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The Lizzo story has everything you could want: fruit, sex, sweat, dancing, vaginas. Most of it all in one place, at the same time.
Three of her former dancers filed a lawsuit last week, which you can read about here. Arianna Davis, Crystal Williams, and Noelle Rodriguez allege “sexual, religious, and racial harassment, disability discrimination, assault, and false imprisonment,” to quote from Vulture, which also features this analysis by Tirhakah Love.
The details are shocking, and run counter to a carefully tended public persona. Lizzo is famously not a thin white woman, and has been praised for daring to perform in very sexual attire, in a culture that regularly shames women and especially Black women who are read as fat or sluts, or both. Black women’s bodies have historically served, in complicated ways, to evoke both their history as subjects of rape and slavery and as objects of desire. Every Black female performer has had to negotiate that difficult terrain, of making her mark with a unique style while struggling against the demand that she hew to stereotypes. Be BLACK, says the culture industry, but not toooooo Black, and be soulful but not toooooo sad, and also be very, very pretty, but don’t look toooooo Black. And on and on. Lizzo seemed to resist all that, so the charges against her, her production company Big Grrrl Big Touring (BGBT), and her dance captain Shirlene Quigley are particularly explosive. And, for many of her fans, saddening.
The allegations expose a culture of hypocrisy and racism: the dancers claim they were regularly fat shamed for any weight gain and were treated worse than the white dancers in the company. At the same time, they often felt coerced into engaging in sexual behavior with and around a powerful and successful singer who was also their boss. In one instance, they say, they were compelled to join Lizzo on a trip to a “nude-performance club in Amsterdam.” There, Davis claims, Lizzo pressured her into touching one of the performer’s breasts. There are also allegations that Quigley frequently shared her sexual fantasies with the dancers, and that these include gang bangs and bukkake (I had to look that up and my reaction was, “Oh, so that’s what it’s called?”)
And then there are the bananas. As Love recounts it, drawing from the lawsuit, Quigley “had some weird thing about bananas, where she’d perform fellatio on one, and once, at a strip club, Lizzo allegedly pushed the dancers to eat a banana poking out a stripper’s vagina even after they said they were uncomfortable.”
A pause here, as far as bananas and sex are concerned. Surely, we might insist, there is no “weird thing with bananas” because bananas are in themselves so inherently weird and, really, what is weird in sex? You can spend an hour carefully choosing a bunch of bananas at the store — but make the mistake of placing them in your backpack for even a ten-minute walk back home, and there you are: overripe ooze seeping into the seams. As for the bananas out of vaginas thing, my thoughts wandered to Spalding Gray, who had this bit, behind his usual desk, about a prostitute who squirted bananas from her vagina – but that was in Cambodia. And this particular act has long been something of a circus trick for sex workers in Asia: a way to demonstrate gentle flexibility but also strength. Gray clarifies that the story is true “except for the fact that the banana sticks to the wall.” Of course, American (coded white) girls do something similar, when they tie cherry stems with their tongues, but that’s not whorish behaviour, oh, no, that’s just cute and funny. Everything about sex is racially coded. Good white girls are coquettish with their tongues, slutty Asian girls shoot bananas out of their vages.
So I wondered, to whom did the Amsterdam vaginas belong? Were they white? Or perhaps Asian? And that reminded me of the anti-Trump marches and all those pink pussy hats and all the anger by some who insisted that this was somehow racist because they denoted whiteness and I thought, Oh, you’re all straight: I can tell because, listen, at some point, all pussies are pink.
But you know what’s truly weird? That Quigley is apparently some kind of evangelist who made a big deal about the virginity of one of the dancers — but I can’t tell what that deal was. Was it praise or the opposite? And how do you reconcile evangelical beliefs with the claims that she was also into “being smacked in the face with ten penises in some like gang-bang, bukkake shit.” Again, this is not weird, it’s just not something you’d expect from an evangelist. But then, perhaps, that is, after all, the definition of evangelism: For give us penises this day, My Lord, ten at a time.
