I try to use my own experience/s as a mixed race, working class, woman with chronic illness as a resource for my teaching, scholarly research, writing and activism.
by Maggie McCarthy and Maria Stehle
In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed understands happiness as the promise of “happy objects,” as well as a form of affect that “sticks,” i.e. “sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values and objects” that are also social goods (34).
One feminist practice that is central to both my research and my teaching is the emphasis on what I call feeling out.
One of my feminist practices is disrupting problematic comments or behaviors.
Affect, both genuine and performative, is essential to my teaching.
A feminist practice I try to include in my daily life, professional and personal, is amplification.
This summer during the 2017 Video Music Awards, pop singer Lorde was expected to perform the hit single “Homemade Dynamite” from her latest album Melodrama. Melodrama’s release had been a huge success, and the world was excited to see Lorde’s return. However, she opted not to sing due to an illness and performed an interpretive dance instead of a traditional performance. The internet exploded; many tweeted their thoughts. Opinions ranged from confused to enraged, all due to an awkward dance. Later, Lorde responded on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, stating that the reason she thought people were offended by her performance was because “It’s sort of embarrassing to watch someone experience intense joy. Way more than pain… And I think that’s why people find what I do quite disconcerting.” She went on to say that she couldn’t believe that people were so angry over her merely dancing with “full fucking joy” (Maron and Lorde). Lorde’s awkward dancing can in some way be seen as a disruption of what is considered the norm in popular culture and traditional standards of femininity. Her willingness to be genuine and silly in her glee made audiences uncomfortable, eschewing pop music performance expectations of sex and spectacle. In particular, female pop stars seem to fill certain archetypes, either exuding sex or embodying purity, and Lorde refused to do either to please her audience.
Lorde has always been an incredibly unique performer and has puzzled the public for years. She is a notoriously “bad” dancer, but in a very different way than Taylor Swift. A Vox article described Lorde’s dancing as “a spastic style of dance that frequently looks like the marriage between a dark magician and a seizure” (Abad-Santos). She has often spoken up about her dancing and her choice to be fully immersed in her performances. Lorde has also seemed to largely escape the trap of being reductively labeled and stereotyped, which happens frequently to young female pop stars. Furthermore, Lorde has a long history of supporting intersectional feminism. This summer, during a segment on 60 Minutes, she stated that feminism wasn’t about her, but was in fact about “trying to fight for better conditions of all women, whether that be trans women, or women of color, or women in professions that typically don’t get a lot of respect.” Lorde’s authenticity and reputation as a feminist celebrity inform her infamous VMAs performance.
Lorde’s performance was truly something out of the ordinary. It was completely unbridled, vulnerable, and unfiltered, and somehow looked both choreographed and improvised. The performance was a complete departure from most popular music performances and seemed to serve herself rather than the audience. It was evident that she was completely engrossed in her performance and dancing full out. Aside from the choreography itself, the aesthetics of her performance were also far from typical. Her outfit choice was outside the realm of what would be considered a “normal” outfit for a popstar. It almost looked as if she wanted it to be intentionally confusing. Lorde wore a pair of gray jogger-style sweatpants, Adidas Superstars, and a poofy silver lamé tutu dress. She didn’t utilize a big fancy set or many flashy props. Everything about Lorde’s performance at the VMAs was out of line with what has been established as “typical” for the pop industry, but typical for her public persona so far.
As much as the internet loves Lorde for her awkward authenticity and relatability, many seemed to have incredibly strong negative reactions to her VMAs dance. News sites from Vanity Fair to Buzzfeed published similar posts dedicated to angry tweets and memes made in response to her performance (Abad-Santos n. pag.). Opinions were varied but overwhelmingly negative, and many thought the performance was weird, uncomfortable, awkward, or even infuriating. Some took to Twitter to express their outrage. On Twitter, user @Lombuckski said “#VMAs #Lorde ? Lol .. fucking kill me thank god i didn’t watch 5 minutes of that useless garbage these moon bats call art.” The volume of Twitter users who were offended by Lorde’s performance reveals the expectations of pop stars by the public and proof of Lorde’s defiance of these traditional structures.
