More than Just a Joke: Reexamining Media Coverage of the Solange and Jay-Z Incident

When the story of Solange Knowles attacking Jay-Z in the elevator broke, my Facebook transformed into an endless repository of commentary and speculation. Not only was TMZ predictably all over the story, but major news outlets and online feminist publications also got caught up in the feeding frenzy. At first I thought I had missed out on the latest piece of major ‘Yoncé news that I could chew on with my friends over dinner, but as I continued scrolling, I couldn’t help but feel this crawly, troublesome feeling while reading.

Take the celebrity out of the mix, and the affair was an instance of domestic violence, plain and simple. While the event could potentially remind people of difficult personal experiences, no trigger warnings graced the news coverage. In fact, the media handled the violence as a profitable and at times comical commodity. This type of reporting is trivializing and unacceptable, playing off gender and racial stereotypes. Solange has been portrayed as an overly-emotional, potentially insane woman.  She has also been subject to negative depictions of Black femininity, with media coverage depicting her as the substance-abusing “angry Black woman.” Through the framing of this event, the media has lampooned Solange for fulfilling these stereotypes to a “comical” extent. Beyoncé, on the other hand, has been criticized for being a bystander in the altercation. Oh, the paradox: Solange gets endlessly parodied for (allegedly) conforming, while Beyoncé is made fun of for not living up to the same stereotypes. Demeaning memes have exploded all over the Tumblr blogosphere with the same patterns.

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Jay-Z hasn’t escaped the firestorm, either. Remember that warn-out grade-school tease, “You fight like a girl?” Similar deal. This does not change the fact that 15% of domestic abuse victims are men, and 1 out of 4 women (24.3%) and 1 out of 7 men (13.8%) over 18 in the United States “have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” While this particular event was not between intimate partners, domestic abuse is a rampant problem. Men are victimized too, whether or not it’s discussed or reported. Being beaten by a female means that Jay-Z hasn’t conformed to historically manufactured ideals of Black masculinity: angry, crazy, violent, athletic, and animalistic. Yet he, too, has been criticized.

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I don’t mean to confuse mainstream media with Tumblr. I’m all about blogging and its ability to bring marginalized voices to light. Yet in this instance, the two seem to mimic each other in their perspectives. I have little faith in mainstream media getting it all right on a consistent basis, especially in cases like this. I believe that blogs, Tumblr, etc. (as well as activism in general) have the potential to create a groundswell that is eventually reflected in the mainstream. But even Jezebel and Tumblr have not been able to able to overcome their cultural obsession with Beyoncé that has spawned this uncritical media coverage. Where has the extensive Beyoncé feminist fan social media presence been to critically analyze the recent events?

To be perfectly honest, “researching” to write this article made me even more uncomfortable than I had been starting out. I feel like I partook in the same mass media consumption that I was critiquing, intimately invading the personal lives of a family that I do not know. And while I may pretend to be Beyoncé while emphatically singing “Single Ladies” in the shower, my image of her is just that: an image. I do not know her personal struggles (or Solange or Jay-Z’s, for that matter). What if Beyoncé is—gasp—human like the rest of us? That only makes her accomplishments all the more worthy of legitimate, contextualized praise.

This could have been (and could be) a moment of cultural growth that used the superstar status of the people involved to spark discussion, similar to the conversations following the Chris Brown assault on Rihanna back in 2009. Yet even worse than the lack of conversation has been Tumblr’s joking conflation of the two. This diminishes the seriousness of both assaults and domestic abuse more broadly, and wipes away the memory of the discussion of abuse surrounding the Chris Brown instance. For example, this image focuses on the pair’s masculinity, as if Chris Brown’s presence is supposed to make up for the aggressive, Black male stereotype, predicated on the degradation of women, that Jay-Z failed to uphold.

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Sifting through yet more posts on Tumblr with the hashtag #solangegate, I came across one that read “I relate to Beyonce because I’ve been in that situation way too many times.” Though buried in the Internet abyss, the post gave me hope a discussion would happen in the future. I understand that what’s done is done; the media has already gotten a hold of these tapes and interspersed the public into private lives.  What I hope that we can take from this moment is to use the widespread media coverage to talk about issues worthy of conversation – namely, domestic abuse, constraining gender roles, and oppressive racial stereotypes.

 

Images via Tumblr and the Atlanta Black Star

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