Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sexism is the New Black

Yeah I said it. I've said it previously, but y'all didn't believe me. So I repeat--sexism is the new black.

I was minding my own business, listening to John McCain's funeral, folding laundry and going through the kid's clothes to see what she can still wear (because she has legs as long as mine), when I decided to check social media. Between Meghan McCain taking a full on drone strike at the President and the postmortem of Aretha Franklin's funeral yesterday, there was a lot to keep me distracted.

Let's start with a quick dispatch of topics I reserve the right to revisit at another time: (1) a comparison of the length of the services or the differing funereal rituals on display; (2) the absence of President Obama at one service and his presence at the other; (3) the fact that the current occupant of the White House was so unwelcome at both events that he spent the day huffing and puffing about Russia as if anyone but the Russians give a damn; (4) that Lindsay Graham is a crappy friend; and (5) Rev. Jasper Williams gave one of the worst eulogies I have ever had the misfortune to half hear.

My focus today is on the issue of Ariana Grande and that uncomfortable moment she shared with Bishop Charles H. Ellis III after her rendition of Natural Woman. I was running late for a lunch appointment, so I dashed out of the house just as she took to the stage. Thus, I missed the chance to take note of her dress, her ponytail, her voice, or anything else about her performance. Later, I saw various reactions on Facebook regarding the Bishop's conduct, then today I finally watched the entire clip. It begins with the Bishop embracing Grande after her performance with his hand right up under her armpit. And it stayed there as he pulled her close to commend her and then proceeded to make a bad joke about her name sounding like a menu offering at Taco Bell. She looked visibly uncomfortable and offered that uneasy, yet familiar visage of dread and disgust.

Now, I'm going to say a few things from the perspective of a Busy Black Church Mama and you can disagree with me if you want, but trust that I am speaking from experience.

The dress was short. It was a funeral, not a performance. But I cannot blame Grande for not making an appropriate distinction between the two concepts since she was asked to sing a secular song and some of the other folks on the program were also dressed for a performance and not a funeral. Yes, I am referring to the Mother of the Church, the Rev. Shirley Caesar. Some folks forgot where they were, like our favorite Auntie Chaka Khan, who didn't know the words to her own solo; or our cousin Fantasia who tossed off her shoes before she got down to singing. And we're not going to discuss the matter of Queen Aretha's three (3) costume changes, which might have given one the impression that this was some kind of show...

But the dress was black. And it was cute. And Grande is 25, so she can get a pass. I don't know anything about her upbringing or her life other than the fact that she is engaged to some guy from SNL, so I am going to surmise that this was a fashion faux pas that shalt not be repeated the next time she is tapped to perform at a funeral. If she doesn't opt for something more discreet, well that's not really any of my business.

For perspective, take a look at this clip of Aretha with Don Cornelius. If you can tell me why he was clutching onto her so tight at the beginning of this interview, and then why he backed up to compliment the outside of her house while he was staring at her chest, then you already know where I am headed.

So let's talk about the Bishop, and why he felt the need to call Grande over to the podium after she finished singing. Why did he grab her up under her arm, and why did he pull her in close even after he made his awkward joke about her name? Why did folk feel the need to point out that his wife was sitting less than ten feet away, so we didn't really see what we all know we saw? And why do folks keep bringing up the length of her dress in response to his manhandling?

Let me tell you why: because sexist behavior is socially acceptable as long as we can offer an excuse for it. As long as we can distract people with the netting on Aretha's sweater or the hemline of Ariana's skirt, the smirk on Bill Clinton's face, or the awkward moment when the Bishop's hand tightened around Grande's ribcage, we don't have to address whether any of that was sexist.

The bodies of young women in religious settings are treated like the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. We are taught from an early age that Eve tempted Adam, so women are the forbidden fruit. It is our fault if lustful eyes, hands, and thoughts replace the Holy Spirit; therefore, we must be modest and covered up. As a tall teenager with long legs, that became a bit of a challenge. Then as a college student who experimented with various forms of self-expression, my style choices were intentionally daring. One Christmas I wore a slip dress in front of my grandmother and my cousin's boyfriend that had less fabric than what Grande wore and I can only guess what was said about that.

Eventually, I bought into the respectability politics of church attire after I was elevated to visible church offices. So I accepted the scarf that was placed across my lap and carried a jacket or shawl to cover my exposed shoulders. I wore my knee-length white Deaconess dress on Communion Sunday and my Trustee pantsuits on the other Sundays. Yet, as an adult working with the Praise Dance Ministry, I was still pulled aside and instructed to cover my body (that was being used in praise y'all, praise.)

One sister-friend in ministry noted that the Bishop's familiarity with Grande as well as other aspects of the service highlighted women's continued subservience in the church. She noted that most of the women on the program were performers while the men were clergy and dignitaries. Then of course there was that eulogy...spoken over the body of a woman who was a teenage single mother. Brother Pastor, since you are casting stones, Aretha and her siblings were raised by a single father.

Finally, I started this piece after participating on a thread started by one of my line sisters that specifically referenced the Bishop's behavior and belated un-apology to Ariana Grande. A male respondent equated the Bishop's inappropriateness to Ariana's dress, so I called it out as not the issue. He suggested that her attire was another issue, but then elsewhere on the thread made reference to how the women kept trying to avoid that topic. And that isht made me mad because first of all, that aardvark tried to write me off. Second, by conflating the two issues, it was as if one issue begat the other--her short dress led to the Bishop putting his hands on her. So it is the responsibility of a 25 year old pop artist not to get herself groped at a nationally televised funeral. Third, the Bishop apologized to the Latino community for the Taco Bell reference because that joke was culturally insensitive but deflected on how he touched her inappropriately.

But her dress...but her emails.

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