On April Fool’s Day, Google unveiled its new (fake) product, the Cardboard Plastic headset, which enables its wearer to experience, in 4D, “Actual Reality.”
The morning I read this satirical headline on my iPhone, I was standing in line with my fiancée, Meredith, and my daughter, Mitike, at the Orlando airport after three frenetic days at Universal Studios, a place where unreality seems incredibly real — and where a writer on spring break vacation can muse about what is real and unreal, and why it matters.
We visited Universal (which includes the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) because Mitike loves the Harry Potter series. All year, we’ve read the books aloud as a family, watching each movie after we completed the book. For Christmas and her birthday (and possibly next Christmas, too), Meredith and I gave Mitike the spring break trip to Orlando, complete with tickets to Universal. Santa Claus gave her a Gryffindor robe and a wand, with a note: “I think you may need this.” And so the drift from Actual Reality began.
I expected an amusement park; I expected Meredith and I would share wise smiles at the special effects. I didn’t expect that, inside Universal, it becomes disturbingly difficult to decipher what is real from what is not. Of course, the dragon that breathes fire periodically from the top of the Gringotts Bank is some sort of mechanical creation. Of course, the “magic spells” TK’s new interactive wand could perform are connections between motion detectors. And of course we didn’t reallytake a mining cart down into the bowels of Gringotts.
However, we did sit in a startlingly real old English square and sip butterbeer under the hanging signs of Diagon Alley, and we did converse with a goblin. When we stepped back into the Leicester Square Station, I blinked to see the San Francisco wharf. Later, we took a boat cruise into Jurassic Park, and the stegosaurus looked quite alive, its sides heaving with breath. Back in Hogsmeade again, we wandered into a real Hogwarts Castle, and all the paintings moved and spoke, and I couldn’t remember what was real anymore, actually.
What is real? Our second day at Universal, we stood in a movie theater and cowered at the sound of gunshots in the Terminator 2 3-D show, grinning at each other because we knew it wasn’t real. After all, at the entrance to Universal Studios, serious security guards search every bag of every visitor, and every person has to walk through a metal detector. We were far safer in the Terminator 2 show than we ever are in Colorado movie theaters or Colorado schools.
What is real is terrifying. What is unreal is entertaining — like the ridiculous message in Terminator that robots will someday dominate humans. Let me check my iPhone and ask Siri to make sure it’s not real.
What is real? In the long lines for the rides at Universal, families watch each other. How can that father scold his son so harshly? How didthose two get together? The teenager in that family looks miserable. Why is that twenty-something guy in line for a Harry Potter ride all by himself? And us? What do people see and think when they look at us? So that’s what a lesbian family looks like. Did they adopt that little girl, or did one of them carry her? Do they braid her hair themselves? Or: they’re sinners, living like that.
What is real? In the long lines for the rides at Universal, families watch each other. How can that father scold his son so harshly? How didThe line shuffles forward. We all nod at each other, and smile.
What is real? A woman walks by us in the New York part of Universal, trailing her two children and her husband, fixated on her phone. She smiles to herself as she scrolls through the family photos that she has presumably just posted on Facebook — photos of the four of them in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which they’ve just left. But this woman is missing the way her little daughter stares up at the fake New York skyline in awe, and the way her son tilts his head toward his father to listen. This woman is missing, too, the gentle angle of the late afternoon sun on the lagoon, the real way her family is here together. She nearly collides with us, so absorbed is she in the unreal world of her phone.
What is real? On our way to the airport in Denver, at the beginning of our trip, Mitike called to us from the backseat, “Look at how beautiful the mountains are! Take a picture on your phone!” The Front Range glowed orange in the sunset, and I murmured, “Once, people just enjoyed them without worrying about how to post their experiences on Facebook.” Meredith laughed, “Once people just worried about how to cross them.”
True. But at Universal Studios, twice, I caught myself admiring the etched silhouette of the mountains, glad I could glimpse them, until — twice — I had to remind myself that I was standing in flat central Florida, and that those “mountains” were a movie set Steven Spielberg had designed for the “King Kong: Skull Island” experience. The set is quite convincing. It looks real, even to a Colorado girl.
