Let’s just cut to the chase: Ariana Grande got groped on live TV, and I didn’t even bat an eye. That’s what’s bothering me. But first, context:
It was Aretha Franklin’s funeral — a funeral unlike any I’ve witnessed in recent memory. We haven’t had a funeral like this since Maya Angelou’s. It was the most Blackity-Black event since the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
True to (Black funeral) form, it started late, there were long sermons, they sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Going Up Yonder” and “Amazing Grace” — Black funeral staple hymns. There were tambourines, weeping and gnashing of teeth, ostentatious church hats, and a sea of black outfits.
Speaking of outfits, many disagreed with Ariana Grande’s. She got up to the rostrum and sang Aretha’s hallmark song, “Natural Woman,” but many thought that her clothing choices were downright disrespectful. She wore black, yes, but her skirt was well above the knee — the cardinal sin and the ultimate Black church “no-no”.
Social media was aflutter with reactions. Many referenced the predatorial looks from the clergy and statesmen behind her. Former President Bill Clinton was on the rostrum, and many regard him with much-deserved opprobrium ever since his liaison with a White House intern almost thirty years his junior twenty years ago. Three hundred Catholic priests in Pennsylvania have recently been found to have run a child porn ring involving one thousand children, so I can understand why many people look at clergy with a good dose of side-eye. That’s the current context surrounding our perceptions when we watch these “men of God.” That said, I, for one, don’t think those men’s eyes were wandering, nor were they necessarily leering at Grande.
For one, Bill Clinton makes that face all the time. The face he made when Ariana Grande was singing is pretty much the face he makes when anything is happening:
There are many things during the funeral that showed me that the church has changed in many ways:
I’m looking at you, Michael Eric Dyson. lol
But one thing that definitely hasn’t changed is people making judgements on what other people wear to church. Yes, I’m talking about Ariana’s dress.
Yes, in my opinion, it was too short – for the pulpit and for a funeral. No, she did not dress like Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson. But who cares about my opinion? When I heard (mostly church people) comment on what she was wearing, I 1) agreed but I 2) immediately thought to myself “What else is new?”
I am ultimately wary about commenting on the clothing choices of other women, and I typically get upset when people comment on my clothing choices or the clothing choices of others. Clothing is personal. What we wear is an extension of ourselves, and can be a reflection of how we feel about ourselves, our personalities, our newfound, hard-won confidence, our knowledge (or lack thereof) of dress codes and social mores, our culture, our sexuality and/or even our current financial means. A woman’s dress is too often scrutinized and is placed as the focus as opposed to the function and purpose a woman is serving. And rarely when people comment on someone’s clothing does it come from a place of care, compassion and concern. It usually comes from a place of judgment and body shaming, or shame in general, with undertones of jealousy, body policing, misunderstanding, and misogyny — at least, that’s been my experience.
Mini rant coming. Sorry (not sorry):
I’ve had a woman chastise me for wearing a sleeveless blouse on the pulpit while reciting the Scripture reading. I’ve had another a woman at church tell me on two separate occasions that I need to cover up my cleavage. I do not go to church flaunting cleavage, and I try to be very careful about that, particularly if I am going to be speaking in front of people. I don’t want my breasts to distract from any message that I have to deliver. That said, however, I am busty (praise God), and while boat neck tops and some V-neck tops may lie flat on the flat chests of other women, they don’t lie flat on me. I have naturally occurring cleavage — often no matter what I wear. I can wear a turtleneck, but you will still notice that I have large breasts. Also, I refuse to wear turtlenecks in the summer. That’s just what it is. And unless you have large breasts yourself (the woman who was policing me did not) you do not know the struggle of trying to find clothes that do not draw unnecessary attention to your breasts. Then, of course, there are times when I don’t mind showing off a little cleavage. You can’t hide what Mother Nature provides, and I am proud to be blessed with such a bosom. Sometimes, I may show a lil’ sumpin’ sumpin’ at the beach or if I’m going for a fun night out or to dinner or an evening gala or concert or event as I deem appropriate. I’m sexy. I own my sexuality. I’m a grown woman. That’s my prerogative (cue Bobby Brown and Britney Spears).
