Examining Amber Rose: How Respectability Still Influences Black Feminism

By Cinnamon Williams

“What does that liberatory sexuality look like? I mean, let me theorize that it may very well be that celibacy is the face of that liberatory sexuality.” -bell hooks

“An honest engagement with our own pleasure produces work that is nothing less than transformative – not only for us but for anybody lucky enough to be fucking with us at that time.” -Joan Morgan

Almost a year ago, on one of those days when #TwinBedTwitter renewed their commitment to showing how far the human race hasn’t come, a guy tweeted a string of thoughts about what Black activists are and aren’t allowed to be. “You can’t be a hoe and a Black rights activist,” he wrote. What was amazing to watch were the subsequent rebuttals that named men (plot twist) like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. as proof of his faulty logic, but what excited me most was Maya Angelou being uplifted as a Black, radical freedom fighter who miraculously managed to do work throughout the diaspora before, during, and after her life as an unapologetic prostitute. For me, it was a testament to the power of an honest Black feminism, one that engages with the contradictions of Black women’s lives as complexities that need to be acknowledged and celebrated.

But weeks ago, when Amber Rose and Blac Chyna attended the 2015 VMA’s and wore cat suits splattered with the words people have used to describe them since becoming associated with Black male hip-hop artists—words like “gold digger,” “slut,” “whore,” and “bitch”—the general sentiment was a collective sigh. When they posted Instagram videos of themselves twerking in the car on the way back home, a few of my Black feminist faves rolled their eyes saying, “They’re reducing feminism to sexual liberation. We get it now. This is getting boring.”

I’ve listened to enough of our Black feminist foremothers’ commentary on Beyoncé to know that a generational divide exists between us and to know that Amber Rose’s (ass-) in-your-face feminism just doesn’t do it for most Black women beyond the age of 30. It’s tempting to reduce that divide to older Black women being The Fun Police or just longing for some glory days that never really existed, but that would ignore the fact that the sex work histories of women like Maya Angelou and Billie Holiday are usually proclaimed and celebrated by Black feminists. It would ignore the fact that Ma Rainey’s love for women is deemed revolutionary while Nicki Minaj’s sexual politics are trivialized, ridiculed, and dismissed. It would make us shy away from an even deeper discussion about feminism as a personal-is-political social movement: what do we do when we begin to fundamentally disagree about which Black women can make claims to it?

Anti-sex and anti-femininity sentiments frequently find their way into critiques of contemporary Black women pop culture icons, ironically shifting the focus from attacks on their politics to attacks on their personhood. If Amber Rose had gone from stripping for survival at the age of sixteen to writing literary fiction in a quiet town, we would be admiring her strength and praising her for the hope she gives Black girls. Instead, she’s dated and married rappers, worn outfits made of little more than diamonds on red carpets, and is in the process of writing a self-help book appropriately titled How To Be a Bad Bitch. She’s not interested in cleaning up any part of her image or hiding how she grew up or shrouding her body, and that stands in opposition to everything we know about strippers who move on to do other things with their lives, especially strippers who become mothers.

Part of what we’re dealing with is the fact that the thorns of respectability politics have flourished alongside the roses of Black feminism. Those politics are often more nuanced than we imagine, and they remind me that the most dangerous anti-Black statements are those made in spaces that claim to be profoundly feminist. They are the politics that fail to acknowledge that not all Black women will want to go to college, engage with Hortense Spillers’ theory, or come to feminism using the language of “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” They are the politics that mete out respect for the Black women that dabble in classics and jazz music. They are the politics that treat some Black women in the same way that white feminists have historically treated women of color.

But we’re also being confronted with an increasingly slippery definition of feminism, especially as women on a global stage begin making claims to it. Amber Rose describes her upcoming SlutWalk as part of the feminist movement “against sexual injustice, victim blaming, derogatory labeling, and gender inequality.” It goes without saying that raising awareness of double-standards only begins to skim the surface of problems that people with vaginas face. We could even argue that “slut-shaming” is an inadequate term to capture the experiences of Black, trans, and differently-abled women and that it centers the people who are usually called sluts—white women in college.

It is true that the marriage between popular culture and social justice advocacy is guaranteed to produce annotated messages that are void of intersectionality. But this truth doesn’t invalidate the work of women like Amber Rose. In fact, it situates them as regular human beings with blind spots who are trying to navigate multiple social locations and find their fit in the feminist movement. When we accept that, we make room for women to come to feminism from the streets of South Philly, the stripper pole, or the gulf of a divorce from the cheating father of your child.

This is not to say that women with as much visibility as Amber are above accountability or critique. The individualism that pop culture feminism holds dear won’t thrive in communal, Black feminist spaces. At some point, we’ll have to stop talking about glass ceilings and ask if the entire house is actually made of glass. And as someone who is wary of how blindingly white and ahistorical sex-positive discourse can be, I ponder the danger of letting arguments for women’s liberation hinge on what we do—or don’t—in the bedroom. But when Ti-Grace Atkinson said, “I do not know any feminist worthy of that name who, if forced to choose between freedom and sex, would choose sex. She’d choose freedom every time,” she failed to realize that the reclamation of the body is a freedom project for Black women. And that it may just come from Philly dressed in spandex sporting a blonde buzz cut demanding to be called Muva Rosebud.

Photo: Tinseltown/Shutterstock

Cinnamon Williams is a Southern-fried Black feminist majoring in American Studies at Williams College. She enjoys Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Beyoncé, and long walks to the wing spot.

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