Monthly Archives: January 2012
Willa: So I’m just going to be upfront about this and say that working on this week’s post put Joie and me into a terrible funk – the Great Depression, as Joie called it. It deals pretty explicitly with some very painful scenes from our nation’s history, including scenes of racial oppression and sexual abuse. But we felt it was necessary to provide that context to understand what happened in 1993, and everything that followed from that.
Joie: And Willa’s not kidding when she said it sent us both into a Great Depression. This has been the hardest conversation we’ve ever had and it stirred up some really negative emotions in both of us. For a while we didn’t know if we would get through it; we were even worried about hurting each other’s feelings.
Willa: We also didn’t want to hurt or upset anyone who reads this, and we’ve been especially concerned about new readers who may not know us too well. We gained a lot of new readers and new subscribers with the sex appeal post a few weeks ago, which was such a fun, feel-good post to write. Joie and I had a blast with it, and we’re planning to get back to some fun topics soon. In fact, we’re treating ourselves with a look back at Off the Wall next week.
But we both strongly believe that sometimes you just have to stand up and speak the truth, even if it’s unpleasant and upsetting. We believe the public’s refusal to look at things that are unpleasant is what allowed District Attorney Tom Sneddon to abuse the power of his office for so long. So while this was very painful to write, and while we tried to be as sensitive as possible, we felt compelled to speak honestly about specific aspects of our nation’s terrible history of racism and abuse.
Joie: So this week, we continue with our conversation about Michael as a sex symbol and why that was both a significant and a dangerous spot for him to be in. And we ended last week with a discussion of the time period – from the late 1970s to 1982 when Michael’s career really exploded with the release of Thriller – and how the cultural attitudes were in a state of flux. Things were shifting a little bit and the time was right for someone with Michael’s broad-ranging cross-over appeal, and he didn’t hesitate for a second. He stepped up and took full advantage of the moment and became the biggest star the world had ever seen.
Willa: Then in 1993, a White man, Evan Chandler, falsely accused him of a sex crime. Importantly, in a secretly recorded phone conversation, Chandler admits he has paid people to carry out “a plan that isn’t just mine,” saying,
“There are other people involved that are waiting for my phone call that are in certain positions. I’ve paid them to do it. Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine.”
He also says, “I’ve been rehearsed about what to say and what not to say,” and says there will “be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” which is $20 million dollars. This is clearly an extortion attempt.
To understand what happened next, we have to go back in our nation’s history and look at some truly horrifying scenes. And we know this is hard to read. It was incredibly hard to write. But we both feel we can’t really understand what happened in 1993 without this background.
As we’ve mentioned before, there existed a cultural narrative that Black men were a sexual threat to White women, and this narrative was used as an excuse to oppress, demean, and abuse Black men and force them to be submissive. Black men who were not properly deferential could be tortured and killed. Importantly, the torture those men endured tended to focus on the parts of the body we designate as sexual, and their mutilated bodies were often displayed afterwards as a warning to other Black men.
So Black men weren’t just physically abused; they were sexually abused and put on display in very public ways. And this type of sexual intimidation wasn’t restricted to just a few isolated cases. It was systemic, and an integral part of racial oppression in the United States.
In urban areas like New Orleans, there were public whipping houses, and if you were a slave you could be sent there at the whim of your owner for something as trivial as having a defiant look in your eyes. The purpose of those places was to break your spirit and force you to accept the idea that you were a slave. Both men and women were sent to those places, and they did not whip you through your clothes. If you were a woman and were sent to that place, you would have to stand bare chested before a brutal man who made his living hurting people. He would bind your hands over your head to hold you upright as you were whipped, but he could also punish you in ways that were less painful physically but perhaps more damaging psychologically. He could molest you. He could take your clothing. He could force you to stand exposed for hours. He could demean and humiliate you as much as he wanted. And this was a public place with galleries for spectators, so there was likely a crowd of rough, jeering men who gathered in such places just to watch other human beings be hurt and humiliated.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe suggests that the intense humiliation women (and men) experienced in those places was as cruel a punishment in its way as the physical pain they endured from the whip. A beautiful teenager, Rosa, is caught trying on a dress that belongs to her mistress, Maria. As punishment, Maria writes out an order for Rosa to be taken to the whipping house to receive 15 lashes, “lightly” applied. An older woman tries to intervene on Rosa’s behalf, saying, “But could not you punish her some other way, – some way that would be less shameful?” Maria replies,
“I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want. She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
The intense shame Rosa will experience in that place is not accidental: as Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” That extreme public humiliation is intentional, and its purpose is to “bring her down” – to scorch her mind as well as her body and make her submissive – by forcing her to accept and internalize the idea that she is powerless, and a slave.
Joie: You know, Willa, I have not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin since I was in High School but I have to say, just the little snippet you’ve mentioned here makes me remember how uncomfortable – and angry, and indignant, and horrified, and outraged, and hurt – I felt reading it back then. It is not a pleasant or an easy book for a Black person to read.
Willa: Oh God, Joie. Some of those scenes are just terrible to read. I was in my 40s, and it was still really hard to take. And I can believe that reading it as a Black teenage girl would be a very different experience than reading it as a White middle-aged woman. Most of the worst things happen behind the scenes – for example, a weeping Rosa is sent to the whipping house and we don’t see her again – but still, it’s really painful and uncomfortable. A lot of White people don’t like reading that book either just because it is so painful, and because it can stir up a lot of feelings of collective guilt as well.
I know as a Southern White girl learning about slavery, I felt like I’d found out that my mother was a murderer. I just couldn’t hardly come to grips with it. And it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother loved her grandfather, and used to tell me stories about him and how kind he was. Looking back much later, I realized that he was 12 years old when the Civil War began. He was 16 when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. We tend to think it’s ancient history, but it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother’s grandfather was alive during that time, and we’re still dealing with a lot of those attitudes today.
Joie: No, it wasn’t that long ago. My mother’s great-grandfather was lost in slavery. Sold to another slave owner and never heard from again. That’s just four generations ago.
Willa: Oh God, Joie. That’s terrible.
Joie: And even though that book is fiction, it is based on the very real experience of slavery in our country. And it is largely responsible for creating and ingraining most of the racial stereotypes about Blacks that we know today into the collective American psyche.
Willa: You’re right, it’s fiction but it draws on the experiences of real people. Stowe’s husband visited a whipping house in New Orleans and wrote about what he saw there, including a naked teenage girl – a girl like Rosa – and scenes of just unspeakable cruelty. So a lot of the ideas for Stowe’s novel came from real life experiences.
But a lot of the racial stereotypes you mentioned – especially the stereotype of Uncle Tom – didn’t come from Stowe’s novel, at least not directly. Her novel was incredibly popular – the most popular novel of the 19th Century – and Vaudeville skits based on her novel became very popular as well. Those skits often featured White actors in blackface playing the role of happy slaves, including a happy Uncle Tom, and that’s where those stereotypes came from, but that’s not at all what her novel is like. Stowe’s Tom is no Uncle Tom. In fact, he is tortured and killed by his owner because he refuses to whip other slaves, or tell him where two slaves who escaped have been hiding. Judging Uncle Tom’s Cabin because of those Vaudeville stereotypes is like judging Michael Jackson based on Wierd Al Yankovic.
