My sexual accessibility has never been up to me, and this was a crucial and painful epiphany to have. Content Warning: this essay mentions depression and instances of sexual coercion. It’s not that I haven’t been celibate before. As someone who lives in the gray area of the asexual and aromantic spectrums, I’ve gone long […]
Lee Daniels’ Star is the Niggafication of the White American Dream
Lee Daniels’ newest show, Star, premiered last night on Fox and it did the absolute most. I was apprehensive off jump, based on the fact that the lead character is a white girl in an almost all black cast, and after Daniels’ comments that he specifically chose a white lead to help the country “heal” during this heightened time of racial injustice. Honestly, truly… I wasn’t ready.
The plot is based on Star (Jude Demorest), a 17-year-old white girl who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has been moved around the foster care system for most of her life. Her friend and fellow group member, Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), is a New York-based singer and songwriter that is dealing with the struggle of having an unsupportive, emotionally devoid famous musician as a father (Lenny Kravitz). The two girls have a dream to meet up, create music and make it big. Star decides to expedite the plan by finessing a way out of the foster care system due to her almost being old enough to age out, and finding/saving her little sister (Brittany O’Grady) from the system to create a girl group in Atlanta, Georgia.
Some themes throughout the show that I’m noticing really make me cringe for what we will be experiencing throughout the season(s) to come.
1. Exotifying and Nigga-fying Whiteness
Star’s character is based in a life of struggle. She is born to a struggling, drug-addicted mother living in poverty. After her mother dies of an overdose, Star and her sister Simone are put into foster care for most of their lives. But also, she’s white.
Similarly to 8 Mile, white protagonists that are raised in “Black attributes” (read: poorness, drug addiction, geographical hood location, childhood trauma) are seemingly given Black access, Black community or Black empathy. But struggle doesn’t make you Black, and white people struggles will never be on the level of violence Black people suffer.
This juxtaposition of conflicting realities — that of white privilege associated with the perfect, rich, joy-filled life versus a life full of trauma and poverty associated with that of Blackness — makes it seemingly simplified for the audience to envelop Star as a white girl invited to the cookout because she’s “been through it” or because she “started from the bottom.” But the gag is: her storyline is absolutely coded with the privilege and humanity of whiteness that allows for her struggle to be seductive, nuanced, and seemingly always better than her Black peers and family.
Additionally, actress Jude Demorest is portrayed on the show as a seemingly exotified white girl in presentation as well. The producers obviously bridge this cookie-cutter white-girl gap with adding tighter curls a blaccent, and her performance of swag/rhythm/walking with a switch/tooted booty. These signifiers of Blackness are also a reminder that so much of antiblack racial constructs can be reproduced and appropriated to attempt inviting whiteness and white people into Black identity.
2. Carefree White Girl vs. Black Girls Being Sexually Violated
Star is seemingly in control of her sexuality and the ways she is able to utilize her body as her own power and for general bodily agency. Throughout the premiere episode, she’s portrayed as struggling through the foster care system in which she’s separated from her half sister (who’s half Black) and deals with the trials of being moved between violent foster families.
As she finds a way to escape the foster care system to find her sister Simone, she walks into Simone’s foster home and discovers Simone being raped by her foster father. Star stabs her sister’s foster father, and they both manage to escape and head to Atlanta to meet Alexandra. In the moment after the assault, Star tries to half-heartedly engage with Simone on how long the sexual assault has been happening. Simone is clearly traumatized, and clearly still dealing with the fact that she was living with a rapist who tormented her daily.
But Star is visibly disconnected from the trauma her sister is/has experienced. And never acknowledges that she stabbed a man in defense of her sister after being brutally assaulted. In this, it’s obvious that her whiteness has afforded her a different reality, even that of disconnecting from trauma for the sake of a dream she’s pushing on everyone around her.
Her Black sister is juggling the violence of antiblackness, rape, abandonment and abuse while also dealing with the difficulty of being raised by a white mother who died when she was young, and losing her white sister within the system. That’s a fucking lot.
Subsequently in the premiere episode, Cotton (portrayed by Amiyah Scott), who is a Black transgirl, is attacked by a white man trying to kill her for being a Black and trans. Star’s identity, experiences and demeanor do not speak to any trauma on this level. And even though Star helps Cotton from being killed, it never phases Star about what everyone else in the plot is doing to survive while being black.
Star flirts with men but is seemingly never being traumatized by these men the way Simone or Cotton are. Star is extremely carefree and joyful compared to the very evident and visible levels of trauma everyone carries in their spirit within the cast. It’s absolutely strange and intentional how whiteness operates within struggle to still manifest as an identity of power and privilege. Star doesn’t have to worry about this shit. She’s only focused on getting her dream career because in being a white cisgender woman, being rich and famous is something inherently expected.
