Black Masculinities and Popular Culture
Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by the legend that is Michael Jackson. He’s the voice behind the Jackson 5 hit “ABC”; the man behind huge musical hits like “Thriller” and “Billie Jean,” as well as short, science fiction thriller Captain EO. However, although he was a world-renowned musical artist known for his “sensual movements,” and natural musical flare, unlike other black celebrities of his time, he was not known for his masculinity. In addition to Jackson, around the same time that his popularity took off, another late artist took the stage — Prince.
Artists like Michael Jackson and Prince fall into a different category than the popular African American male celebrities like Denzel Washington and Idris Elba, primarily because of how reserved, timid and feminine they were in comparison to the latter’s masculine, large personalities and “abrasive” physical presence.
One of their most famous black predecessors, Paul Robeson, was “widely regarded as the epitome of what black people are like… If he played or was associated with the heroes of black culture, he also played the stereotype of the white imagination…” (Dyer) This not only mocked black culture, but it provoked an attitude that further disregarded African American individuals as second-class citizens rather than hard working actors or actresses. Unfortunately, during his time as an actor, he was unable to push completely against these boundaries, but he did in many ways make strides for his culture.
Jackson challenged black stereotypes by conforming to the white society and undergoing serious amounts of plastic surgery. Granted, the story of Michael Jackson isn’t at all a pleasant one. He started off as a young child star and was heavily influenced by his father to look and act a certain way, but with such a naturally gentle temperament that Jackson has, the criticisms and societal pressure influenced him to not only conform, but to develop a “sexual ambiguity bordering on androgyny.” (SID)
Michael Jackson and masculinity are two things that have definitely evolved over time. However, what is so interesting about the confusion that was Michael Jackson is the level of masculinity that appeared in many of his videos and the level of femininity that seems to have plagued his existence to the media. Though his outer appearance overtime became more and more like a Caucasian woman, his videos portrayed a whole different story. Thriller, is one of his most popular music videos and was a pioneering work in the music video industry. There are two important elements that make this video so memorable — the film direction/narrative structure and the special effects. Both worked hand in hand in separating Thriller from other music videos of its time. “‘Thriller’ gives the video audience real thrills – the thrill of tension, anxiety and fear associated with the pleasure offered by the horror genre. The spectacle of the visceral transformation of cute, lovable Michael Jackson into a howlin’ wolf of a monster is disturbing…” (SID) but the same goes for his drastic transformation during Jackson’s tenured identity crisis.