Joie: I completely disagree with you. While it’s true that Stowe probably intended for the character of Tom to be some sort of ‘noble hero,’ and the stereotype of him as a subservient old fool who bows down like a good little slave and does everything he can to keep his White master happy was perpetuated by the many stage productions that Stowe had no control over, her novel is completely responsible for many other racial stereotypes. The lazy, carefree “happy darky.” The tragic figure of the attractive light-skinned mulatto female who’s used as a sex object by all the White men. The plump, motherly, dark-skinned “Mammy” with the kerchief wrapped around her head like Aunt Jemima. Even the “pickaninny” stereotype of Black children – “wooly heads and glistening eyes.” It’s incredibly offensive and it came directly from the descriptions and illustrations in that book. And as you pointed out, in its day, it was the single most popular novel of the 19th Century.
I’m not discounting its significance as an invaluable commentary against slavery. I’m just pointing out its complicity in creating and perpetuating all those racial stereotypes that we still struggle with today.
Willa: You know, I don’t mean to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin sound better than it is. It was written in a very different place and time with a very different mindset, and I admit I winced quite a bit while reading it. But I think Stowe explodes a lot of those stereotypes by taking us inside the minds of those characters and making them real, human, complicated people – especially the women characters. The Mammy figure, Chloe, is a smart no-nonsense woman who says some pretty subversive things, and if Cassie had her way, she’d drive a stake through the heart of the man who forced her to be his mistress. She remains her own person and never becomes what he wants her to be. She’s no sex kitten. And Cassie is a crucial figure. One of the things I find so important about Stowe and the reason I keep referring to her is that, through characters like Rosa and Cassie, she shows the interconnections between slavery and sexuality – specifically, how abuse of power in terms of race, gender, and sexuality is intricately related and interwoven.
Joie: Ok. First, I never said the mulatto female characters were sex kittens, I said they were sex objects (there’s a big difference) and a racial stereotype. Second, and most importantly, we are obviously never going to agree or even meet in the middle on our opinions of this book so, we should probably just move on.
Willa: Ok. I shouldn’t have pushed that so hard. I apologize.
The idea I’m trying to get at is that racism and slavery are false ideologies – artificial human constructs – that are deeply abhorrent to the human mind. Everything within us rebels at the thought of being a slave, and it takes brutal measures to break us to the point where we’ll accept it. And in the American South, brutal measures were used.
And here’s the crucially important point, the reason it’s important to look back at all this terrible history: those false ideologies were “made real” by being “written” on real human bodies. Those ideologies were literally written in the scars of whips or chains or a branding iron, but they were also written in less obvious ways through sexual abuse or even the public gaze of White men who thought they had a right to dominate the bodies of Black men and women, and refused to acknowledge their humanity. And this other type of “writing” on the body is perhaps more damaging to the psyche than physical suffering because it focuses on the areas of the body we tend to designate as sexual. These areas are more intimate and therefore more closely aligned with our inner being and sense of self, so it is more wounding psychologically when those areas are abused.
This is part of our nation’s horrible legacy of racial/sexual abuse, and this is the background for what Michael Jackson faced in 1993. In that secretly recorded phone conversation, Even Chandler says,
“This lawyer I found – I picked the nastiest son of a bitch I could find. All he wants to do is get this out in the public as fast as he can, as big as he can, and humiliate as many people as he can. He’s nasty, he’s mean, he’s smart, and he’s hungry for publicity.”
In other words, Chandler wants to control Michael Jackson – he wants to make him submissive and force him to bow to his wishes – by threatening to publicly “humiliate” him in a sexual way by accusing him of a sex crime. This is simply an extension of what Maria wants to do to Rosa in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” And in Michael Jackson’s final meeting with Chandler, when he refuses to pay him the money he wants, Chandler points a finger at him and says, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” Again, this is simply a modern variation of what Maria said of Rosa more than a century earlier: “I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
When Michael Jackson refuses to give in to Chandler’s demands, the police are brought in, led by a White District Attorney named Tom Sneddon. Sneddon blindly accepts Chandler’s accusations despite all the evidence that it is an extortion attempt, and he sides with Chandler against Michael Jackson. Sneddon then uses his position as District Attorney to order a strip search. A few days before Christmas 1993, Michael Jackson is forced to stand naked on a platform while the most intimate parts of his body – the areas designated as sexual – are photographed and videotaped. If the civil case goes to trial, those photographs and videotape could be entered as evidence and made public in a courtroom.
The intense humiliation Michael Jackson was forced to endure during the strip search, and that he would have faced during the civil trial, is entirely in keeping with our nation’s horrifying history of racial/sexual abuse. Again, it is merely an extension of the humiliations slaves were forced to endure in the public whipping houses when the most intimate areas of their bodies – areas designated as sexual – were put on public display.
Joie: You’re absolutely right, Willa. And you know, I have always had a difficult time reading accounts of that strip search, and for the longest time, I thought it was just because it felt so much like reading the account of a rape. And it does. I mean, putting yourself in Michael’s shoes as you read what happened during that strip search, it just feels like he’s being gang raped by everyone in that room – the photographers, the videographer, the DA’s physician, the police officers that were in the room – everyone. It’s just so uncomfortable to read; it feels like such a violation.
But, until we began working on this post, I never realized that perhaps another reason I have so much trouble reading about that incident is because it also feels very reminiscent of a slave being publicly examined and violated and humiliated before being sold or whipped. I believe Aldebaran and I talked about it briefly in the comments section a couple weeks ago.
You know for many Black Americans, reading about, watching on TV, or even just talking about slavery in any deep and meaningful way is very difficult and uncomfortable to do. And, as you know, Willa, I’ve had a very difficult time contributing to this particular conversation. I felt paralyzed by it. When you first mentioned that we talk about this, I avoided it for weeks. And I was very puzzled by it for a long time until I really just sat and thought about the reasons why. Why was I having such a hard time with this one? And finally, I realized that this topic is just so unpleasant for me for so many reasons. Slavery is ugly and I don’t like to talk about it. And rape is ugly and I don’t want to talk about it. And trying to have a meaningful conversation about how someone you love and adore was humiliated and raped and made to feel like a common slave is … unpleasant. To say the least. It’s ugly, and I don’t want to talk about it.
Willa: You know, I felt that way for a long time. I’ve felt a deep connection to Michael Jackson since I was nine years old, and I always believed he was innocent, but I didn’t want to know any of the details. It was too ugly, plus I always felt his private life should be private. I never read any biographies of him while he was alive – actually, didn’t read anything like that until I was well into writing M Poetica, and noticed his later work kept pointing back to 1993. Then I felt like I had to learn something about what happened, just so I could understand what he was responding to and trying to convey.
And it was shocking. I didn’t know about the strip search. When I read a description of what happened that day, I felt physically sick for hours, just hollowed out inside – I can’t even describe it. And I definitely didn’t know about the photographs and videotape. As soon as I found out about them, I thought, Of course he settled. Of course. I would too.
But I didn’t know about them, or about that recording where Evan Chandler says, “Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine,” and says he’s paid people to help carry out that plan. I didn’t know Chandler’s son agreed to the allegations after being sedated, and I didn’t know the details of how Chandler interrogated his son – how he lied and threatened and manipulated his son until he finally agreed to the allegations. I kept hoping some evidence would appear that would prove his innocence. I had no idea that evidence was already available, but the police and press were ignoring it.
Looking back, I think Tom Sneddon was able to abuse the power of his office – and abuse and harass Michael Jackson – because a lot of people like me refused to look at the evidence and look at what was happening. You were a lot better about that than I was, Joie – you were working through the fan club to help make people aware, but looking back I feel like I was willfully, woefully ignorant.
Joie: Well I wasn’t working with MJFC then. There was no MJFC back in 1993.
