Saturday, July 18, 2009

More on Michael Jackson: on stardom and stigma

[image from this site:]

After a long and complex conversation with my friend Yolanda, one of the women I most look to for clear analysis on matters of gender, race, class, and sexuality, I wanted to comment further on "the case of Michael Jackson", following that conversation.

First, there is the issue of allegations by boys against him. As someone who generally supports victims coming forward, and tries my best to support victims naming their experiences, believing victims unless there is an obvious reason not to, the allegations against Michael, at the time they occurred, made it difficult for me to believe he was "innocent" of these charges. He was, at the very least, guilty of sharing his bed with adoring boys, which alone is an abusive act, as far as I'm concerned. Whether he engaged any children in sexual acts, in acts of molestation or other abuse, is unknown to me, and, for the foreseeable future, is unknowable by me.

The issue of how Michael Jackson has been used by the media, media which he also used, is a separate matter from his innocence or guilt on charges of child molestation.

What we can note is the great level of dis-ease much of the public had with Michael's appearance and mannerisms. How many white folks did I hear comment "He wants to be white!" when he was lightening his skin through make-up or pigment reducing medication to try and cope with what must have been an extremely difficult challenge: vitaligo. Too many times to count. Unless you're famous, have darker skin, and have vitaligo, you are in no position to judge how someone chooses to deal with this physical-emotional challenge.

There are many assumptions about the supposedly morphing race of Michael Jackson by whites that highlight our overtly white supremacist racism. We assume everyone must want to be white, if also tan. Given that we collectively and institutionally uphold up whiteness as a perfect synonym for greatness and worth, we take cruel pleasure in critiquing people of color who, in various ways, physically assimiliate into white society. But Michael didn't assimilate. He created his own world in which to live, perhaps to his demise due to on-going prescription drug abuse and the doctors who "took care" of him. It has been reported that any attempts by family members or friends to intervene on his substance abuses only resulted in them being shut out, and him being shut tighter inside an increasingly small world, albeit one constructed with great wealth and for a time on plenty of land.

The white public showed great unease with Michael's appearance from the time the Jackson Five hit the small screen through to when MJ was a teenager with an acne problem, and on until his death. Whne MJ was a child, his father reportedly berated him for his appearance, especially focusing on Michael's nose, calling it "ugly".

Few people have known the level of public and private scrutiny and critique endured by Michael Jackson. That the U.S. has trouble with matters of race, gender, and sexuality is not news. When someone's appearance or other ways of being blurr lines, we become uncomfortable, at least, violent at worst.

Social ostracism is difficult for just about everyone. Few people have skin thick enough to repel the darts of indignity hurled at those of us who stand out for being "different". Michael, due to his talent and the marketing of that talent, his race, his gender presentation, and his lack of readily identifiable sexuality, including the way he lived his adult life, marked him for scorn and ridicule.

My friend and I were commenting on how no matter what choices a woman makes about her appearance, there is no decision that will allow her the comfort, the relief, of living in a shame-free and violence-free zone. She can tweeze or not tweeze, shave or not shave, wear high heels or not, wear dresses or slacks, have breast enlargment or reduction surgery, and still the contemptuous scrutiny finds its way to her.

Michael lived his own version of this inescapable shame and violence. Exactly what tones of brown skin make a person of color "acceptable" to whites? Exactly how straightened, or not straightened, does an African American woman's hair have to be before it is not commented on critically? How wide the nose? How much of an upper eyelid is required? How straight and narrow does the nose have to be? How thin the lips?

Michael Jackson, by some accounts, knew and was deeply distressed that he'd gone too far with plastic surgery on his face. But whether his nose was wider or more narrow, people were ready to criticize him, to make all manner of rude comments about his appearance, and to show little to no understanding of what he was dealing with. The lack of understanding is not a surprise; Michael's life was not a typical one. Few celebrities, with exceptions such as Judy Garland, have been in the speculative spotlight, one that comes with periods of pleasant darkness and glaring brightness. Michael and perhaps Britney Spears are two contemporary examples, targeted by the media from the time they were young. And the media is more invasive now than ever before, but no less white male supremacist and homophobic, no less ageist and ableist.

One new biography notes that Michael, was, in fact, sexual with adult men, not boys. We can see how, if this was the case, he couldn't "come out" to get media off his back. Michael's atypcial gender presentation somehow was taken by dominant media as a sign that he might just be a child molester. Usually if a man is seen as "not manly enough" it misogynistically causes people and press to spread rumors about him to the effect that he must be gay. But as Michael had women and children as friends, and was not generally seen hanging out with males his age, he was spared some of the gay-bashng commentary, and instead was fast-forwarded into the role of child molester. I am rather amazed that the two were not more conflated. As a gay man, I've come up against the stereotype and stigma that "that means you're into children" on more occasions than I care to recall. With Michael, "gay" was never a strong presumption by the media, at least as I recall. "Strange", "bizarre", and "freakish" were the more common adjectives used to describe him. Brits were most fond of the term "Wacko Jacko".