What is real? We lament that Donald Trump’s candidacy “can’t be real.” When our children have nightmares, we reassure them: “It wasn’t real.” When tragedy strikes, we cry, “This can’t be real!” When a friend’s brother visited her in Alaska, he exclaimed, “The glacier looks like a movie set — it doesn’t look real!”
What is real? We long for it — be real with me, we tell our close friends, our lovers — but it’s elusive. The moment we think we have glimpsed it, it shifts, and we don’t believe it anymore. You love me? Is this real?
Universal Studios does not try to answer any of these questions about reality for its thrill-seekers. Unapologetically, the park encourages visitors to leave their Actual Reality glasses at the entrance gate with the security guards. The intention, as with every movie and novel, is to forget reality a while, to visit an invented space.
But maybe we also visit places like Universal — and read novels, and watch movies — because visiting the invented for a while reminds us to recognize and love what is real. At the Orlando airport on our final morning in Florida, just as I finished reading the headline about the Google Cardboard Plastic headset, the TSA agent nodded at the three of us to move forward. “One of her moms can go through the scanner with her,” she said, pointing at our daughter. Without blinking.
What is real: people in this country have begun to see us as a family. I smiled at Meredith. No Cardboard Plastic headset needed — sometimes, the 4D experience of Actual Reality is sweet.
I loved visiting Universal Studios. I returned to Jurassic Park again and again, the little girl in me ecstatic to see dinosaurs “for real.” I loved watching my daughter’s open-mouthed wonder inside Hogwarts Castle, and I loved Meredith’s appreciation of the quiet (fake) San Francisco wharf. I love drifting away for a while into imagination. But I also love returning.
Right now, for example, I’m writing from a corner of the deck at my in-laws’ in Evergreen, Colorado, gazing every so often at the real skyline of mountains, the real blue sky, enjoying the real sun on my shoulders. A three-toed woodpecker and a chickadee take turns visiting the bird feeder to my right, and all around me, the spruce and pines stand in stately silence, real snow at their feet.
At the moment, I want only this Actual Reality: my daughter, running out to hug me and to ask if she can eat a piece of chocolate; my dog, who sprawls happily beside me in the sun; and Meredith, who is napping upstairs right now (still recovering from our Orlando trip), who intends to marry me in two months, and who loves me, for all that I am. For real.
Beauty comes in all forms, but the institution of white supremacy demands that whiteness is the ideal.
When Lil’ Kim posted new pictures to her Instagram, people immediately noticed a glaring change. In addition to the blonde lace front, Kim’s complexion was noticeably whiter, almost ghostly pale. The iconic rapper and former Junior M.A.F.I.A. member looked like a complete stranger, unrecognizable when compared to the images of her in memorable videos such as the color-coordinated “Crush on You” and later hits such as “How Many Licks” and “No Matter What They Say.”
Filters and careful photo editing may have exaggerated Kim’s startling new look, but this transformation didn’t happen overnight. Over the years, Kim has revealed that her low self-esteem and low self-worth stem from the unconscious belief that blackness is undesirable. Like many young girls and women, Kim absorbed the poison of racist beauty standards. Although Kim has never confirmed to using skin-whitening or bleaching products, one cannot help but read between the lines. The pictures shared on Kim’s Instagram feature a person miles away from the woman who hit MTV’s VMA red carpet in a lavender wig, sequined jumpsuit, and matching pasty. In one display of irony, Kim is wearing a “Black Girls Rock” t-shirt. She’s got long, flowing, light blonde hair, her skin is several shades lighter, and her nose is slimmed down, probably contoured with heavy makeup. She looks like a combination of Kim Kardashian and Faith Evans.
In an interview with Newsweek, Kim reveals that an early age, she felt like she wasn’t good enough. Citing her father’s rigid standards as the source of her anxiety, she says, “It was like I could do nothing right. Everything about me was wrong–my hair, my clothes, just me.” This set the stage for Kim’s feelings of inadequacy. Later on, she says, “All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough–even the men I was dating…Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.”
