If you spend any amount of time consuming sports news content — or are just a person who uses the internet — you’ve likely already seen the ongoing “debate” about the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Game. To be more accurately, you’ve probably seen the discussion of its aftermath, when LSU’s Angel Reese waved her hand in front of her face to taunt Iowa’s Caitlin Clark after LSU defeated Iowa 102-85.
ANGEL REESE TO CAITLIN CLARK 😳 pic.twitter.com/2NY0CEzwJ3
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 2, 2023
Likewise, music Twitter was abuzz this weekend with reactions to the release of the debut album of Chloe Bailey, known mononymously as Chlöe, after a rollout that saw controversies over everything from Chlöe’s collaborators on the album to her barely-there sex scene from Janine Nabers’ Amazon Prime Stan satire Swarm.
These two discussions are separate, but related in that both center on young Black women and the American public’s reactions to them living their truths and, well, doing their jobs. But both incidents highlight the ways in which American audiences still haven’t figured out what to do with Black women who are public figures who refuse to “tone it down” for mainstream acceptance — or come to grips with just how rooted those standards for acceptance are in this country’s brutal, racist history.
None of this is new. Black women in public life have faced harsh criticism for any number of frankly dumb reasons for as long as they were allowed to participate in that public life — which has been less time than the current sitting president has been alive. Just look at one of the last First Ladies to hold residence in the White House. Michelle Obama was plagued by racist caricatures in the media and disgusting discourse online. She was called manly, angry, unpatriotic, and more over the course of her husband’s term in office.
That ugly “tradition” continues today. We see it in Fox News reports responding to Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B and even Beyoncé, whom that channel’s anchors criticize for expressing rather mundane sentiments and desires. For Beyoncé’s audacity to praise herself in song, embracing her “flaws” on “Heated,” the host of Fox & Friends called the singer “vile” and “X-rated.” When Lizzo fosters body positivity, she’s excoriated online for daring to be anything other than ashamed of her body.
And while these women’s white counterparts like Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Swift face similar condescension in the public eye, the intensity is turned up several notches when the women being derided are Black. We need to look no further for proof than the contrasting responses to two female basketball players performing the same gesture after their NCAA tournament wins, celebrating their own prowess, and showing the same competitive spark for which men are praised (even sometimes against their will).
On Wednesday, during the final moments of Iowa’s 97-83 victory over South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the tournament, Iowa’s hot-shooting point guard Caitlin Clark threw up the “you can’t see me” gesture after knocking down yet another ridiculously long-range jumper, prompting a timeout from Louisville’s coach. (And hey, fun fact, did you know that prior to WWE wrestler John Cena popularizing the gesture, it was first debuted in Tony Yayo’s “So Seductive” video? It’s almost like Black people really do be inventing everything without getting credit for it!)
Caitlin Clark hit the “YOU CAN’T SEE ME.” 🤯
— WSLAM (@wslam) March 27, 2023
At the end of the day, Tony Yayo is the cause of all of this LMAO pic.twitter.com/2JgIub74p4
— I’m named after El Debarge (@hydrothemc) April 3, 2023
So, when Angel Reese pulled the same move at Clark after winning the national championship, it wasn’t just an A1 example of some of the best non-verbal trash talk we’ve seen in women’s sports, it was also a direct reference to Clark herself taunting a prior opponent. Reese certainly had plenty of reason for the competitive fire. This is a pretty unscientific survey, but over the course of the tournament, I’m pretty sure I heard Clark’s name mentioned every 10 minutes during pre-and-post-game broadcasts and it’s pretty clear that the media was pulling for Iowa from the start.
This is certainly understandable; Clark is doing things on an individual level we’ve never seen a women’s player do before. She’s knocking down shots from Steph Curry/Dame Lillard range; she’s raking in triple-doubles like MVP season Russell Westbrook. But she’s one player, and the tournament featured a number of historic feats. Until Iowa defeated South Carolina in the semifinals, South Carolina — led by center Aliyah Boston — was undefeated on the season. LSU went in just two years from a 9-13 record to winning it all. These are accomplishments worth celebrating!
Reese, affectionately known as “Bayou Barbie” by fans, has earned the right to talk a little smack. And there’s no smack talk greater than throwing an opponent’s taunts back in their faces. Yet, when Clark does it, she’s praised and celebrated, or at the very least, little mention is made in the mainstream media. When Reese did it, it seemed that even those media personalities normally totally uninvested in women’s hoop rushed to comment and deplore her “classless” behavior, like Keith Olbermann.
Looking at Chlöe, a similar phenomenon emerges. Her recruitment of notorious R&B bad boy Chris Brown to guest on her album In Pieces drew heavy criticism from fans and even media outlets like Rolling Stone. The week of Chloe’s release, the legacy publication published a lengthy piece about Brown’s troubling omnipresence in the industry, but with the peg of the Chlöe collaboration, doing as much damage to the Beyoncé protege as the person who should have been in their sights for years. The piece raised many essential points about Brown, but where was the same condemnation for Jack Harlow, the white, male rapper whose most recent album also featured a duet with Brown and saw him on an RS cover for the release without a mention of Brown? Hell, a quick glance at Brown’s discography presents any number of potential collaborators from just the last three years to damn, from Drake to Metro Boomin to Afrobeats stars Davido and Rema, with none sparking the same ire.
Then there’s Chlöe’s sex scene in Swarm, which opens the first episode and lasts all of twenty seconds, showing no more skin than her videos for “Have Mercy” and “Treat Me.” Yet, from the way that fans on Twitter responded, you’d think she’d converted to full-blown porn. Incidentally, many responded the same way to the aforementioned music videos, as well, shooting Chlöe down for the sin of just growing up. Visibility is a two-edged sword for Black women; as much as many yearn to be seen, to be acknowledged, to not simply be the matron or the maid, the instant they get it, they’re raked over the coals for simply being themselves.
Or at least, for not being white women. You see it in office and school dress codes that forbade them from wearing their natural hair until literal laws had to be written to protect them. You see it in the dearth of Academy Award and Grammy winners from the near-100-year histories of both institutions. It’s in news coverage. It’s in media representation. It’s in the backlash to Chlöe’s sister Halle landing the role of The Little Mermaid only to have legions of self-declared “fans” castigate her casting without even seeing the movie (and Black women in the cosplay community can attest this behavior isn’t even confined to official castings).
America, on the whole, doesn’t seem to want to see Black women — especially not successful, multi-dimensional ones — because, for much of America, the idea that Black women are or could be anything other than the help is still new… and thus, frightening. Because Black women’s existences have been suppressed for so long, to see them in any role that wasn’t one carved out for them 100 years ago is still a shock to a large portion of the population.
The solution isn’t to go back, though. That never works and the Black women who’ve conformed have just been confronted with moving goalposts and just as much derision as if they didn’t. If they straighten their hair to follow the dress code, they’re criticized just as much, while also being forced to spend time, money, and effort on even more maintenance. It’s a catch-22. The only way to make it right is to embrace change, to welcome the new and different instead of regarding it with fear and anger. It’s to praise the mavericks and outliers.
Allowing these women to flourish in these opportunities allows them to provide more opportunities for others to flourish, not fewer. Look at Lizzo, putting on for the big girls. Look at Beyoncé, who passed the chances granted to her down to Chloe X Halle, and look at them, opening new doors for even more girls. From music stars to Angel Reese’s “can’t see me” moment, these women offer Black girls a chance to see themselves, to see different futures for themselves, and to believe that they too can be great. They deserve to be seen.