Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old. Joie Collins is one of the founding Team Members of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she has conducted several interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directs correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to have been a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old.
Joie: Well, you asked for it, so here it is. And as my girls, Salt-n-Pepa, would say … “Let’s talk about sex, baby!”
So, three weeks ago, a discussion of They Don’t Care About Us somehow ventured into the realm of Michael Jackson’s incredible sex appeal (that may have been my fault) and the comments section went wild.
Willa: Joie! Michael Jackson sexy? I’m truly shocked. My interest in Michael Jackson is purely academic, I assure you. I never once noticed those amazing eyes, or the incredible way he moved his body on stage, or that cute little tush in Thriller….
Joie: Well, since you never noticed any of those things, Willa, how about those luscious lips? Or the seductive way his voice pulls you in? Or that sexy little laugh of his? Or the wonderful way he filled out those amazing gold pants on the History tour….
Willa: I was wondering how long it would take you to mention those gold pants.
Joie: What can I say; I’m a very visual person! Anyway, Willa and I obviously hit on a little discussed taboo of sorts with many of you commenting that this topic is kind of the ultimate elephant in the room. And since this blog is all about inviting those elephants onto the dance floor, we thought we’d start the new year off by cutting a rug with the biggest elephant of them all.
You know, to be completely honest, Willa, I was more than a little surprised when we received so many comments asking for this discussion. I mean … I always saw Michael as unbelievably sexy and very handsome, and I knew that I wasn’t the only one out there who felt this way about him. As Aldebaran pointed out in a comment after that post, all you have to do is go to YouTube and it’s very easy to find these really sensual, fan-made videos that showcase Michael’s sexy side – a little guilty pleasure I like to call ‘MJ porn.’ And it is all over YouTube; there must be at least a couple hundred of them out there. So, I knew I wasn’t alone. (And by the way, let me just take this opportunity to personally thank all of those who have created said videos and posted them on YouTube for my enjoyment; you have no idea how much I appreciate it!).
But, I guess what shocked me was that so many of our readers asked for a “serious” discussion about Michael’s sex appeal and how the media fought really hard to deny him the sex-symbol status that he so easily deserved.
Willa: It’s an important question, but it’s difficult to talk about. Not only is it somewhat taboo, even now, it’s also very nebulous and subjective. It’s hard to identify what it is, exactly, that makes him so unbelievably hot.
Joie: No it isn’t; have you looked at him?!
Willa: I know, I know. But different people respond in different ways, and for different reasons. He was incredibly attractive, but not all attractive people are sexy. He was also very sensitive and kind, and passionate in his beliefs, and unbelievably smart, and very funny, and had that amazing voice, and could move like a panther, and have you noticed the veins in his forearms? I have to say, he has very nice veins….
Joie: And nice hands too, really big and masculine….
Willa: Anyway, it’s all very subjective, and for me personally it’s difficult to talk about simply because my own feelings are so complicated. They’re all mixed up with issues of race and deep cultural taboos and my own childhood, and it’s hard to sort that all out.
You know, from the first time I heard “Ben” on the radio, I felt this deep connection to Michael Jackson – just this overwhelming sense that he was a kindred spirit. It wasn’t sexual at all – I was 11 years old – it was just this comforting feeling that he was someone who looked at things the same way I did and felt about things the same way I did, and that he was someone I could talk to about things that were troubling me. And what was troubling me, for the most part, were the things I was seeing and hearing as they integrated the local schools. He really helped me through all that, and I still feel very grateful for that.
And then fast forward a few years, and suddenly he’s grown up into the sexiest guy you can imagine, and it was just stunning to me. I couldn’t believe it. It was like, Wow, you sure turned out well! That metamorphosis was amazing and wonderful, but also pretty confusing. He was gorgeous – the most handsome man I’d ever seen – but he was so gorgeous it was kind of alienating. He seemed so exotic somehow, with his sultry eyes and his hot bod and his boa constrictors.
But he was like my childhood friend and felt so familiar to me. So there was this weird conflict between the exotic and the familiar.
