The Oberlin Review

Ariana Grande Should Not Be Your White Queer Icon

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 A couple of months ago, I wrote an article for the Review about queer tropes in the music video for Ariana Grande’s song, “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” (“Ariana Grande’s Music Video Perpetuates Queer Stereotypes, Tropes,” March 8, 2018). Writing under the assumption that Grande was straight, I criticized the video for utilizing Grande’s kiss with a girl as a “plot twist.” This portrayal, I argued, fed into a common trope that delegitimizes and fetishizes queer women. The article was written a month after the video was released, prior to any sign of Grande coming out. Then, at the beginning of April, Ariana released a song titled “Monopoly” with her friend Victoria Monét, who is bisexual. In the song, they both sing, “I like women and men.” 

This was a bombshell for the queer community. While fans declared her a “bisexual icon,” I remained skeptical. Time and again, I’ve been baited by entertainment that presents sexual attraction between women purely for the benefit of the male gaze. From videos like Rihanna and Shakira’s “Can’t Remember to Forget You” to shows like Riverdale, the fetishization of queer women is pervasive across platforms.

When I heard “Monopoly,” I thought to myself, “Could these five words really be a coming out statement, or am I, once again, being baited by a presentation of female queerness which only exists for the male gaze?” In a tweet defending the singer, a fan wrote that Ariana shouldn’t have to label her sexuality. Grande tweeted in response, “I haven’t before and still don’t feel the need to now, which is [OK].”

The fact is: It is OK. No one should be forced to label their sexuality or out themselves before they are ready. I immediately reacted to “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” with anger, because I have seen straight women use queer tropes so many times before. Now that she’s also sung publicly, “I like women and men,” who are we to question if she’s “really queer” or not? Sexually fluid, pansexual, and bisexual people should not have to prove their same-sex attraction in order for their sexuality to be validated. Questioning the validity of someone’s expressed queerness is an unfair form of gatekeeping for the LGBTQ community. I do think it would have been more beneficial if Grande, as a massive celebrity, came out in a more formal way, but an official “coming out” should not be forced upon anyone — celebrity or not.

Still, I am not going to call Grande a queer icon. Even though Grande is not adopting queer culture for attention or popularity among the queer community, she still has a long history with cultural appropriation, especially with adopting aspects of Black culture. Because of this history, white queers should not celebrate her.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of costumes, aesthetics, music, or any other cultural aspect by a person, especially a white person, who is not a part of that culture. Grande — who is of Italian descent — still frames herself in a way that directly exploits an identity which does not belong to her.

This appropriation is especially clear in Grande’s “7 Rings” music video. The song veers out of Grande’s typical pop sphere, using aspects of trap music. Black artists called her out for stealing from their songs without giving them credit. Notably, Soulja Boy called out Grande for copying his hit, “Pretty Boy Swag.” 

Princess Nokia also criticized Grande for stealing the flow in “7 Rings” from her song, “Mine.” The two tracks also have significant lyrical similarities. Both sing about their fake hair: Grande raps, “I see it/I like it/I want it/I got it” in a very similar rhythm to Princess Nokia’s, “It’s mine/I bought it.” In “Mine,” Princess Nokia raps about white people trying to touch her hair without permission.

Princess Nokia’s song is a celebration of women of color and of hair that does not fit Euro-centric beauty standards. The rhythm and lyrical similarities in “7 Rings” are especially offensive because Grande meets those same standards Princess Nokia rejects.

Outside of her music, Grande appropriates Black and Asian cultures in her daily life. Many videos have surfaced that reveal the evolution of Grande’s speaking voice over the last few years, and it’s clear she has incorporated Black vernacular and now uses it regularly. She has also been accused of using intense spray tans, which are so much darker than her naturally pale skin that she often gets mistaken for being Latinx, and some have even called her out for blackface. 

Additionally, though Grande has learned the Japanese language, she has a tattoo in Japanese which is supposed to read “7 rings” that actually reads “small barbeque grill.” This is an appropriation of Japanese aesthetics, without any appreciation for the actual culture.

These practices are an issue because they allow Grande to use aspects of Black or Asian culture, or even appear as someone who is not white, when it’s convenient for her. Yet, she still retains the privileges of a white woman. Grande does all of this without apologizing, even though she often knows better. 

While we know now that Grande’s queerness is not just a marketing tactic, her appropriation of Black and Asian culture definitely is. Rather than using Grande’s professed sexual fluidity as a Band-Aid for her past mistakes, the white queer community should hold Grande accountable. After all, Grande’s “I want it/I got it” attitude toward identity can only maintain her popularity until her fans pull their support.

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