“Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.”
― Patricia Hill Collins,
PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW: YouTube Star or Prop?
The ultimate dreams of success are not to be CEOs or Bawse moms with their own paper. For little girls the current pop culture mindset is to be a star without any recognition, without any of the politically relevant skills and thought processes that transfer into real economic and social power. Wishing to be a princess or a star is what capitalism sells kids before they can walk any other lifestyle or mindset. If you grow up with an ambitious financial mindset— what I call “ecological fitness” for girls–when you’re young, black, and female, the stereotype and stigmas of black-femaleness often erase you from view. It’s easier to see the gold-digga, hoodrat, and ratchet baby mama as if being a black girl growing up in America ain’t hard enough.
When I was a girl, I dreamed like everyone around me of being the Beyoncé of my time. Then it was Diana Ross. She left her girl group to go on to become the biggest women in the music business. We girls embodied her lead position in play but never learned what it took politically to get there other than some rumor that women slept their way to the top. And I don’t mean the Disney caricature of a sleeping beauty.
Next week when it opens, I’m going to go see the film Presenting Princess Shaw. Her real name is Samantha Montgomery, a 38-year-old single woman originally from Chicago, living in New Orleans. It’s playing at the IFC Center–the art film spot in Greenwich Village NYC. As a social media researcher who specializes in the unintended consequences of YouTube and its social sharing networks for marginalized girls of color, I am interested in examining both the views and reviews this film is getting by the numbers and through the critical lens of repeated cultural appropriation and sexploitation of black female culture in social video, embedded sharing, comments, and its bottomlines — who profits from its popularity and who gets the fame that translates into real capital?
A Guardian article from last September concluded by hinting at the hidden issue of the Montgomery’s clearly not paid-in-full digital labor or exploitation by Israeli documentarian Ido Haar and Israeli producer Kutiman who remixes musical clips from videos uploaded by users in his Thru You series. This is not to say she wasn’t paid but was she able to transact for the rewards and resources they surely imagined from the start? Probably not.
Dust to the Side Chick Dream:
The Pitfalls of a Imagining Yourself a Princess
In her older than expected “princess” fairy tale I am curious to see if the happy ending is no more than the emotional labor associated with her YouTube videos; none of which on first glance have more than 9,000 views which is huge for an average or ordinary YouTuber but a pittance for anyone claiming to be a YouTube star these days. Viral videos that make it big 9 times out of 10 are professionally produced.
The question I hope seeing the film answers is whether the protagonist of Presenting Princess Shaw gains more than social capital; can she, is she, or will she have the relevant political skills as a YouTuber to translate her social worth to the film into economic capital in her life of poverty.
Having only seen the Presenting Princess Shaw trailer, it feels like a “fashionable” poverty porn flick at the intersection of post-Katrina NOLA, internet tourism that hunts for black pop culture in the poor’s unpaid digital labor, justified by the acceptance that everyone over shares and ignores the potential profit of their online presence. The marginalize gain views but rarely capital. For black girls and women in an unrelenting search for the resources they need not only to survive but often to support others older and younger, centuries of structural racism and sexism is merely being replicated by invisible audiences from Inkster to Israel to elsewhere on the planet that mobile phones provide access to what’s great about the web and our lives and what’s not. [Inkster is another community where black lives are under attack from state violence. I lived near Inkster during grad school at the University of Michigan. Watch this horrific beating and the cost to taxpayers–we are footing the bill for police violence.]
As I plan to watch the film next week, I have a big question. How will Samantha Montgomery, a 38-year-old single woman struggling in New Orleans magically thrive without the real political tools for change in a market economy that never teaches the poor nor allows the girls and women of color to not only profit but overcome centuries of oppression? The fame thrust upon Montgomery by creatives in Israel may not fill the deep pockets of her unique poverty with the kind of power she needs to move out of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence working in a nursing facility. Being happy seen singing songs on film and being able to take care of your primary conditions of life–health, money, work, home, and family–are never synonymous. I hope she transacted for what she truly needed and that is never fame in and of itself.
