas and black women and are larger than the current ideal for celebrities. Unrestrained fleshiness and jiggle reads differently than hard and trim; Physical abundance is often mistaken for wantonness.

Media wrote about Lopez’s “bum-baring” performance, but the singer’s booty is covered; her outfit was less revealing than typical beachwear. Could the rub be that JLo’s rear is big and round vs. tiny and tight?

Andrea: I think Lopez herself has pointed out how her body shape get framed in this society: “People equate sexy with promiscuous. They think that because I’m shaped this way, I must be scandalous–like running around and bringing men into my hotel room. But it’s just the opposite.” To me, Lopez shouldn’t have had to say such a thing–her body, however it’s shaped, is hers to do with what she wants with nary a comment to the press. However, the burden of the stereotypes about Latinas and Black women keeps us defending our reputations in the public space in order to, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry says in her book Sister Citizen, keep our bearings in the face of the socially constructed crooked images of ourselves.

But we’re not only defending our reputations that folks assume comes with our bodies; we also need to defend our bodies, literally, as seen by the clip of Beyonce whipping around and firmly telling a white-appearing concertgoer in Denmark that she’d have him removed because he smacked her butt–and this happened last week!

This brings me back to what you said about our bodies being routinely sexualized. It’s not just that bodies of color are routinely sexualized; it’s that our bodies are furthermore seen–still–as public sexual property to be discussed and publicly contested to be the figures that people shouldn’t aspire to desire sexually, though I’ve heard quite a few non-Black and non-Latin@s say that Beyonce and Lopez inspired them to “love their curves” and/or “embrace their booties” in light of the contested reality that Beyonce’s and Lopez’s curves are seen as a physical and sexual ideal.

Tami: Lastly, I think age is a factor in this discussion as well. Western culture worships youth. Women past a certain age aren’t supposed to sexy; we are supposed to cover up. Madonna is routinely told to put it away. And, to hear some folks tell it, Janet Jackson’s biggest sin wasn’t showing booby on primetime television, but showing over-40 booby. Sexy dressing may be fine for the 20-somethings, but for women north of 40, it is unseemly.

Andrea: *Sigh* I think part of this is the association of age and motherhood. Lopez and Beyonce are both mothers. Forty-something women especially (Bey is in her 30s) are cast as matronly–whether or not we have children–and being sexually attracted to a woman of that age is seen as MILFing, which, as the phrase states, is all about desiring a woman old enough to be (some)one’s mom, who are always constructed as non-sexual beings in this society. (Thus, the porned-out “shock” of the attraction.)

But, as we talked about in an earlier conversation, pop is relentlessly marketed as the “music of youth”–and “youth” is relentless hyped as the desired, if not ideal, stage of life, partly because of its able-bodied physicality–that very few people have a career in pop music in their late 30s and especially in their 40s and beyond, especially women of color. The brilliant singer Cassandra Wilson can enjoy a long career in jazz. Jill Scott can stay a neo-soul singer for a good long time, especially since she can always cross over into jazz (which she has). Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops will have longevity in the alt-country/bluegrass scene. Tina Turner, who had a string of pop hits in the 80s, is idolized as a rock icon who here lately rocked out as as torch singer. Grace Jones is lionized as a black proto-AfroPunk goddess who can shame all pop performers with a hula hoop. And I highly doubt any of them would get whapped on their asses at their concerts.

No, it’s pop goddesses who are so deeply degraded when they aren’t meeting the physical ideals of youth, like, well, getting older. And it’s Black and Latina pop goddesses–like Beyonce, Jackson, and Lopez, who’s still fondly remembered as one of the Fly Girls for In Living Color–who are degraded so roundly and so publicly.

  • NVioleta

    While I agree that WOC’s bodies have always been oversexualized, I have to say there are many instances in pop culture when white women’s bodies are decried for being too sexy, namely Britney Spears. I was in high school when she first broke out, and she constantly faced criticism for dressing too sexy too soon. In fact I remember the photo used for this article is from her rather controversial VMA performance where she “stripped.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but these are the only two instances where Beyonce and JLo have been criticized for being too sexy. Britney has faced for at least the first five years of her career. I don’t think it’s a great comparison to make your point.

    • whattamisaid

      Britney Spears was criticized early in her career, because of she was a child performing in a sexualized way, but when she became of age that criticism generally stopped (Though the public found loads of other reasons to be critical.) But both Beyonce and JLo have been criticized throughout their careers. These are certainly not isolated instances. In fact, see the feminist backlash against Beyonce. And, as I mentioned in the post, the moniker “JHo,” which has stuck to Jennifer Lopez for years. On top of being slut shaming, the name seems to have little to do with who Lopez is and everything to do with how the culture views Latinas.

  • Tusconian

    I think Britney Spears is a bad comparison to highlight the hypocrisy (people just love to hate her for different reasons, or did up until a year or two ago), but I have to agree. Compare Beyonce and J. Lo, who are (marginally) larger women of color, to the super skinny white performers of today. Beyonce and J. Lo, for all the ranting and raving, are quite tame. Yet, I hear some of the same people who won’t let their (very small) kids listen to “Single Ladies” encouraging their (again, TINY) kids to listen to Lady GaGa. Lady GaGa is hardly a revolutionary or particularly shocking to anyone with access to the outside world, but her lyrics, outfits, and persona make Beyonce and J. Lo look like choir girls in prairie dresses! Honestly, most of the white (or white passing) teen pop stars are very overtly sexual in their performance, yet I don’t think I’ve ever read about scandalized parents covering their 12 year old son’s eyes when Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus comes on stage. This isn’t new, either. The Spice Girls (one black member, but overwhelmingly white) were very sexy both in lyrics and in clothing, yet no one batted an eye at the fact that their target audience was prepubescent girls; Beyonce isn’t even targeting children, yet the outrage is directed at “think of the children!”

    Also, it might be worth noting, in my experience, British people barely have any idea that Latin Americans exist as people as opposed to exotic, mildly frightening stereotypes, and tend to lump them in with other brownish ethnicities that tend to elicit ire (south Asians, Middle Easterners, and Roma). Most Americans are used to Latni@s, which could explain why the same outfit didn’t cause moral outrage here.

  • Jessica Burde

    I haven’t kept up with either pop music or the Superbowl in a number of years, but Beyonce’s performance doesn’t look any different then what I would expect from a pop singer. If there was any parent who had somehow never seen a pop performance before, i could understand their reacting this way. But damn it, how many people under 40 haven’t seen this kind of performance before? Have they been living under rocks for the past 15 years?

    For that matter, watching Beyonce’s performance with the sound off (I really, really don’t like pop music) the dancing reminded me of a faster version of the old Bette Midler concerts my mother used to love. So this kind of thing sure as hell isn’t restricted to pop music.

  • Ruthie O

    Yes. I remember when JLo was just starting to be a big deal; her behind was routinely a center of conversation. Pics of her scantily clad popped up all over magazines and then the Internet. That was okay, though, because in those pictures, she was passively pleasing the male gaze. However, when she or other woman of color celebrate their bodies and sexuality in an active way, in a way that serves themselves rather than the male gaze, the universe erupts.

    Also, I appreciate what Tami and Andrea say about size and shape. I love how both JLo and Beyonce frequently wear stage costumes that single out their “biggest” body parts: their thighs. JLo’s costume here makes a point to emphasize her thighs, thighs that are bigger than standard beauty icon’s thighs. As a woman who has struggled with weight and body issues for a decade, I love that she chooses to flaunt the very body part that challenges mainstream beauty standards. Watching JLo strut those thighs made me love my thighs just a little bit more.