“A Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You”: As a “First”, is Misty Copeland radical?

On February 9 of this year, Misty Copeland posted this photo and accompanying text to her Instagram:

misty copeland instagram
Image obtained from Misty Copeland’s Instagram

The full accompanying text reads as follows:

“I have always appreciated the great support and platform that Under Armour has given me to represent my community, gender, and career on the world stage. However, I strongly disagree with Kevin Plank’s recent comments in support of Trump as recently reported. Those of you who have supported and followed my career know that the one topic I’ve never backed away from speaking openly about is the importance of diversity and inclusion. It is imperative to me that my partners and sponsors share this belief. I have spoken at length with Kevin privately about the matter, but as someone who takes my responsibility as a role model very seriously, it is important to me that he, and UA, take public action to clearly communicate and reflect our common values in order for us to effectively continue to work towards our shared goal of trying to motivate ALL people to be their best selves.”

This post was written, or issued, in response to a statement the CEO of Under Armour, the company of which Copeland is a face, made extolling Trump as pro-business during an episode of CNBC’s “Fast Money Halftime Report.” [1] Plank’s statement that “to have such a pro-business President is something that is a real asset for the country” received immediate media attention, both positive and negative, in the mainstream media and in more niche social media circles, a media firestorm to which Copeland felt the pressure to respond, as a woman of color and the company’s official figurehead.

I have followed Copeland on Instagram for a few years now, ever since I read a New York Times article entitled “The Rise and Rise of Misty Copeland” in 2015. [2] Although my personal interest in dance led me to the article, I was astonished that the American Ballet Theatre, the foremost American ballet company, had not yet had an African-American principal dancer.  Whether this is influenced by my experience with Alvin Ailey — a dance company  founded and populated primarily today by African Americans — as the most famous American dance company, or this speaks to my existence in a particular bubble, I was immediately excited by how Copeland seemed to be breaking down barriers in dance. Her wide popular reach was exciting as well; I was inspired to live in a world where a dancer got to sit down with Obama and talk about race relations. [3]

Since my original inspiration by Misty Copeland and what she meant for racial, social, and bodily boundaries in dance, my feelings have become more nuanced, in ways that are crystallized in her Instagram response above.  In the picture, I think it is fair to say that she presents as incredibly whitewashed, in accordance with conventional contemporary (built upon historical) white standards of beauty, with her hair straightened and styled into loose waves and a filter applied so that her skin appears fairly light.  In her response to the CEO of a brand she sponsors defending a racist president, what does it mean that the picture, what does it mean that she presented herself as somewhat white, innocent, eyes downcast? Was it a quest for legitimacy or compromise that could temper the censure of her words? Of course, those words evoke complex feelings as well; especially in light of Sarah Banet-Weiser’s discussion of the history of the terms “multiculturalism” and “diversity” in The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, I am struck by Copeland’s insistence on “the importance of diversity and inclusion” and the goal of “trying to motivate ALL people to be their best selves.” [4] The similarities to Banet-Weiser’s work extend further; in the same way that Vanessa Williams, the first African-American Miss America, cast herself (and was cast as) an individual success story, Copeland portrays herself (and is portrayed) as unique, as non-representative (as seen in the title of her first book, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina). [5]

18143768
Image obtained from goodreads.com

And in the same way that Williams, once the Penthouse nudes were released, was asked to speak as, but also distanced herself from the language of, being an African-American woman, Copeland, once she has done something “wrong” (like inadvertently supporting a Trump supporter) directly acknowledges her “gender and career” identities but leaves her race under the vague heading of “community.”

A scroll through Copeland’s Instagram presence reveals some similar trends.  Her approximation of white beauty standards becomes even more striking.   Although she does have a slightly curvier, more muscular body type, in terms of body shape and size she is far closer to the Anna Pavlovas of the world than a radical representation of a marginal body.  She wears her hair straightened and accents her thin muscularity, pale skin, and more European features.  To me, it seems that, although she may break somewhat from the birdlike ballerina body, Copeland really fits with the “fitspiration” beauty standards that are now so prominent.  Just as she is lauded for marketing herself like a pop star, as many ballerinas do not, she breaks with a more niche, art body to fit with a more commercial body.

fitspo

misty fitspo
Images obtained from pinterest.com

This is reflected in her work with Under Armour overall, where slogans like “Strong is Beautiful”, “I’m pretty…determined” and “I will what I want” are emblazoned across posters of Copeland’s different yet still relatively unattainable body.  In addition, she is often coded as an “athlete”, migrating her from the more feminine world of “dance” to the masculine arena of “sports” to appeal to Under Armour’s customer base.  Both her Instagram and her Under Armour ads posit her as consumable; perhaps, because of the self-marketing nature of Instagram and the language used by Under Armour, this consumption is seen as more authentic.  However, Copeland is still using her body to sell, whether it is her own personal brand or an actual brand, while using the language of authenticity (in which her race plays a crucial part) as currency in our contemporary media market that so values the authentic, the intimate, the real.