On the surface of things–perhaps she has a different story to tell; I have not had the privilege of hearing her tell her side of the story after the fact– I suspect she is ill equipped to handle (hell, I would be ill-equipped to handle) the kind of analysis or critical thinking needed about the hidden costs of such fame, the licensing agreements, marketing, monetization of my channel and any contract, the implications of viral videos and feature films for my future once the film is no longer relevant, ownership of my image and digital content–for instance, asking yourself if a song yours cuz you sang it on YouTube?–and much, much more. No one ever taught me that and they sure don’t teach that to kids in school–and its’ definitely not taught to the girls who dropped out of math and science classes by high school or college. I’m one of them. I know.
When she finally grows up #staywoke
The Cinderella in stories told by Disney (read the critique by Peggy Orenstein here or the critique on NPR here) never asked for much. She wanted the patriarchal fantasy — the man savior never making from life’s racialized and gendered oppression in other ways as Beyoncé Lemonade has done from years of hard labor and rich collaboration. The social and psychological socialization of growing up black, female, and poor in the U.S. tends to limit our imagination to two options — the path to money through men and the systems of fame they created (see Nicki Minaj or Blac Chyna) or the illusion that someone might save you from the poverty most black women from low-income to middle-class occupy (see Blak Chyna or the distorted view that surely some girl out there has that Michelle Obama is famous because her husband is the president of the free world). My examples can be debated but I hope my point is not lost.
What futures are we announcing with existing social and viral media — commercial or user-generated– and what futures are actually available to most girls of color if they are not armed with the ethical study and analysis of the oppression, exploitation, and limits of power given to girls and women locally, nationally, and internationally by race, class, and gender? And let us not misread the “magic” of black girls and women. This is not the magic of a slight of hand or luck. It’s work! And it’s not the wage labor of the body (or stripper booty aka handle your paper). This is about the work and action of the mind and that is what matters for the Minajs and Knowles and Chynas out there.
This is the legacy of the intersectional work of womanists, feminists, anarchists, progressives, and everyday mothers, sisters, and daughters before the Internet was a thing. My mother has been reminding every time we talk lately about how much of this is lost or not being exercised today.
Someday: No Prince Need Come
Some day, when we free democratic systems–schools, media, family, government–from patriarchy (h/t to Carol Gilligan), girls and women will be free of the fantasy of the glass slipper or the diamond ring to grasp the reality that society can break that damn glass ceiling. That beloved community — what some call the art and discipline of nonviolence — comes from serious study and long-term planning.
We must learn how to teach girls and women that some day planning for wealth and health is far better than the glitter of 15 minutes of social media fame!
And it’s never to late to learn this, said the black woman struggling over 50!
POSTSCRIPT: I posted a similar video in a blog post a while back of this same very young girl–JoJo–who asserts to her daddy in more than one video that “I am is NOT a princess”. In this one she insists, “I’m a real person!” It’s precious and it made me think about the oppression socialization around why girls are marketed the princess ideology and why more girls don’t resist it.
We all have dreams and we have the right to imagine ourselves any way we choose. So I am not knocking Montgomery’s right to name herself as she chooses. What I question is the structures of power — particularly those of others– to exploit her circumstances and desires. I hope she understands the control over her representation they may wield and the politics she, or anyone else like her–a marginalized woman of color–needs to turn their 15 minutes of fame into long-term resources. It’s the bottomlines — the multiple forms of capital (i.e., social, economic, human, and cultural) involved that concerns me. I also notice a tendency for female singers to be exploited because we tend to not be well-educated in the power and politics of the music business. I want Montgomery, and others like her, to learn to transact so they can thrive not just survive.
This post was prompted after being contact by a reporter. In preparation, I started doing some study of her channel and the film. I’ll see the film within the week. Stay tuned for more.