*Believe it or not, there is a debate going on over Taylor Swift’s new video for “Shake It Off.” At issue is a bunch of twerking black women, and whether or not Taylor’s depiction of them in the context of the video’s storyline perpetuates a racist stereotype.
In the video, the country/pop star is trying and failing to fit in with a number of dance subcultures, including no-nonsense ballerinas, too-artsy contemporary dancers, ribbon-twirling rhythmic gymnasts, cheerleaders, breakdancers and avant-garde Lady Gaga-esqe dancers.
The lyrics and the video are poking fun at her own reputation and lack of dancing skills of any and all genres.
But it’s her encounter with the twerking background dancers of color that has caused all the side-eyes. At one point, she crawls between their legs as their booties twerk above her.
The clip spurred several tweets from Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, who has not watched the video, but said he doesn’t need to see it to know that it’s “perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture.”
Forrest Wickman at Slate defends the video, writing that the twerking scenes are still part of the same joke. “Later, when she’s shaking her booty beside some twerking dancers, she positions herself as the anti-Miley,” he writes. “The message isn’t that she’s down with them. The message is that she could never appropriate something like twerking and make it convincing. Everyone knows she’s a bad dancer, so she gave her haters a whole video of bad dancing.”
Prachi Gupta of Salon.com counters: “Indeed, Swift digs into Cyrus in one scene, when she sings a Cyrus lyric, “Can’t stop, won’t stop,” as a black woman twerks for the camera. But in these scenes, are we laughing at Swift’s continued awkwardness, or at something less innocent? Swift may not be twerking, but she is participating in racial cross-dressing, blanketed in gold chains and sporting a tight updo, a white woman dressed as a caricature of a black woman, leading a team of black backup dancers. The image is jarring, and is hard not to wonder if this is what Taylor Swift thinks it means to “be black,” and if so, how troubling that is. That’s why Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt, who refused to watch the video, took to Twitter to express offense that the video was perpetuating stereotypes.”
The New York Times’ dance critic, Brian Seibert supports Swift, writing: “[If] Earl Sweatshirt had bothered to watch the video before commenting, he might have noticed the carefully placed black faces among the cheerleaders, the contemporary dancers and the regular people, and also the trashy white women among the twerkers. For him to have accused Ms. Swift of racism without watching the video is as unjust as if she had accused him of misogyny without first listening to his tracks.”
HuffPost Live’s Marc Lamont Hill discussed the controversy on Thursday with a panel that included comedian Amanda Seales, gender studies professor Treva Lindsey and writer Everdeen Mason, who doesn’t believe Swift’s use of twerking is racist.