The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”
~~ Trudy @GradientLair
“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, On Intellectual Activism
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.
“The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.” ― Marcus Garvey
“There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” ― Bell Hooks, killing rage: Ending Racism
BlackGirlsCODE are launching their second #hackathon series in 2015 which is to be called “Project Humanity“
As I explore the unintended consequences of social media, things I am learning to understand are helping me testify in federal cases about misunderstandings around social media. If more people, if more girls, knew how to write code for digital media and apps, our literacy around protecting our digital self-worth would alter radically. So if you have a daughter, consider taking her to this:
The latest hackathon theme of Black Girls CODE is Project Humanity. It will emphasize how girlscan create positive change in our world focusing on ecosystem, the earth, and social justice themes. Teams will build apps and solutions that solve problems in this space. “Project Humanity” is about creating a good and safe environment for both humans and the earth. Our theme broadens the definition of environment to not just include the earth (water, plants, animals, etc.), but also the environments that we (humans) live in.
“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed” ― Paulo Freire
“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption (Freire, 1970, p. 54).”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Werkin‘ the Mind and the Body
My anthro vlogging undergraduates done done it again! We approach twerking with new eyes! All three sections of my Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses, each with about 25 students, did a final project analyzing black girls’ twerking videos that was worth 50% of their grade the last 4 weeks of our semester.
We should treat human behavior as symbolic action; action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies; the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask is what their import is (Geertz 1973, 9-10). …
Culture is public because meaning is, and systems of meanings are what produce culture, they are the collective property of a particular people. When we, either as researchers or simply as human beings, do not understand the beliefs or actions of persons from a foreign culture, we are acknowledging our lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs (Geertz 1973, 12-13) We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning when, as Wittgenstein noted, “We cannot find our feet with them.”
The main outcome of studying twerking videos in an intro course was to learn how to do qualitative data analysis along with participant-observation of YouTube vlogging, both of which are key methods used to conduct ethnography in digital/visual anthropology.
As you may recall from my TEDxUofM talk “Broadcasting Black Girls’ Net Worth”, I had a dataset of over 800 videos collected with former undergrad classes. About 80% of these videos feature adolescent girls 16 and younger. Several feature children aged 8 to 12.
The project included:
Basic certification in the ethics ofrespect, beneficence, and justice in human subject research.
Using college library journal databases to search and find a good scholarly article that exemplified or explained how to do qualitative coding of videos.
Doing a review of two more scholarly articles; one article had to be about black girls and the other article could focus on one of the following intersecting domains of our study: YouTube, bedroom culture or twerking/black dance.
At least one of the article had to be written by a black female author.
Articles included work by Treva Lindsey, danah boyd, Alice Marwick, and Rana Emerson as well as my own writing about twerking.
Next, students applied open coding or other methods of analysis they discovered to a batch of 12-16 videos. Each small group was assigned a batch from a larger set of 800 videos. They were required to use an interpretive method of ethnographic analysis known as “thick description” (c.f., Clifford Geertz)
An insight that one student voiced after completing his ethics certification was that we must remember to include the girls in the audience when reporting our findings. As a result, I came up with an idea. I asked each student to make a final vlog and directly address the girls they study in a kind of “Dear Black Girls”structure or something similar. The video embedded above was one that almost made me cry.
On Ethics: Student’s Reflections
If you teach anthro or sociology or to let my students’ words teach and guide your students in ethnical research, take a look at the following video. Here’s a basic overview of students’ insights from learning how to conduct ethical human subject research and reading about the history of exploitation as a result of scrupulous ethics.
You never get a second chance at a first impression.
Before online, [it was] private by default, public by effort. After online, public by default, private by effort. ~~ danah boyd
As you all know, I am on a mission to educate girls of color, specifically black girls, and the people who love them to consider protecting your future digital reputation while you grow up online.
Your future depends on what you do today more than ever before.
Your digital reputation is critical to your future net worth in a networked reality. The permanance of what you do on YouTube or other social networks and the searchability of most data is not your friend.
What you say and do online can and surely will ruin your reputation for decades to come and girls of color should be particularly concerned. Other people’s perceptions of us matter even while we campaign for our own lives mattering to them. #blacklivesmatter #blackgirlsmatter
As a demographic minority, we cannot guarantee the the millions of strangers out there can get us without meeting us in person. In other words, how people tend to perceive black females (cis or transgender) is already stigmatized and latent with stereotypes and symbolic meaning that the youngest black girls online have not yet fully grasped nor learned how to manage. Your reputation is everything! And adolescence is no longer protected given the millions of kids 13 and younger on YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms. How do we get kids and adults, alike, in communities of color to start thinking of that I am a brand not just as an individual. I represent more than my present self. I also represent my future selves in perpetuity.
