Yesterday, some previously-unnoticed photos from Katy Perry's Prismatic Tour began making the rounds on Twitter. They depict Katy — in a leotard emblazoned with in ankh and the eye of Horus — surrounded by anonymous, faceless backup dancers in padded bodysuits. It's hard to know what the intention here was, but the consensus is that the end result looks like hypersexualized caricatures of black women's bodies.
(The image being tweeted appears to come from this Tom + Lorenzo post, if you want to look at it in context of all her other tour costumes.)
A coworker pointed out to me that it's possible that this was meant to be a statement about plastic surgery — women bandaged up after getting implants and lip injections, etc. — that just reads very wrong. Regardless of intent, though, these get-ups really do look like yet another attempt to commodify sterotyped black female sexuality. The butts and breasts of their bodysuits are extremely padded; on top of the fake mummy wrappings, the dancers have no defining features save for exaggerated lips, dark hair, hoop earrings and long nails. The effect, overall, is a bit like the Hottentot Venus in the age of white girl twerking.
Here's a video of the performance; the mummies appear during "I Kissed a Girl":
From the accompanying cartoon art, we see that the theme is "sexy mummies with curves"; interestingly, although one of the drawings depicts a blonde mummy, all of the dancers have uniform dark hair — something Jamilah Lemieux pointed out on Twitter in response to someone else who argued that it could be about plastic surgery. "Dark hair is a strange choice," she wrote. "Why not blonde weave and blue eyes? Why have them look like Black women?"
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It would be rather myopic of Perry's team not to notice that the costumes here read as offensive — especially since both Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen recently came under fire last year for treating their black backup dancers as props, of using performances of stereotyped black female sexuality to seem edgy and provocative. As Ayesha Siddiqi put it at the New Inquiry, such acts "[exemplify] the white impulse to shake the stigma its mainstream status affords while simultaneously exercising the power of whiteness to define blackness." Jody Rosen at Vulture called Miley's twerk act "minstrelsy [with] a postmodern careerist spin." And Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" set resembles both Miley and Lily's schticks pretty damn closely.
Confronted with criticism over their performances and music videos, both insisted that they weren't dehumanizing or objectifying their dancers and added that they, like, don't see race anyway. Miley told Rolling Stone, "I don't keep my producers or dancers around 'cause it makes me look cool. Those aren't my 'accessories.' They're my homies... I would never think about the color of my dancers, like, 'Ooh, that might be controversial.'" Similarly, Allen posted a short blog post following outrage over her "Hard Out Here" video in which she claimed that "the video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video... It has nothing to do with race, at all." Meanwhile, Allen's music video features her, fully clothed, standing in front of a row of primarily black backup dancers in underwear. "Don't need to shake my ass, 'cause I have a brain," sings Allen as the camera zooms in on her dancers' twerking backsides. In her now-infamous VMAs performance, Cyrus "paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer," as Jody Rosen put it at Vulture. Huh. Okay, guys. Nothing to do with race, indeed.
If Katy Perry offers up an apology, it will undoubtedly unfold along the same lines: "I didn't consider race at all when choosing to do this." Even though it happened during the Egypt-themed portion of her set — something she's already associated with "ratchet" culture by wearing grills in "Dark Horse" music video — and even though the mummy costumes just coincidentally happen to fall squarely within a long tradition of exoticizing and making a spectacle out of black female bodies. If she doesn't want to see race somewhere, she has the privilege of insisting it doesn't exist there.
If her response to the controversy over her geisha performance at the AMAs is any indication, though, she'll probably trot out the "race has nothing to do with it!!!" excuse. And so the cycle of white female pop icons thoughtlessly Othering and objectifying continues.
Images via Pacific Coast News.