under armour ad
Image obtained from underarmour.com

Copeland’s second book, Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You, is the ultimate reflection of this consumption.  (She is literally selling herself, or the route to become her: to become her “divergent” body.  In its title and its overall narrative, I would argue this book posits a dangerous neoliberal narrative, just as the rags-to-riches narrative in her first book does.

ballerina body

Her book claims that through directed consumption: of her, of her book, of particular food, that anyone, any body, can become her, can have what she has, which so erases the inaccessibility of her body and experience for many women of color, and women in general.  I recognize the subversiveness of working within a structure (ballet specifically and beauty standards more generally) that has excluded so many for centuries, and I do not want to ask her to speak for or to represent all African-American women, or women of color.  However, I wonder if the approximation of white beauty standards, with just hints of exotic difference, that she embodies, and the neoliberal discourse that surrounds her (and that she voices) are perhaps just as erasing as the ranks of white swans in most performances of Swan Lake.

Endnotes

1 CNBC, “CNBC Exclusive: CNBC Excerpts: Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank on CNBC’s “Fast Money Halftime Report” Today”, February 7, 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/07/cnbc-exclusive-cnbc-excerpts-under-armour-ceo-kevin-plank-on-cnbcs-fast-money-halftime-report-today.html.

2. Ruth La Ferla, “The Rise and Rise of Misty Copeland,” New York Times, December 18, 2015.

3. Time, “Read the Full Transcript of TIME’s Conversation With President Obama and Misty Copeland,” March 14, 2016, http://time.com/4254551/president-obama-misty-copeland-interview-transcript/.

4. Susan Banet-Weiser, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 18-19.

5. Banet-Weiser, 128, 151-2.

Sources

Banet-Weiser, Susan.  The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

CNBC. “CNBC Exclusive: CNBC Excerpts: Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank on CNBC’s “Fast Money Halftime Report” Today.” February 7, 2017. Obtained from http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/07/cnbc-exclusive-cnbc-excerpts-under-armour-ceo-kevin-plank-on-cnbcs-fast-money-halftime-report-today.html.

Copeland, Misty. Ballerina Body. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2017.

Copeland, Misty.  My Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Copeland, Misty. (mistyonpointe). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/mistyonpointe/.

La Ferla, Ruth. “The Rise and Rise of Misty Copeland.” New York Times. December 18, 2015.

Time. “Read the Full Transcript of TIME’s Conversation With President Obama and Misty Copeland.” March 14, 2016. Obtained from http://time.com/4254551/president-obama-misty-copeland-interview-transcript/.

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3 thoughts on ““A Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You”: As a “First”, is Misty Copeland radical?

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  1. I am fascinated by your analysis of Misty Copeland’s rise, as I too have followed it closely, having grown up a ballet dancer and initially feeling excited at the prospect of greater representation within the ballet community. Recently I have revisited this dialogue and discovered Michaela DePrince, who has recently been promoted to Grand Sujet for the Dutch National Ballet. The Dutch National Ballet is just as noninclusive on the topic of race and body shape as The American Ballet Theatre. In terms of appearance, DePrince, who is from Sierra Leone and conforms less to the European and whitewashed standards than Copeland despite her typical “ballerina body”, I think may offer the hope that we were looking for in Copeland. Everyone should look up Michaela DePrince’s dancing- she is ethereal and beautiful beyond words!

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  2. I think this is a really thoughtful analysis of Misty Copeland, particularly in relation to the neoliberal narrative she promotes. But this post also raises for me an issue that I often grapple with of how to analyze people of color who are in the spotlight. I think there is an underlying discourse which we must pay attention to: that racialized bodies can never escape a political reading. For example, you critique Copeland for “leav[ing] her race under the vague heading of ‘community'” and you notice “her approximation of white beauty standards” in her instagram profile. I just grapple with this tension of addressing issues of race when speaking about people of color and reducing a person of color’s experience by only using racial identity frameworks to discuss their actions/achievements/accomplishments. I think you acknowledge this problem when you say, “I recognize the subversiveness of working within a structure (ballet specifically and beauty standards more generally) that has excluded so many for centuries, and I do not want to ask her to speak for or to represent all African-American women, or women of color.” I guess a more productive way I should think about this issue of the politicized body of color is to think more in terms of de-neutralizing and politicizing whiteness and other dominant identities such as heterosexuality and masculinity.

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  3. I found a lot of similarities between Misty Copeland’s instagram presence and the strategies employed by the Asian superbloggers Minh-Ha T. Pham discusses in her book Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet. In the photo accompanying the challenge to Under Armour for their support of President Trump, Misty’s traditionally “feminine” body language works to make her challenging words more palatable and less threatening – she is curled up, arms crossed over herself and looking down, not engaging the camera. This is a technique often used by Asian fashion bloggers – they cross their legs and arms and just generally take up less space in their photos, as well as use an “elsewhere gaze”, looking down, into the distance, or otherwise not looking straight into the camera. The elsewhere gaze leaves the viewer to witness the photo at their leisure, without becoming aware of their own role as a spectator, or the preconceptions they might bring to the viewing experience. While Misty does not back away from sharing her opinion, her body language tells a different story.

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