And then there was the ugly prejudice that White girls weren’t supposed to be attracted to Black boys. Especially in the South, White girls who dated Black boys were seen as disgusting, “white trash,” and even though I strongly disagreed with that, I couldn’t help but be aware of it. I knew what people thought of those girls. But he was incredibly sexy, and I was undeniably attracted to him – very attracted to him – and it didn’t feel wrong to me at all. Plus, as I said, he felt so familiar to me, and there was no way I could accept that the strong connection I felt to him was wrong. It was too important to me, and had been too much a part of me for too long to deny that connection.
So it was like this weird battle going on within me between the familiar and the exotic, the desirable and the taboo – between what my culture was telling me I should feel, and what I felt within myself.
Joie: That’s very interesting to me because my own experience is way at the other end of the spectrum. I guess I can understand what a confusing situation that would be for you, but as a little Black girl I never had to go through any of that. For me it was just the opposite really. Michael and his brothers were the toast of the Black community, the pride of an entire race of people so, it was not only natural for me to love him but it was even encouraged in a way. All young Black kids were encouraged to look up to them. So when he suddenly became this ultra sexy, super hot grown up young man, it felt very natural to me. In fact, I can tell you exactly when I had my first real boy-girl “thing,” if you will. It was the very first time I saw the Rock With You video. I was just hitting puberty when the Off The Wall album came out and suddenly, I somehow understood that those lyrics - “I wanna ROCK with you, all night” – were not really about dancing at all! And then the video came out and seeing him in that tight, sparkly silver jumpsuit and boots….
it was the first time I ever thought of him (or anyone else, for that matter) in an actual “adult” way, if you know what I mean!
Willa: Joie, seriously, you have revolutionized the way I feel about that song. It’s amazing. I can’t even listen to that song in the car any more. Talk about vivid imagery: “Relax your mind / Lay back and groove with mine.” Oh my. I mean, really. My, oh my. And they say cell phones are distracting! That song should come with a warning label. Someone is going to be driving along all blissed out and have an accident.
Joie: I know, right? And to this day, that song and video are still very special to me. But I understand completely when you talk about the “weird conflict between the exotic and the familiar” because I certainly experienced that as well. From as far back as I can remember, he was just always a part of my life – even as a very small child. And as you said, he was like the best friend that I could always talk to. But then, all of a sudden, he was A MAN, and making me keenly aware of the fact that I was now becoming a young woman! From that point on, my life-long obsession with Michael Jackson took on a whole new dimension; there was now this whole other facet to him and to my MJ mania. And over the years that mania only deepened as the songs and the videos got steamier and the pants got tighter.
Willa: So we’re back to the gold pants again, are we? You are too funny!
Joie: Oh, but it’s not just gold pants – there are also red leather pants like in Blood on the Dance Floor and red jeans like in Thriller, and various pairs of black pants – some of them even black patent leather like in the Come Together video and Scream – oh, and gray leather pants and also quite a few pairs of very nice looking blue jeans as well, so … uh … hmm? Um … what were we talking about … ?
Willa: I have no idea. I’m feeling a little distracted. But as long as we’re on the topic, how about In the Closet? What a truly inspiring film that is….
Joie: YES! Tight black jeans! Hair pulled back into a ponytail, form-fitting sleeveless t-shirt. Wonderful short film! Very … artistic!
Willa: Absolutely. And I love the way you put that. It’s very … artistic … on many different levels. It’s smart and funny and visually interesting (I love the silhouettes) and incredibly steamy. We can’t possibly talk about Michael Jackson’s tremendous sex appeal and not mention In the Closet.
Joie: Sex appeal! Right! That’s what we were talking about … is it hot in here?
Willa: Don’t ask me – I’ve been fanning my face with a dishtowel since we started.
Joie: Maybe we should open a window or something…. But, you know, the really intriguing thing about Michael’s sex appeal is that it is only spoken about in a sort of “hush-hush” way and only among fans.
Willa: I don’t know – I’ve visited a few forums where his fans aren’t very hush-hush at all. In fact, they can get pretty worked up sometimes. But you’re right, it isn’t talked about much outside certain fan sites.
