They Thought They Really Had Control of Me, Part 1
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.