Willa: I’m not just talking about 1993. I’m talking about the whole period from 1993 on. Tom Sneddon hounded him for years.
Joie: Well, that’s very true; he went after him with a vengeance and I truly believe he was obsessed with Michael. But, I was very much plugged in to what was going on, even before I started working with MJFC. I made it a point to follow what was happening. And like you, I didn’t want to know any of the details either. I don’t think anyone really wanted to look too closely into the details because it was such an ugly accusation. And I feel like I keep using that word – ugly – and I apologize for that, but I just can’t seem to get away from it in this conversation.
But in order to prove what we knew to be true – that Michael was innocent – and in order to educate others about the truth (since the sensationalized news certainly wasn’t doing it) we had to look at the facts; we had no choice. And the facts clearly pointed to extortion. And how Sneddon and his minions could ignore that and go on a witch hunt instead still floors me. And there is no doubt in my mind that if it had gone to trial, Michael would have been victorious. But I understand completely why he suddenly stopped pushing for his day in court after the strip search and I can’t blame him. I probably would have done the exact same thing. Even though settling made him look guilty. And it makes me think of that part in Frank Cascio’s book, My Friend Michael, where he talks about how Michael would occasionally bring that up, saying,
“I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused.”
Willa: I agree, Joie. I would have settled. If that civil case had gone to trial, think of what that would have been like. Not only would it have been unbearably humiliating, it also would have served as a warning to other Black men of what could happen if they weren’t careful. In other words, it would have been an extension of the message conveyed by the bodies of Black men lynched in the past as a warning to be submissive. As in all those earlier abuses of power we talked about, the purpose of this intense sexual humiliation was to break his spirit – to control him, and subdue him, and force him to accept the cultural position set out for him – by “writing” this ideology on his body, by writing how powerless he was on the most intimate areas of his body.
But it didn’t work. It didn’t break him or control him or make him submissive. Instead, he became defiant – more openly defiant than he’d ever been before. The press called him uncontrollable, outrageous. It’s striking to me how many articles were written saying that someone needed to take control of him – his family, his managers, someone. And this isn’t a person who’s brandishing weapons or threatening people or causing massive property damage. He’s simply making people very uncomfortable through what he calls his “eccentric oddities.”
But his “eccentric oddities” weren’t random – they took a very specific form. He responded to the attempts to write the ideologies of racism and subservience on his body by completely confounding the way we read and interpret his face and body. He manipulated public perceptions of his face until it simply could not be read in conventional ways. Was he Black, or was he White? Was he masculine, or was he feminine? Was he handsome and desirable, a sex symbol, or was he ravaged by plastic surgery? Was he heterosexual? Homosexual? Bisexual? Asexual? Was he a pedophile or a victim? Innocent or guilty? Everyone who looked at him saw something different. We as a culture completely lost the ability to read and interpret his face and body because he scrambled the signifiers we’re used to reading.
And that wasn’t accidental. As he himself tells us rather explicitly through his work, it was an artistic decision. Specifically, the illusion of plastic surgery was an artistic response to the cultural constraints being forced on him, and it’s brilliant. In fact, as much as I love his music and his dancing and his films (and I do love them) I believe his face and body – and the illusions he created with them – are his greatest work of art. I believe future generations will look back at Michael Jackson and see him as a transformational figure, and the most important artist of our time – not the greatest singer or dancer or filmmaker, but the most important artist, period, including poets and painters and playwrights. And I believe they will see his face as his masterpiece.
However, his face isn’t just his most ambitious and most important work of art. It’s also an entirely new kind of art – an entirely new genre of art. It makes us uncomfortable because it is such a new kind of art and we don’t yet know how to interpret it. But it has the potential to “rewrite” the ideologies that have been written on our bodies, and alter the way we make sense of ourselves and our world. And that is truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa, I agree with you that everyone who looked at him saw something different. But I tend to think that was our doing, not his. Everyone saw something different simply because people see what they want to see. You yourself told us back during our discussion of “Is It Scary” that “if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.” And those people who looked at him and believed that he was ‘ravaged by plastic surgery’ or guilty as sin, or crazy as a loon or whatever, simply wanted to see him that way.
But I do agree with you that, in time, the world will come to realize that Michael Jackson was in fact the most important artist of our time. And that statement has nothing to do with his music or his dancing abilities or his short films. Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that he – the most famous man on the planet, the most successful entertainer in the world – was given the great responsibility of proving to the world that Black people and White people are all the same. And that responsibility came with a disease that he was ridiculed for and teased about and tormented with for the rest of his life. But he handled it with so much grace and dignity and humility and bravery. And he tried his best to use it to teach us some very profound lessons along the way. And you’re right. That is very revolutionary.
Joie: Two weeks ago, we began the new year by examining Michael Jackson’s incredible sex appeal and the discussion got a little heated at times. Or maybe I should I say Willa and I got a little over-heated at times but really, who could blame us? I mean, come on. We were talking about some pretty … artistic … short films and how truly … artistic … Michael looked in those films. Actually, it was a very educational conversation about Michael’s pants. I mean ART! Art … appreciation, right Willa?
Willa: Heavens, Joie, you and those gold pants! It’s a good thing they didn’t have those pants at Fan Fest or you’d still be there.
Joie: Actually, the gold pants were at Fan Fest but you know what? They just don’t seem as magical when he’s not in them.
Willa: I can believe that….
Joie: Well anyway, we followed up that conversation with a discussion of In the Closet and all the different ways that song and short film can be interpreted. It just seemed fitting somehow since we got so distracted by it in the sex symbol post. But this week, we want to get back on track and go back to that original conversation about race and sex and our goal is to place Michael Jackson within an historical context and talk about why that was such an important cultural phenomenon, and why there was such a strong backlash against him because of it. But in order to understand why the idea of a Black sex symbol was so radical, we need to take a step back in time and look at our nation’s horrifying, shameful history of slavery and sexuality.
Willa and I know that this is very painful, very ugly territory. And while it’s not easy to read about – or to write about for that matter – we feel strongly that this discussion would be pointless and incomplete without this small history lesson. It’s necessary in order to understand Michael Jackson’s tremendous significance, not just as an artist but as a cultural figure.
Willa: That’s really true, Joie, and as you said two weeks ago, history repeats itself. A lot of what happened in 1993 when he was falsely accused of a sex crime was simply a continuation of racial/sexual patterns that were established early in our nation’s history, way back when slavery was introduced to North America in the 1600s. So we can gain a better understanding of what happened in 1993, and why the police acted the way they did, and why Michael Jackson responded the way he did, by looking back and seeing how that entire episode fits within those larger patterns.
Our attitudes about race, gender, and sexuality are so interconnected in the United States it’s almost impossible to untangle them. I think there’s a reason Michael Jackson crossed boundaries of gender and sexuality as well as race: it’s because they are so intertwined you can’t really shift attitudes about any one of them at the deep psychological levels he was operating at without addressing all three.
Racism in the United States has been an ongoing struggle between White oppression and Black resistance for centuries, and those battles have focused on real human bodies and who controls those bodies – particularly women’s bodies. In a very real sense, women’s bodies have been the battlefields on which this ongoing power struggle between the races has been fought.
Traditionally, White men have had access to Black women’s bodies. Before the Civil War, White slave owners literally owned Black women’s bodies, and many of those men claimed the right to do what they wanted, by force or coercion if necessary. There’s a reason most Black Americans are mixed race and not “pure” Black – it’s because most Black Americans have at least one White rapist in their family tree, as Malcolm X phrased it. Even Thomas Jefferson probably fathered children by one of his wife’s slaves, Sally Hemings.
