Gender, fat women, and racial tension — great job?

So, I’m going to bend a rule tonight in the service of addressing (and hopefully discussing) larger issues with race and gender: talk about a dude’s work. But I’ve been sitting on my hands for a while thinking about the music videos that will be the focus of this post and how they depict people of color, specifically black women, so let’s get to it.

Eric Wareheim, for those who may not know, is the “Eric” of Adult Swim staple Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It’s a highly irreverent, deliberately low-budget and ugly-looking sketch comedy show that might not even call itself as such. It’s also really funny. For further reading on the subject, I suggest my friend Evan’s great job Flow column. I’ll also point you in the direction of Jeff Sconce’s piece on recurring characters The Beaver Boys, a piece Evan also cites.

But Wareheim also directs music videos, usually bringing his lo-fi, ironic, discomforting approach to these projects. Two such clips make me really uncomfortable (these clips are NSFW).

The first video is Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor,” which came out earlier this summer. Admittedly, I know very little about whether or not the sexually graphic nature of the dancing is in any way a reflection of the culture and the personnel who put this together (Diplo and Switch of Major Lazer recorded their debut, Guns Don’t Kill People . . . Lazers Do in Jamaica; this is also where guest rapper Vybz Kartel comes from). But I feel oogy about the unveiled metaphor of dance as sex, what it might mean to have black (heterosexually coupled) bodies as spectacle, how those bodies are depicted and objectified, what staid notions about black female sexuality might be enforced, and what sex positions are privileged (lots of doggy-style). Add to this the lo-fi, day-glo excess of the video’s environment and the music video seems to be endorsing racist notions of primitivism, social immobility, and sexual insatiability.

When you add animation, issues of disembodiment, cheap clothes, fat bodies, and explicit sex scenes to all of this, as Wareheim did last year with his video for Flying Lotus’s “Parisian Goldfish” (which Pitchfork just dubbed the 50th greatest video of the decade), things get ickier. 

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that it’s bad for black people to have sexual appetites, nor am I trying to suggest similar restrictions on fat women (really, I’m not proposing these sanctions on any person). In fact, I think we need more overtly (and complexly) sexual fat women of all races and ethnicities in media culture. If they’re on top, so much the better.

But it seems a really queasy thing to spectacularize black heterosexuality and manipulate the bodies of black dancers and actors in such a baldly grotesque manner for a music video. It seems especially queasy when the person pulling the strings, pointing the camera, and in Wareheim’s case, putting together the animation sequences is a white guy.

Admittedly, director Chris Cunningham covered equally murky territory with his clip for Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker,” but it seemed there was a critique being made against mainstream hip hop’s preoccupations with materialism, misogyny, and female objectification.

I hasten to add that this critique also comes from a white guy making a music video for a white guy. I’d be far more interested in seeing more subtle, nuanced critiques about race, gender, and hip hop come from people of color. Thus, I’ll gesture toward Charles Stone III’s clip for The Roots’ “What They Do.” If you know of any smart, awesome female directors who have done similar work, please let me know.

With Wareheim’s work here, I wonder what the critique is. That it’s purposefully uncomfortable? But at what cost and at whose expense? While Wareheim may be working here with black, male and female entertainers and musicians (except Major Lazer, who is made up of two white guys who work with a lot of artists of color from all over world), what is he having them do and what does it mean?

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9 comments

  1. Carly

    This is definitely a provocative post, and I think this issue warrants grappling with. But, I have a couple things I’d like to bring up:

    1) Rather than “heavy-set” or “large-bodied,” I double dog dare you to say fat. It’s the preferred term among fat activists.

    2) Also, I sort of cringe at the use of “normal” in opposition to “heavy set.” I’m pretty sure most fat bodies are actually normal — especially in a country where 60% of adults are overweight or obese.

  2. Alyx Vesey

    1. You’re right. I always get scared to write it (and thus only had it listed as a tag). So, I will amend it, but leaving this exchange up as a record.
    2. Same as above. I will amend the language in both the post and the tags.

    Thanks, Carly!

  3. Alyx Vesey

    Also, I wonder if descriptors like “in-between” are good by acknowledging a fluid range of body types people (particularly women and girls) can belong to or if they further accentuate our culture’s preoccupation with the skinny-fat binary.

  4. Carly

    I know “inbetweenie” gets bandied about a lot in the fat communities I’m in. It generally refers to women whose size puts them literally in between the misses department and the plus department. The question you raise is a good one, though.

    That might be a good question to pose to someone who writes specifically to those issues. For example, Lesley from http://www.fatshionista.com or Marianne from http://www.therotund.com or any of the bloggers at Shapely Prose which is at http://kateharding.net/

  5. Pingback: Music Videos: Total Horror Show « Feminist Music Geek

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