There’s always the idea that I as a woman am responsible for my brother in Christ if he stumbles and looks at me lustfully — the idea of the woman as the irresistible temptress, that my mere presence and body could be a stumbling block. I’m not here for that at all. It’s an unfair burden placed on all women but placed on Black women and curvy women especially. It feeds into the “blame women for whatever happens to her/she was asking for it” mindset. It presupposes that men are weak and have no free will or choice in the matter.
Men have just as much agency as I do (often moreso). Jesus himself said that if a man looks upon a woman lustfully that the man — not the woman — should pluck his eye out. I am not responsible for the reactions of others to my body. I am not responsible for the sins of others. If my body arouses you, you must find ways to handle that arousal — you should not necessarily look to me to modify my comportment in order to make you feel comfortable.
Breasts are not inherently sexy; in Western societies, we have sexualized breasts (believe it or not, breasts are not sexualized in all societies). Arms are not inherently sexy; society deems what is sexy and what is not, and if a society sexualizes arms, then arms will be seen as sexy. Yes, breasts are an erogenous zone, but so are ears and elbows and knees for some people. I will not start coming to church with long sleeves just because you have some kind of weird elbow fetish.
I cannot account for all of the sexual fantasies and fetishes of the men around me. It wasn’t Bathsheba’s fault that David was aroused — it was David’s. Turn your head. Change your seat. Close your eyes. Excuse yourself. Better yet, turn your eyes upon Jesus.
So, while I would not have made the same clothing choice as Ariana did, I actually have no deep-seated problem with what she wore. Perhaps she has stylists and friends and common sense. Perhaps she doesn’t know how people dress to go to church. Perhaps it’s all she had to wear — for whatever reason (money, forgot her other dress at home, wardrobe malfunction, mix-ups, etc.). Maybe it was a mistake or maybe it was deliberate. I don’t know. But I do know that when church stops being a place where people can “come as you are,” then I ultimately don’t want to come.
And it doesn’t matter what she was wearing — whether she wore a burka or a paper bag or she was butt-naked, no woman deserves to be felt up or leered at (and to push it further, raped).
Which leads me to my next point: the groping of Grande.
My initial reaction wasn’t outright disgust. I had written on Facebook:
*Sigh* While I think it’s best that men keep their hands to themselves, I don’t think that him touching her was sexual in nature.
I’ve met a lot of men who have a tendency to hug women like this. Certainly I’ve been fondled like this by many a man at church, so it does make me think. They’re often rough, but I think it’s unintentional, albeit inappropriate.
A lot also depends on the relationship between the two individuals. If Ariana is uncomfortable, then he’s in the wrong; if she’s not…
Was she truly uncomfortable? It could be that she was nervous or was self-conscious about her dress and just wanted to sit down. Of note too is the fact that her arm was also around the Bishop. She didn’t drop her arm in an attempt to get away from her. Just some points to consider.
But as I read through the tweets of others, I started to realize that 1) not only was the Bishop wrong but 2) touching women in church like this has become so commonplace that I did not bat an eye.
That’s what ultimately bothers me.
The Bishop has since issued an apology.
When we talk about #metoo and #timesup, we are not only talking about these inaccessible, far off, rich but horrible men in lofty positions of power. We are also calling out and calling upon our regular, shmegular, degular run-of-the-mill, everyday men who interact with women in problematic ways on a regular basis. What’s also scary is that I would like to believe that many of these regular, shmegular, degular men don’t know that they are being creepy and they are in fact used to interacting with women in creepy ways.
For me, the issue (because I can finally admit that there are multiple issues. I can see clearly now…) is not merely that the Bishop was manhandling her, or that he was touching her period. For me, the issue is two-fold:
1) It seemed like he was doing it unintentionally.
