I love Misty Copeland. Ya hear me? I love her.
As the third African-American soloist and the first in two decades at American Ballet Theatre, Ms. Copeland is Black history in motion. Her triumphant rise from starting ballet “too late” as a young teen on the basketball court of the Boys and Girls Club in California to becoming one of the world’s most prominent and beautiful dancers is no small feat. In a world that still eschews Black women’s bodies, including Misty’s fine-tuned and very muscular frame, this woman has challenged people’s notions of aesthetics, femininity, beauty and power. Moreover, given ballet’s prioritization of White women as the standard of beauty within the art form, that Misty is here is no small thing. Even in 2014 when there are so few primas of color among the “White Swans,” Copeland’s ability, artistry and willingness to be vocal on issues of race and gender in ballet is critically important. It would have been so much easier, I am sure, if she'd chosen to remain silent on these issues. Copeland could have chosen to simply be “grateful” for being in ABT (‘cuz you know White folks like us to thank them for letting us in the room #ugh) and never utter a word about the fact that issues of bias abound in the coveted art form. Even more importantly, that Misty is vocal and articulate about these issues as well as committed to being a visible role model for young folks of all backgrounds and little brown ballet girls in particular makes her a shero in my eyes.
And she danced with Prince. Misty Copeland is everything and I am here for it. FACT.
Alongside women athletes Sloane Stephens, Lindsey Vonn and others, Sista Copeland is one of the new sponsored athletes for Under Armour’s #IWILLWHATIWANT, a powerful ad campaign aimed at women. The campaign features a range of women who beat the odds to climb to the top of their chosen career. Of course, Misty’s story -- being poor, black, having the wrong body and being “too old” for ballet -- makes her an ideal spokesperson for #IWILLWHATIWANT, as does her position as an increasingly well-known role model. As Jessah Diaz notes, “The campaign introduces “Women of Will, displaying the adversity the women have gone through to “will what they want” and defining what it means to be an athletic female. The commercials are compelling -- if you haven’t checked out the campaign, do so on the Under Armour site here.
I love this entire move that Under Armour is doing, showing the world how women have pushed back against social stigmas and limitations to bring their own dreams to fruition. As a strong willed woman myself, I relate emotionally to this campaign, for sure. And, to be honest, seeing Misty made me want to get back into the studio, too!
Still -- something about this campaign bothers me. What concerns me is that this emphasis on the individual triumphing through the singular force of their personal “will” feels like a dangerous message to promote in a world where so many are still living in contexts that range from the inhospitable to the downright violent.
Sure, one can argue that it’s awesome that these women were able to dig deep inside themselves and find the strength to push through adversity and we should celebrate that. But in our moments of celebration, I think we miss the opportunity -- and responsibility -- to ask ourselves why that adversity had to exist in the first place. Why is it that a preteen Misty Copeland should have to dig into the wellspring of her soul to overcome those who would dismiss her ballet acumen simply because of her race? Why should she have to exist in an art form that still reifies narrow notions of what bodies are beautiful and worthy of being visible? And why should we be coerced into thinking that celebrating the individual success of those that beat the odds releases us from even considering the jacked up circumstances in which they had to find themselves to begin with?
Frankly, these kinds of celebrations of individual will make me deeply uncomfortable at the same time that I am watching Misty on my computer screen and getting my entire life from it. I have seen so often how people like to look at folks facing unfortunate circumstances and say to them, “see? If you just had more willpower like so-and-so, you could change your situation!” or “if you would just work harder like so-and-so did, you could achieve this huge unlikely goal.” That irks me because it effectively ignores the structural contexts in which people find themselves. Folks are dealing with real limitations in our society and real barriers to achievement. Often those limitations and barriers show up as insurmountable walls that seek to block both the creative potential and life chances of people of color. But, we're not supposed to think about that. We're just supposed to focus on the fact that no matter what, we can “will” what we want.
As a young Black woman who climbed my way to a Ph.D., I understand the seduction here, the desire to tell the neat, Horatio Alger, “I picked myself up by my bootstraps and as such, I achieved” tone of this kind of moment. The truth is that I am not self-made: the sacrifices of my family and the immense privilege I had to be born in the US with a college-educated parent mitigated in some ways the racial and gendered biases I had to face while navigating my education. Don’t get it twisted: it was still hard to get to where I am today, I faced a lot of adversity at the location of my identity and I worked hard, but I would be lying to you to pretend like I got here simply on the sheer force of my own grit or will. And truly, sometimes, I had to ride on the will of my mother or teachers because I'd spent all of mine just trying to be a Black girl in the world. Where is the room to acknowledge the complexity of this kind of reality, the strange dance of privilege and structural oppression in #IWILLWHATIWANT? Where is the room to consider that even Sista Copeland, for all of her adversity, had a lot more going for her than the “will” to pull herself up by her pointe shoe ribbons? And -- most importantly, when are we going to make sustained room to actively focus on the barriers to access and achievement that people face as opposed to asking them to be, in effect, super human?
I for one am tired of being nursed on empty platitudes or hash tag affirmations. Some folks managed to climb to the mountaintop on their hands and knees. We should be asking ourselves why in the hell they had to do that in the first place.
I know some of ya'll are telling me that’s too much to ask from a global ad campaign. But I hope that while we let Under Armour’s message inspire us that we consider how we can make the world better for the next generation of "little Misty Copelands" and those like her who, while they may have an indomitable spirit, shouldn’t have to in order to succeed.