3. The Mammification of Carlotta (Queen Latifah)
Queen Latifah’s character, Carlotta, is introduced as a close friend of Star and Simone’s mother. After their mother died from an overdose, the kids were taken from Carlotta due to her usage of drugs and financial instability. In present time of the show, Carlotta is characterized as a brown skin fat black femme that is a Church going woman, a Church and blues singer, and a community caretaker. She’s also the narrator of the show.
Her presentation, role as a omniscient narrator, and seemingly desexualized character are completely giving dead ass mammy vibes. She has yet to have a more developed background or current context storyline that allows for potential romantic relationships to be revealed. But based on the wigs they put her in, there’s no way the producers are trying to develop a multifaceted and nuanced older, brown skin Black fat femme that will be sexual, funny, powerful, vulnerable and human.
My Prediction: Carlotta ends up being the group’s manager, parent, caretaker and security guard (you saw the glock she pulled out), while also holding down church sermons for the community and baptizing niggas on cue the entire series while never holding a romantic or sexual relationship. I hope I’m wrong though.
4. Blatant Exploitation of Antiblack Transmisogyny for the Sake of a “Controversial” or “Woke” Storyline
Instagram Goddess Amiyah Scott’s debut primetime television role is as the character Cotton. She is a Black transwoman who works at the salon, and refers to Carlotta as her mother. We don’t know their family relationship based on the information in the pilot episode, but it’s obvious their love runs deep, despite the transphobic misgendering that happens in conversation at the end of the episode.
In the premiere episode, Cotton decides to take Star to the strip club to find a manager who can help the group make it big. After Star manages to talk to a manager Jahil (Benjamin Bratt), she steps outside to find a white man trying to kill Cotton for being a Black transwoman as she’s seemingly in the midst of doing sex work.
Star attacks him, and then tells Cotton to get her money from the subdued predator. She says, “I knew there was something I liked about you.” And they run away laughing. But the next day, Cotton comes into the salon with a huge black eye and bruises from being attacked the night before. Star does nothing to acknowledge the night of or the day after that a white man tried to murder Cotton for being a black transwoman. There is no acknowledgement of Cotton’s trauma or daily fear of existing in her own body.
There’s also no acknowledgement of who Cotton is as a person until she is traumatized and violated for her Blackness and transness. There’s no development yet around Cotton’s character except for assault and sex work at this point, which is dangerous for the portrayals and humanization of black transwomen. If there isn’t anything through the show characterizing Cotton beyond sex work as survival and being assaulted, then it just confines black transwomen to only representing trauma and nothing else. And it only reaffirms that black transwomen aren’t apart of developing the script or characters.
I hope to God that Cotton is able to be a fully developed character in addition to surviving a world trying to kill her for who she is.
5. Normalization of Trauma Against Black Bodies vs. White Girl Glow Up
The American dream is that of coming up from struggle to glow up. But everyone who lives in America and is non-white knows that the American Dream was always a fairytale never meant for us. The American Dream is only accessible to white people.
Throughout the premiere episode, Star is portrayed as struggling through the foster care system in which she’s separated from her half sister and deals with the trials of being moved between violent foster families. This is the set up for her glow-up story. Because although we’re forced to drool over rich white people’s life stories (i.e. Kardashians, Gossip Girl, etc.), it’s implied that white struggle is seductive if it measures to our struggle as Black people.
The character Alexandra comes from money and seemingly a loving family (although her mother is dead). Star makes a comment saying that Alexandra is lucky to have a father, but doesn’t actually know their relationship. I believe that Alexandra being provided these signifers of wellness — such as money, access, a famous father and having a family versus being moved around in the foster care system — is a way to make Star seem more Black.
I know, I know… it sounds wild. But I believe that Alexandra’s character is complicated in what she represents to the larger context of the story. Of course it will come up later that her relationship with her father is toxic, and that her wealth allows her a different perspective on survival. But her identity juxtaposed to Star makes Star seem more relatable and down to earth to the audience. It’s an intentional way to Blackify Star while also incorporating a boogie Black girl who had to learn the ropes of poverty and back-end dealing from a white girl from the streets — which requires Alex to adopt “Blackness” and street shit from Star.
Lee Daniels is a trip for this shit. Honestly, truly. What better way to remind the world that white women will always be the most selfish and self-consumed people than to write an entire show about it? But more importantly, the show just reminds us how much certain Black people want to give white folks struggling a pass into our world and into our tv shows. This show is truly a niggafied version of the white American Dream.
Tune in next week on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox to watch more of Star.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com, or donate for my emotional labor: PayPal.me/Ashleighthelion.