On Monday's "Fashion Police," Giuliana Rancic, in an egregious example of white privilege, claimed that Zendaya's dreadlocks must have smelt like patchouli oil. Co-host Kelly Osbourne cheerfully chirped in with her two scents, adding "Or weed!" to this mounting clusterfuck. Meanwhile, when Kylie Jenner donned dreadlocks (a prime example of cultural appropriation) Rancic praised her. Osbourne did not go on air and claim that Jenner's hair stunk of marijuana. Zendaya eloquently put the two privileged white women on blast (see picture below), while adding:
"There is already harsh criticism of African-American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough."
Ranic and Osborune's actions are springboards for conversations about race and privilege. In addition, there are interesting parallels to women of color who choose to wear dreadlocks, and the perceptions those with white privilege have of them, and the Medusa myth.
Medusa was one of the Gorgon sisters, and the daughter of Phorkys and Keto, the children of Gaea (the Earth) and Oceanus (the Ocean). Originally, Medusa was a golden haired, fair maiden. Medusa dedicated herself to being a priestess to the Goddess Athena. Part of the stipulation of serving Athena was to remain a virgin, as Athena herself was a virgin Goddess. Unfortunately for Medusa, she was seduced by the God that Athena clashed with the most; the God of the Sea, Poseidon. Variations of the myth deviate at this point, some claim that Poseidon and Medusa got married and consummated their loves, others insist that they were overcome by passion and had premarital sex on the floor of Athena's temple.
Regardless of the nature of the act, Athena's punishment was swift. Athena turned Medusa into a dark skinned woman, Medusa's hair was transformed into a bed of venomous snakes, and her eyes became blood shot orbs. Medusa could no longer look upon a lover and have them live, as her gaze turned anyone, mortal or God, into stone. Shunned, and horrified at the creature she became, Medusa fled to Africa. The Greeks use this side trip to explain why Africa has so many poisonous snakes, as some dropped from Medusa's hair during her travels. The curse of Athena was forever upon Medusa. Medusa's only deliverance came with death, as she was beheaded by the hero Perseus. Some instances of the myth claim that Pegasus sprung from Medusa's dead body, a fruit of her love from her tryst with Poseidon, that she was unable to give birth to in her monstrous state.
Interestingly enough, the Greeks most likely stole the concept of Medusa from African natives. In the African tradition, the Medusa like Goddess carried snakes around her waist in a pouch, which represented wisdom and renewal. Her hair was dreadlocked. She carried a mask with a hideous visage painted on it her to frighten off the unskilled. The mask is often depicted as being painted red, to represent the power of female menstrual blood. Derivatives of Medusa's name are said to come from African languages, with a prime example being the Egyptian term, Maat. Maat is more of a concept than an actual Egyptian Goddess, and represents truth. Arguably, the sight of a woman of color who is intelligent and powerful must have terrified the Greeks, so they did what most religions do when they find a figure that imposes them: they demonized her. By transforming Medusa into a monster, her agency was taken away.
Like women of color today, the Greek Medusa was punished for owning her sexuality. A more recent example of this in today's media is the backlash Nicki Minaj faced for being unapologetically in control of her sexuality. White feminists have long shunned or judged women of color for doing things that do not transcribe to their narrow idea of feminism. The recent comments made by Patricia Arquette, claiming that the LGBT community and people of color need to fight for the rights of women, as women have done for them, shows how the intersectionality aspects of third and fourth wave feminism are still not being grasped by the general populace. Instead, we get regurgitated adages that could have come from the mouth of Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman who famously claimed in her 1792 work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that the confines of upper class society were equivalent to the horrors of slavery. Kendall Jenner is embraced for wearing dreadlocks, and is deemed fashion forward, or edgy, for doing so. Zendaya Colemen is maligned for wearing a hairstyle that is culturally her own, and is deemed wrong for doing so.
I am far from the first one to make the connection between women of color and dreadlocks and Medusa. Super model Shaun Ross weighed in on the comments made by Rancic, Osborune, and Zendaya on his Instagram. Ross is a man of color who wore dreadlocks throughout New York Fashion Week, and walked several runways shows with the hairstyle. As pictured below, Ross stated:
"I am so happy that @Zendaya wrote this in response to ignorant comments towards to faux locs @Shelbeniece put in her hair for the Oscars because to have the fashion police say 'She looks like she smells like patchouli oil and weed' is beyond ignorant, racist, and a total stereotype. Yet again we can't be upset because the whole myth of Medusa being a dark skinned female with snakes in her hair having the ability to turn you right into stone at first glance of the eyes translates to the average person in that time not seeing locs so they refer to them to snakes and because they have never been seen before the shock would make you still and turn you into stone. So @Zendaya thanks for turning these bitches to stone only a true goddess could do that. #QueenMedusa #Zendaya #fauxlocs #Oscars."
While having a man use the term "bitch" can understandably irritate some feminists, Ross makes some great points in this Instagram post. Feminists as a whole need to realize the damage that white privilege can cause to the movement, and bridge the gaps caused by white privilege via intersectionality and understanding. White privilege is real, and only by listening and learning from the voices of the oppressed can feminism deconstruct centuries of patriarchal reign.
Image via People