Joie: I think you can drop the “probably” out of that sentence, Willa.
Willa: I think you’re “probably” right, Joie. DNA evidence has shown that he was most likely the father of at least one of her children, and possibly all six. So even the author of the Declaration of Independence – the man who wrote the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – apparently even he felt he had a right to a Black woman’s body, and while this belief was generally unspoken, it was also tacitly accepted.
And traditionally, Black men have been prohibited from White women’s bodies by both laws and social customs, as we discussed a little bit two weeks ago. White women who associated with Black men were seen as traitors to their race, and were despised. Black men who associated with White women, or in some cases even gazed at a White woman, were seen as infringing on a territory they had no right to claim, and many of those men were tortured and killed. The clear message was that a White woman’s body was off-limits to a Black man – even if he had her consent and even if it were her idea.
So women’s bodies became the symbolic landscape on which racial oppression was written, with White men claiming dominance over Black women’s bodies, and violently enforcing prohibitions against Black men transgressing on White women’s bodies.
This racial/sexual dynamic existed for over 300 years, and to some degree those attitudes persist even today. But suddenly in the 1980s something radical happened: Michael Jackson became a teen idol – our first Black teen idol – and an entirely new phenomenon in our nation’s history. White girls were fainting at his concerts, and hanging his posters in their bedrooms, and openly expressing how sexy he was, and that was truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa … I agree with everything you’re saying. But, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a minute and point out that Michael’s position as the first Black teen idol might not have been quite as revolutionary as you think. Or maybe it’s better to say that, what I’m about to say will explain how his ascension to that position was even possible. And it may shed some light on where our culture was at the time as well. I just feel it’s important to point out that Michael wasn’t the first. There was someone who blazed that trail ahead of him and possibly even paved the way for him. As you say, in the 1980s something radical happened. But just a few short years earlier, in 1977, something even more radical happened: his name was Teddy Pendergrass.
Teddy Pendergrass was an African American soulful R&B artist who had risen to success as the lead singer of the group Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes in the early 1970s. But in ’77 he went solo and his career skyrocketed. He became the first Black male singer to record five consecutive multi-platinum albums and his success was due in no small measure to his sensual hits like “Close the Door,” “Turn off the Lights” and “Come Go With Me.” All of which he delivered with a very healthy dose of sex appeal. His lyrics were not crass, like in a lot of today’s R&B, but when coupled with his sexy baritone voice they were seen as sensual and romantic and even bordered on the erotic. Combine that with the fact that he was very easy on the eyes – tall, dark and handsome – and you had “an entirely new phenomenon in our nation’s history,” as you said earlier. Women LOVED him. All women. Black, White – it didn’t matter. Women packed his sold-out performances and they would swoon and faint all over themselves as he stood onstage crooning to them.
And he definitely played it up. In fact, his live shows were famous for their blatant sexiness and he would wear these tight little outfits on stage (precursors of the gold pants) and he would even announce to the men in the audience that he was “getting their women ready for later tonight.” Things got so hot that they began billing his shows as “For Ladies Only,” something a few of today’s male music stars are attempting to copy, and by the end of each show, the stage would infamously be completely littered with women’s panties – many of them with phone numbers written on them. And we’re talking just a sea of women – White, Black and every color in between.
By the end of 1978, Teddy Pendergrass was a major sex symbol; many in the media had even begun to call him ‘the Black Elvis,’ and by early 1982 – the same year Michael Jackson exploded – Teddy Bear, as the ladies liked to call him, had already set the sexual imaginations of many White women on fire. Perhaps the very same White women who had teenaged daughters who would later swoon and faint in frenzied adulation over Michael Jackson. So, just as young White girls were going nuts over Michael Jackson in the early 1980s, many of their mothers had gone just as nuts over Teddy Pendergrass in the late 1970s. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his tragic and life-altering car crash in 1982 that left him paralyzed from the waist down at age 31, Teddy Pendergrass might have become a heated musical rival for Michael in terms of capturing the hearts and sexual imaginations of young women everywhere. So, as early as the late 1970s, those deep taboos and the racial/sexual power structure were already being challenged by TP before Michael took over that role.
Willa: Joie, that is so interesting. I knew Teddy Pendergrass was a big name and a wonderful singer. (If you’re a college basketball fan, he sings the classic version of “One Shining Moment,” the theme song of the NCAA championships.) And I knew there were handsome Black entertainers with crossover appeal before Michael Jackson – artists like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Al Green – but they were fairly subtle. They definitely had sex appeal, but it was understated, not overt. I just can’t picture Sidney Poitier ripping his shirt open. I didn’t realize the Teddy Pendergrass phenomenon had that whole other element to it. That’s pretty amazing.
Joie: You know, I didn’t realize it at the time either. I was a teenager and I was very aware of him because my mother and my aunts were going nuts over him, but it wasn’t until after Teddy Pendergrass passed away and I was watching one of those ‘behind the music’ type shows about his career that I came to fully understand his impact. And of course, as I always do when thinking about any musical artist or group, I couldn’t help but think about how that related to Michael and to his career. So those boundaries set by racial/cultural taboos were being boldly crossed right and left by Teddy Pendergrass. But then he hit a wall – quite literally – and his career took a different path. But the very same year he was forced to stop pushing those boundaries, Michael Jackson suddenly rises to the surface and takes over, although he went about it in a completely different way. But I just think that’s really significant and not at all coincidental.
Willa: That is so interesting, Joie, and you’re absolutely right – it does show that cultural attitudes were shifting and the time was right for someone like Michael Jackson. And wow, did he seize the moment. He was the biggest star of them all – the biggest star ever, of any race – and he was recognized around the planet as one of the sexiest men alive.
But then he did something that I believe was even more revolutionary. After proving he was tremendously attractive to millions of women of all races – and he definitely proved that – he refused to exploit that right. He kept his sexuality very private, and he refused to use sex as a display of male power and prowess.
As mentioned earlier, racial power (and male power in general) has traditionally been written on women’s bodies. In our nation’s history, in particular, White men have had access to Black women’s bodies, and Black men have not had access to White women’s bodies. If Michael Jackson had developed a reputation for sleeping with White supermodels and White groupies and singing songs that support that type of persona – in other words, if he had behaved like a stereotypical White rock star – he would have seriously challenged the traditional power structure and shifted the way the pieces were positioned on the chessboard.
But he did more than that. He didn’t just move the pieces around; he rejected the chessboard altogether. He crossed gender boundaries as well as racial boundaries and refused to write male power on women’s bodies.
Michael Jackson was very attractive to women, but he also identified with women and had strong friendships with women, and some of his most popular works have both a masculine and feminine sensibility. He was obviously a man, but he didn’t reject the feminine parts of his personality, and we see that in his work. “Dirty Diana” is a song about a groupie and a rock star, and it could have been really exploitative, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s written as much from her perspective as his, with the point of view shifting back and forth between the two. And The Way You Make Me Feel is one of the most feminist videos I personally have ever seen: it directly critiques the way men use women to prove themselves to other men.
Joie: That’s a really good point, Willa, and I agree with you. Even In The Closet, that we talked about last week is written from both his perspective and hers. He’s going on and on about how attracted he is to her and wondering what it is about her that attracts him so much, but she’s the one spouting all the wisdom about sex and relationships.
Willa: I hadn’t thought about that, Joie, but you’re right – it’s structured like a conversation between the two of them, and it begins with her voice, not his.
