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September 17, 2018 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Aretha Franklin, Ariana Grande, and the Holy Trinity of Rape Culture

Last month, the world lost the “Queen of Soul”, music icon Aretha Franklin. Hundreds turned out to commemorate her. The church accommodated over a thousand members of the public, and a befittingly star-studded congregation of invited guests. The funeral lasted six hours, and was as much a performance as it was a service.

With a set list that included Stevie Wonder, Faith Hill, and Jennifer Hudson, there were plenty of headlines surrounding the event. A massive portion of the media attention, however, was focused on one performance in particular: Ariana Grande’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Of course, whether it just appeared this way for me due to Google’s extensive data mining and sketchy af targeted advertising, remains to be seen. Regardless, what we were left with was an incidental insight into our own cultural zeitgeist. This ceremony — held to remember someone who contributed greatly to the soundtrack and efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and Second-Wave Feminism — seemed, in a way, to be one last parting gift from Franklin herself. Grande’s performance (beyond being moving and exceptional) served as an apt reading of how we’re progressing post-#metoo era.
In case you somehow manage to live on a no-media diet, the #metoo movement started as a social media campaign to highlight just how prevalent sexual harassment and assault are within our communities. People would use the hashtag as a way of expressing that they too had experienced sexual harassment and/or assault. While many trans men and women, cis-men, and non-binary folk did partake in the campaign, the focus was primarily on the experience of cis-women. Unlike a number of other social media campaigns that made little to no impact IRL and fell under the umbrella of “slacktivism”, the #metoo movement actually did bring about some genuine change — mostly within the ranks of Hollywood, as big names were getting called out and boycotted within the music, film, and television industries: industries that both Franklin and Grande are well and truly a part of.
Three separate incidents occurred during Grande’s performance. Former US president Bill Clinton was caught unsubtly and cringe-worthily ogling Grande from the front row. The bishop MCing the event greeted the singer in a manner that he would later suggest was “over-familiar”, and involved a wrapped arm and some uncomfortable side boob contact. And the hemline of Grande’s dress was heavily and publicly criticised. If this chain of events is what we have to go off, what does this say about life as a woman (cis or otherwise) in 2018?
Well, your chances of experiencing sexual harassment remain categorically high, and there’s still going to be a fuck load of misled individuals correlating dress choice and unsolicited actions. But on the plus side, perpetrators are actually starting to have to take accountability for their actions. And though not all incidents are going to be as widely televised as these, I think it’s fair to say that collectively, we’re all starting to look out for each other more proactively, and the burden on the individual to clap back is being lifted, somewhat.
Clinton’s part in this doesn’t really bare rehashing. Get your shit together, Bill. When debriefing with my mother I expressed how much I felt — given his position in the public eye — he needed a PR team to give him some training on body language and proper public and professional conduct. She laughed and suggested he needed a whole brain transplant, and I’m fairly content to leave it at that.
Bishop Charles H. Ellis III has later come out with an apology to Grande that implied his handsy actions were unintentional, and he appeared to be willing to take responsibility and learn. It’s worth noting that this apology came after hundreds of people took to Twitter with the hashtag #RespectAriana — once again proving to the more jaded and cynical among us that social media campaigns can actually work in situations where public perception holds weight.
Then, of course, there was the disappointingly apathetic attitude from a lot of the digital bystanders. Would I have made the same stylistic decisions as Ariana? No. But you know what? I’m also not an accomplished performing artist with a highly-developed personal brand who was beloved by Aretha Franklin and was personally invited to pay her tribute.

Churches have always been judgey when it comes to dress codes. Supposedly back in ye old days, “modest dress” was Bible-speak for “stop dressing so bougie”, and my leftie soul gets that. But the process of untwining scriptural meaning from historically sexist interpretations is a slow process. For many, dressing conservatively is their way of showing reverence and homage and that’s totally fine. But wearing your own interpretation of “appropriate dress” should result at most in some choosing to conveniently forget the “thou shall not judge” clause — not blatant violation of respect and boundaries. The fact that the phrase “she was asking for it” still exists at all is appalling — it’s a sobering reminder that we have a long way to go.
My poor Sweetener songbird is having one hell of a few weeks. In one performance she experienced the holy trinity of rape culture. The unspoken, the physical, and the verbal. Or perhaps otherwise put — the unapologetic, the (supposedly) accidental, and the situational. Now, with her ex (and rapper in his own right) Mac Miller having tragically passed from an overdose, Grande is experiencing another round of victim-blaming — as many blame his passing on her leaving what she described as a “toxic relationship”. So I will simply leave you with this friends: don’t be creepy, watch your hands, and look out for those around you. And Ariana, in the words of Paula Bennett: “you’re doing well sweetie!”


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