Joie: Well that’s true, the fans can get a little bit raunchy sometimes (myself included). But, it’s not talked about outside of certain fan sites and I have never really understood that because he was such an incredibly sexy man and, at times, he was even what I would call overtly sexual – especially when he was onstage.
Willa: That’s true, he could be very sensual on stage, but as he told Rabbi Boteach, “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything offensive on stage, ever,” and I agree.
Joie: Oh, don’t get me wrong; I was not complaining!
Willa: But to get back to what you were saying earlier, it’s really interesting to me that, for both of us, our attitudes toward Michael Jackson evolved as he grew up, and we grew up. And the ways our feelings evolved were very similar in some ways and very different in others.
Joie: Yeah, I’d be interested to know how many others had a similar experience. And the fact that he was this undeniably, unbelievably sexy man – and that literally millions of women (and men) the world over felt this way about him – was completely and totally ignored by the media is really weird. Why was that? I think Ultravioletrae hit the nail on the head when she commented,
“The real issue is that society just couldn’t accept that he dared to challenge what a black man is ‘supposed’ to be. He just wouldn’t go and sit in that box. As a group we are completely blind to what happened and still won’t discuss it…. I think sexuality is at the heart of it. When J5 introduced their string of #1 hits, everyone went wild. But there was this uncomfortable dilemma that had to be dealt with – the tacit understanding that good little white girls do not fall in love with black boys. Without even having to be told, white girls knew this behavior wouldn’t be tolerated and they were directed to ‘more suitable’ white alternatives. The teen magazines of the day focused on Donny Osmond and David Cassidy.”
This is such a true statement and the “uncomfortable dilemma” that Ultravioletrae mentions only got worse over the years as Michael transitioned from this heartbreakingly adorable teen idol into this explosively sexy adult icon. And after the success of Thriller, he was literally the biggest, most influential artist of our time and that worried a lot of people. The establishment couldn’t let a Black man be rich, successful and sexually appealing to young White women too. That was just out of the question. So they did everything they could to convince the general public that he was freaky looking. He had altered his face by plastic surgery; what a weirdo! Getting a nose job? Oh my God, who does that?!
Willa: Elvis, for one – a previous teen idol – but it was a much bigger issue for Michael Jackson because the shape of your nose has been designated a racial signifier. So when Elvis changed the shape of his nose, it was simply seen as an aesthetic decision. But when Michael Jackson changed the shape of his nose, it tapped into all these big unsettling questions about what it means to be Black, and it wasn’t seen as an aesthetic decision, but as a commentary on how he situated himself in terms of race. Because everything he did was viewed through the lens of our racial history, everything was always so much more complicated for him.
Joie: And because he was the biggest celebrity our society had ever seen, everything he did was always so much more exaggerated by the media as well.
Willa: But I think you’re right: the larger issue is the taboo against sexual attraction between White women and Black men, and it’s a taboo on both sides of the equation. Not only is it shameful for White women to be attracted to Black men; traditionally, it’s also been very dangerous for Black men to attract White women. Black men have been tortured and killed for that, with their bodies displayed as a warning to other Black men. And this taboo wasn’t enforced only during slave times. In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he talks about being caught committing a burglary and receiving an overly harsh prison term, and he suggests his real “crime” wasn’t petty theft but dating White women.
Joie: Well you know, that whole sexual taboo surrounding the Black man’s size and prowess – that’s been the driving force behind lynchings throughout history. It makes me think of the lyrics to “Threatened,”
Every time your lady speaks she speaks of me, threatened
Half of me you’ll never be, so you should feel threatened by me
You know I love that song; it’s one of my favorites but, I never really thought of it in terms of race before, but I recently read a comment from AnaisKarim where she suggested “Threatened” could be viewed through that racial lens. I think she could be on to something.
But even today, in 2012, it’s an issue. Of course, no one really likes to admit it but, there are still lots of people out there on both sides of the racial divide who either outright disapprove or secretly cringe every time they see a Black man with a White woman. Just last month, I read a news story online about a church in Kentucky that does not allow interracial couples to join their congregation. They don’t care if Black people join their church – that is fine. But interracial couples are not welcome!