So Michael Jackson didn’t just cross racial boundaries and challenge White authority. He also crossed gender boundaries and challenged patriarchal authority. It’s hard for me to express just how radical and important that is. It was truly transgressive, and dangerous as well. He was violating some of our deepest taboos and contradicting centuries of racial/patriarchal/sexual oppression. It was very dangerous – he received death threats – and he negotiated that minefield very carefully for more than a decade.
Joie: That’s true, Willa; it was a dangerous position for him to be in. And next week, in the second half of this two-part series, we’re going to venture into some really murky water in order to take a look at why that was so dangerous and we’ll examine the events of ’93 and place that in an historical context to understand why it was so significant.
Willa: This week Joie and I are looking at In the Closet. To be honest, this wasn’t the post we meant to write – we were planning to take a historical look at race and sexuality and then position Michael Jackson within that historical context. But as we started discussing that we got into such a lively debate about In the Closet that we decided to take a detour.
However, we’re taking a little different approach this time. As the title tells us, In the Closet is about a taboo relationship. But it’s not taboo because of sexual orientation – this is a story about a man and a woman – so there must be some other reason. But why? Why is this a forbidden love? While talking about that, Joie and I discussed four different answers to that question – each interesting in its own way, each supported by lyrics and visual cues, and each leading to a very different interpretation of the video as a whole.
One interpretation is that it’s taboo because of race. The video features two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship, and those characters are played by Naomi Campbell, a beautiful Black model, and Michael Jackson. Because we know his background and because he calls himself Black, we tend to think of him as Black and assume he’s playing a Black character.
But he doesn’t look Black in this video. He looks Mediterranean, an interpretation reinforced by the Spanish architecture, and the Spanish dancers, and the fact that he’s wearing a wedding ring on his right hand rather than his left, as is customary in Spain. So we have a rather Victor/Victoria type situation where Michael Jackson is a Black actor portraying a White man involved in a taboo relationship with a Black woman. (And I have to say, who else but Michael Jackson would think up a scenario like this? And who else could play it half so well? He’s just endlessly fascinating to me….)
What makes this relationship so taboo is the issue of marriage. While White men have traditionally slept with Black women, by force if necessary, they haven’t married Black women. They’ve married proper White women. Marriage between a White man and a Black woman is as radical in its way as sex between a Black man and a White woman. And I think that’s the taboo Michael Jackson tackles in In the Closet.
Joie: Willa, I have to say that I never thought of this video in this way before. I have never looked at In the Closet as a song about race at all. To me the lyrics are very clearly all about sex. Forbidden sex, to be more exact. And, as you say, we tend to think of Michael as a Black man – because he is – so, I’ve never viewed him in this video as portraying a White man.
Willa: I’m really glad you brought that up, Joie, because I want to be very clear about this. I’m not in any way suggesting that, as a person, Michael Jackson wasn’t Black or tried to deny his Black heritage. I don’t believe that at all. I’m simply saying that, as an actor, I don’t think he should be restricted to Black roles, and I don’t think we should assume that all his characters are Black. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado about Nothing, which has Denzel Washington playing a White character, Don Pedro. Interestingly enough, Don Pedro is Spanish – a Spanish nobleman – and this film came out in 1993, a year after In the Closet.
Joie: Oh, I love that movie too! It’s really fun, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for Shakespeare! But I know you’re not suggesting that Michael wasn’t Black. I just find your take on this video really surprising. And quite clever. But anyway, Michael often wore a ring on his right ring finger so, again, I never thought much of that. Not that I’m disagreeing with your interpretation; I do find it fascinating. I’m just saying I’ve never viewed it in this way before. Very interesting.
Willa: And I’m certainly not saying this is the only way of interpreting it, but I do think it’s a possibility and a valid approach. There are several visual cues that suggest it, though they’re subtle. The video opens with a shot of the ring: Michael Jackson’s character is walking with his hands in his back pockets, and the hand with the ring is toward the camera. Importantly, Naomi Campbell’s character isn’t wearing a ring, so symbolically this tells us that he is more committed to their relationship than she is – but maybe not. While he’s more committed in some ways, he wants to keep their relationship a secret, and she doesn’t. As she tells him in the opening monologue, “Don’t hide our love.” She’s not thinking marriage; she just wants a normal relationship.
He is thinking marriage. This isn’t Thomas Jefferson having as many as six children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and never acknowledging her. (In a secret codicil to his will, Jefferson freed her children but not her. She remained a slave her entire life.) This seems very different, though he still feels driven to “hide our love.” In other words, this modern 20th Century man is still wrestling with the fallout of our nation’s long, painful racial/sexual/cultural history – a history that extends back before we were even a country, and includes at least one of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.
I believe this is the taboo Michael Jackson’s character is struggling against. He wants a real life together. He’s wearing a ring. He evokes the image of women dancing, as at a wedding. And he takes her to a house – not a restaurant or a bar or a dance club, but to a domestic place where they could start a life together. But the house isn’t in a community; it’s completely isolated, out in the desert. He wants marriage, but that means transgressing a strong cultural taboo, and he’s not ready to take that step. So he holds his hand up to his face, shows her the wedding ring, and asks her to “take a vow” with him. But instead of a vow of marriage, he says, “For now / let’s take a vow / to keep it in the closet.”
Joie: Well, like I said, I find your interpretation fascinating, and it is valid. But I believe you may be over-thinking it a little bit. Maybe she is not wearing a wedding ring NOT because she isn’t thinking marriage, but simply because she isn’t his wife. Maybe the reason he wants to keep their relationship a secret – taking her to a house that’s completely isolated, far away from prying eyes – is because she is his mistress. Hence, the forbidden sex. He wants to be free to love her publicly but he’s simply not able to because he’s already married to someone else. After all, he tells us in the opening lines,
She’s just a lover who gets me by
It worth the giving, it’s worth the try
You cannot cleave it, put it in the furnace
You cannot wet it, you cannot burn it
In the Bible – a book we know Michael read frequently – it tells us in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word cleave means ‘to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.’ So the lyrics are telling us that this man is married but he’s involved in a taboo relationship with another woman. He “cannot cleave it” because he’s already vowed to “cleave” to someone else. Then he goes on to say,
It’s just a feeling, you have to soothe it
You can’t neglect it, you can’t abuse it
It’s just desire, you cannot waste it
But if you want it, then won’t you taste it
He’s telling us here that he is consumed by lust and the desire for a woman who is not his wife. And he’s apparently willing to risk an awful lot to satisfy his desires, as he tells us,
If you can get it, it’s worth a try
I really want it, I can’t deny
It’s just desire, I really love it
‘Cause if it’s aching, you have to rub it
He even adds in the little mischievous “Dare me?” all throughout the song. He knows what he’s doing is risky and that he could be caught at any moment.
I believe this interpretation is supported by the video as well. As you pointed out, he takes her to a secluded love nest where there’s less chance they’ll be spotted by anyone who knows either of them. There are several prominent shots of the ring that he’s wearing and she is not. And then there are the shots of him dancing with his back against the wall and on the threshold – neither out nor in – because he’s not free to make a real commitment to her.
I love your interpretation; it has given me a whole new way of thinking about this video. But I tend to believe that both the song and the short film are not addressing race so much as they are adultery. Romanticizing the idea of forbidden sex. “The truth of lust, woman to man.”
Willa: Joie, I love your analysis of this, and I absolutely agree it’s a valid interpretation of In the Closet. And I’m intrigued by that word “cleave” now. I just assumed it meant its more common definition, which is to split something apart, like with a cleaver. I hadn’t thought about the Biblical connotations of that word before, and how traditionally it has referred to marriage. But to me, while this reinforces the idea that this video is about a forbidden love – one that hasn’t been consecrated in marriage – it doesn’t identify why it’s forbidden. It could be because he’s already married, but it could also be because of race. To me, this supports either interpretation.
