When I was still in college, the professor of my African American Cinema class said the above words to our small group. This occurred after a previous screening of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, primarily because someone had taken the wokespiracies too far and asserted that perhaps the film’s protagonist, Mookie, was an FBI plant sent there to rile up the people.
After my professor had a good chuckle, she urged us to simmer down and beware of being “too woke.” Of course, she didn’t know how prophetic her words were then, considering that this was 2014/2015 and woke was just beginning to catch fire on Black Twitter, even though the concept had been around for some time. Nor could she have predicted the relevance of her warning, as mainstream (read: White) pop culture would soon hijack it and beat it to death so ferociously that it would soon be synonymous with a White person who is trying too hard to seem socially aware and down with Black people.
Which, of course, is always…cringe-inducing.
It was cringe-inducing when my problematic White fave Mark Ruffalo tweeted about “getting woke to the transgendered experience.” It was cringe-inducing when Sham Wipeout wrote that eleventh hour, D+ paper about “profiting off of wokeness.” And it was equally cringe-inducing when I saw the writer’s “Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’ Music Video Is Surprisingly Anti-Queer” come down my timeline.
Now, here’s the thing. There is nothing wrong with a well-thought-out thinkpiece. Because, ideally, said piece is loaded with criticisms that, while opinionated, are also fact-based and have the statistical evidence, anecdotal evidence, and or lived experience to support it. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. The trend of thinkpieces presently usually boils down to someone having a half-assed opinion on the internet, figuring they can make at least three dollars off of it, throwing it on the internet, and being shocked at any backlash, even though they didn’t even put in a modicum of effort to ensure it couldn’t be easily dismissed as absurd.
This is exactly what I was thinking as I read this piece. For a variety of reasons — including the following:
1. The writer does not understand the pop culture references that Grande draws inspiration from.
While “thank u, next,” as a song, is Grande’s ode to past lovers, the music video serves as her way of paying homage to iconic chick flicks and romantic comedies. These overt references are reenactments of scenes out of 13 Going on 30, Bring It On, Legally Blonde, and Mean Girls. But the author soon made it clear that apparently said references weren’t as overt as I thought.
One of the earliest parts of the article asserts that “it is unclear if Ariana is supposed to be the superficial antagonist of the video, like Regina George in Mean Girls, or if she is attempting to portray underdog Cady Heron, who resists the Plastics’ normativity.” This is a very odd thing to say when in the earlier paragraph, the writer refers to her as a “Queen Bee” and mentions the confessional montage and homage of Ariana’s Regina-esque stand-in, with her peers detailing all the wild shit they’ve heard about her and how far they are willing to go to be like her. And it’s equally jarring when you see her and her friends (which include Elizabeth Gillies as Cady Heron) reenacting that famous hallway walking scene at 1:07, complete with everyone wearing similar, if not identical, outfits to their chosen Plastic.
This same “misunderstanding” is used to read queer antagonism into scenes where it is not even present (which I will get to) and turns the cheer scene in the Bring It On homage into something aggressively offensive.
An earlier version of the piece simply referenced the sequence as a cheerleading sequence that featured Ariana’s all-White cheer squad versus an unnamed squad of Black cheerleaders at 2:30, with a later edit signifying that this was “in tribute to Bring It On.” The writer asserts that it is not clear who is the villain or protagonist here (Ariana is the protagonist, as she is the subject of the video as she moves through its different vignettes) and backs up this blurring of villainy by explaining that the former team is supposedly dressed in “patriotic red, white, and blue,” with the latter supposedly dressed in “Pan-African green, gold, and red.”
Where’s the blue? Where are the “Pan-African” colors?? WHERE ARE THEY???