Willa: And there was an advice column in the newspaper a couple weeks ago with a letter from a Southern White woman. She was being shunned by her friends – people she had been close to her entire adult life – because they found out she had dated a Black man a few times. It’s just unbelievable how entrenched some of those prejudices are, and how people mindlessly follow those prejudices.
And this taboo against sexual attraction between Black men and White women plays out in ways that can be very threatening and dangerous. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the main character is a successful high school student, and he’s invited to give a speech about race relations to the town’s White leaders. (As I remember, his speech talks about how Black men can succeed if they maintain a proper humility.) But when he arrives to give his speech, he finds himself in a boxing ring with a bunch of other young Black men, and then a White stripper begins dancing among them as the lecherous town leaders look on.
The emotions of that scene are absolutely electric as the protagonist describes what he and the other young Black men feel toward this woman: desire, anger, compassion, hatred, and sheer terror that she will go too far and the White men will punish them for it. That dynamic Ralph Ellison describes so well of White men using White women as an excuse to punish and intimidate Black men has a very long and very ugly history.
Joie: Yes it does. A history rooted in racial violence and the blood of way too many young Black men who were lynched, beaten and/or killed for the crime of attracting – or sometimes even just looking at – a White woman.
Willa: Or sometimes the “crime” was political activism, but they were falsely accused of being a threat to White women to stir up a mob.
So how does that long-standing taboo against Black men being sexually attractive to White women play itself out when you’re the first Black teen idol and millions of women of all races think you’re the hottest thing ever? That’s a very complicated and very dangerous position to be in, and I think Michael Jackson was well aware of it. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of his favorite movies, and it’s the story of a lonely White woman who’s attracted to a Black man and kisses him, but when her father walks in and sees them, she claims the man accosted her. The story focuses on his trial, and even though his lawyer proves he’s innocent, the White jury finds him guilty. It does not have a happy ending.
Apparently, Michael Jackson watched that movie frequently during his 2005 trial to help steel himself for everything he had to endure, and the parallels and connections between that movie and his own life are chilling. I don’t think it’s coincidental that our nation’s first Black teen idol was falsely accused of sex crimes by an angry entitled White man. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that a White District Attorney blindly accepted that man’s accusations despite all the contrary evidence, and then used those false accusations as an excuse to hound and harass him for years. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that a largely White media (his self-appointed jury) repeatedly portrayed him as guilty even though the evidence clearly indicates he was innocent, and even though an actual jury weighed the evidence in the 2005 trial and found him innocent.
Joie: You know, I honestly never thought about it in those terms before but, you are probably exactly right. It wasn’t coincidental, and certainly not surprising either given the very fact that he was our nation’s first Black teen idol and he did draw the adoration of millions of young girls around the world – more than half of whom were probably White. The only way his story could have played out was with him being falsely accused of sex crimes by a White individual. History always repeats itself and with a Black personality of his magnitude, how could it have played out any other way?
Willa: You’re absolutely right, Joie. History does repeat itself, because we make it repeat itself. There are certain cultural narratives that we tell ourselves over and over again, and we keep forcing different people to fit into those same old stories again and again and again. So of course our nation’s first Black teen idol was falsely accused of sex crimes and attacked by an angry White mob – though in Michael Jackson’s case, the mob was equipped with cameras rather than ropes.
But the amazing thing is that, ultimately, the story did end differently this time because Michael Jackson subverted that narrative and tried to change it – he attempted to change that cultural narrative. It seems impossible, like moving a mountain, but he took it on. And while it’s still too early to tell how successful he was, the attempt itself is fascinating.
So next week we’ll look at a really huge topic: the interconnections of race and sexuality in our nation’s history, and what the implications were for Michael Jackson, and how he fought back.
Joie: For now here’s a little treat we recently came across and found fascinating. This is supposedly an alternate version of one of my favorite videos, Blood on the Dance Floor. Shot by Vincent Patterson, who also shot the version we all know and love, this one is said to have been done with a handheld 8mm camera and then purposely overexposed for the grainy result. The story is that Michael loved it but Sony was not pleased and rejected it. However, Willa and I want to point out that we so far have zero confirmation of any of that so, if you have any info that can shed some light, let us know. In the meantime, enjoy!