Ariana Grande
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Pop Culture

On Ariana Grande and the Politics of Ambiguity

Out of all the people who I’d expect to see in a selfie with Piers Morgan, bigot-at-large, in 2019, Ariana Grande was not one of them. On top of being a talented and successful singer, she seems like a genuinely compassionate person with empathy.

After surviving a terrorist attack that killed 22 people at her Manchester concert in May 2017, Grande was remarkably strong and resilient. She made it a point to set an example for the world, fearlessly returning to the site of the attack to perform a benefit concert in honor of the victims, and spending time with fans still recovering from their injuries.

Within a year of the attack, Grande was back in the public eye promoting her 2018 studio album, Sweetener. Although she puts forth a cheerful, bright disposition on the record, her personal life refused to follow suit. Between her brief, tumultuous engagement to comedian Pete Davidson, the resulting fallout, and the tragic death of celebrated rapper Mac Miller, there’s no doubt that she’s gone through hell over the past couple of years.

Considering other mainstream pop acts out there, I’ve grown to admire Grande for her overt feminist politics, and her openness about struggling with anxiety and PTSD. Bursting into tears at the briefest mention of Manchester, she comes across as someone who genuinely cares about people and proudly wears her heart on her sleeve.

As a survivor of trauma myself, I empathize with Grande on a personal level and her music deeply resonates with me. Sweetener helped me find the bright side in life again after spending 2018 in weekly therapy sessions, borderline suicidal as I recovered from workplace sexual assault and harassment. I was excited to hear thank u, next, the raw, empowered side B to Sweetener’s dreamy optimism. I found inspiration in the narrative across the two albums, which seemed to describe Grande’s journey as she processed her trauma and grief.
Vilifying people of color for being tired of white celebrities profiting from their cultures is peak white feminism.
Hence why I felt betrayed and hurt after watching her continue her pattern of appropriating black and Asian cultures with 7 rings only to then reach across the aisle to play nice with noted racist, misogynist, homophobe and transphobe Piers Morgan. If she’s going to advocate for feminism as part of her brand or headline Manchester Pride, Grande has a duty to check her privilege as a cisgender white woman and to use her international platform responsibly.

Grande’s infamous “BBQ Grill Finger” tattoo along with a $60 “Arigato” sweatshirt being sold in her online store (that she later removed) are both classic examples of cultural appropriation. People rightfully criticized her for her antics, and her immature, self-centered reaction was disappointing.

In a series of now-deleted replies to fans on Twitter, Grande wrote that “there’s a difference between appropriation and appreciation.” As a white woman, it isn’t her place to make this distinction. Appreciation honors the existing cultural context behind the homage being made. Given that neither 7 rings or thank u, next have anything to do with Japanese culture, Grande’s use of the language for her tattoo and her heavily marked up Gildan sweatshirt was simply for aesthetic, an empty gesture used for notoriety and profit. Instead of listening to critique and learning from her mistakes, Grande painted herself as being victimized by people who “don’t know how to be forgiving or gentle,” lamenting that “no one considers feelings other than their own.” She hid behind her “crippling anxiety” to avoid accountability, insisting that she is “made of love and nothing else” to distract from the issue at hand. Not only does she invoke her mental illness to excuse her racial micro-aggressions, but she then uses her white tears to silence her critics. Vilifying people of color for being tired of white celebrities profiting from their cultures is peak white feminism.

Instead of listening to criticism with empathy, Grande reacts from her sensitive ego, reminding us that she is, at the end of the day, a wealthy white woman with a ton of privilege and a deep spray tan. Similarly, when criticized for her “productive conversation” with Piers Morgan, Grande again excuses herself using her “peaceful and passionate” nature to refuse to actually learn about why she was wrong. “I don’t understand what’s so evil about a conversation,” she tweeted. If she had taken a moment to listen, Grande would have understood that these concerns are much bigger than a simple conversation. Morgan notoriously uses his platform as a celebrity journalist to dehumanize people by spewing hateful, oppressive rhetoric against them. He makes a living as a Trump-supporting men’s rights activist, and is an abusive Twitter troll personified. Morgan exploited her goodwill to further his platform and amplify his bigoted views. In her naiveté, Grande has humanized a man who profits by inciting violence against marginalized communities that many of her own fans belong to.

While Grande denies that she is complacent in Morgan’s bigotry, that she engaged with him when she easily could have ignored him tells another story. She may not explicitly agree with his politics, but she certainly doesn’t disagree with him enough to be repulsed by the abusive hatred that he embodies like many marginalized people would be.

Grande must understand that not everyone deserves to be met with love and good vibes, especially when they regularly dehumanize others based on their identity. Being a true ally does not involve becoming “good friends” with someone who incites violence against the people you claim to stand in solidarity with. Ultimately, it’s Grande’s wealth and her whiteness that allow her to use other cultures for the aesthetic, and have superficial political debates with trolls over expensive wine without feeling traumatized. Her refusal to understand this is indicative of her privilege, revealing her philosophy of love and light as being rooted exclusively in her individual experiences as a white woman.

While I don’t believe that Grande is inherently a bad person, it’s clear that she still has much to learn. If she truly is as genuine of an advocate for equality as she claims to be, it’s her responsibility to listen to honest and constructive criticism instead of constantly victimizing herself. Only time can tell if she uses this as an opportunity for growth, but for now, someone please delete Twitter off her phone.


 

Roslyn Talusan is a Filipina-Canadian freelance journalist writing about pop culture and feminism. She’s also anti-rape activist fighting the Canadian public service. You can find her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter.

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