Is 12-Year-Old Willow Smith's New Video Totally Inappropriate Or Are We Reading Sexual Stuff Into It That Just Isn't There?
Hey, remember 2010, when Willow Smith, then 9 years old, released “Whip My Hair,” and we were all like WOW IT IS SO REFRESHING TO SEE A KID MUSICAL ARTIST JUST BEING A KID and not being all hypersexualized in really distressing ways? And the video was really great? PLUS the song itself was awesome, both message-wise and musically?
Then Willow Smith sort of disappeared for a bit, which was fine because, well, she was 9. But now she's back! And thanks to Yesha Callahan over at Clutch, I just stumbled across her latest effort, a song recorded as part of collaborative effort Melodic Chaotic, called “Summer Fling." And some of us, myself included, are having a bit of trouble parsing it -- to be precise, there seems to be some concern that "summer flings" are not an age-appropriate topic for a 12-year-old to be singing about.
I’ll summarize. The song itself is pretty straightforward. 12-year-old Willow sings about the water and the sun and “walk[ing] the beach at midnight” and “holding hands for too long” and even "moonlight kisses" and honestly, it’s all fairly chaste on a lyrical level. The one truly odd part of the song is where Willow talks sort of aimlessly to a non-responsive crush about exchanging numbers, except she does it with an inexplicable effort at an English accent.
Which, you know, I want to laugh at, but truly it is kind of hilarious and adorable and something a 12-year-old kid would totally do because they thought it made them sound more grown-up. What she actually says is, “Hello, um, it’s nice to see you here. I was wondering if I could give you my number? Oh, are you here for the summer? Maybe we can hang out sometime... I’ll give you my number, all right? This’ll be fun. All right. Goodbye.”
(I grinned like a doof writing that out, because it’s the same sort of made-up conversations I had in my head with pretend crushes at that age, practically verbatim.)
The video adds a different dimension to it, though. Mostly a chronicle of a variety of "kids" (some of them heavily tattooed, even!) having fun in a pool and around a bonfire on the beach, it does sort of stand out that many of Willow’s friends seem to be markedly older than she is -- and this visual connection could make some of the lyrics (“It’s just a couple months but we do it anyway/It’s only for the summer but we do it anyway,” also the whole being on the beach at midnight thing, which is probably not likely for many 12-year-old girls) seem less platonic than they otherwise might.
The hyper-sexualization of Black girls and women in media is a well-traveled topic, although it's still an idea that many of the people whom it does not directly impact remain oblivious to. During slavery, the concept of Black women as intrinsically oversexed gave rise to the "Jezebel" stereotype, which affirms that all Black women are promiscuous by nature, and therefore the epidemic rape of Black women slaves was considered socially acceptable, because it wasn't rape at all, and not just because the women were "property" -- it wasn't rape because the stereotype assured everyone that Black women desired sex all the time, with whoever happened to come along.
Although the origins of the white colonialist ideology of Black hypersexualization go back further even than American slavery, this stereotype is not a relic of a distant past, because it still happens, every day. Cultural assumptions about Black sexuality continue to be supported and perpetuated by media, such that when a well-known Black woman defies these expectations (see Janelle Monae), or forcibly remakes them to her own standards (see: Beyoncé, also Rihanna), we are often confounded and amazed. And sometimes even outraged.
So while there’s definitely a precedent for looking seriously at this subject, there’s an awful lot of knee-jerk pearl-clutching going on in YouTube comments and other social media. It seems like a lot of the criticism is deeply invested in making "Summer Fling" seem overtly sexual, when really, there’s not much evidence that this is the case.
I’m not immune to that assumption myself. The first few times I watched the video, I was extremely uncomfortable -- but I, like anyone else, am a product of the same culture that tells us that Black women and girls are sexually precocious, so isn’t it just possible that’s me reading into it with my own messed-up perspective? For that matter, isn’t it possible that I’m seeing this as sexualized because I’ve been trained to look out for anything semi-romantic between young girls and boys of any race as inappropriate and “sexualized”?
I mean yeah, Willow's rando English-accented talking is weird and sure, it’s really distracting when all of her friends seem to be college-aged. Rather than read into the song itself, it might be more pertinent to note that there is an ocean of difference between an individual 12-year-old imagining fancy-grownup-love-times-lady-adulthood in her head -- or even singing about it -- and literally portraying that as a sort of reality amongst actual young adults in a music video.
The imaginary version is normal and somewhat universal; the video, however, could make it seem like 12-year-olds hanging out unchaperoned with 20-year-olds is like totally a thing that happens and is always OK.
Still, the truth is that kids start to concoct “romantic” relationships with their peers virtually from kindergarten. My own experience even a zillion years ago was that 12-year-old girls -- and younger -- have “crushes” and “go out” and even probably have fully chaste three-month relationships that they think of as “summer flings.” (God knows I thought that kid I knew at summer camp in 1987 was TOTALLY MY BOYFRIEND, even though the most intense emotional experience we shared was when we found a dead snake in the woods together and I poked it with a stick while he screamed.)
Although the sexualization of kids is definitely something we all ought to be vigilant about, we should also probably guard against it turning into a sort of paranoia, making us see sexual line-crossing where there is none. This can be just as troubling if it means we’re perceiving truly innocent kid experiences as somehow threateningly sexual, and worse still if we’re transmitting this fear to our kids in the form of guilt and confusion over what is appropriate and normal and what is not.
I haven't decided one way or the other how I feel about this song and video myself, as I can see a lot of different angles on it, but I do think the conversation it's inspired is worth having on a critical level. So what do you think? Is "Summer Fling" innocent fun or is it way off the mark? Let's break it down in comments.