Stepping into the fray because, well, have we met? – there’s a debate flying around social media this morning that Chris Christie, the charmingly offensive NJ governor, has ordered New Jersey flags (state and federal) flown at half-mast Saturday for Whitney Houston’s funeral.
The argument against goes something like this: flags should only be flown at half-mast for first responders, military, and elected officials. (Since, as we all know, elected officials are paragons of virtue and oh wait…) Because Houston had a public battle with addiction, and her cause of death is pending for tox reports, detractors argue she shouldn’t be honoured, and even if her death was “natural” (and for here, please read what people actually mean: of a cause that they deem appropriate and/or acceptable for a black woman), her years of addiction make her unworthy of any kind of honour.
These reasons are wrong, and they smack of both racism and sexism along with judgmental moralism – or perhaps, to be charitable, simple ignorance. In the days of Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and other African American pop musicians (or as VH-1 might say, “divas”), it’s hard for people to remember what the pop musical landscape was like in the early 80s. One word works pretty well, though: white.
And this is acknowledged enough that most comprehensive obituaries are even noting it: Houston, with her pretty, girl-next-door looks and gospel-trained voice, transcended the very limited role expected of black women at the time, and moved out of the R&B/motown/gospel niche and into mainstream music. We don’t really think about it now, but at the time? It was a big deal – and it’s what paved the way for most of the modern “diva music” that exists now.
But Houston did more than just create a positive black female role model in music. She also moved into movies, starring in an interracial romance that ended up being the sort of megablockbuster that guarantees it’s on Lifetime’s heavy rotation. Whether or not The Bodyguard was a good movie is immaterial – good is embedded in other preferences (although I would argue that the sneering dismissal of romance/chick flicks parallels that of genre chick lit/romance novels – a windmill I’ll leave for another day, or the Smart Bitches) – what does mater is that again, Houston transcended the expectations that society placed on a black woman: namely, that she could not carry and open a movie. And while we like to think that America is progressive when it comes to race and romance, the reality is, it’s still incredibly rare, even in 2012, to see an interracial romance in any popular culture portrayal.
We’re in the middle of Black History Month, a month that exists specifically to highlight and emphasize the cultural and historical contributions African Americans have played in American society, in an effort to equalize the disparity shown to important figures in Western culture who have been marginalized due to the colour of their skin. We have a Woman’s History Month in March for the same reason – to balance some of the historical disparities in honouring women, who are frequently marginalized due to their gender.
Right now, people who are disagreeing with honouring Houston are revealing that they’ve either not stopped to think about what she actually did, or are so caught up in stereotypes that their ugly thinking is showing. Accompanying this is that strain of judgmental moralism, the idea that someone has to die in “the right way” in order for it to be permissible to have sorrow for their death. American society in particular has held on to a very peculiar strain of belief that stigmatizes certain deaths as “bad” – that the person who died deserved it and is being punished for their perceived infractions. With Houston, this narrative is developing as “drug users are immoral people and thus deserve their death;” many cancer patients get the implicit suggestion that because they did something viewed as unhealthy or “bad” – say, smoking – they are now being punished – that they must have done something to “deserve” their illness. In a death narrative, there is always judgment, and those judged as lacking for whatever reason receive the accompanying underscore of “death was deserved.”
Ultimately, if it’s good enough for John Wayne, Israel Kamakawiwo`ole, Clarence Clemons, and protector-of-a-child-molester Joe Paterno, it seems like it should be good enough for a woman who broke down doors in music and movies for an entire generation of women after her.