By Nan Elpers
At the 2018 Grammy Awards ceremony last week, American singer-songwriter Kesha honored the #timesup Twitter campaign against sexual assault in the popular music and TV industries, performing her standard “Praying.” The song debuted in July of 2017, commemorating Kesha’s years-long legal battle against Sony producer Dr. Luke who allegedly sexually abused her during the years of their contract. I will analyze Kesha’s performance, which was accompanied by artists Cyndi Lauper, Andra Day, Camila Cabello, Bebe Rexha, and Julia Michaels. To do so I will borrow from Critical Race Feminist (CRF) analyses of essentialism and popular attitudes towards sexual abuse to suggest that the choice to have Kesha represent #timesup at the Grammys was an obvious but disappointing one given her status, race, and personal narrative about her assault and survival.
Kesha fits the mold for the type of assault victim dominant U.S. culture willingly sympathizes with. CRF notes that due to stereotypes of black women such as the Jezebel and Sapphire archetypes, women of color who have been victims of sexual abuse and suffered the psychological tolls are less believable than their white counterparts (Ammons, 261). CRF Linda Ammons describes this lack of credibility awarded to women of color by considering the use of the battered woman syndrome as a defense for victims of domestic abuse who have attacked their batterers: “[t]he ‘essentialist’ battered woman profile is a white, middle-class, passive, weak woman” (262). While Kesha’s was not a domestic abuse case and she did not attack Dr. Luke, Ammons’ assertion nonetheless informs us of the kinds of women dominant culture considers capable of being victims. Kesha’s race and class alone were safe bets that audiences would recognize her story of victimhood and healing.
In addition to her wealth and whiteness, Kesha’s display of emotion further solidified her legibility as a survivor. At the end of the performance, Kesha began to cry, and the accompanying artists rushed to embrace her as the crowd delivered a standing ovation (McCluskey). Kesha’s tears visibly represented her pain in a way the audience could comprehend and identify with. Black feminist theory purports that dominant culture responds favorably to certain expressions of pain, crying being one of the most salient (Lewis). According to CRF, the requirement of recognizable pain disadvantages Black women victims of sexual violence seeking recourse because “certain characterizations and/or cultural behavior [may] be inconsistent with the notion of dependency” (Ammons, 262) and psychological trauma associated with victimhood. Kesha’s display of emotion aligns with the weakness descriptive of Ammon’s essentialist victim.
Selecting an artist who fits the bill for the essentialist victim of sexual assault to honor #timesup is troubling because it situates her to represent all survivors inside and outside of the Music and TV industries, including women of color and poor women. CRF Adrien Wing characterizes the social implications of essentialism as this false and wide sweeping categorization as “the essential voice that actually describes the reality of many white middle- or upper-class women, while masquerading as representing all women” (7). This assumed representation was visually demonstrated on the stage, as well. Barring Cyndi Lauper, the five women cited in news coverage who sang alongside Kesha are all women of color. By foregrounding a white woman, the women of color who performed alongside here where physically and symbolically relegated to the sidelines, their voices only heard through the filter of Kesha’s words.
Because women of color are both subject to higher rates of sexual violence and able to represent a wider pool of women (“Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics”), the Grammy Awards would have done more justice to #timesup by highlighting a woman of color artist instead of Kesha. In her seminal essay on intersectionality, CRF Kimberlé Crenshaw argues that: “the refusal to allow a multiply disadvantaged class to represent others who may be singularly disadvantaged…limits remedial relief to minor adjustments within an established hierarchy” (26). In other words, allowing women of color, who are subject to the combined and multiple forces of sexism and racism, to also represent white women, oppressed only due to their gender, is a stronger attack on both gendered and racial systemic oppression. The choice to showcase Kesha explicitly challenges only the gendered hierarchy that contributes to a culture of hushed sexual assault claims, whereas foregrounding a woman of color would attack the racial as well as the gendered inequalities that perpetuate violence against women.
In writing this essay I do not mean to ignore that the attention paid to sexual violence against women at this year’s Grammy Awards is a victory in and of itself. It should also be noted that Janelle Monáe, a black female artist outspoken in the areas of women’s civil rights, introduced Kesha’s performance with a #timesup speech. Monáe’s presence and words did bring a woman of color’s voice to the table. Similarly, the inclusion of the four highlighted women of color artists who accompanied Kesha worked to the same end. Overall, though, Kesha’s musical performance at a musical awards ceremony made her the focus of the night’s attention to #timesup, perpetuating once again the image of the white female victim of sexual abuse.