It’s time to turn online outrage into teachable moments
It’s been two days since BootyGate, otherwise known as that time Blake Lively posted a Gram from the Cannes Film Festival in which she shouted out her curvaceous ass with some playfully/carelessly chosen song lyrics as the caption.
If you’ve been avoiding the news, it’s time to submit to the zeitgeist. Lively put up a split screen photo showcasing her front and back and added the commentary, “L.A. face with an Oakland booty,” which is a lyric from the massively popular Sir Mix-a-Lot song “Baby Got Back” that Blake almost definitely white-girl danced to with her cheerleading team approximately 6,000 times in high school.
The actress has been posting snaps of her unbelievably deep Cannes wardrobe for the past week, and has typically been appearing around the Palais des Festivals in flowing, looser gowns. But the Gram heard round the Web featured Lively, who is pregnant with her second child, in a tight, formfitting dress with the aforementioned caption.
Certain corners of the internet subsequently got very mad. GQ’s Caity Weaver posted a screen shot of the Instagram with the tweet “Blake Blakely I speak on behalf of everyone when I say YOU CANNOT.” Jezebel called Lively’s post “problematic” and MTV News did an emergency entry in their “Delete Your Account” series chiding her for not understanding the intention of the song, which they described as “loaded with a lot of shit white people might not understand from a casual listen on the jukebox at Dave & Buster’s during a Tuesday night happy hour with their coworkers.”
There were infinity other aggregate posts that popped up around the social media misfire, but not everyone was outraged. Culture critic and feminist author Roxane Gay flat out refused to care about the situation, tweeting this gem:
And thanks the New York Daily News, Sir Mix-a-Lot himself weighed in on the uproar, saying, “I don't get it at all. She's saying she's proud of her butt. I'm glad she embraced the look, because that's what I wanted (with the song).” Sir Mix has spoken numerous times over the years about the meaning of “Baby Got Back,” and even sat down with New York Magazine in 2013 to deliver an oral history of how the song and video got made. He explained that he was seeking to fill the vacuum of black female representation in popular culture by celebrating their bodies.
“Bottom line: Black men like curves,” said his high Mixness. “When they’re crooning to women about how beautiful they are in an R&B song, the ladies you see in the video don’t reflect what those guys like. Every time an R&B video was on, I heard women say, ‘I just saw him down in Oakland, and his girls wasn’t like that.’ That made me think that this was more than a funny song, and it wrote itself.”
Then in 2014 he talked to The Huffington Post about being a part of the “booty song” legacy, saying that when he recorded the song, “The black, female body was not accepted as the norm anywhere. For years, all you saw on television was overweight black maids or black women who would assimilate to white culture, as far as the look is concerned.” He added that, “I wanted to do something that was tongue-in-cheek but, at the same time, making a real point.”
So, yes, in Mix’s own words, “Baby Got Back” is an anthem meant to empower shapely women, and especially black women, to feel beautiful even if their bodies do not conform to what popular entertainment codifies as desirable. In other words, the video with the man dancing on top/inside of a truck-sized ass was filled with “a lot of shit white people might not understand.”
Enter Blake Lively, a figure whose pure and blissful detachment from subtext seems to know no bounds and whose Instagram is populated by folksy jokes that are the word equivalent of someone tossing up finger guns—and being totally genuine about it. Yes, she did get married on a plantation that housed slaves. Yes, she did have an online retail and lifestyle site that oddly romanticized the antebellum South. Yes she did think the biggest problem with the rape joke directed at Woody Allen was that it was simply too gauche for Cannes. And, yes, she did use some song lyrics to reference her own body that aren’t as superficial as so white many girls who were 13 in the year 2000 thought they were.
But giving Blake the “Oh, honey no…” treatment and telling her to stop isn’t going to accomplish anything, not least of all because we can be reasonably confident she isn’t listening. No one who launches Preserve.us and uses words like “doggone” and “holy cow” with some frequency on their Instagram is reading the comments—or the think pieces—to spur their daily allotment of self examination.
All of this isn’t to say that Lively’s lack of concern with context isn’t important. It is, or at least it can be, which is why we need to do more with examples of well-meaning tone deafness like this. In addition to her dismissal of the star, Roxane Gay also tweeted this:
And she’s right. The revolution does not start with Blake Lively’s ass. But a conversation can. We all love a hate read, and we all love a sassy takedown piece (thanks, Ira Madison III), but those can also serve to make people more scared of fucking up than committed to learning how to be better. Lively was once described by Gawker as, “A unicorn princess sent from planet Sparkle Cleavage to save the children of Earth.” She makes movies sometimes. She launches business sometimes. She loves her family and Ryan Reynolds and has that sweet Gossip Girl money. She doesn’t get a pass for being a damn fool every now and then, but asking someone to be more sensitive by calling them an asshole is about as productive as asking someone to be more polite by kicking them in the neck every time they forget to say please.
It’s like Sir Mix-a-Lot told the Daily News today, "All I would say to the critics is let's better understand the context of what she said. If what's saying is 'I have this butt that Mix-a-Lot was talking about in 'Baby Got Back,' that's a good thing. She's saying I've embraced this ideal of beautiful."
If Sir Mix can find a way to take this “scandal” in stride and consider the intentions of the person on the other end, maybe we all should do the same. If we are going to demand that everyone with a social media imprint be more careful, we should lead by example and do the same.