Here’s a quick remedy. Eric Qualman’s book WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS STAYS ON YOUTUBE: Privacy is Dead (2014). It’s a must read and a quick one, too! Be sure to download it from Amazon while it’s still free!
Not convinced? Don’t forget what happened to our girls. Think of Rachel Jeantel, Quevenzhané Wallis, Malia Obama, whose selfie that leaked before she knew it, or Mo’ne Davis and the negative attention they received that wasn’t even warranted. What happens to girls who twerk? Nothing wrong with twerking. It’s the broadcasting it online before you’ve even finished high school that threatens a young black girls’ public identity and future net worth (online and off). Mo’ne and Quevenzhané have publicists. Every day people do not.
TIP OF THE DAY:
I bet many of you have YouTube channels but do not have your settings for your History or your Searches “private.” Don’t wait! Do it today!!
“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
― Rumi, The Essential Rumi
I learn so much more from creating content than writing about it some days. Action not reaction. Production not consumption. But analysis make my creative vision sharper.
About to start writing a book about all this work. The name will likely be
Digital Seduction: Black Girls, Twerking and the #Bottomlines of their ‘Net Worth on YouTube
Here’s a new version of the video my students and I produced last summer. I monetized my YouTube channel causing the initial version to be disqualified. Why? The student who did the production thought it was great idea–I did too as well as did the other students–to set the video to Lil Wayne’s “Make it Rain”. But the music politics of copyright got us. As Banksky reminds us we are forbidden to touch the advertisers and marketers of our pop culture, while that touch every aspect of our lives it seems. No twerking without music. No music without girls dancing. But who’s making top dollar on making it rain? Not black girls or women. #misogynoir #mileygate
Black Girls’ ‘Net Worth: Owning Their Own Creativity and Content
There is so much to be said, I don’t always know where to begin. but begin I will! And hopefully I won’t drive my students crazy in the process. This ish is complicated!
Here’s the new version with music by a commercial artist but this time a woman. I played with the pitch and the bpm. Maybe it will get past the bots. Tell me if you recognize the artist, if the beat works, and if the content sings!
The Right to Protect Your Embodied Self-Expression
This talk on privacy from TEDGlobal in Rio last week is one of the first talks made public. As I shared about the Watching Black Girls Twerk on YouTube data about the ways girls images are essentially being “trafficked” by 44% of the 168 videos we collected, a woman said she wasn’t on social media but then added she made her first selfie the other day. If you carry a mobile phone, you are being surveilled with your phone itself, your calls, your photos and your microphone in ways you surely are just indifferent to.
As women and people of color, the lack of privacy could and probably will be much more harmful and detrimental to us when others perceive our actions of “bad” — whether that’s the state or fellow citizens who ability to flag or dislike your uploaded content, tweets and updates can perhaps lead you to lose your job these days. Factor in the discriminatory biases of race, gender and age, and you might see why I am studying the videos of black girls who twerk on YouTube. I am trying to understand the media ecology of surveillance by other consumers and by corporations like YouTube and VEVO and the possible implications all this has on black music culture, girls’ musical behavior and the social construction of our digital self-presentation. This work is bigger than black girls. It applies to us all.
GlennGreenwald was one of the first reporters to write about the Edward Snowden files and the US governments surveillance of its citizens. His TED talk begins by talking about what I am most passionate about these days–digital self-presentation–and the indifference teens and adolescents (much less the rest of us) have when uploading images of ourselves made in private settings in front of a webcam. The moment initially leads to sense of “context collapse” or a sense that you don’t know who you really talking to out there in Internet land–you lose control of your image the moment you upload it. Greenwald begins:
0:00 There is an entire genre of YouTube videosdevoted to an experience whichI am certain that everyone in this room has had.It entails an individual who,thinking they’re alone, engages in some expressive behavior —wild singing, gyrating dancing,some mild sexual activity —only to discover that, in fact, they are not alone,that there is a person watching and lurking,the discovery of which causes themto immediately cease what they were doingin horror.The sense of shame and humiliationin their face is palpable.It’s the sense of,“This is something I’m willing to doonly if no one else is watching.”
0:53 This is the crux of the workon which I have been singularly focusedfor the last 16 months,the question of why privacy matters
Educating Black Girls: Their Privacy Matters
I posted this comment after the video:
As a digital ethnographer studying how black girls’ images are being “trafficked” more or less to feed their adolescent desires to fit in through social media/online video or to feed the markets of objectifying female body parts, this talk speaks directly to an issue that I find most African American adults–parents, teachers and elders of any age–tend to be indifferent to. Our privacy…We give it away with YouTube in the name of some fake democracy or self-expression that will later be used as data to limit access to education, to jobs and more.
Thank you Glenn Greenwald for your passion, commitment and integrity to journalism’s core values in any society. Your work as a journalist reveals what is often hidden from us by others and by our own words that defy our lived realities. This is why my intention now is to help black girls learn what their elders are not equipped to teach yet.