Over the past month, two white female celebrities have faced harsh backlash for making offensive remarks about female peers of color in their respective industries. Cookbook author Alison Roman was the target of internet rage after making disparaging remarks about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen in a magazine interview published May 7. A few weeks later, Lana Del Rey sparked controversy via an Instagram statement that singled out mostly women of color as facing less criticism for their lyrical content, along with racially coded declarations about what kinds of women embody “aggressive” femininity. The scandals reveal a pattern of even highly successful women like Roman and Del Rey finding ways to exclude women of color as people deserving of their hard-earned success.
While Roman’s remarks have been denounced by many as flat-out catty, Del Rey’s complaints, which the singer has continued to defend, construct a false perception of the reality of “making it” in music as a black woman. Del Rey sets up a skewed narrative by accusing “the culture” of being hostile toward her identity and her art. “Question for the culture,” Del Rey begins in her Instagram statement, “now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani, and Nicki Minaj and Beyonce have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, f—ing, and cheating, can I please go back to singing about . . . whatever I want—without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorizing abuse?”
Just the opening of the statement introduces two unsettling beliefs: (1) that, as a white woman whose music imparts themes of conventional femininity, Del Rey is victimized by contemporary “culture” and (2) that black women face less criticism for singing raunchy lyrics, rather than more.
Del Rey’s suggestion that the women of color she mentioned have had an easier road to mainstream acceptance is not only a myth, but also tone deaf. Del Rey centers her individual feelings of being misunderstood over a traceable history of how racism, particularly toward black creators, is foundational to the American music industry. The music industry, run predominantly by rich white executives, has made exploitative profits off of black art for decades, while black artists, black women especially, continue to face racist appraisals of their work, appearances and performances.
What Del Rey misses in complaining about the ways artists like Nicki Minaj and Beyonce seem to have had their raunchiness excused, is that black female entertainers have long been hypersexualized by cultural expectations of black promiscuity, or slut-shamed ruthlessly for embracing sex appeal in their performance. For black women artists, going mainstream is no walk in the park, and black artists operate under a magnifying glass (and a racialized glass ceiling), despite what Del Rey’s comments imply.
Simply by being a white woman, Lana Del Rey has had an easier ascent to musical acclaim than nearly every peer artist she mentioned. For this reason, her attempt to situate herself as a victim of contemporary American “culture,” which continues to exalt whiteness and privileges white perspectives, is a nearly ludicrous assessment.
Del Rey’s comments were made just two weeks after media outlets echoed black women’s celebration that, for the first time in history, four black women (Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and Megan Thee Stallion) occupied the top two slots on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. Del Rey infringed on a moment of uplift and praise for black women’s successes in pop music with unfounded complaints that she has been the victim of particularly unfair criticisms.
Instead of celebrating the accomplishments of black women who must work twice as hard for their work to be respected, Del Rey’s shady statement called into doubt that artists of color, too, are exhausted of unjust critiques and constantly being undervalued. The myth that Del Rey has been victimized by the “culture” is insulting to black creators who experience at every turn the challenges of having their contributions recognized in a society that marginalizes and stereotypes them.
To make things worse, despite Del Rey’s insistence that she “isn’t racist,” her remarks are saturated in disdain and racist coded language about non-white women’s femininity. Moving past the egoism of leaving the music industry’s foundational anti-blackness unacknowledged in her critique, Del Rey actually perpetuates harmful, othering stereotypes about black womanhood.
In a video posted addressing the scandal that reaffirmed her argument, Del Rey attempts to clarify that she is “advocating fragility,” referencing the line in her original statement that calls for recognizing “the more delicate and often dismissed, softer female personality.” More precisely, Del Rey’s comments demand that white female fragility be taken seriously while invalidating black artists’ struggles for recognition.
It is alarming that Del Rey positions herself as fragile, delicate and soft, in opposition to artists like Beyonce and biracial singer Kehlani. By extension, Del Rey attributes qualities like aggression and harshness to her line-up of artists of color. In coding women of color as oppositional to fragility, Del Rey perpetuates harmful and deeply racist stereotypes about black womanhood — as hypersexual, angry and inherently possessing a masculine strength.
Making a declaration about how her personality and music is unfairly criticized did not necessitate Del Rey setting up a duality between her own type of femininity and that of black and biracial women. In doing so, Del Rey only invoked stereotypes about black female aggression that are habitually weaponized against black women.
Taken together, Alison Roman and Del Rey expose the racist entitlement successful white women feel to the top spots in their respective industries. Even though cookbook authors are overwhelmingly white, and black female artists face more scrutiny and ridicule than white artists, not less, Roman and Del Rey chose to complain about successful women of color in their respective careers.
Considering both businesses are dominated by whiteness, women of color who break through and succeed in industries that are often hostile to their identities deserve to be celebrated, or at the very least not made the target of snide remarks by their white peers. White celebrities should acknowledge the privilege that aids their success, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.