However, my final thoughts post, which will include an index of the podcasts, won’t be published until Wednesday, June 26. So, in the meantime, please head over to SoundCloud and follow us there so you can keep up with the podcasts as they’re published.
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.
Last night, I was up late. As the drizzle pitter-pattered on our window, Amelia and I joined the chorus around the globe of the vocal chords forming the sounds of tragedy. The feeling of pain and fear in our guts was enough to keep eyes open and minds muddled. As Amelia spoke on their feelings of hurt and powerlessness, I recalled Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück’s message about the necessity of activist self-care. In musing about my latest musical obsession, Akala, I had to share his words with Amelia: “The only way to ever change anything is to look in the mirror and find no enemy,” adding, “But I think it’s more than that, it’s more than ‘no enemy.’ It’s about being good and healthy first.”
We woke without the springing bounce that seemed to guide us out of bed over the past week. In my grogginess, I made it at least a block from the apartment before realizing my shorts may not have been the most appropriate choice on this chilly, damp morning. On the train, I pieced together, with the aid of good ol’ Google Translate (complete with a downloadable offline feature!), a headline about the massacre that read, “[Donald] Trump Calls for Obama’s Resignation.” I wish the permeation of the former’s overused name into this German headline had been a jolting surprise, but alas, since arriving in Europe three weeks ago, I’ve noticed it more than ever. While in London, I read an opinion piece in The Evening Standard, which claimed, “The Trump phenomenon would be a little less alarming were it confined to America. But it is merely the most dramatic instance of what looks increasingly like a pan-Western pathology.” The extensive transnational effect of the United States makes me worry tenfold about the aftermath of the events of this election season and this Sunday morning could have around the world.
In “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” Erik N. Jensen explores transnational collective memory, as it bridges between Germany and the United States. Jensen finds, “Films, plays, historical studies, and commemorative strategies produced in one country have often found a receptive audience in the other” (339). Yet, he also explores the dichotomy that exists as the gay community in the United States finds the Jewish Holocaust “a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, [while] the German gay community has avoided this comparison” and looks to the history of the United States (342). By appropriating the story of the Holocaust in association with German gay movements, the United States is able to elevate itself above the level of thatsort of inhumane oppression by “othering” the terrors of the foreign. Meanwhile, Jensen notes the German commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in the United States, an act of not only solidarity, but also adopted history, leaving me to wonder what could happen if our histories begin to cross again in the current political climate.
This is where my mind is as we sit, again in Each One Teach One, to hear from Magda Albrecht and acclamie, writers for the largest German feminist blog: “Mädchenmannschaft” (“Grrrls Team” in English). Magda and acclamie sit at the front of the room in cushioned chairs in a laid back, talk-show style, next to Heidi, who “feels like Oprah.” Today, the show is a continuation of the special series: “How to Live as an Activist,” Episode: “Blogging.” acclamie and Magda introduce the history of “Grrrls Team” and its development over its nine year lifespan. Coming to fruition in 2007 at the hands of three young white women, this blog family is now composed of fourteen writers, and has resulted in 4,500 posts that have received 51,000 comments.
The “Grrrls Team” writers, like most activists, work for a gain that exists outside the realm of capitalism ($0 per hour, after taxes). Magda is a self-proclaimed musician and political educator, doing events management to “pay the rent.” Her dress has smiling hot air balloons of different pastel colors, and she refers to herself as the “Grrrls Team granny,” as she is currently the longest standing writer, having joined the blog in 2009. She works specifically in queer feminism and fat activism. acclamie chooses to use a pseudonym for job safety reasons, but it also allows her freedom of voice that Magda writes without. “I’m still scared to hit the publish button!” Magda tells us. “Wow, really?” acclamie exclaimed, as she hasn’t fully realized the power of her own pseudonym until today. Both women found feminism in returning to Germany from studying abroad in “anglophile” countries, the U.S. and the U.K. They laugh, remembering the feminism they were reading at the time and reflecting on their constantly developing activism. acclamie finds that social change “takes for fucking ever.” “Things reconfigure, but do they really change?” she wants to know.
The writers tell us about the slow introduction of intersectional feminist theory throughout the years at “Grrrls Team.” For instance, for their fifth anniversary, they celebrated with panelists and other invited activists, but as happens in the world of activism and Oprah, some of the guests who came to speak about SlutWalks spouted some “racist bullshit” and set off a divide in the “Grrrls Team.” Five members of the team left, while the rest stayed on with an even clearer notion that antiracism and feminism must coexist. Four years later the blog is still thriving and inspiring readers every day. In looking back at this timeline, Magda was wary of the potentially teleological narrative that could arise, saying, “This idea that development is so linear, I have a problem with that.”
The conversation turns toward the possibility of “eradication” of oppressive systems. Heidi finds this a place of impossibility, but acclamie counters, “Racism is not transcendental. [It has a historical emergence.] It takes for freakin’ ever, but it is possible. It is man-made. It has a starting point, so it could have an ending point.” Along these lines, one of the early proponents of women’s rights in Germany, Clara Zetkin, found, “Only with the destruction of capitalism and the victory of socialism would the full emancipation of the female sex be possible” (Honeycutt 133). As capitalism is an essential part of sexism, the idea that anything man-made could be man-destroyed, or better yet woman and/or trans-destroyed, allows for a train of thought I had long ago believed was out of commission. What does it mean that capitalism and sexism are man-made? What does it mean that that which is created can also be eliminated? How do I even begin to imagine a world in which eradication is a possibility?