This is mildly amusing because based on the image above, The Toros are dressed in red, white, and black, not blue, so not quite “patriotic.” And The Clovers are dressed in orange, yellow, and green. And even if it was red and not orange, there’s no clarification on what she means by “Pan-African” in reference to this video’s version of The Clovers. Is she referencing the colors of the UNIA/Black Liberation flag? Because those official colors are red, green, and black. Or if is she referring to Pan-Africanism in general, which includes red, gold, green, and sometimes black, and is not meant to be conflated with the former? Surely, these are questions she might have asked and answered if she were a well-read Black person writing that piece, but that was not the case. But it also wouldn’t have mattered anyway because it would’ve been far too much analysis for such a small scene that she intentionally reads malice into, along with projecting weird hang-ups about Black bodies—right down to that odd mention of the Black squad “twerking,” even though only one member was doing that (2:30 -2:32).
This reading of malice leads me to my next point:
2. The writer also makes strong accusations of queerphobia and queer antagonism with flimsy evidence and missing context.
This insertion of queerphobia where there may be none precedes her strange analysis of the Bring It On scene and begins when Sivan appears in the montage and refers to the rumor that Ariana George “is a lesbian now and dating some chick called Aubrey” — which is later revealed to be Ari. As in herself. Sivan elaborates that that “is fucking sick,” and the author decides that Sivan obviously means this in a derisive way. Towards lesbians. Which, again, is completely disingenuous and borderline absurd if we consider, the film inspiring the scene and also how words—but most importantly—how slang works.
English is a strange language and part of that strangeness includes giving positive meanings to originally “negative” words. “Sick” is included. As is “bad,” “wicked,” “nasty,” “gnarly,” “radical” and such. All are “negative” words that have been used to mean “great” or “cool” —particularly if you’re looking at certain eras of pop culture in the US and even the UK. Hell, “bad” to mean good has a much longer history, and was referenced in Pink Marsh, a story about a Black shoeshine boy from 1897.
How is the writer 100 percent sure that Sivan means this in a reprehensible way given that the context of this very scene is to be in awe of Ariana’s unattainable coolness?
Exactly. She isn’t 100 percent sure, but queer antagonism and queerphobia are projected onto this scene anyway.
It is also projected onto the Legally Blonde scene (which I will get to) and again on Sivan and his interactions with Ariana when she pushes him into his locker. The author uses this example of an individual, who happens to be queer, to boldly state that queer people at-large are “glad to be disrespected” by someone like Ariana. This could not be further from the truth. Mainly because many of us don’t find joy in being disrespected, but especially because the writer, again, ignores the context of the music video and the specific film reference that makes it clear that this specific group of high school kids — which in this case, does include queer kids — are obsessed with Ariana’s Regina George stand-in and are thus okay with receiving any kind of attention from her, even if it’s violent.
How does one then take that microcosm of a scene and apply it to every queer person ever?
The absurdness of this wide-sweeping claim brings me to my next point:
3. Transmisogyny and Blackface are treated with the same lack of care and context.
This, above all, was the most tragic and messy part of this “thinkpiece” and really hurt what could have been a brilliant essay. I say this because both points are handled with the exact same type of half-baked writing shown previously, and it then becomes hard to take these points seriously.
This is extremely unfortunate because the writer’s critiques about transmisogyny and Blackface have potential, but are lost because she again neglects to illustrate the context that she is drawing from to make these points, the context of these points in the film, and the larger context of these points in popular culture. She addresses transmisogyny by pointing out that 16 seconds into the video, we see back up dancer Scott Nicholson in a wig and it appears that he is portraying a trans woman. While I initially read this as Nicholson’s character aiming to be just like Ariana by dressing like her and emulating her style, I am unsure after subsequent viewings. It also would be out of my lane to dissect, as I am not a trans woman. But what I will say is that this point suffers from lack of elaboration and exploration.
For her latter point about Blackface? And obsessions with the pursuit of Blackness as an aesthetic? Particularly when Ariana is in her room with her version of the burn book at 0:47? Well, this is a particularly complex point that she demonstrates she doesn’t have the range for by merely referencing NYU masters candidate Anh Vo (who I also question because I am unsure if the person referenced is even Black and what background they have in this, besides the article mentioned).
This is aggravated by the fact that there is no comparative analysis done between Grande and other White women in pop music.
