Bustle Envy (Steampunk Meets Sir Mix-a-Lot)

1875-La-Beau-Monde-Covent-GardenIt’s been a rough couple of weeks in the world. You deserve something light and playful to take your mind off it all.

Further to my recent post on poetry and cultural appropriation, I though I would gift you with one of the most bizarre and wonderful things I have seen this month – Katherine Stewart’s ‘Lady Got Bustle’, the steampunk parody of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’.

In this video, a group of (mostly) white people sing about how ‘when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky / Then you don’t need to ask why / You just swoon’. Is this a case of cultural appropriation? Why or why not? This certainly isn’t the first music video to appropriate Sir Mix-A-Lot’s well-known ‘Baby Got Back’, but it is the only one I know from steampunk, which may be one of the whitest subcultural trends ever (with some very noteworthy exceptions).

Here’s a definition of cultural appropriation from actress Amandla Stenberg (appropriately, on a website called Bustle):

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.

With that definition in mind, have a look at the video below (lyrics pasted beneath for your reading pleasure).

 

LYRICS:

Oh good heavens, Rebecca! Gaze upon her posterior. It is vulgar in the extreme. She resembles one of those airship-captain’s doxies! But honestly, who can comprehend those roguish adventurers? Certainly, they only associate with her because she bears the common stamp of a draggle-tailed guttersnipe. It strains credibility how very – noticeable, how prominent – I say! – it’s deplorable! She’s quite simply… Steampunk!

Men favor large bustles and I cannot fib
You gentlemen may find me glib
But when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky
Then you don’t need to ask why
You just swoon, take out your salts
Now claim her for the next waltz
She’s bold and her fashion’s daring
You know that you can’t stop staring
These ladies are worth the hype
So take their daguerreotype
Those old boys try to counsel you
But that bustle creates such voodoo

Ooh, handsome bounder
Don’t be tempted to try to hound her
Just woo her, woo her
Don’t you even think of trying to fool her
You see her dancing
She’d appreciate some romancing
For she’s sweet, neat
And that bustle is packing heat
She’s tired of being told
That her fashion sense is old
Take a roguish man and see him smirk
She has to wear a skirt

So gents! (Yes?) Gents! (Yes?)
Has your lady a bustle dress? (Oh yes!)
Tell her to twirl it! (Twirl it!) Twirl it! (Twirl it!)
Twirl that party dress!
Lady has bustle!

(Tea-party face with an airship ruffle)
Lady has bustle!

They like them flounced, and long
And made of fabric strong
And when she goes up stairs, you must be careful sir
That you don’t step on her
For she’ll box your ears
Oh my! and again, Oh! My!
I shan’t tell you again sir
For that behavior is for the birds

You like a challenge?
Then chivalry’s a must sir
Find a girl with bustle
And then you’re in for a tussle

You may watch a kinetiscope
And see scrawny women thin as a rope
A real man wants ruffles
They know they need a bustle
A word to the genteel fellow, you know we like you
We won’t ever spite you
But we must be quite frank when we say that we want
A debonair man
Steampunk is most sublime
A lot of punks won’t like this rhyme
For they’re too busy trying to define it
While the rest of us want to play
For we’re here from far and near
And we wish to have a lovely time, dear

So, Darlings! (Yes?) Darlings! (Yes?)
Have we made our point at last? (Oh yes!)
Then turn around! Show it off!
And no one will dare to scoff!
Lady has bustle!

Lady has bustle!

[Director: Katherine Stewart
DP and Editor: Christopher Sheffield
from an idea by Katherine Stewart and Sue Kaff]

You’re welcome, internet.

This parody is certainly funny, but I don’t think it’s a case of appropriation. It’s not taking something negatively associated with Black culture and using it to try and be cool (unless the definition of that word has changed since I was a kid). It also definitely understands the significance of the symbol it’s appropriating (booty) and how to humorously translate this to steampunk culture (bustle) without being mocking or condescending. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me in the comments.

While I was researching this question, though, I did turn up some very interesting facts about bustles and booty.

bustles

Yomi Adegoke argues that the recent mainstream popularity of the booty is a condescending, ‘belated thumbs up from white society’ to a part of Black culture ‘now deemed good enough’ for mass respectability. In her book Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2013), Janell Hobson hints that the late Victorian fondness for bustles might have been motivated by a similar politics. She writes about how the Hottentot Venus’s prominent posterior was rendered more ‘deviant’ because it provoked lust in white men:

[White women] themselves were regarded as “prostitutes” in the late nineteenth century if they exhibited this feature (Gilman, 1985, 94–101). Thus, white men and women both, when labeled “deviant,” were paralleled with “black” sexuality. Such associations, however, did not prevent middle-class white women of the period from donning bustles. This appropriation of a “big behind”—a sign of grotesquerie, later connoting a sign of luxurious beauty in the bustle—illustrates the complexities of white responses to racial and sexual difference, which elicit both repulsion and desire. (p. 101, emphasis mine)

So, it seems as though Katherine Stewart isn’t the first to make the connexion between the booty and the bustle. The Victorians (as always) were way ahead of everyone in cultural appropriations of Black bodies and fashions. If any of you Victorianists out there happen to know more about the parallels between these two beauty icons, please – let me know in the comments.

The world will thank you.