Our Gilded Progress: ‘Great Gowns,’ Pop Culture and Reproductive Freedoms


On the Met Gala, the intense wealth on show referred to as on the “gilded” hubris of an historic period that appeared extra “golden” than it was—whereas the leaked Supreme Court docket opinion previewed a dystopian, despairing future.

There’s a succinct meme that includes the late soul-singing legend Aretha Franklin throwing her most elegant diva “shade” at a pop star when she responded to a query about that artist’s expertise by merely stating: “Great gowns, beautiful gowns.”

That kind of signifying has turn into a handy shorthand for refraining from any adverse criticism of somebody or one thing by providing a backhanded praise. In current popular culture, I’ve been counting on the Franklin quote that so aptly describes my admiration for the sartorial selections of sure tv reveals (Netflix’s Bridgerton and HBO’s The Gilded Age), whereas shielding my disdain for his or her storytelling selections, which frequently depend on revisionist multiracial utopias that by no means existed or softened depictions of racism and sexism to make room for the cosplay “dress-up” our up to date fantasies prefer to create in regards to the legendary previous. By no means thoughts the bone-crushing corsets or the appropriative echoes of the “Hottentot Venus” within the Gilded-Age bustle. No less than we’ve “nice robes, stunning robes”!

Realizing what we all know of the “Gilded Age”—the period of the late nineteenth century, so named by American creator Mark Twain due to the speedy industrial and financial development of the U.S. that led to an growing wealth hole mirrored within the garish shows of the rich, extra gilded than gold—maybe it was solely becoming that this 12 months’s Met Gala, sponsored and hosted by Vogue’s iconic editor Anna Wintour to profit the Costume Institute on the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, would characteristic a “Gilded Age” theme for the “nice robes, stunning robes,” worn by invited A-list celebrities within the midst of an ongoing pandemic, racial divides, rising inflation prices, and the widening hole between the highest 1 p.c and everybody else. 

Nevertheless, it was throughout this occasion on Might 2, 2022, {that a} leaked draft of the bulk opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court docket circulated on social media and instantly despatched shockwaves as the general public discovered that our highest court docket intends to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973), which ensures girls and all folks with the capability to turn into pregnant the precise to a authorized and protected abortion. Immediately, the intense wealth on show on the Met Gala appeared to characterize all of the “gilded” hubris of an historic period that appeared extra “golden” than it actually was, as we at the moment are thrust again not simply into our present-day actuality however to a very dystopian and despairing future that we should confront and resist in any respect prices. 

What few of us notice, nonetheless, is that the “Gilded Age” theme of the Met Gala is kind of apropos, given how this is similar period that ushered in our first anti-abortion laws. This is likely one of the points that I take with our misrepresentations of the previous, in popular culture and elsewhere. If we’re not trying again fondly on a faux previous with romanticized emotions of nostalgia, we as an alternative assume that our historic timeline is an never-ending linear development, when the reality is our timelines are extra like spirals as we “ebb and move” in our experiences of developments and setbacks—one step ahead, two steps backward, and so forth.

The “Gilded Age” theme of the Met Gala is kind of apropos, given how this is similar period that ushered in our first anti-abortion legal guidelines.

Simply as we can not assume a “linear development” of historical past—which supposes that every one we’ve to do is look ahead to our white supremacists and misogynists to finally die—so too should we additionally acknowledge that none of our legal guidelines, customs and cultural narratives are set in stone. Previous to the Gilded Age, girls throughout races and socioeconomic backgrounds practiced varied types of contraception and shared inside their “whisper networks” and at kitchen tables varied cures and abortifacients (some labored, some didn’t). Midwives—Indigenous, Black and white alike—did the necessary work of prenatal, postpartum and maternal care till the event of gynecology and obstetrics.

These biomedical spheres had been actually constructed on the experimented-upon our bodies of enslaved girls like Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy by way of the surgical procedures of J. Marion Sims. Furthermore, physicians like Horatio Storer discredited midwifery, barred girls from the career, and pushed for the criminalization of abortion—all with the intent to manage girls’s our bodies.