There’s no acknowledgment that what Grande is supposedly doing isn’t as obvious as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (where she literally gawks at Black asses shaking) or Miley Cyrus’ entire Bangerz era, which she is threatening to bring back. This lack of range is amplified when the writer fails to bring up the recently-named phenomenon of “digital blackface” known as “n*ggerfishing” (coined by @yeahboutella) and exposed due in part because of its unprecedented prominence on social media apps like Instagram—where using Blackness to be “exotic” reigns.
Can we start a thread and post all of the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram? Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING.
— Wanna (@WannasWorld) November 7, 2018
With this context in place, the author could have used this to illustrate that even if Ariana means no harm with her oddly darker skin-tone (i.e it’s just a “tan” or “lighting”), her intention would not matter because of the historical and contemporary context of how Blackness has been worn to furthers one’s profile in entertainment media and now social media. A context that Ariana should be mindful of and address head-on if she believes herself to be a friend to Black people.
It’s a fascinating point that ends up flopping because the writer can’t be bothered to Google.
This lack of initiative as it regards complex topics like this leads to my final point:
4. The critique that Ariana is using queer people of color as props in these homages is not fully-cooked.
The writer uses her half-cooked point about Grande cosplaying Blackness via tanning (and lighting) to segue into an even more confusing and unsubstantiated point about Grande using queer people of color as props in The Legally Blonde vignette.
Indeed. She asserts that in this scene, “visibly” queer people of color are present and that when Ariana then goes to perform a rendition of the “bend and snap” dance that won’t get her sued, all of these people then “disappear.” The exact quote is that “the queer men disappear from the beauty parlor, only leaving presumably straight women to dance.” I was grateful that “presumably” was used here, because this assertion shows how presumptuous the author is. Firstly because it implies queer women are of no importance and that all of these women in the full sequence from 4:08 – 4:52 are straight, and we just cannot know that for sure. Secondly, this is just categorically false, because there are several points in this sequence (including 4:17, 4:18, 4:25, 4:34, and 4:45 – 4:52) where these presumed queer men are clearly seen and even showcased in medium close-up shots. They do not “disappear”, nor are they simply reduced to some any one “trope.”
Which begs the question: did the writer watch the same music video I did?
I assume no, mainly because this isn’t the only leap in logic that is generously made in this piece. There is the combative reading into Jennifer Coolidge and Grande’s talk starting at 3:22 on “big teeth” to imply she’s making fun of people who have no penises. There is also Ariana’s non-existent “smirk” at 3:51 – 3:53, which is supposedly there to represent her celebration of her “heterosexual pride”. There is also the, I’d argue, extremely libelous claim that Kris Jenner’s hilarious “thank you, next, bitch” line is a diss intended for Caitlyn Jenner, even though she is nowhere to be seen in this video and the line was Ariana’s idea—not Jenner’s. For a piece that claims to know so much about White feminism and White female empowerment and how toxic it is, it engages in these things by attempting to insert the victimization of Caitlyn where there is most certainly none. It also loses any credibility where its “White feminism and female empowerment at the expense of people of color” points are concerned, by failing to critique the lack of “mainstream” chick flick or romantic films that showcase Black and Brown characters with more agency.
Seriously. As cute as these films are (I say this as a 13 Going On 30 stan), all of these films were White as fuck—save for Bring It On. Legally Blonde has no main Black or Brown characters. Same goes for 13 Going On 30. And all Mean Girls had was that table of “unfriendly Black hotties” and the little African kid who correctly assumed Cady was weird back in the day. Dassit. That’s all. You can be entirely critical of Grande’s choice to utilize these films, as is your right, but one must be equally critical of the systems that churned them out.
But this is the problem with the wokedustrial-complex and pieces of writing like this that disgustingly position themselves as true arbiters of “wokeness.” When, in actuality, you, the writer, are just haphazardly and asininely parroting the ideas that Black and Brown people have put forth in this universe before you. And the most ironic part is that you lack the self-awareness needed to be truly “woke” in the ways that you want to be.
Which is embarrassing, to say the least. And an insult to the art form that is criticism and the art form that the thinkpiece has the potential to be.