To the Adults Tearing Willow Smith Down – A Response from The Ignant Intellectual

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Before we get into our conversation, let’s pretend that kids are actually fully functioning humans with the ability to know (perhaps not have the language to assign to emotions and feelings) fairly mature things about themselves; like when their stomachs hurt, when they are happy or sad, when they don’t agree with an idea or concept, or when they don’t feel comfortable in socially constructed boxes such as gender expression, social norms, etc. Ok now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

On July 1, 2012, Willow Smith, an American singer, songwriter, and actress released an official music video for her new song ‘I Am Me’ on her YouTube channel. (Way to use that privilege for good, Willow, by releasing it for free!) The video opens in what appears to be New York City with long and lanky Willow entering the frame on a skateboard in an oversized vintage button-down shirt and skinny jeans with an old keyboard in hand. There were no sparkly lights, no background singers, no glam, just Willow, her skateboard, her keyboard, and her voice.  Simple, right? Not so much. Don’t let the smooth taste fool ya. The moment it hit the web, opinions went flying. The opinions offered by critics aren’t new. They’ve been around since her brother, Jaden, surfaced on the Hollywood scene as a character in The Pursuit of Happyness. These opinions include The Griot’s Kia Miakka Natisse, who wrote this article last year, and Babble’s Carolyn Castiglia, who wrote this article in July. Candidly, I was surprised to see a critique that criticized Smith on a blog that is seemingly focused on pro-family issues with tabs entitled ‘Baby’s First Year’, ‘Family Kitchen’, ‘Being Pregnant’, and ‘Family Style’ but hey, we are in a recession, get it how you live.

The two articles cited above made me feel some kinda way. From Castiglia’s opening sentence “…it’d be great if she was the coolest 11-year-old you’ve never heard of, the star of the chorus in some small town somewhere…Because a child her age should not be open to the kind of criticism a horribly ridiculous song like ‘I Am Me’ is going to expose her to’ to Natisse’s closing sentence ‘If your child has talent it is important to nurture it and help it grow, but be careful to remember they are a child — not a cash cow.” I find it senseless when folk play this insane hegemonic game where if someone is not unknown/from the hood/oppressed in some way, their contribution is not valued. I find that arguments surrounding privilege routinely stop prematurely. Let’s be clear. Privilege as a stand-alone concept is not debauched. We all have privilege, even oppressed groups. The question must then become ‘How is this privilege used?’  If it is being used as a mechanism to abuse, therein rests the problem. Rarely is privilege ruminated within the jurisdiction of being a mechanism to interrupt cycles of oppression because we are so accustomed to the ill-effects of it. My issue is not that folk don’t like the song or that critics question whether or not the limelight is best for children. The writers seem to be concerned with parents possibly using their children as propaganda—at least that is how it appears on the surface. Nope, still not my issue. My issue fundamentally lies in the fact that we can’t seem to look beneath the surface to see where our angst truly can be found—Willow does not fit neatly within the hegemonic, patriarchal, and gendered boxes that others have constructed for her. I know I know, GASP. You would never suggest such a thing. Ever. Ok, let me try again. Perhaps what you’re really saying is that, overall, society is threatened by Willow because she is young, she is powerful, she is privileged, she is using that privilege as a tool to dismantle destructive social norms, specifically the socially-required aesthetic of female-bodied persons, she is self-assured, and she is FEMALE! No? Ok maybe what you’re saying is that she is different, she is unlike the mainstream. At 11 years old, she is being vulnerable, and telling us that our validation is just not that important to her. AT THE SAME DAMN TIME!

Let’s be real, this is not about our adult concern for the welfare of children in big bad Hollywood and them being mentally and emotionally prepared for the potentially hurtful critiques of adults.  

The fact that these authors chose to participate in the very media negativity that they purport Willow be safeguarded against speaks to the lack of concern for Willow’s safety in that regard. And it’s not about being concerned that Will Smith could possibly be “merchandizing his kids” as suggested by Natisse, who I’m presuming hasn’t been familiarized with the term residual income, considering that Will Smith (not including the income of Jada and the kids) could stop making money today and would still be wealthy off of Fresh Prince re-runs alone.  Come on people, as of 2011, his films have grossed $5.7 billion in global box office receipts. Yep, Will needs to merchandize his kids’ talents to secure food on the table. And if the issue is about the fundamental concept of building a family empire, why is there a pervasive fear about blacks leaving more than a week’s worth of savings behind when they die? God forbid my great grandkids actually being able to eat off of the money that I made yesterday!

I am a full-time Drug & Alcohol counselor. One of the lessons I provide to my clients is called ‘The Anger Iceberg’. The theory behind this premise is that anger is a secondary emotion and only speaks to roughly 20% of what we truly feel, but because anger is socially acceptable, it’s the emotion that we typically choose to reveal more than our primary emotions. It’s the tip of the iceberg. The other 80% that is under the surface are the primary emotions; hurt, insecurity, rejection, fear, resentment, shame, inadequacy, etc. These are the emotions that truly drive our responses and the lens through which we view life. But, because expressing these emotions often earn us names like weak and fragile, we tend to operate from an anger framework. What are you talking about? Glad you asked.  I often observe anger-rooted commentary surrounding Willow’s androgyny and refusal to play into a hyper-femininity and this refusal being directly connected to her sexuality. Comments found on social media spaces like Facebook and Twitter that read, “please don’t tell me she’s gay?” or “Is she a stud in the making?” and Why are her parents letting her run around looking like a little boy? They ought to be ashamed of themselves.” While, I am not a self-proclaimed feminist, I do see an angst that sweeps across a nation when a female assumes responsibility and onus around their image, their sex, their gender, specifically surrounding the aesthetics of their gender expression. This angst is almost always presented as some form of pathology in the form of a non-traditional sexuality. What appears to happen is that adults have temper tantrums that present as being overly critical when really it’s because another’s chosen form of gender expression makes adults uncomfortable. It wakes up those primary emotions  underneath the iceberg that drive us to display anger and downright antagonism…resentment that I was not brave enough to just be me when I was younger…feelings of inadequacy in parenting and believing that my child being ‘different’ is a direct indication of poor parenting on my part…fears of being rejected if I walk in who I truly am…sad that I never got a skateboard…feelings of insecurity that if I quit my cu$hy job and go after my dreams that I won’t be good enough so I play-it-safe and hide behind my computer and lash out at an 11-year old who had the guts (and parental connections) to do so. Really this isn’t about Willow’s privilege because not once have we seen her abuse it. She even released this song on You Tube! FREE ass You Tube! In reading many blog posts, FB statuses, and tweets, I’m seeing at work a system of policing that attempts to control who can, when they can, at what age one can manifest their femininity/masculinity, their individuality, their politic, or their middle finger. And if they manifest it too soon, too late, too high, too low for the liking of the masses, it will be criticized. Bottom line: folk are angry, hurt, insecure, resentful, frustrated, scared, rejected, fearful…

Instead of expanding the boundaries of artistic expression and its aesthetic to include all of its nuances, we attempt to limit the spaces that make us comfortable. And what’s worse, we try to force others into those spaces to be miserable with us. I would love for the day to come when someone can operate outside of a gender presentation binary and not automatically have their sexual orientation questioned. I would love to see a moment when black female-bodied persons did not have to play into this pre-constructed societal feminine aesthetic requirement. 

To be Black, female-bodied, privileged, and socially responsible is to be a warrior. Let us pray that more of us have the courage to love ourselves wholly and be outspoken mentors even if our mentees are older than us! Keep creating Willow and don’t bend.

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