So many men are accustomed to interacting with women in this way — ways that are patronizing, or show entitlement to another person’s body, or that simply allow for this kind of manhandling or “show of affection.” It is also often done in a context (i.e. church) that supports this, albeit odd, show of affection, however rough it may be. “That’s the pastor; he meant no harm.” “He’s just hugging her like he would hug his son or daughter or grandchild.” I can totally picture and definitely have seen Moms and Dads and grandparents and teachers and coaches doing the same — hugging a child who doesn’t really want a hug. It happens all the time. But just because it happens all the time does not mean it is right, and what does it say about us when we are used to people being uncomfortable when we touch them, or when we take discomfort for granted as opposed to heeding the sign? That’s the whole issue #metoo tries to bring forth — we are not attuned to and/or we too often dismiss the discomfort of people in our interactions with them (I think of the Aziz Ansari scenario).
The fact of the matter is she is not his daughter — she is a renowned singer and guest — but even if it were your daughter, one wonders: is it okay to hug them like this?
On top of all this, church culture often encourages women (and children) to ignore their boundaries or allow for their boundaries to be overstepped. I can’t tell you how many people I have heard admit to the fact that they don’t like greeting people at church during the “welcome song” because that’s when Mr. Stand-too-close or Mr. I-don’t-understand-personal-space approaches you and the uncomfortably tight hugs and cop-a-feels happen. Sadly, many men think it’s normal and okay to interact with women like this.
The thing is, this pastor probably hugs other women like this, and no one has ever said anything to him which is why he probably never thought anything of it. I’ve seen this scene played out so many times before with pastors and women, or just men and women at church. It is not always innocuous. I can’t help but think that when the #metoo movement reaches the church (and the Black church, and dare, I say, the Adventist church), there is going to be a mighty reckoning such that the world has ever seen. There will be falls from grace akin to Lucifer’s fall from heaven.
2) It may have been intentional.
My second theory is that it could have been intentional. I’ve realized that predators are sometimes so brazen that they will do things to people out in the open so that the victim feels like they must comply, or they have to be polite so as not to be seen rude, or to make them feel/think that the action is okay (i.e. it’s happening in public and no one is saying anything so maybe it’s not as bad as it is making me feel. Maybe I’m safe even though my intuition is telling me that I’m not).
We’ve taken this to be normal church behaviour, particularly between younger people and older people, men and women, and when there is a power differential, when in fact it’s creepy, it’s not normal and it’s not okay. It made me think of the ways in which the church has normalized inappropriate touching, so it makes it harder to notice and thus call out.
Again, as a rule, it is best that people, in general, keep their hands to themselves. That said, I am not outright against men touching women in a cordial, friendly, mutually respectful manner. It would have been enough had he placed a hand on her shoulder or gently on her back. But no. He pulled her close and she tried to pull away. It reminded me of the (usually older) men beside whom I have sat who would “innocently” touch my knee in conversation or when making a point, and me, being the polite woman that I am, not wanting to cause discomfort to anyone or make a scene, socialized to be docile and sweet, would reply, “Oh, that’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” Men are constantly testing our boundaries and sometimes crossing those boundaries, putting us in places of discomfort, forcing us to go against strong female social conditioning that tells us to be polite and not speak up, leaving us to always be the one to push back, to say “no,” to set limits. Women are so often expected to be the gatekeepers, especially in sexual interactions. It gets exhausting to always have to be the gatekeeper of my body.
The real trauma or effects of something do not often take place right when the event transpires but rather when you realize, slowly but surely, what has happened to you — that it happened to you.
And so I sit here, disturbed, thinking about all of the times that me and my fellow church sisters have exchanged stories about certain men at church, but ultimately just brushed them off thinking, “that’s just how they are,” as opposed to realizing how deeply problematic these interactions really were.
How can we expect Jesus to save if church is not a safe place?
Photo Credit: Variety