The Incredible Whiteness of Katy Perry’s Being: Part 2, Visual Analysis

This blog continues from Part 1, Lyrical Analysis

The video for Katy Perry’s “ET” shuffles the position of alien, at least on its surface, with Perry now acting as the Other falling to Earth.  Perry’s story of a white alien coming to earth and taking a black man as hers follows the narratives of Afrofuturism, theoretical speculative fiction “that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture — and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (Mark Dery).  Afrofurist texts include the science-fiction writing of Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler and read the Middle Passage through the generic trope of 1950s alien abduction films and literature.  Robin James describes the similarities between the African slave trade and science fiction quite simply: “funny-skinned dudes in crazy duds, huge ships, and speaking some crazy language captured Africans, transported them to another world, and subjected them to experiments and forced labor.”  Despite the United State’s move past legislated slavery, African Americans remain confined by a bevy of social forces and governmental programs.  As Mark Dery writes, African Americans “inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology, be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers, is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”

Afrofuturism allows a space for imagining alternate futures for a people that have often been denied a past – “ET” instead takes this narrative and shows complicity in the existing narrative of denying black bodies subjectivity and taking them as property.  At the end of the video, Perry reaches down and puts on sunglasses, a rather bizarre move in a video that otherwise takes itself incredibly seriously.  While the opening of “ET” shows us that Perry is actually an alien masquerading in a white woman’s body, this move further humanizes her and privileges her vision over that of the black man who remains naked and anonymous for the entire video.  Perry may be the alien now, but the black man remains the Other force in this moment, and the natural whitening of his skin and hair (the result of the model Shaun Ross’ albinism) serves to simultaneously show his domination by an all-consuming whiteness and heighten his position of racial difference.  West – the named and known African American man that is allowed to speak here – is spatially removed from all action and never interacts with Perry.  He remains merely a black man falling through outer space in a pod without a place of stasis (which could ironically serve as a commentary on the instability of the sign of black man in the prison industrial complex that is the United States).

Writing about the intertwining of pleasure and the Other, hooks notes that “In mass culture, imperialist nostalgia takes the form of reenacting and reritualizing in different ways the imperialist, colonizing journey as narrative fantasy of power and desire, of seduction by the Other.”  Perry falls to Earth as savior, not invader, as the viewer’s ally. When she kisses the robot’s face, the moment is framed in a romantic light, and the final shot of a naked Perry (with deer legs, making her less naked in an odd way) and Ross naked looking into the sunset, hand in hand, suggests Edenic innocence.  The narrative does invert the gender dynamics by having the passive Sleeping Beauty be a man, and the active prince with a magical kiss be a woman, but the racial overlay disturbs this intriguing rewrite.  I am reminded of bell hooks’ piece “doing it for daddy” where she discusses pop cultural representations of white women and black men fighting for the approval of the white patriarch with white women’s strides represented through images of them besting black men (this can easily be seen as an underlying subtext of the Obama/Clinton primary in which “feminists” were at a quandary about who to back).  While Perry does serve as the knight in shining armor, she is a white knight in shining armor coming to save Ross’ poor black body that could not save itself without her magical kiss.  That fairy tale is sadly the story of liberalism in the United States (and Perry does love her white liberal projects, consider her “Firework” video for further examples of the incredible whiteness of difference).

Donna Haraway’s classic essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” can further illuminate “ET” because the video is visually obsessed with the blurring of boundaries – Perry appears initially as a monstrous alien and then transforms into a half woman/half deer, the black man appears unnaturally whitened and his body springs from within a robotic body (and is presumably a reanimated human life since the rest of Earth is decimated with preserved pigeons seen as museum specimens).  Haraway’s manifesto argues that “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs.”  With the increasing encroachment of cybernetics and communications technologies in our daily lives, and the growth of digital selves in cyberspace, core dualisms that underpin our understanding of the world have been revealed as leaky and false.  Haraway focuses on three crucial breakdowns – the supposed boundaries between human and machine, between human and animal, and between physical and nonphysical.  “ET” easily follows Haraway’s argument that “mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms” – witness Perry’s kissing the robot, the camera’s pan down Ross’ naked body to suggest an unseen genital meeting (and to indulge a racist appraisal of the black anonymous body as pleasure object for an assumed/unmarked white gaze), the surprise of Perry’s half animal/half human form.  Acoustically, both Perry and West have been Auto-Tuned – West in a ways that are supposed to sound robotic, while Perry’s contribute to a fairly affect-less performance that’s unnaturally on key.