Joie: Really? See, I disagree. I think the word “cleave” says it all. He’s definitely married and the woman he has the hots for is definitely not his wife. Otherwise, I don’t think Michael would have used such an unusual word. He was trying to convey a message and tell a story and he chose this word specifically to spell it out for us. The whole rest of that first verse – “put it in the furnace / you cannot wet it / you cannot burn it” – also has Biblical connotations so, I think he was really trying to paint a specific picture with those opening lines.
Willa: That is so interesting, Joie – it conjures up images of hell and damnation that I had never associated with those lyrics before. And that actually suggests a third interpretation, and a third reason for why this relationship is taboo: because he sees this woman as a temptress. After all, she is clearly a sexual being, and seems pretty knowledgeable about sex and desire.
There’s a centuries-old belief that respectable women don’t feel sexual desire, and in the 19th Century, especially, this led many men – and women too – to divide women into two distinct categories: respectable women (who weren’t sexual) and sexual women (who weren’t respectable). As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence when describing the beliefs of upper class young men in the 1880s, there was a culturally recognized abyss “between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied.” She goes on to write that, “In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives.
While these rigid and repressive attitudes have softened considerably, they haven’t disappeared by any means – and Naomi Campbell’s character in this video is openly sexual and very comfortable with her sexuality. The male lead obviously feels a strong attraction for her, but is she the kind of woman you bring home for pot roast with the parents? And I keep thinking about those Spanish women dancers in their traditional dress. They’ll dance at his wedding if he marries the right kind of woman, but will they dance at his wedding if he marries her – a very sexual woman?
Looking at In the Closet this way, maybe “the truth of lust, woman to man,” is that women do feel sexual desire, and shouldn’t be judged for that. We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?
Joie: That is an interesting point, Willa. And as I sat watching this video over and over again in preparation for this post, a fourth interpretation occurred to me and it sort of ties in to what you were just saying about the sexual attitudes of the 1880s. You’re correct in saying that those attitudes have not completely disappeared. And it could be that this song – and the video – are simply about the joy of sex itself. Perhaps he’s not married and the forbidden nature of the song is simply because sex itself is the taboo here. We’re all supposed to be “proper” individuals, and sex outside of marriage is unthinkable and wrong. Maybe that’s why it feels so exciting and forbidden for him. In the chorus of the song he sings joyously,
There’s something about you, baby
That makes me want to give it to you
I swear there’s something about you, baby
That makes me want…
He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way; he’s not supposed to. Society – and the Bible – tells him it’s wrong. But he can’t help himself. He’s human and he has human desires. And so does she. But in his exuberance he makes sure to remind her,
Just promise me that whatever we say
Or whatever we do to each other
For now, we’ll make a vow to just
Keep it in the closet
It has to be a secret because what they’re doing is so wrong, or at the very least, completely inappropriate.
Willa: That is so intriguing, Joie, and it makes a lot of sense. Michael Jackson was very aware of the complicated nature of sex. It can be a tender expression of love and intimacy, as we see in songs like “Break of Dawn.” But it can also be used for manipulation, ambition, or revenge, as we see in songs like “Billie Jean,” or it can simply satisfy mindless physical appetites, as we see in songs like “Superfly Sister.” And his songs do have an allegorical feeling to them sometimes, so I think an allegorical interpretation like this is perfectly appropriate and in keeping with his artistic vision.
I remember when we were talking about My Baby several months ago, and we were trying to figure out why the protagonist kept being attracted to these “bad girls” who repeatedly hurt both him and My Baby. It happens again and again, in songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” You suggested that maybe those women represented fame – that’s why he was so attracted to them and couldn’t just walk away and leave them alone – and, for me, that opened up a whole new way of looking at those songs. I think about it every time I hear them. And I think there could be a similar allegorical element here.
Joie: I agree. And many of his songs do feel very allegorical at times. But you know, I am just flabbergasted at the fact that we were able to come up with so many different ways of interpreting both the lyrics and and the short film for this song. Before we began talking about it, I never realized that there were so many layers here! It’s actually very deep and complex and I find myself wondering if the concept for the short film came as he was writing the lyrics or if it developed later, because they just seem so intertwined to me. Really fascinating.
Willa: That’s a really good question. I’d love to know that too. In Moonwalk, he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
So it sounds like some of the visual elements are percolating in his mind from the beginning. But I think he also lets things develop during the storyboarding sessions and throughout production, as he goes on to talk about:
I felt “Beat It” should be interpreted literally, the way it was written, one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough. That’s what “Beat It” was about.
When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi’s demo reel and knew that he was the director I wanted for “Beat It.” I loved the way he told a story in his work, so I talked with him about “Beat It.” We went over things, my ideas and his ideas, and that’s how it was created. We played with the storyboard and molded it and created it.
So as with his work in the studio producing songs, he seems to have a vision of what he wants to convey (“I felt ‘Beat It’ should be interpreted literally, like it was written”) but then he’s able to evoke the best from his collaborators and lets things develop throughout the process, drawing on their ideas and expertise as well.
And I agree with you, Joie. In the Closet is so interesting on so many levels – artistically, culturally, psychologically. Whatever the reason, Michael Jackson portrays a deeply conflicted character in this video. He feels tremendous desire for this woman obviously, and he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but he can’t – either because he’s already married, or because he can’t quite find the courage to defy cultural taboos, or because she represents the dangerous embodiment of sex itself.
The choreography and cinematography emphasize his internal conflict. As you mentioned earlier, Joie, we see shots of him dancing with his back to the wall, literally, and we see numerous shots of him in doorways – neither in nor out, as you said. Perhaps the most striking sequences are the wonderful silhouettes where he’s dancing at the threshold. This again refers back to marriage since the groom traditionally carries the bride across the threshold to begin their new life together. But he can’t do that for some reason, so he dances in the doorway instead – unable to make an official declaration of marriage but unable to walk away.
The video ends with him shutting the door and shutting himself inside the house, telling us visually that, for now, he’s determined to keep this relationship “in the closet.”
Joie: But Willa and I would love to know what you think on this one. If you have an interpretation for In The Closet that differs from the four that we’ve explored here, please let us know; we’d love to hear it!
Joie: Well, you asked for it, so here it is. As my girls, Salt-n-Pepa, would say … “Let’s talk about sex, baby!”
So, three weeks ago, a discussion of They Don’t Care About Us somehow ventured into the realm of Michael Jackson’s incredible sex appeal (that may have been my fault) and the comments section went wild.
Willa: Joie! Michael Jackson sexy? I’m truly shocked. My interest in Michael Jackson is purely academic, I assure you. I never once noticed those amazing eyes, or the incredible way he moved his body on stage, or that cute little tush in Thriller….
Joie: Well, since you never noticed any of those things, Willa, how about those luscious lips? Or the seductive way his voice pulls you in? Or that sexy little laugh of his? Or the wonderful way he filled out those amazing gold pants on the History tour….
Willa: I was wondering how long it would take you to mention those gold pants.
Joie: What can I say; I’m a very visual person! Anyway, Willa and I obviously hit on a little discussed taboo of sorts with many of you commenting that this topic is kind of the ultimate elephant in the room. And since this blog is all about inviting those elephants onto the dance floor, we thought we’d start the new year off by cutting a rug with the biggest elephant of them all.