When examined more closely, Lorde’s VMAs performance is not simply an awkwardly choreographed piece, but a feminist act executed in protest of the pop music industry and how it shapes the perception of women. Her embrace of silliness and awkwardness is reminiscent of certain famed popfeminist groups who use silly and awkward dancing in their music videos and live performances. This type of dancing is purposeful, not conventionally attractive, or comfortable to watch, as its purpose is not necessarily to appease the audience. The fact that Lorde would engage in this type of dancing as a traditional pop music star at one of the biggest awards ceremonies of the year is disruptive and serves to subvert certain patriarchal structures of the pop music industry through her refusal to perform for the sole purpose of making the audience happy. So why exactly was Lorde’s expression of her true happiness so disconcerting to viewers? According to Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, certain forms of happiness are viewed as less worthy because they do not involve the accumulation of points, creating a line that can be followed, and silliness is a prime example (220). Lorde’s dancing was not some stock pop performance, replete with pyrotechnics and perfectly polished choreography. It was silly, imperfect, and real. Ahmed points out that the word silliness has its roots in a word that originally meant “blessed, happy, or blissful,” but has since evolved over time to become a word that holds a more negative connotation. Silliness is seen as having no conventional uses, and so it is devalued. However, it still serves to be an incredibly important factor in provoking disruptions of norms. This concept of silliness is further explored by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle in their book Awkward Politics (2016). The authors argue that because Ahemd defines silliness as an ability to be happy in inappropriate ways, “silliness is a counterpart of joy, just as ‘inappropriateness’ is a facet of awkwardness” (Smith Prei and Stehle 84). Furthermore, they go on to say that joyful silliness and awkward inappropriateness are integral to popfeminist activism (Smith-Prei and Stehle 84). Lorde’s silliness confounded most people and shattered whatever expectations they had about the grandiose performance they wanted out of her. In addition, the statement Lorde made in response to the backlash completely embraced the awkwardness of the dance and highlighted it. According to Awkward Politics, “exploiting, using, and keeping with the awkward – instead of smoothing it over or explaining it away – is a mode of politics,” further supporting the idea that Lorde’s performance was a sort of political statement aimed at scrutinizing the institutions within popular media and music (Smith-Prei and Stehle 12). Lorde could have easily explained it all away and made excuses by citing her illness, but instead she owned the dance and was very deliberate and intentional about the emotion behind her performance. With her willingness to embrace silliness and awkwardness, Lorde’s performance becomes a popfeminist act which rejects norms of pop culture and music.
Another way in which Lorde has proven this performance to be a disruptive feminist act is through Sara Ahmed’s concept of willful disobedience. In Awkward Politics, the authors explain this theory in relation to German rapper Lady Bitch Ray, saying that she uses the supposedly “smooth surface of pop consumption as a starting point for her interventions,” and that her deliberate exposure of flaws in the industry is an example of Ahmed’s concept of willfulness, in which being willful is to be a problem and to reject norms of societal expectations (Smith-Prei and Stehle 95-97). Though incredibly dissimilar from Lady Bitch Ray in many ways, Lorde used the medium of pop consumption to convey a powerful, disruptive statement with her dancing. Lorde was absolutely aware of the general expectations of the structure of pop music, and she chose to willfully defy these expectations in favor of something that was more challenging and disruptive. Smith-Prei and Stehle explain how awkwardness and clumsiness can make a body a willful object, stating that clumsiness can be “how a subject experiences itself: as being ‘in the way’ of what is ‘on the way,’ as being in the way of itself as well as others” (98). Lorde used her body as a willful object because her body’s awkwardness and clumsiness can cause discomfort and is a symbol of how she experiences herself. Furthermore, Smith-Prei and Stehle argue that willfulness is a sort of disturbance that comes from somebody not fitting in and sticking out, creating awkwardness (98). Lorde and her dance stuck out very clearly amongst dozens of storied performers, and it created a bumpiness that was intentional and disruptive. Through willful disobedience, it becomes easy to see Lorde’s dance as a purposeful rejection of norms and expectations set by the public an the pop industry.
