You know a country’s lost its mind when people wail about a wrong that was not committed and ignore entirely a wrong that was. That’s exactly what happened last week when actress Blake Lively was mercilessly skewered on social media.
The always lovely Lively took to Instagram to post a split shot of herself posing like red carpet royalty in a gold Versace gown at the Cannes Film Festival. She looked stunning, with an added healthy and happy glow thanks to her recently-announced pregnancy.
But when she attached the following caption to the photo—“L.A. face with an Oakland booty”—she went from ravishing to racist within a matter of minutes. Twitter was instantly ablaze with angry comments, and the blogosphere lit up with lengthy explanations of how insensitive and racist it is for a white girl to say anything about having a black girl booty. Lively became the poster girl for cultural appropriation.
It took most people awhile to realize or remember that the words in her caption are actually lyrics—Lively pulled that line from the beloved ‘90s rap song by Sir Mix-A-Lot, “Baby Got Back,” which happens to be the most praiseworthy anthem about big booties ever written. Yes, the “Baby Got Back” video begins with two white girls making disparaging comments about a black woman’s posterior, but Lively was embracing, not denouncing, the fuller female form. The outrage over Lively’s post was enough to bring the man behind the music out of hiding to defend her: “I don’t think she’d wear that dress if she thought that booty is horrible—and to me, it ain’t horrible,” Sir Mix-A-Lot said. “She’s saying I’ve embraced this ideal of beautiful.”
Exactly. So not only did everyone seem to miss her joke, they missed her point—Lively was saying that her voluptuous posterior and fuller figure are something she is proud to flaunt. And by associating that beauty and that look with Oakland or the black female form, Lively wasn’t being racist, but arguably the opposite of racist. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and by taking pride in her own form and suggesting she had succeeded in imitating the “Oakland booty,” Lively was actually issuing a compliment to women with figures that Lively clearly envies and appreciates.
Was it the smartest or classiest thing to say? No. But neither was it derogatory, insulting, nor racist.
You know what it was? It was vain. It was blatant, boastful bragging. It was Blake’s way of begging for people’s attention and affirmation. She might as well have said, “Hey everyone—look at me! Look how good I looked tonight! Look at how pretty and perfect my face and figure are! Don’t I look great?!” No matter how beautiful a woman is, that kind of vanity is always ugly. What makes Blake’s vanity especially disappointing is that at about this time last year I wrote about Lively’s inner and outer beauty, praising her modesty and class, which I thought set her apart from her self-obsessed celebrity peers. Evidently, I was wrong.
But the big Blake brouhaha reveals something more important than just another celebrity’s narcissism: our culture can at times be so fixated on racism that we turn a blind eye to other things that deserve our outrage. Displays of vanity, for example, may not illicit the same anger and passion as those of racism, but the two actually have much in common – both fixate on that which is only skin-deep, and both lead to an erroneous sense of one’s own superiority.
And vanity, especially when it’s embraced by female celebrities, hurts everyone, no matter what their shape, size, or skin color, because it encourages girls and young women to be less concerned about developing good character and more preoccupied with their physical appearance.
So forget what you heard about Blake Lively’s bigotry and racism. She doesn’t need a lesson in white privilege—she needs a hefty dose of humility. Given the public’s misdirected outrage over her supposed racism, we could probably all use some.