author: marty grande-sherbert | oped editor
flickr courtesy of emma
Calling Ariana Grande a gay icon has been a tongue-in-cheek remark running in LGBTQ+ media sources and social circles for a long time, as it has been for so many pop divas before her. Such a connection is pretty harmless, and often these celebrities are also supportive of LGBTQ+ causes or, in cases like Lady Gaga’s, identify with the community themselves. But that doesn’t mean crying “gay icon” is never in bad taste; in the wake of Ariana Grande’s latest music video, it’s clear that doing so often causes real harm.
There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of the phenomenon – one of which is certainly that it can push aside actual LGBTQ+ figures in history who actively ensured our survival. But, I think another is that we tend to give these idols passes, on account of their*iconic* status, for attitudes and actions actually detrimental to the marginalized people we claim they represent. Lady Gaga, in old interviews, often joked about having a penis, which to her makes light of a rumour rooted in transmisogyny, but it also furthers equally transmisogynistic ideas that trans women’s bodies are the objects of mockery (yes, it was a long time ago, but no, it hasn’t stopped doing damage). So some feel empowered while others are thrown under the bus in a way that furthers a celebrity’s notoriety.
Grande’s “Break Up With Your Boyfriend” is a new iteration, using another double standard that fakes “inclusiveness” but hurts more than helps. Here, women-loving-women are used as a prop for a fame boost. At the end of the music video, after flirting with a man’s girlfriend, Grande leans in as if to kiss her before the scene cuts to black. It’s supposed to be a twist ending; it’s really the woman she wants – which would be a great love story if it was actually a love story. But it’s not; we’ve seen this story before. It’s the same story in Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” – Perry isn’t straight, unlike Grande, but she isn’t exempt from the same criticism. The love between women in that song was also not romantic, meaningful, or personal. It was a display of physical affection meant to catch the eye of the viewer and make the whole thing sexier, more tantalizing, and less “boring,” as Grande puts it.
That’s not what love between women deserves in a depiction that Grande knows would be seen and heard by so many people. Just like Lady Gaga’s comments led to my generation’s transphobic, bioessentialist jokes, Grande has reinforced the idea for her fans that women‘s love is to be objectified and gazed at. I really thought I wasn’t going to have to go through “I Kissed a Girl” again. I’m not surprised by it, but calling Grande a gay icon when she’s actively reinforcing homophobic attitudes like this is when I start to get miffed. Gay men especially need to watch themselves when trans women and women-loving-women are hurt by the same people they’re praising. It’s very telling who’s being told they don’t get a say. If a lesbian, a bisexual, or a pansexual woman tells you they were frustrated by Grande’s behaviour, you should listen no matter how die-hard of a fan you are, not just because it’s “problematic” but because we need to hold people accountable for supporting all of us or not at all.
While we’re at it, there are plenty of LGBTQ+ artists you can support whose identity is inseparable from their art. If you want my recommendations, try Janelle Monae (queer), Left at London (trans lesbian), Hayley Kiyoko (lesbian), Angel Haze (bisexual), Le1f (gay), and Shea Diamond (trans woman). I certainly don’t want to suggest that people like Gaga or Perry are less LGBTQ+, but I think it is worth reflecting on that we all have a responsibility to protect each other and know the impact of what we say and do. Certainly we shouldn’t blindly accept any form of “representation” before we think fully on what messages it might (even inadvertently) be sending.