Lorde is unquestionably a groundbreaking figure when it comes to standards in pop culture and the music industry, and her performance at the 2017 VMAs only further serves to prove this. Not only was her dancing a true display of the joyful silliness that is so emblematic of modern popfeminist activism, it was also a disruptive act that serves to reject popular culture and mainstream ideas of what it means to be a woman. She performed this for herself and her own joy, as opposed to catering to the comfort and tastes of her audience even though she understands what is expected from her. This performance can then also be seen as an act of willful disobedience, in which Lorde upsets the structure and tradition of live pop music performances. Through theories of awkwardness, silliness, and willful disobedience explored by Sara Ahmed and the book Awkward Politics by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle, Lorde’s actions, when viewed with a popfeminist lens, become provocations of the standards set by the popular music industry and defy the restrictions shaped by pop culture that are too often placed on women.
Abad-Santos, Alex. “VMA 2017: Lorde Had the Flu. She Performed Anyway.” Vox, 27 Aug. 2017, www.vox.com/2017/8/27/16212692/mtv-vma-2017-lorde-performance-flu.
Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.
Bardo, Ram (Lombuckski). “#VMAs #Lorde ? Lol .. fucking kill me thank god i didn’t watch 5 minutes of that useless garbage these moon bats call art”. 29 Aug 2017, 01:24 UTC. Tweet
GLNTime (gln11time). “@NZStuff #Lorde’s performance at #VMAs was not artistic. At best self-indulgent. Mostly childish & unskilled; perha… https://t.co/MNEnednpIq”. 01 Sep 2017, 03:41 UTC. Tweet
Logan, Lara, and Lorde. “60 Minutes with Lorde.” 60 Minutes, CBS, New York, New York, 18 June 2017.
Lorde, and Marc Maron. “Episode 844-Lorde.” WTF With Marc Maron, WTF, 7 Sept. 2017, www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-844-lorde?rq=lorde.
Nazim, Hafeezah. “Lorde Explains Why Feminism Is ‘Not About Her.’” Nylon, 23 June 2017, nylon.com/articles/lorde-60-minutes-feminism.
Smith-Prei, Carrie, and Maria Stehle. Awkward Politics: Technologies of Popfeminist Activism. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.
Amanda Yuan is a sophomore at Stanford University studying Theatre and Performance Studies and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She enjoys making music and exploring Asian American activism through theatre in her free time.
On November 8, 2017, I attended Alice Walker’s keynote address for Stanford University’s Contemplation by Design week. Contemplation by Design is a “campus-wide, multidisciplinary program designed to encourage all members of the Stanford community to enjoy the power of the pause for the purposes of re-establishing balance, tranquility, compassion and energy to support our creative excellence” (“Home”). I have enjoyed attending the keynote speeches for this event every year since I started at Stanford. This year, I walked away primarily reflecting on the tension among respect, contradiction, and accountability.
A short way into her speech, Walker told a story about Native American activist Dennis Banks who worked exhaustively throughout his life for the rights of his people. She illustrated the level of desperation he felt by describing how he tried to repopulate his tribe by having many children, joking that she didn’t think “all of the women were very happy” about that. This statement is overtly sexist with undertones of racially-based rape language, implying the women didn’t consent to being impregnated, as well as implying Dennis Banks was a predator.
Yet, the audience laughed.
I remained silent, struck by how casually Walker had made this comment and how easily and uniformly the audience had responded. I find it hard to believe people didn’t recognize the joke as problematic. If asked individually, I’m fairly confident the majority of audience members would say they are not sexist people and would identify Walker’s joke as clearly derogatory. I feel that people attending a “contemplation by design” speech tend to be ones who’ve reflected upon sexism in other contexts. Why, then, did everyone laugh?