How eerie that historical past would repeat itself, not simply in as we speak’s assaults on reproductive freedoms but in addition with the assaults on Black developments and immigration, because the Gilded Age additionally included Post-Reconstruction racial violence and authorized setbacks in opposition to African American rights, in addition to immigration bans, such because the 1875 Page Act, which banned Chinese language girls from the USA (beneath the guise of prohibiting “prostitution”)—a precursor to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

Sure, the fashions of the Gilded Age are fabulous, and our most progressive and radical change brokers from the period—from the nice liberator Harriet Tubman to militant journalist Ida B. Wells to Black membership girls like Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams and Mary Church Terrell—all liked to decorate up with one of the best of the respectable, well-to-do lessons of ladies. However we can not scale back girls to outward appearances when “our our bodies, our selections” require our pressing consideration to our holistic well being and well-being, each personally and collectively.

We can not scale back girls to outward appearances when “our our bodies, our selections” require our pressing consideration to our holistic well being and well-being, each personally and collectively.

The misguided fixation on “stunning robes” was maybe greatest represented on the gala by Kim Kardashian’s controversial and harmful weight loss of 16 kilos in three weeks, simply to suit into the long-lasting robe custom-made for and worn by Marilyn Monroe when she had famously serenaded President John F. Kennedy. Regardless of her weight reduction, Kardashian nonetheless needed to cowl the again of her robe because it didn’t match over her alleged surgically-enhanced bottom. 

How ironic that, after years of appropriating the our bodies and sartorial selections of Black girls, this identical “huge booty” aesthetic couldn’t match the retrospective “blonde bombshell” preferrred from a bygone period. Curiously, Kardashian’s style fake pas highlights the altering cultural and aesthetic panorama that represents as we speak’s multiracial America, and given Monroe’s tragic life and untimely demise compared to Kardashian’s reproductive freedoms in having youngsters inside an interracial marriage—each biologically and thru surrogacy—we should acknowledge the progress girls have made prior to now 50 years (some extra privileged than others) and what now hangs within the stability. 

Two different situations on the gala deserve our consideration. The primary is the digital rendering of the Vogue cover of pregnant pop star and style icon and entrepreneur Rihanna in “marble,” displayed alongside classical sculptures from antiquity. It’s a “gilded” approximation of historical past within the making and a projected optimism for the long run. Allow us to hope this celebration of a younger Black billionaire restyling maternity style and selecting to turn into a mom on her personal phrases doesn’t get frozen in time as a tribute to solely these with assets who can train their reproductive freedoms whereas the overwhelming majority of Black pregnant girls and folks giving delivery are trapped by Draconian legal guidelines that put their and their infants’ health in jeopardy.

The second and extra highly effective picture from the gala must be that of filmmaker Radha Blank of Netflix’s The 40-12 months Model fame who donned a Jennifer McFarlene robe whereas carrying a fake machete within the model of “an Obeah girl who by day used her fingers to stitch, cook dinner, wash White folks garments & are likely to their chirren and by night time used her fingers to conjure spells for our survival utilizing ancestral African non secular practices not meant to outlive the center passage.”

That Clean must use her creativeness to create the model of “unseen Black girls who’ve sewn the material of this nation” is the type of Black feminist resistance we should now make use of to acknowledge our previous, confront our current realities, and push towards a future that was by no means set in stone—certainly, one we will digitally alter Rihanna-in-marble model. 

Our histories and futures should be formed by our present-day actions as we proceed to attempt towards liberatory visions. Let our progress be actual and never trapped by a “gilded” dream of a previous that by no means was. We’re extra than simply “nice robes, stunning robes.” 

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether or not you your self have had an abortion, or just stand in solidarity with those that have—to let the Supreme Court docket, Congress and the White Home know: We won’t surrender the precise to protected, authorized, accessible abortion.

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