A friend sent me a link to Rihanna’s video for Kiss It Better and it started a debate about diversity and inclusion between us. He had added only two words to his message: soft porn. The video is not perhaps one of RiRi’s more inspired outputs. Bitch Betta Have My Money and Needed Me are more intriguing examples of how she ‘weaponises’ her sexuality for laughs or catharsis, or both.
When pressed, my friend admitted his critique was broader than RiRi. His position is that the video with its see-through lingerie is typical of what a female pop artist has to endure. He challenged me to find a songstress in the genre in the Western world who hasn’t had to sing in her “bra and panties” at some stage. I see his point; even the exceptions prove the rule, building a brand around it. But I also feel it is not fair to blame the women for this.
“If they keep saying yes, they will keep being asked,” was his response.
This is a bit like slut-shaming; who determines an appropriate way for anyone to express their sexuality harmlessly? However, I also feel that it misses a fundamental point about how social change works.
Here I want to turn to the world of theatre in the UK, which has discussed diversity and inclusion for much of the last two decades. So far, so familiar. Speaking at The Future of Theatre conference recently, Matthew Xia, Artistic Director of the Actors Touring Company, said that the conversation about diversity and inclusion would continue to go around in circles, even with the recent injection of urgency from BLM protests, if industry leaders did not address two crucial issues.
He said we had become very good at being aware of the issues that come from a lack of understanding at the micro-level, like ‘unconscious bias’. It’s true; it feels like most people imagine combating racism is something they can do in queues at the supermarket. But Xia said, what we really need is access to opportunity and access to power.
1. Access to opportunity
The first of these – access to opportunity- is about removing the barriers to entry in any specific field. These barriers come from a range of sources, including our own communities and families. Extending to our schools and our government. But opportunity is just the beginning, a necessary but insufficient step.
For instance, a black woman will face bigger barriers to entry in theatre than music by virtue of visibility. For her, there are considerably more models of success in music than theatre. Another field where black women will have many models of successful participation is athletics.
But I was intrigued to learn recently that Allyson Felix, the most decorated woman in American track and field, was reprimanded by Nike, one of her sponsors, for raising issues about how female athletes are marginalised when they become pregnant.
Imagine if a woman with Felix’s status could be threatened; what does that say for any other woman in sport or the music industry? Just saying ‘no’ comes with higher stakes for some.
2. Power is critical
This brings us to the second and most important issue for sustained, inclusive change – power. ‘Power is critical”, Xia says, and no one wants to give it up.
‘Pyramidal structures’ are a feature of any industry, and sometimes we have the illusion of change. Lots of churn at the lower levels can give the impression things are changing up top, but most industries are full of bottlenecks.
If you are a musician, for instance, you can create your production company. But you still have to deal with record companies, radio stations and streaming services. This is a considerable challenge. Not every talk show host can become a Harpo, an industry onto themselves.
I understand this scenario well. I created my theatre company to produce the kind of work I wanted as a black gay man. However, I still have to find producers to work with, venues to programme our work and funding to get productions up and running. I’m not trying to diminish my dream or anyone else’s, but I want us to be real about the difficulties and blocks.
If, as we know, racism is discrimination and power, we have become collectively somewhat obsessed with the discrimination bit of the equation. However, diversity and inclusion are about more than discussing the lived experience in supermarket queues. We also need to look at the power that shapes that lived experience.
So, we have to be realistic about what we can expect a female singer to say ‘no’ to if they are at the bottom of the pyramid, especially when there is so much talented competition. In many ways, this is the point of the #MeToo movement.
Diversity and Inclusion Strategies
As black people, gay men and women, the real story of success are not just about who we see performing on our screens, athletics tracks or stages. To present ourselves in all the ways we want, we need role models in the rooms where the decisions are made. This ‘insider dealing’ is ironically less glamourous work; it is not about celebrity. It is about the reality of office work and the grit of pushing against the glass ceiling. And crucially, these leaders need to bring their whole selves into those rooms, making decisions with their lived experience.
Some of us will build our own pyramids from the ground up, but that cannot be the only way. We need a black woman in a C-Suite Executive office for every Rihanna on our screen, making it better in ways other than kissing.
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