It seems that Kim has been unable to break free from ideology that cherishes whiteness and dehumanizes blackness. The seed planted in early childhood thrived on a succession of loves who upheld a color-struck hierarchy. The sexism and racism of the music industry only allowed such self-loathing to expand, burrowing deeper.
Notice how Kim mentions that her ex-boyfriends favored women who were the “long-hair type.” She’s not talking about black women with long hair. She’s actually talking about whiteness, or specifically, physical traits that denote whiteness. White beauty standards vehemently reject natural hair. Despite the growing number of black women who have put down the hot combs, straightening irons, and relaxers, natural hair is still viewed as “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” Black girls are sent home from school or threatened with expulsion for wearing their hair natural. Black women working as news anchors are criticized for wearing their natural hair on air. Mainstream society upholds the notion that wearing natural hair is a punishable act.
These racist standards are blazingly apparent when the fashion industry trips over itself to praise white celebrities for sporting familiar black hairstyles such as “boxer braids” (aka cornrows) and dreadlocks. Thus, when TV characters such as Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder are shown removing their wigs and/or weaves, it’s groundbreaking. When Beyoncé calls out “Becky with the good hair” on Lemonade, she’s calling out the lie that kinky hair is ugly. The term “good hair,” when used in earnest, is carved from the language of white supremacy. Having good hair means that your hair is as close to straight as possible. Having good hair means you are reflecting white beauty rules.
When people on social media wonder why Kim “looks like a white woman,” they ignore the fact that through personal experience and unconscious influence, Kim has learned to view whiteness as a marker of superiority. In an article for The Huffington Post, Zeba Blay notes, “Like millions of dark-skinned women, [she] has been socialized to believe she is ugly and unworthy because she is not white or light…The difference between Kim and so many others who struggle with this specific kind of low self-esteem is that Kim has money and access to doctors willing to indulge and encourage her need to change herself into a different person.” Kim’s Instagram picture is the result of that money and level of access, not the aftermath of a spontaneous, irrational decision. It’s not that Kim simply wants to be white; she wants the acceptance that whiteness promises.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye shows how the desire for whiteness is mentally, emotionally, and psychologically destructive. Pecola, a young black girl, yearns for blue eyes. In chapter 3 of the novel, the narrator notes, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” Pecola is fixated on blue eyes because she thinks that they are not only beautiful but also pose the opportunity to escape herself. Blue eyes would literally transform her perspective. She would shed the struggles of her current state of existence. For Pecola, blue eyes signify freedom from blackness.
Kim has fallen into the same trap as Pecola. Self-love seems impossible when external forces fuel their survival on your self-hate.
At what cost has Kim become a sex symbol? Only she can truly answer that question. However, studying the trajectory of her image can provide some unfortunate and disturbing truths. Instead of mocking Kim, we must remember that our society created this pursuit of whiteness. Over at Mic, writer Michael Arceneaux reflects on what led Kim to this dramatic image overhaul and wonders, “If everyone had played nice, would Kim have stopped doing this to herself? Kim is continuously uploading pictures of herself online that depict her as lighter and lighter in appearance. Kim wants us to see her this way.”
One can only hope that Kim has finally found the validation that seems to have eluded her.
Rihanna has gone from Good Girl Gone Bad to bonafide style icon, pop culture heavyweight, and international superstar.
In the past few years, she’s successfully turned her name into that of an influential tastemaker, a woman often imitated but never duplicated, who does what she wants, when she wants, without fear or worry of judgment or disapproval.
The release of her eighth studio album, Anti, marks a decidedly different direction in the Rihanna sound. In an interview with Vogue, she admits, “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40. But I felt like I earned the right to do that now.” Anti, unlike previous albums, doesn’t settle for a theme-driven package of perfectly produced pop bangers and radio-friendly tunes. From the SZA-featured opening track, “Consideration,” to the Drake-aided, dancehall-infused “Work,” Riri’s Anti prefers the visceral power of atmosphere.
Despite the variations in style and production per song, the album’s overall intent is to conjure a certain mood. Whether she’s venting frustrations with overwhelming love affairs gone wrong or lust at first sight, the album wields Rihanna’s voice as both weapon and refuge. In a poem written by Chloe Mitchell exclusively commissioned for the album, Mitchell’s words provide an unapologetic mission statement:
I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood.