You know, to be completely honest, Willa, I was more than a little surprised when we received so many comments asking for this discussion. I mean … I always saw Michael as unbelievably sexy and very handsome, and I knew that I wasn’t the only one out there who felt this way about him. As Aldebaran pointed out in a comment after that post, all you have to do is go to YouTube and it’s very easy to find these really sensual, fan-made videos that showcase Michael’s sexy side – a little guilty pleasure I like to call ‘MJ porn.’ And it is all over YouTube; there must be at least a couple hundred of them out there. So, I knew I wasn’t alone. (And by the way, let me just take this opportunity to personally thank all of those who have created said videos and posted them on YouTube for my enjoyment; you have no idea how much I appreciate it!).
But, I guess what shocked me was that so many of our readers asked for a “serious” discussion about Michael’s sex appeal and how the media fought really hard to deny him the sex-symbol status that he so easily deserved.
Willa: It’s an important question, but it’s difficult to talk about. Not only is it somewhat taboo, even now, it’s also very nebulous and subjective. It’s hard to identify what it is, exactly, that makes him so unbelievably hot.
Joie: No it isn’t; have you looked at him?!
Willa: I know, I know. But different people respond in different ways, and for different reasons. He was incredibly attractive, but not all attractive people are sexy. He was also very sensitive and kind, and passionate in his beliefs, and unbelievably smart, and very funny, and had that amazing voice, and could move like a panther, and have you noticed the veins in his forearms? I have to say, he has very nice veins….
Joie: And nice hands too, really big and masculine….
Willa: Anyway, it’s all very subjective, and for me personally it’s difficult to talk about simply because my own feelings are so complicated. They’re all mixed up with issues of race and deep cultural taboos and my own childhood, and it’s hard to sort that all out.
You know, from the first time I heard “Ben” on the radio, I felt this deep connection to Michael Jackson – just this overwhelming sense that he was a kindred spirit. It wasn’t sexual at all – I was 11 years old – it was just this comforting feeling that he was someone who looked at things the same way I did and felt about things the same way I did, and that he was someone I could talk to about things that were troubling me. And what was troubling me, for the most part, were the things I was seeing and hearing as they integrated the local schools. He really helped me through all that, and I still feel very grateful for that.
Then fast forward a few years, and suddenly he’s grown up into the sexiest guy you can imagine, and it was just stunning to me. I couldn’t believe it. It was like, Wow, you sure turned out well! That metamorphosis was amazing and wonderful, but also pretty confusing. He was gorgeous – the most handsome man I’d ever seen – but he was so gorgeous it was kind of alienating. He seemed so exotic somehow, with his sultry eyes and his hot bod and his boa constrictors.
But he was like my childhood friend and felt so familiar to me. So there was this weird conflict between the exotic and the familiar.
And then there was the ugly prejudice that White girls weren’t supposed to be attracted to Black boys. Especially in the South, White girls who dated Black boys were seen as disgusting, “white trash,” and even though I strongly disagreed with that, I couldn’t help but be aware of it. I knew what people thought of those girls. But he was incredibly sexy, and I was undeniably attracted to him – very attracted to him – and it didn’t feel wrong to me at all. Plus, as I said, he felt so familiar to me, and there was no way I could accept that the strong connection I felt to him was wrong. It was too important to me, and had been too much a part of me for too long to deny that connection.
So it was like this weird battle going on within me between the familiar and the exotic, the desirable and the taboo – between what my culture was telling me I should feel, and what I felt within myself.
Joie: That’s very interesting to me because my own experience is way at the other end of the spectrum. I guess I can understand what a confusing situation that would be for you, but as a little Black girl I never had to go through any of that. For me it was just the opposite really. Michael and his brothers were the toast of the Black community, the pride of an entire race of people so, it was not only natural for me to love him but it was even encouraged in a way. All young Black kids were encouraged to look up to them. So when he suddenly became this ultra sexy, super hot grown up young man, it felt very natural to me. In fact, I can tell you exactly when I had my first real boy-girl “thing,” if you will. It was the very first time I saw the Rock With You video. I was just hitting puberty when the Off The Wall album came out and suddenly, I somehow understood that those lyrics – “I wanna ROCK with you, all night” – were not really about dancing at all! And then the video came out and seeing him in that tight, sparkly silver jumpsuit and boots….
it was the first time I ever thought of him (or anyone else, for that matter) in an actual “adult” way, if you know what I mean!
Willa: Joie, seriously, you have revolutionized the way I feel about that song. It’s amazing. I can’t even listen to that song in the car any more. Talk about vivid imagery: “Relax your mind / Lay back and groove with mine.” Oh my. I mean, really. My, oh my. And they say cell phones are distracting. That song should come with a warning label. Someone is going to be driving along all blissed out and have an accident.
Joie: I know, right? And to this day, that song and video are still very special to me. But I understand completely when you talk about the “weird conflict between the exotic and the familiar” because I certainly experienced that as well. From as far back as I can remember, he was just always a part of my life – even as a very small child. And as you said, he was like the best friend that I could always talk to. But then, all of a sudden, he was A MAN, and making me keenly aware of the fact that I was now becoming a young woman! From that point on, my life-long obsession with Michael Jackson took on a whole new dimension; there was now this whole other facet to him and to my MJ mania. And over the years that mania only deepened as the songs and the videos got steamier and the pants got tighter.
Willa: So we’re back to the gold pants again, are we? You are too funny!
Joie: Oh, but it’s not just gold pants – there are also red leather pants like in Blood on the Dance Floor and red jeans like in Thriller, and various pairs of black pants – some of them even black patent leather like in the Come Together video and Scream – oh, and gray leather pants and also quite a few pairs of very nice looking blue jeans as well, so … uh … hmm? Um … what were we talking about … ?
Willa: I have no idea. I’m feeling a little distracted. But as long as we’re on the topic, how about In the Closet? What a truly inspiring film that is….
Joie: YES! Tight black jeans! Hair pulled back into a ponytail, form-fitting sleeveless t-shirt. Wonderful short film! Very … artistic!
Willa: Absolutely. And I love the way you put that. It’s very … artistic … on many different levels. It’s smart and funny and visually interesting (I love the silhouettes) and incredibly steamy. We can’t possibly talk about Michael Jackson’s tremendous sex appeal and not mention In the Closet.
Joie: Sex appeal! Right! That’s what we were talking about … is it hot in here?
Willa: Don’t ask me – I’ve been fanning my face with a dishtowel since we started.
Joie: Maybe we should open a window or something…. But, you know, the really intriguing thing about Michael’s sex appeal is that it is only spoken about in a sort of “hush-hush” way and only among fans.
Willa: I don’t know – I’ve visited a few forums where his fans aren’t very hush-hush at all. In fact, they can get pretty worked up sometimes. But you’re right, it isn’t talked about much outside certain fan sites.
Joie: Well that’s true, the fans can get a little bit raunchy sometimes (myself included). But, it’s not talked about outside of certain fan sites and I have never really understood that because he was such an incredibly sexy man and, at times, he was even what I would call overtly sexual – especially when he was onstage.
Willa: That’s true, he could be very sensual on stage, but as he told Rabbi Boteach, “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything offensive on stage, ever,” and I agree.
Joie: Oh, don’t get me wrong; I was not complaining!
Willa: But to get back to what you were saying earlier, it’s really interesting to me that, for both of us, our attitudes toward Michael Jackson evolved as he grew up, and we grew up. And the ways our feelings evolved were very similar in some ways and very different in others.