I jest, but I don’t make light of any of this. The details of the Lizzo story may be true or not, or some bits may be truer than others. The singer has released her own statement, on the infamous Notes App of Instagram, where celebs flock to atone for their sins: “Usually I choose not to respond to false allegations but these are as unbelievable as they sound and too outrageous to not be addressed.” There’s a sentence in there that her supporters jumped on for a while (all evidence of such support has mostly vanished, as newer details emerge): “I am very open with myself and my sexuality and expressing myself but I cannot accept or allow people to use that openness to make me out to be something I am not.”
The way the arguments in support of Lizzo went, for some brief, fleeting seconds, was this: that Lizzo, poor thing, was being targeted because of her sex positivity and sexual lifestyle, that the accusers were just griping because they were too prudish. This is nonsense.
The Mary Sue’s Samantha Puc points out that Lizzo doesn’t address any of the other claims in the lawsuit and that “what she writes here only addresses the claim that she pressured her dancers to interact with nude performers at a burlesque club and further pressured them to eat bananas out of the performers’ vaginas, as well as the claim that she body-shamed one of the dancers who was fired earlier this year.” Puc also notes that Lizzo offers no apologies for anything else, but that’s actually par for the course with such lawsuits — and this is a lawsuit, not a Twitter battle (the problem with so many celebrity battles ending up on social media is that media people tend to forget that Twitter, for instance, is not actually a courtroom, despite the behavior of its most toxic inhabitants implying the opposite).
Still, it’s worth noting that Lizzo — who has hired celebrity defense lawyer Marty Singer — will, in the months ahead, try to portray herself as maligned on account of her bold, brave lifestyle, in an attempt to shore up support.
And, look: no. Let’s not fall into that trap. You can do what you want in your sex life, but you don’t get to coerce your workers into doing what they don’t want to do. And, actually, you don’t get to coerce anyone, period. As I’ve written frequently, too much of the discourse on “radical sex” and “polyamory” is based on the idea that it’s not cool to refuse to participate in various sex acts. I’ve spent over three quarters of my life in radical circles and lost count of how many times younger queers in particular have emerged, shaken, from abusive situations where they were coerced into believing that they needed to be okay with sexual practices and situations that actually made them uncomfortable — and that to decline in any way meant a failure to be properly queer and radical.
Repeat after me: your sex is not radical, your politics should be. What you do in bed or how you conduct your relationships has nothing to do with how effectively leftist you are or, really, how “cool” you are. I will remind you that hardcore Christian rightwingers are extremely obsessed with orgies and multiple sex partners. Most of my most principled leftist friends — and many of yours, I have no doubt — are serial monogamists, bless their hearts.
Also repeat after me: If my boss compels me to go dancing with her, I need to find a new job.
Which is a lot harder than it sounds, of course. The entertainment industry, where the stakes are often in the millions, is a particularly exploitative one, and it’s surprisingly small and insular and filled with tyrants who know they can make sure that someone who displeases them never dances or sings professionally again.
Ultimately, the biggest lesson from the Lizzo story, regardless of whether or not the allegations are true, is that even a celebrity workplace is still a workplace. Lizzo will now experience even more racism and misogyny for being a large, Black, and very rich woman in the public eye. But those of us who recognize that kind of hatred can resist all of it without being sucked into the idea that an open expression of non-normative sexual practices — involving penises, bananas, or any other handy fruit —somehow excuses exploitative labour conditions. At the end of the day, the Lizzo story is not about sex: it’s about labor.
This was previously published on www.yasminnair.com.
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Yasmin Nair is a writer, academic, and activist. She’s an editor at large at Current Affairs, on the editorial board of the Anarchist Review of Books, co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the (Volunteer) Policy Director of Gender JUST. She’s currently working on her book Strange Love: A History of Social Justice And Why It Needs To Die. Her writing can be found at www.yasminnair.com.