I am left wondering: what do white heterosexual men have to do to be stigmazied similarly? It's not that white straight men don't do things like form online networks with which to pass around their latest rapes of babies and young children, as well as older girls and women. It's not as though white heterosexual men don't traverse the globe, looking for "bizarre" ways to get oppressive and exploitive sexual needs met. How fucked up is it for white men to marry or adopt in order to have a sexual slave?

Yet no such stigmas exist for white hetero men comparable to those that attach themselves to women of all colors, gay and non-gay men of color, and white gay men.

One day, perhaps, it will be understood as "strange" to harass, rape, and otherwise possess women. One day, not likely just around the bend, it will be considered "freakish" for white men to take pleasure expressing harmful forms of power and exploitive expressions of privilege due to our whiteness and manhood. But I accept, with a rather contradictory blend of resignation and rebellion, that white heterosexual men's crimes will never be attached to their whiteness or manliness in the harmful ways that being a woman, being gay, or being of color are conditions which, regardless of personal action, mark the bearer as contempt-worthy.

That some whites go on and on about how much [fill in a group of people of color] hate us, and some men go on and on about how some women hate men--all men, mind you, we know the truth: hatred flows most easily and abundantly from the top of a social, structural hierarchy down. The economics of social contempt do not trickle, they pour. And the consequences for actively hating the oppressed are identified by oppressors as trivial when compared to the price the oppressed pay for being remotely resistant to the dictates of those who seek her and her sisters' destruction.

May Michael Jackson, and all women and girls, boys, intersex, and trans people, lethally harmed by men, rest in peace.


Anonymous said...

I don't think Michael himself did anything wrong,or at least he didn't probably understand if he did anything wrong. Now let me just say that I personally believe that he was mostly asexual...and very, very childlike. And if you actually watch any of his interviews on youtube or just bother to find out about who he REALLY was as a person you would quickly understand as well that he was completely innocent. A good place to start would probably be this site for example :

There were people around him however, who had their own reasons for bringing him down and framing him. Those people destroyed him on purpose. HE was an innocent victim all his life! That's what I believe.

I also think Michael himself was molested. His own brother was even going to write about it in a book! :

Michael said himself that he was sent here to protect and help the children.Because he could relate to their pain and suffering and understand what it's like when you are treated more like an object than a real person. That's exactly the kind of treatement he had to suffer from ALL his life, starting when he was about five years old. He did more charity work than any other celebrity, he was know and loved all around the wolrld. It was the American media that had an agenda against him, among many others of course.

If you start looking just a bit deeper into this whole MJ thing, his life and his very suspicious death, I guarantee you will be shocked by what you discover. There was a real, malicious conspiracy around and against MJ. It was alredy obvious he knew about it himself around the time the Moonwalker movie came out. I really recommend you watch it if you haven't already, or just watch it again and try to remember all these things I mentioned. I think we should all try to remember and keep alive Michael's message of peace and love and all the good things he did when he was still here with us. And defend him against everyone who tries to attack him with lies and rumors. I think he was A LOT more important than most people even realize...

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, and watch this video :

VERY important video!

Julian Real said...

Hi Anonymous,

As indicated in earlier discussions about Michael Jackson, I am in no position to know much about his private behavior, and can well appreciate and honor what contributions he made to popular culture, and, as you note, through philanthropic work. That he left 20% of his estate to charitable causes says a great deal about what kind of person he was.

As someone who has survived abuse as a child and have seen "great helpers of children" turn out to also be misopedic abusers, I do not any longer rule anyone in or out in terms of whether or not it is possible for them to be abusers of children.

And from what I know of his childhood--and thanks for the links to more information about him--I understand that he was a survivor of forms of sexual abuse that tend to not even be noticed by the U.S. white male supremacist dominant culture, such as exposure as a child to strip clubs, to how men behave there, and to how men treat women being used/rented as prositutes. Having to hear his brothers having sex with adults, in the same hotel rooms he was trying to sleep in, is a form of sexual abuse of a child in my book.

In this case, at this time especially, I think it is important to honor his legacy of humanitarianism and philanthropy, as well as his extraordinary contributions to the world of the arts.

I particularly respect his music and the fact that his popularity, based in part on the power he had as an exceptional artist in popular culture, forced entities such as MTV to take down their color barriers.

Anonymous said...

More great and interesting stuff on Michael :

Michael talks against Tommy Mottola in 2002:

Yeah it's definitely a conspiracy alright...