Hip-hop legend Sir Mix-A-Lot came to the defense of Blake Lively in an op-ed for Pret-a-Reporter yesterday, asserting that a recent photo of the actress with a controversial caption was a reflection of changing beauty standards rather than an instance of cultural appropriation.
The 28-year-old Lively recently found herself in the middle of a social media uproar when she posted a front-and-back picture of herself on Instagram wearing a custom dress by Versace. The controversy stemmed from her use of the cheeky caption "L.A. face and an Oakland booty," which originated as a line from Sir Mix-A-Lot's 1992 Grammy-winning hit, "Baby Got Back."
The caption was slammed by Mashable as racist, while others stopped short, accusing the actress of cultural appropriation.
Still others joined the fray to defend Lively in comments on both Instagram and Facebook.
The line has been used by other celebrities with little to no visible outrage.
Sir Mix-A-Lot's comments sought to add context to the use of the line by Lively and the song as as a rebuttal of beauty standards that, at the time of its writing, were decidedly on the side of waif-thin models such as Kate Moss, who embodied the "heroin chic" trend of the era.
"... what was promoted as beautiful was kind of really waif-thin, borderline heroin addicts. I don't mean that literally, I mean the look," Sir Mix-A-Lot explained. "That was kind of pushed at us, and we were told that it was beautiful, and what I started to see was some people of color either being ashamed of who they were or trying their best to assimilate. So I wrote 'Baby Got Back,' not to say which race is prettier — which is silly, because there were white women with the same curves that were told that they were fat, too."
"(The) reason I wrote the song," Mix-A-Lot said, "was because I always felt that the African-American idea of what was beautiful was shunned. If you go back and look at 1990, 1991, you only saw African-American women and Hispanic women who were either a maid or a hooker. I watched a lot of Law and Order, Gimme a Break, Mama's House and all those shows, and you saw the same thing. They were always my size: overweight, and that's the way they wanted to see us. I don't know who "they" is, but it seems like the powers that be in Hollywood or the heads of magazines or whatever wanted to see us that way."
Anticipating criticism from those who maintain that Lively's use of the line was inappropriate, Sir Mix-A-Lot added:
"If what Blake Lively meant by that comment was, 'Oh my goodness, I've gained weight, I look horrible,' if that's what she meant — and I doubt that she did — then I'm with the critics. But no one in the world is gonna tell me that a woman that wears that dress is thinking that she's fat. No, I'm sorry, it just doesn't happen. It sounds like to me like she was giving the line props.
I think she's saying, 'I've got that Oakland booty,' or 'I'm trying to get it.' I think we have to be careful what we wish for as African-Americans, because if you say she doesn't have the right to say that, then how do you expect her at the same time to embrace your beauty? I mean, I don't get it. I think it's almost a nod of approval, and that was what I wanted. I wanted our idea of beautiful to be accepted."
Intended or not, Mix-A-Lot's comments underscore one of the arguments inherent within issues of cultural appropriation: that of the assumption that critics of Lively have any vested interest in her or anyone else's "embrace" or "approval" of an "idea of beautiful" that is referenced along racial or cultural lines of division. The question then becomes whether or not any one person or group can own a cultural totem or icon.
This is further complicated by the commoditization of beauty as something that can have an objective "standard" — particularly when it comes to women — at a time when body acceptance is gaining traction as a backlash against what are widely regarded as unrealistic physical standards of beauty.
The larger problem is that there are huge pressures created by the entertainment and fashion industry to sell women on a manufactured ideal of what femininity looks like. The power of "Baby Got Back" is that it drew attention to the fact that all beauty "standards" are essentially abstract.
"I'm not telling people what they can like and not like," Mix-A-Lot said in conclusion. "That song was written with African-American women in mind, but trust me when I tell you that there are women out there with those curves everywhere, and they were once considered fat."