My first thought is people laughed out of respect and admiration for Walker. People laughed not because they thought the joke was funny or wanted to endorse its ideas, but because they respect Alice Walker. They felt the pressure to be a good audience member, which required them to perform the expected response of laughter in a moment intended to be humorous. My second interpretation of the audience’s laughter builds off of the incongruity theory of humor. The incongruity theory suggests that people laugh when they perceive something incongruous, “something that violates [their] mental patterns and expectations” (Morreall par. 48). People laughed because deep down they realized the joke was sexist and this clashed with their expectation of what a feminist like Walker would say.
Regardless of why people laughed, they did laugh. How, then, should we approach Walker’s statement from her speech that “we have a responsibility to keep entertainers honest” by encouraging reflection? It is difficult to hold people accountable when our immediate response is to laugh at their incongruences (whether because we admire them or we see their blunders as unexpected). Our immediate response is not to challenge their statements or ideas, even if they are harmful to perpetuate. Where does that leave us as a society? Walker says (and I agree) that we all have a responsibility to highlight problems. However, we seem to feel we have a stronger responsibility to show loyalty to people who we otherwise see as upstanding, or we simply find ourselves laughing at the awkwardness of the moment. I suggest the solution lies in the embrace and expectation of contradiction.
As is theorized by Carrie Smith-Prei and Maria Stehle in their book Awkward Politics, a way to approach feminism is by acknowledging and examining “awkwardness.” Awkwardness can be defined as the ambiguity and contradiction inherent in many modern political acts as a result of technology and the transnational reach of ideas (Smith-Prei and Stehle 15). I would like to extrapolate this method to include how we approach people as well. People are “awkward” all of the time. Walker’s joke is a perfect example of awkward; she is a feminist making a joke about rape. The person and the presentation clash. Due to technology and transnationalism, we are more aware than ever of these clashes, both people’s successes as well as their flaws. If we were to acknowledge the contradictions of good and bad remarks, of healthy and harmful ideas in everyone, we would free ourselves to critique the different issues we have with people’s actions and words, without dismissing the people themselves.
This frame of thought is exemplified in Brittney Cooper’s essay titled “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” Cooper critiques bell hooks for calling Beyoncé a terrorist. She also critiques Rev. Sekou for defending bell hooks, conflating Beyoncé and Obama and calling them both embodiments of neoliberalism (Cooper par. 4). As she explains why these assertions are problematic, Cooper clarifies that her critique “ain’t about disrespecting elders, but rather about saying that elders, especially elders as astute and insightful as bell hooks, don’t get a pass for making whack-ass arguments” (Cooper par. 6). This is crucial; being famous and well-respected does not excuse a person’s statements. In fact, the wider a person’s audience, the more accountable we need to hold them because their words have such a broad reach. That being said, Cooper’s reminder that “Beyonce is a human being, not just an image or an icon,” can also apply to bell hooks and Alice Walker. Their problematic statements can also be seen as “evidence of both struggle and process” (Cooper par. 36). Recognizing this awkwardness allows us to critique individuals (even those we admire) without disregarding them as people or invalidating their other ideas. This is why we must embrace and acknowledge contradiction in everyone.
Cooper, Brittney C. “On bell, Beyonce’, and Bullshit.” The crunk feminist collective, 20 May 2014, http://www.crunkfeministcollective.com/2014/05/20/on-bell-beyonce-and-bullshit/
“Home.” Home, contemplation.stanford.edu/.
Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 Nov. 2012, plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/#IncThe.
Smith-Prei, Carrie, and Maria Stehle. Awkward politics: technologies of popfeminist activism. McGill-Queens University Press, 2016.
Annina Hanlon is an undergraduate at Stanford University. She is majoring in Psychology, with a specialization in Mind, Culture and Society. She is especially interested in issues regarding race and gender, and how work done in academia can intersect with and impact these issues in the “real” world.
One of the feminist practices key to my teaching and research is a feminist practice of citation.
For me, writing and thinking collaboratively—with my feminist friends and colleagues—is a feminist practice.