Katy Perry is the latest public figure to reveal her own tone-deafness to a whole host of political issues after a strange joke about her formerly-black hair and the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. In an Instagram Live video, Perry responds to a viewer’s comment about missing her black hair, saying “Oh, really? Do you miss Barack Obama as well? Oh, OK. Times change. Bye! See you guys later.”
While the weird joke was insensitive, it’s Perry’s artwork for her new single, “Bon Appetit”, that caught my attention. The image shows Perry’s head on a fruit platter, with Migos’ disembodied hands reaching out to “consume” her—a not-so-subtle allegory to her literally being “forbidden fruit”. The song is laden with innuendo (promoted by a cherry pie campaign by Perry), which makes the art feel even more fetishized.
Perry’s art, and her Obama joke, are but a few examples of the singer’s track record in a concerning disconnect to minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and mental illness. Perry’s recent move to political activism (or rather, commercialized activism) in the past year seemed to wipe our memories of this, this, this, this, and this. A few more Google searches and you can find her comments that target the trans community, feminism, and more. Her behavior is emblematic of the problems within mainstream, white-focused feminism—although, just in case you forgot, five years ago Perry stated that she was not a feminist.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I haven’t made my fair share of mistakes, insensitive comments, and misguided actions. I am certainly not the one to deem who is a Good Activist and who is a Bad Activist. I’m a white woman who has the time, resources, and privilege that allows me to write a commentary about another white woman’s behavior. I can imagine what racist remarks from Perry might feel like, but I will never actually have to experience the pain of being subjected to them. I also know that I have a hell of a lot to learn when it comes to race, class, gender, sexuality, and more—and that’s going to be a lifelong journey, too.
What bothers me, though, is that we can all recognize Taylor Swift‘s cultural appropriation and Angry Black Man vilification of Kanye West, and we continue to call her out on it. We notice the issues surrounding race and feminism in our other celebrities too: we make our discontent heard over Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer‘s Odell Beckham comments, Kendall Jenner‘s Pepsi ad, and Kylie Jenner‘s entire brand. So why do we keep giving a free pass to Katy Perry? Just because she buys BLM t-shirts and campaigns for Hillary Clinton does not make her immune to valid criticism about race, class, and appropriation. Supporting Planned Parenthood and using her body (which fits white beauty standards) to showcase female sexuality as a tool of power is good in theory, but it doesn’t necessarily make her an activist either. White feminism is subversive; it SOUNDS good, but it ends up hurting more women than it helps. By marginalizing and minimizing women of color, trans women, genderqueer people, and more, white female “feminist” celebrities continue to advance the systems of oppression that they claim to want to smash.
Perry has seemingly developed a better understanding of how to treat the LGBTQ+ community, but as a star who’s rebranded herself in the marketing frenzy that is Political Activism and Feminism, it’s reasonable to ask that she keep doing the work and learn more about her continually offensive behavior. Because she presents herself as just receptive enough for fans that aren’t as politically engaged as she claims to be, Katy Perry is allowed to get away with downright harmful behavior—I find it hard to believe that ANYONE still using racial or transphobic slurs is also “woke AF”. I mean, it sure didn’t seem like we felt Paula Deen was woke AF a few years ago.
The fact that Katy Perry can continue to slip under the radar bothers me, because in the end, she has a captive audience that she’s seemingly duping behind closed doors. The co-opting of activism to manipulate audiences into benefitting personal capitalist goals is wrong, and not to be forgotten. But, like so many others, it seems that Katy Perry will keep getting away with her destructive behavior, which begs the question: what is it about us that keeps excusing it?