It is simply because what I want to say,
what I need to say, won’t be heard.
Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.
What I choose to say is of so much substance
That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.
So my voice is not my weakness,
It is the opposite of what others are afraid of.
My voice is my suit and armor,
My shield, and all that I am.
Writing for Billboard, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd notes in her review of Anti that Rihanna “exists on the languorous edge of Carefree Black Girlness, all Instagrams from Saint Barts and red carpet stunting and relaxed dismissals of thirsty men pretending to know her.” Rihanna, both the brand and the public persona, does not thrive on attention, but rather the seductive thrill of self-fulfillment. Her image is not necessarily about accessibility or even likeability, but unabashed ownership of the self. She is not concerned with role-model status. On the contrary, obeying such strict demands would compromise her sense of authenticity. The Rihanna brand doesn’t just advocate independence, because independence without the foundation of self-fulfillment is a hollow achievement.
The concept of the Carefree Black Girl seems to have been born from social media and (Black) Tumblr culture. In an essay for Refinery29, Jamala Johns explains, “There are varying ways in which the title is bestowed, but a common tone connects everything. It’s the freedom and exuberance of simple moments and pleasures: clutching flowers, enjoying the company of your equally stylish friends, reveling in creative endeavors, and even finding the ethereal beauty in not-so-carefree moments.” She adds, “For women of color, such basic depictions continue to go underrepresented.”
The Carefree Black Girl attempts to soften and humanize the crushing, insular cage of the Angry Black Woman. The Carefree Black Girl is radical in the sense that she does not submit to the expectations dictated by the establishment of white supremacy. The Carefree Black Girl realizes that pain is a part of life, but she does not drown under the weight of struggle. The Carefree Black Girl searches for freedom and self-fulfillment beyond society’s paltry offerings. She seeks what white supremacy routinely denies her: the ability to radiate inner peace despite the harsh cruelties of everyday life. This does not mean that the Carefree Black Girl is not allowed to feel self-doubt, anxiety, fear,or disappointment.
Anti is as joyous as it is melancholy. Tracks such as “Desperado” and “Never Ending” showcase the unraveling of romance and the portrayal of love as a force of destruction and ruin. In the world of Anti, to be in love does not promise salvation. Love itself is often two-faced, a fight for domination and control. “Desperado,” which samples background vocals from “Waiting Game” by Banks, talks about a lover who is on the run and the prospect of escaping with him. Rihanna sings:
If you want, we can be runaways
Running from any sight of love
Yeah, yeah, there ain’t nothin’
There ain’t nothin’ here for me
There ain’t nothin’ here for me anymore
But I don’t wanna be alone
It is not love that motivates this unexpected union, but the tortured desire to run away. Similarly, “Never Ending,” written by Dido and Paul Herman, contemplates the mixed emotions of opening one’s heart after a devastating breakup. She sings:
They’ll never understand
This feeling always gets away
Wishing I could hold on longer
Why does it have to feel so strange
To be in love again, be in love again, be in love again?
Love is not portrayed as a magnificent source of pure happiness and freedom, but an unpredictable and mysterious enigma with its own agenda. Anti’s vision of the Carefree Black Girl is not superhuman or inhuman. She is complicated and vulnerable and does not sacrifice self-awareness for the comfort of oblivious denial. Billboard notes the moody peaks and valleys of the album’s sound, declaring, “Anti is evidence that being America’s foremost Carefree Black Girl is a beleaguering endeavor, one destined to land a bad gal in a bout of depression now and again.”
Looking inward is not always pleasant, and the truth is not always flattering, but self-reflection can act as a healing salve and serve as a defensive barrier against the antagonistic violence of white supremacy. Rihanna’s Anti is fueled by the basic principles of the Carefree Black Girl ideology. Yet listeners cannot discount the unflinching chameleon nature of the album or the fullness of its emotions. Anti presents the idea that the Carefree Black Girl is not about blocking out negativity or distress, but about using these emotions to achieve self-actualization. In other words, Black girl, in all your contradictions, you are enough.