Joie: Yeah, I’d be interested to know how many others had a similar experience. And the fact that he was this undeniably, unbelievably sexy man – and that literally millions of women (and men) the world over felt this way about him – was completely and totally ignored by the media is really weird. Why was that? I think Ultravioletrae hit the nail on the head when she commented,
“The real issue is that society just couldn’t accept that he dared to challenge what a black man is ‘supposed’ to be. He just wouldn’t go and sit in that box. As a group we are completely blind to what happened and still won’t discuss it…. I think sexuality is at the heart of it. When J5 introduced their string of #1 hits, everyone went wild. But there was this uncomfortable dilemma that had to be dealt with – the tacit understanding that good little white girls do not fall in love with black boys. Without even having to be told, white girls knew this behavior wouldn’t be tolerated and they were directed to ‘more suitable’ white alternatives. The teen magazines of the day focused on Donny Osmond and David Cassidy.”
This is such a true statement and the “uncomfortable dilemma” that Ultravioletrae mentions only got worse over the years as Michael transitioned from this heartbreakingly adorable teen idol into this explosively sexy adult icon. And after the success of Thriller, he was literally the biggest, most influential artist of our time and that worried a lot of people. The establishment couldn’t let a Black man be rich, successful and sexually appealing to young White women too. That was just out of the question. So they did everything they could to convince the general public that he was freaky looking. He had altered his face by plastic surgery; what a weirdo! Getting a nose job? Oh my God, who does that?!
Willa: Elvis, for one – a previous teen idol – but it was a much bigger issue for Michael Jackson because the shape of your nose has been designated a racial signifier. So when Elvis changed the shape of his nose, it was simply seen as an aesthetic decision. But when Michael Jackson changed the shape of his nose, it tapped into all these big unsettling questions about what it means to be Black, and it wasn’t seen as an aesthetic decision but as a commentary on how he situated himself in terms of race. Because everything he did was viewed through the lens of our racial history, everything was always so much more complicated for him.
Joie: And because he was the biggest celebrity our society had ever seen, everything he did was always so much more exaggerated by the media as well.
Willa: But I think you’re right: the larger issue is the taboo against sexual attraction between White women and Black men, and it’s a taboo on both sides of the equation. Not only is it shameful for White women to be attracted to Black men; traditionally, it’s also been very dangerous for Black men to attract White women. Black men have been tortured and killed for that, with their bodies displayed as a warning to other Black men. And this taboo wasn’t enforced only during slave times. In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he talks about being caught committing a burglary and receiving an overly harsh prison term, and he suggests his real “crime” wasn’t petty theft but dating White women.
Joie: Well you know, that whole sexual taboo surrounding the Black man’s size and prowess – that’s been the driving force behind lynchings throughout history. It makes me think of the lyrics to “Threatened,”
Every time your lady speaks she speaks of me, threatened
Half of me you’ll never be, so you should feel threatened by me
You know I love that song; it’s one of my favorites but, I never really thought of it in terms of race before, but I recently read a comment from AnaisKarim where she suggested “Threatened” could be viewed through that racial lens. I think she could be on to something.
But even today, in 2012, it’s an issue. Of course, no one really likes to admit it but, there are still lots of people out there on both sides of the racial divide who either outright disapprove or secretly cringe every time they see a Black man with a White woman. Just last month, I read a news story online about a church in Kentucky that does not allow interracial couples to join their congregation. They don’t care if Black people join their church – that is fine. But interracial couples are not welcome!
Willa: And there was an advice column in the newspaper a couple weeks ago with a letter from a Southern White woman. She was being shunned by her friends – people she had been close to her entire adult life – because they found out she dated a Black man a few times. It’s just unbelievable how entrenched some of those prejudices are, and how people mindlessly follow those prejudices.
And this taboo against sexual attraction between Black men and White women plays out in ways that can be very threatening and dangerous. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the main character is a successful high school student, and he’s invited to give a speech about race relations to the town’s White leaders. (As I remember, his speech talks about how Black men can succeed if they maintain a proper humility.) But when he arrives to give his speech, he finds himself in a boxing ring with a bunch of other young Black men, and then a White stripper begins dancing among them as the lecherous town leaders look on.
The emotions of that scene are absolutely electric as the protagonist describes what he and the other young Black men feel toward this woman: desire, anger, compassion, hatred, and sheer terror that she will go too far and the White men will punish them for it. That dynamic Ralph Ellison describes so well of White men using White women as an excuse to punish and intimidate Black men has a very long and very ugly history.
Joie: Yes it does. A history rooted in racial violence and the blood of way too many young Black men who were lynched, beaten and/or killed for the crime of attracting – or sometimes even just looking at – a White woman.
Willa: Or sometimes the “crime” was political activism, but they were falsely accused of being a threat to White women to stir up a mob.
So how does that long-standing taboo against Black men being sexually attractive to White women play itself out when you’re the first Black teen idol and millions of women of all races think you’re the hottest thing ever? That’s a very complicated and very dangerous position to be in, and I think Michael Jackson was well aware of it. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of his favorite movies, and it’s the story of a lonely White woman who’s attracted to a Black man and kisses him, but when her father walks in and sees them, she claims the man accosted her. The story focuses on his trial, and even though his lawyer proves he’s innocent, the White jury finds him guilty. It does not have a happy ending.
Apparently, Michael Jackson watched that movie frequently during his 2005 trial to help steel himself for everything he had to endure, and the parallels and connections between that movie and his own life are chilling. I don’t think it’s coincidental that our nation’s first Black teen idol was falsely accused of sex crimes by an angry entitled White man. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that a White District Attorney blindly accepted that man’s accusations despite all the contrary evidence, and then used those false accusations as an excuse to hound and harass him for years. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that a largely White media (his self-appointed jury) repeatedly portrayed him as guilty even though the evidence clearly indicates he was innocent, and even though an actual jury weighed the evidence in the 2005 trial and found him innocent.
Joie: You know, I honestly never thought about it in those terms before but, you are probably exactly right. It wasn’t coincidental, and certainly not surprising either given the very fact that he was our nation’s first Black teen idol and he did draw the adoration of millions of young girls around the world – more than half of whom were probably White. The only way his story could have played out was with him being falsely accused of sex crimes by a White individual. History always repeats itself and with a Black personality of his magnitude, how could it have played out any other way?
Willa: You’re absolutely right, Joie. History does repeat itself, because we make it repeat itself. There are certain cultural narratives that we tell ourselves over and over again, and we keep forcing different people to fit into those same old stories again and again and again. So of course our nation’s first Black teen idol was falsely accused of sex crimes and attacked by an angry White mob – though in Michael Jackson’s case, the mob was equipped with cameras rather than ropes.
But the amazing thing is that, ultimately, the story did end differently this time because Michael Jackson subverted that narrative and tried to change it – he attempted to change that cultural narrative. It seems impossible, like moving a mountain, but he took it on. And while it’s still too early to tell how successful he was, the attempt itself is fascinating.
So next week we’ll look at a really huge topic: the interconnections of race and sexuality in our nation’s history, and what the implications were for Michael Jackson, and how he fought back.
Joie: For now here’s a little treat we recently came across and found fascinating. This is supposedly an alternate version of one of my favorite videos, Blood on the Dance Floor. Shot by Vincent Patterson, who also shot the version we all know and love, this one is said to have been done with a handheld 8mm camera and then purposely overexposed for the grainy result. The story is that Michael loved it but Sony was not pleased and rejected it. However, Willa and I want to point out that so far we have zero confirmation of any of that so, if you have any info that can shed some light, let us know. In the meantime, enjoy!