Janet Jackson, Serena Williams, and The Price of Being A 'Cocky' Black Woman
I remember exactly where I was when the Great Wardrobe Malfunction of 2004 happened during the Super Bowl.
Conversely, I remember exactly where I was when my suspicions were confirmed that musical royalty and icon Janet Jackson had been unfairly blackballed and had her career full-on sabotaged by the predator, despot, and former CBS President known as Les Moonves.
For the former, I was only 10-years old, too young to quite grasp the full severity of what happened—and what was going to happen—to one of my own idols because she had the audacity to be a Black woman. For the latter, and at 24-years-old, and fully aware of what the world is capable of when you are a Black woman who is fully confident in herself and abilities and do not appear “humble” enough or in this case, “sorry enough” for their tastes.
You may be wondering what in the “Rhythm Nation” I’m going on and on about. And here it is:
No one likes a “cocky” Black woman.
Now, I use cocky in the loosest and most ironic sense, in that anything that is done or said by a Black femme can be perceived as cocky in the mind of a particularly insecure cishet white man or cishet white woman on any given day.
And it gets remarkably worse the more you deviate from whiteness, particularly if you happen to be darker (because colorism), and/or less feminine (because transphobia, and/or not prescribing to the whiter aesthetic of “femininity” and “softness”).
Which brings me to another icon: Serena Williams.
It’s been eight days (and counting) since the U.S. Open happened and not enough days since the last insufferable think-piece came out that either called Williams a “bully” or a “sore loser” or accusing her of “blowing up” or “having a meltdown.”
Her crime, you ask? Why, it was having the audacity to demand respect and an apology, of course—particular from an umpire that was hellbent on baiting her and disrespecting her. It was the “how dare she” heard ’round the world.
The tricky thing about demanding respect as a woman, particularly a Black woman, is that once you do so, you can almost expect to either be gaslighted out of asking for it, bullied/pressured into abandoning it altogether, or straight-up told overtly, but mostly covertly (in coded language or dog-whistles, take your pick) that you don’t deserve it for a variety of misogynoiristic (racism + misogyny of the Black kind) reasons.
All three happen way too often to Black women, but the latter is perhaps the most relevant here because it usually manifests in one particular way:
Which is that you, a Black woman, will be either told you are too cocky (or snobby or uppity) and you should humble yourself and abandon your delusional request for respect.
Williams knows this phenomenon well and has experienced this for her entire tennis career, which has spanned over 23 years. Some people straight up say she’s cocky and that she should be taken down a notch, while others go the more passive-aggressive route and routinely try to downplay and undermine her legacy as the greatest and most consistent athlete alive.
Folks urge her to embrace “humility” in exchange for recognition, respect, and common decency. And when she refuses the bait, abuse is thrown at her feet. She is called every name in the book and her appearance is maligned with racial caricatures and transphobia. Racist and anti-Black woman stereotypes are trotted out like clockwork to break her spirit, deny her humanity, and her right to be angry or frustrated with her mistreatment. All because she is hip to the game.
All this for “humility,” which is particularly harrowing in Jackson’s case.
When Nipplegate happened, according to The Daily Beast’s exposé on Les Moonves, Moonves was irate, “embarrassed,” and wanted heads to roll. The apologies from Jackson and co-performer Justin Timberlake were swift. And interestingly enough, Moonves seemingly accepted Timberlake’s
blue-eyed, white dragon pop boy wonder apology, because he was allowed to prosper and enjoy a thriving pop career.
Jackson, on the other hand, received the opposite. In fact, what occurred was the systematic dismantling of her career at the hands of a ruthless, petulant, and unrepentant Moonves. A ban from future Super Bowls. Cancelled movies. Blocked book releases. The disappearance of her music from the airways and her music videos from television.
And for what reason did Les Moonves give for this concentrated effort to complete eradicate and obliterate this Black woman’s career? Well, he said he didn’t think she was “sorry enough” or that she “apologized enough”. Or in his own words, wasn’t “sufficiently repentant.”
To be clear, I am old enough to remember Jackson going from talk show to talk show (most of the time without Justin, surprise!) telling everyone who listened how apologetic she was for the incident and how it was not planned. So how could Les Moonves possibly say all of that was not good enough? That she hadn’t done enough?
If you have to ask that question, you don’t understand powerful, predatory (white) men at all. But, I’ll oblige you. It all goes back to Moonves’ embarrassment over the incident.
White men hate being embarrassed. It is perhaps the worst thing in the world to them and can make them feel bad about themselves, powerless, or, worse, “small.”
I have no doubt in my mind that this is the kind of mess that was going through Moonves’ mind during Nipplegate and he felt temporarily powerless to fix what had just occurred on-screen. And as a result of feeling this way, he became irrationally angry and fixated this anger on Jackson because duh, how dare this legendary, iconic and well-connected Black woman accidentally embarrass him and his network on one of the biggest nights of television? How dare she! How dare she do that!
So, of course, he expected Jackson to come back begging for forgiveness on bended knee. Of course he expected her to prostrate herself before him and bleed herself for forgiveness. Of course, he wanted to hear her say “I am sorry” ad naseum to prove her “apologeticness.”
But, the gag is, Moonves was never going to accept any apology from Jackson even if it came from God herself. Moonves had been made to feel small and he wanted to return that tenfold to Jackson. And as a powerful White man with connections as far-reaching as Viacom, he was in the perfect position to do so with her career, her music, her book, and her acting prospects. He was content to treat her entire life like a bag of toys he was taking away, all because he wanted to “humble” her and make her as small as he felt in, what, those 30 seconds.
To him, Jackson was a lowly “cocky” Black woman (even though she is an indisputable icon and has earned the right to be cocky if she wanted to be), that made him, an all-powerful white man feel momentarily inferior and that was just unacceptable.
I suppose this was also the case for Williams (who has also earned the right to be cocky if she wants to be) and her interaction with umpire Carlos Ramos. After his childish call, and his attempt at putting Williams in her place, he felt incredibly “small” when Williams called him out and sought to put her back in her place with his subsequent call, which in turn soiled the entire game for Williams and Naomi Osaka. All because, in the case, this white man just couldn’t help himself, or his ego for that matter.
And it’s never not going to be interesting to me, really. Because if Jackson and Williams were both white men, history would look a lot different. A white man would have been let off the hook with a slap on the wrist, at most, like Timberlake, and the latter would have been shrugged at, lauded for being passionate about the game, and perhaps would have been able to play an unblemished game with Osaka to both their hearts content.
But unfortunately neither Williams or Jackson are white men. If they were, the world would not expect them to over-perform “humility” over and over again in order to make them comfortable or tolerate anti-Black racism (i.e folks thinking they are too uppity) and misogynoir (folks expecting both to swallow gendered racial violence and discrimination).