Last week, the world watched as stars walked down the Met Gala red carpet in their “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”-themed outfits. Some folks took the theme literally and used their moment to bring attention to important causes. Take Nikkie de Jager, a makeup artist and YouTube personality who had the words “Pay it no mind” inscribed on their dress as a homage to transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wore a gown designed by Aurora James with the words “Tax the rich” sprawled across the back. And U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe carried a clutch with the words “In gay we trust.”
Opinions on those messages were divided. While some fans were thrilled to see their favorite celebrities use their influence to send a message, others called it performative.
One look in particular that drummed up controversy was model and actress Cara Delevingne’s “Peg the patriarchy” vest. The model was accused of stealing the message from Luna Matatas, a queer sex educator of color who trademarked the phrase in 2015. In an Instagram post, Matatas wrote: “While I’m giddy that Peg the Patriarchy® made it to The Met Gala, @caradelevingne co-owner of @loradicarlo_hq tried to pull it off as their own. No credit to me, the creator and owner of the trademark.”
Matatas told The Lily that, ironically, she trademarked the phrase because she was concerned people like Delevingne would co-opt her movement. And Delevingne, she said, grossly misrepresented everything the original term stood for. According to Matatas, the movement is about subversion, not about an anal sex act — and not about men, as Delevingne mentioned when she describing her look to actress Keke Palmer. Matatas further emphasized that she started the movement as a means of talking about the fight for equity and how seeking pleasure can be a revolution.
White celebrities co-opting social justice movements built by people of color is nothing new. Perhaps most famously, in 2017, Alyssa Milano tweeted out, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” She soon went viral — and sparked a reckoning worldwide.
In her original tweet, Milano describes it as getting the idea from a friend, but “me too” was originated by activist Tarana Burke. She started the movement in 2006 as a way to create healing spaces for survivors of sexual assault. In a talk at American University in 2018, Burke recalled the moment she saw the words “me too” trending on Twitter and how she felt fearful of being overshadowed. According to Burke, she wanted the movement to be about empowering survivors, but Milano made it more about taking down powerful men.
There are countless other instances of celebrities appropriating the words, stories and activism of people of color. One such example is a 2017 Pepsi ad. Back in 1931, the musician Lead Belly wrote the song “Scottsboro Boys” about the story of nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused in Alabama of raping two White women on a train. He used the words “get woke” to warn young boys about false accusations. The phrase gained renewed attention in 2014, when Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, was fatally shot by a White police officer in Ferguson, Mo. But what started out as a watchword of survival for Black folks soon turned into a buzzword — and corporations, as well as White celebrities, caught on. In a now-infamous Pepsi ad, Kendall Jenner is seen handing a police officer a can of Pepsi, a supposed homage to a viral photo of Black Lives Matter activist Ieisha Evans. Except in the ad, the officers seem to peacefully accept protests after being handed a Pepsi. In real life, Evans was confronted by police in riot gear.
We see iterations of White people co-opting important messages more than ever with social media, and the body-positive movement is a prime example. Sonya Renee Taylor, a well-known poet, created the Body is Not an Apology in 2011 as an online community to cultivate radical self-love. Since then, it has been used as a leading framework for the body-positivity movement. However, this movement has been co-opted by conventionally attractive midsize White women preaching that “all bodies are beautiful” and “bodies that look like this also look like this” by showing their body rolls after sitting in uncomfortable positions.
Other Black women have brought attention to the issue, and describe the fat-positive movement as being hijacked by White feminists. “Radical body positivity cannot exist within whiteness, white passing-ness or white people,” writes Hunter Shackelford, a fat Black influencer. She goes on to describe how White celebrities such as Lena Dunham are valued within the movement despite not substantively changing beauty standards. In short, she and others argue, that type of body-positive advocacy is all messaging and no action.
So then what does accountability look like in a world where activism is treated like a reality show? How do we hold people like Delevingne accountable for co-opting the work of a queer person of color? Sometimes the problem feels intractable.
In addition to creating spaces where White celebrities who co-op social movements started by others are held publicly accountable, we need to question why systems allow this to keep happening — systems that not only allow it but reward it.
Like many other activists who rely on this kind of work for their survival, Matatas said she will continue to build on the movement she created: “I will continue to walk in work with kindness, uplift other BIPOC creators, as well trans and queer creators.”
Varuna Srinivasan is a health media strategist, writer and gender justice activist.