On “Grrrls Team,” not all comments are published. The authors monitor them, and about 10% do not make it through the screening process. While that is often an easy decision, it comes down to the author of the piece because, as Magda shares, “We have to feel comfortable with it. In German, we say, ‘This is our neighborhood, our little garden.’” “Our turf,” acclamie adds. Contrary to popular belief, this is not censorship, because it is not executed by the state. It is in their self-cultivated garden, and there are only so many bacteria along with which their flora can survive.
In addition to their (free, volunteer, activist) work on the blogosphere, they organize and host Lady*Fest, which happens two weeks from now in Heidelberg. The poster promotes workshops, parties, lecture/performance, self-defense, film, café, Do It Yourself, and art. Magda noted today that although the blog’s internet capital is soaring, social and financial capital is only a fraction of the size, which for a primarily internet activist must be a constant frustration. With this festival, the opportunity to merge the physical and virtual activist bodies becomes an imperative. The festival is creating a space to find comfort, learn, and create. This reminded me of the introduction to Winter Shorts, a collection of short stories illuminating oppressive systems in contemporary Germany, Sharon Dodua Otoo recalls, “Recently, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion called ‘Can art save the world?’ And when I think about how Black people are being dehumanized, my honest answer is: it is the only thing left that can” (18).
So here I am, sitting in Café Berio in Schöneberg staring at the art on the walls. Naked bodies in their own distinct coloring sit, thinking. A green woman kisses a blue one contrasting the bright red background. They exist as connected bodies, particles of paint, colors dancing with each other. I find the other works (all by the same artist, who signs “Sarah”) more subtly solemn and pensive, yet coexisting with the tender, passionate embracing couple. As activists, we will inhabit the single portraits of pensive philosophers, but we cannot thrive in the work without a laugh or a kiss. I’m still going to worry about the state of political affairs, queer safety, racism, and the many other pains that compose the world as I know it, but for now, I think I’m going to take a walk through Berlin and listen to Doublethink for the thirtieth time this week, as I’d like something to give me a little hope, and I think Otoo might be right: Art is “the only thing left that can” (18).
Lila Schmitz is majoring in Film and Media Studies and minoring in Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She’s going to be starting her second year at CC and third year of college in the fall. She’s enjoyed getting involved with CC theater and a capella (Ellement!), as well as tripping and sweating her way through intramural sports. This summer she’s lucky enough to get to do some gallivanting on the European continent, where you can often find her in a park (photographed in Tiergarten) with that very notebook. Important note: She does not usually look so serious, but rather was trying to figure out how to draw a chin and ended up with this photographic chin display.
Sunday night, Heidi, Kaimara, Celine, and I decided to attend an homage to Stuart Hall at Balhaus Naunynstraße. The event was not on the syllabus, so the FemGeniuses were not required to attend. We did not even learn about the event until a few days ago, after we met with Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück. I asked Cassandra about the presence or absence of discourse regarding mental health within Afro-German communities. According to Cassandra, unfortunately, there really is not a lot of literature or academic discourse regarding Black people’s mental health. As I was looking through a program for the 2011 Black Women’s European Conference Cassandra was telling us about, I found a biography of a woman named Grada Kilomba. Grada Kilomba is a professor, writer, and clinical psychologist who studies and writes about trauma, post-colonialism, and racism. She lives in Berlin and, luckily for us, she was a panelist at the homage to Stuart Hall.
At the event, we watched two documentaries followed by a quick discussion with the directors of the documentaries and Grada Kilomba. The first documentary, Riots Reframed, directed by Fahim Alam, examined the 2011 London riots. Instead of depicting the riots as an event of mindless criminality, Alam portrays an alternative narrative claiming that those who riot do so with common ideas about the oppressions they are fighting. Rioters are not mindless; all humans have a brain and, when asked, rioters have clear reasons as to why they are uprising. Regarding the London riots, participants stated that the riot was anti-police criminality with the shooting and killing of Mark Duggan being one of the triggers. Not only were people extremely angry about the murder of Mark Duggan but this brutality also brought to the forefront the negative experiences they often had with the police.
The second documentary, Absent from the Academy, was directed by Nathan E. Richards. This documentary was about a lack of Black professors in British universities, possible solutions to this issue, and comparisons to the United States’ higher education system. Professors and scholars interviewed in the movie theorized that the higher education system in the United States is more willing to hire Black professors than in Britain. Even those interviewed from the United States have said this. I find this extremely disturbing, because Black professors and even Black staff are tremendously underrepresented in the United States, unless you are at a historically Black college (HBCU). Throughout this class, I have constantly been surprised at the perception that the United States’ culture is more flexible and welcoming to Black people than Germany and Britain. For example, at Colorado College there is a lack of Black professors; yet, the presence of even a small number of Black people is an achievement within certain European countries.
L to R: Fahim Alam (Riots Reframed), discussion moderator, Grada Kilomba, and Nathan E. Richards (Absent from the Academy)
While I enjoyed both documentaries, I have had time to think more critically about the two since the event. I am a bit disappointed regarding the lack of intersectional analysis within each documentary. More specifically, I was a bit disappointed by the absence of Black women’s perspectives during both films, especially in Absent from the Academy. However, even in Riots Reframed, Alam clearly focused predominantly on men’s perspectives. Audre Lorde, as well as many other Black feminists, explicitly fought for Black women’s rights to voice their unique experiences due to their race, gender, sexuality, age, class, and other important aspects of their identity. I think a more nuanced analysis of riots and academia will be even more salient if women are accepted as different, but not other, in these spaces.