Cyborg feminism attempts to reveal the fallacy of dualisms, but the video holds fast to the idea of male and female as differentiated positions in a move that allows heterosexual norms to be read onto bodies that might have otherwise been seen as outside of this frame – an ungendered alien body transformed into a part-animal, part-human “freak” and a whitened black man reborn from within a robotic shell.  The conclusion of the “ET” video suggests a new rebirth/Eden in a way that runs entirely counter to Haraway’s manifesto.  In her essay, Haraway inveighs quite explicitly that “A cyborg body is not innocent, it was not born in a garden.”  She sees the Bibilical story of Adam, Eve, and the Fall as wedded to “the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing before Man.”  The problem with an idea of original innocence is that it privileges a “return to wholeness” after the supposed trauma of individuation and alienation that leads to conflict and war.  Haraway writes that “An origin story in the ‘Western,’ humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate.”  The cyborg has no such teleological origin story and serves as a sign for an apocalyptic end to the reign of a white supremacist heteropatriachy undergirded by false dualisms and notions of original sin.

“ET” toys with the idea of monstrosity in its opening with Perry’s words mouthed by a disturbing alien that quickly morphs into Perry-as-deathly-white-female-alien-woman.  Music videos are primarily vessels for selling music and celebrity to viewers and so failing to give the audience the spectacle of Perry is not an option.  While Perry does present herself as an alien for the balance of the video, she is clearly a stylized, high fashion alien and a quick search of YouTube will give you multiple videos to teach you how to copy her eye makeup.  In her essay Haraway considers the ways in which the cyborg functions as a monster on the margins of our hegemonic imaginary.  “Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations,” she writes, and links the position of fictional monsters to the outsider status of minority groups in the United States and globally.  The cyborg operates across the dualisms of society and thus serves as a bogeyman in the same way as classic horror creatures, and, in a sadly more recent context, in the same way as nativist rhetoric surrounding illegal immigrants that traverse the imaginary borders between our country and other nations.  Haraway’s manifesto focuses on the sister/outsider role of women in color in the US as described in the writing of Audre Lorde.  In her recent articles/blogs on “R&B Robo Divas” Robin James has considered the ways in which these performers use music “to rewire the way that whiteness and patriarchy are programmed into our bodies and structures of feeling.”

Perry is not, however, a woman of color and her monstrous alien self is quickly switched out for a pale white version of herself.  Unlike Lady Gaga, Perry remains yoked to a need to be hegemonically attractive at all times.  I am not suggesting that as a white blonde woman Gaga is unattractive by normative standards, nor am I trying to overlook her recent turn towards dancing in bikini underwear that emphasizes her petite frame.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, Gaga attempts to undermine this by also presenting herself as monstrous, inhuman and willfully remaking herself as bizarre.  Both women are able to return to the safety of their white femininity regardless of how they play with physical norms.  The feminine body does remain a site of monstrousness in popular culture – even without considering Lacanian/Freudian writing about the patriarchal discomfort with women’s bodies, I think it’s fair to say our society remains uncomfortable with birthing and the attendant biological processes experienced by many women.  Gaga plays with this discomfort in her “Born This Way” video which builds on kaleidoscopic views of vaginal birth.  The video will undoubtedly invoke disgust in many viewers who consider these natural processes as “disgusting” and “gross.”  In “ET” Perry is obviously not “playing on the female body as a site of reproduction but instead presenting her body as object of attraction.  I don’t want to ignore her “alien” appearance, but I feel like all of the ways in which she positions herself as physically different are meant to be reassuring and appealing to viewers – even her final reveal as having the hind legs of a doe draws on an animal popularly anthropomorphized as docile, feminine, and skittish.

For all her dabbling in the monstrous, the cyborg and the future, Perry’s video ends up being about the past and the present – about reifying standard racial codes, about recreating a heteronormative Garden of Eden, about silencing the Other while simultaneously co-opting the position of the Other, about trying to get back to a wholeness that never existed in spite of all the leaky dualisms exposed.  My point here has not been to mark “ET” as a speculative text that fails because that suggests that popular music carries the burden of change, but it does disappoint me that the video takes these signs of radical possibility and subordinates them to hegemony.  Then again, perhaps that is the story of late capitalism.  And I still see something creative and subversive here, something about female desire and racial difference, something about the future, but it all ends up squashed as the sun rises in a new beginning that looks just like the old one.

3 thoughts on “The Incredible Whiteness of Katy Perry’s Being: Part 2, Visual Analysis

  1. I hope that all this is leading towards Part III which will be a post about how epically awesome Janelle Monae is.

    (Also, this is great stuff generally.)

  2. Haha, Devin, sadly all my writing about JM was pre-blogging, but since she’s gonna be all up in my dissertation, there were be more fan-boy/musings on her in the future 🙂

  3. Great posts, btw. I pretty much agree with them tout court (which I why I haven’t really said anything until now). But, I was going through a bunch of songs I haven’t listened to in a while, and came across Cristian Monet’s “Jungle Love” (not even on YouTube–you can preview it here at amazon: The big difference btw the two is Cristina’s obvious parody of the whole racist “jungle love” trope, and Perry’s utter reliance on it–except now the jungle is Earth. I don’t know if further comparison of the two tracks will be productive or not, but I thought you might find it interesting. 🙂

    I also think there may be an interesting sort of trick the video pulls: white woman “alien” shows her benevolence and non-racism by choosing, among all earthlings, a black man. That’s more or less the “I have a black friend” argument, or “I can’t be racist, I like Asian women” argument.

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