‘Diva Behavior’ Doesn’t Mean What It Used To

Before she decided to sue Lizzo for sexual harassment, assault, and a number of other offenses earlier this year, the backup dancer Arianna Davis wondered if she was blowing her concerns with her work environment out of proportion. Touring with the widely beloved rapper and singer, she had witnessed some bizarre things: The lawsuit she filed with two other dancers includes the words “bananas protruding from the performers’ vaginas.” (More on that in a bit; Lizzo has denied all the allegations.) But something about her experience seemed familiar, like it fit a script. Davis told CNN, “I just chalked it up to, you know, Oh, Lizzo might be a diva.

Davis was voicing a common idea: Some kinds of artists can’t help but make the people around them feel a bit like trash. The term diva has long been tinged with misogyny and awe, and rather than grow obsolete with the progress of pop-culture feminism over the years, it has only become more relevant. Today I have a book out called On Divas, focused on soloists—mostly women—who voice their desires in ways that cause spectacle and controversy. I didn’t set out to write so frequently about these sorts of performers. But it kept happening, probably because divas are the most important entertainers of our time—though, as Lizzos’s scandal shows, the demands of divadom are in flux.

On Divas: Persona, Pleasure, Power

By Spencer Kornhaber

This year, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have embarked on tours so popular that they may have had an inflationary economic impact, while an unprecedented number of female rappers have settled into success. These women are part of a tradition of ambition and excellence—Beyoncé once sang that a “diva is a female version of a hustler”—but they also represent a new type. Historically, many divas have carried an air of tragic drama as they’ve struggled against male abuse, captivity, or objectification; think Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Britney Spears. The patriarchy has hardly disappeared, but today’s divas have successfully foregrounded triumphant narratives of independence and leadership. Just as the #MeToo movement called a whole pantheon of male bosses into question—exposing the abuses of rock stars and CEOs alike—pop’s women were achieving rare levels of clout as artists, businesswomen, and political figures. With new achievements came new expectations.

The notion of “diva behavior”—so often code that dismisses feminine aggression as irrational—has subtly shifted. Female pop stars are still expected to cause trouble, flouting norms and making demands, but preferably in a purposeful, warriorlike way, such as when Swift sicced her fanbase on the music mogul Scooter Braun. Drawing from hip-hop and queer lingo, fans simultaneously anoint their faves as bad bitch and mother (even if the diva doesn’t have kids). The message: We want women who go their own way, but bring everyone along; we want tough, confrontational nurturers.

Lizzo, who built a niche following in the 2010s before hitting the mainstream in 2019, seemed to perfect that archetype. Her hits helped further popularize bad bitch, a term that flips an insult into a point of pride; in a world that invents nasty labels for women who speak their minds, to be bad is good. In Lizzo’s case, she treated the attributes that people might try to diss her for—weight, gender, skin color, loudness, sexual openness, an interest in the flute—as badges of honor. But Lizzo’s defiance was not just her own; she offered it as an inspiring example, layered with significance. Singing of body acceptance and selling an inclusive line of shapewear, she navigated the paradox of modern divadom: being worshipped as singular, but remaking the world so that people could dream of following in her trail. That was, in fact, the supposed point of the 2022 TV show Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, a reality competition in which the singer auditioned women as backup dancers. “Girls that look like me don’t get representation,” she said in a trailer. “Time to pull up my sleeves and find them myself.”

Representation is, on one level, a symbolic idea, reflecting the kinds of heroes a culture chooses to foster. But, on another level, the term is not abstract at all: It calls for the actual employment of real people. Two of the dancers now suing her were on that show. If their allegations turn out to be true, they’ll be a reminder that divas can be just another kind of boss, more invested in exercising power over people than freeing them.

So back to the bananas, mentioned in a lawsuit filed on August 1 by three of Lizzo’s former dancers: Davis, Crystal Williams, and Noelle Rodriguez. They allege that, while on tour in Amsterdam, Lizzo invited her dancers to a club. She urged her “cast members to take turns touching the nude performers, catching dildos launched from the performers’ vaginas, and eating bananas protruding from the performers’ vaginas,” and particularly pressured one of the claimants, Davis, to do so against her will.

For some people—including, perhaps, many listeners of Lizzo’s music—partying with a pop star in the Red Light district may sound like a fun story. But this is one of a few allegations that portray the tour environment as having no boundaries and being ruled by whim. Lizzo’s dance captain, Shirlene Quigley, who’s also being sued, allegedly badgered her employees with a baffling combination of sexual comments and Christian proselytizing (Quigley called the accusations “false”). Allegedly, Lizzo and the choreographer, Tanisha Scott, gave feedback that Davis says she took to be critical of her weight and mental health. And one of the lawsuit’s claims is of physical intimidation: When Rodriguez said she was going to quit over a decision the star had made, Lizzo allegedly approached her, cracked her knuckles, balled her fists, and said “You’re lucky. You’re so fucking lucky!” and “Bye, bitch!” The dancer, according to the complaint, felt the star would’ve attacked her if others hadn’t intervened.

Lizzo’s response to the suit is tellingly defiant. In addition to denying the accusations in court, on Instagram, she dismissed the “false allegations” while touting her own “hard work and high standards,” saying, “Sometimes I have to make hard decisions but it’s never my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable.” She added, “I am very open with my sexuality and expressing myself but I cannot accept or allow people to use that openness to make me out to be something I am not.” The statement was as much a denial as an assertion. As in all things, Lizzo would not apologize for being herself, even if it upsets some people.

If Lizzo did cultivate a sexually charged cult of personality on tour, she wouldn’t be the first singer to do so. Look to Madonna: Truth or Dare, Madonna’s legendary 1991 documentary that, like a lot of Madonna’s works, solidified and transmitted an idea of pop success that still influences today’s stars. The movie largely focuses on the relationship between the queen of pop and the dancers on tour with her. And that relationship was intimate—and, viewed today, a bit questionable.

Truth or Dare is most famous for a scene in which Madonna deep-throats a glass bottle while hanging out with her crew. In that same scene, she asks a dancer for graphic details about his sex life and makes him flash her. Elsewhere in the documentary, she commands her employees to get into bed with her, and kisses and cuddles them. All in all, working for Madonna seems to resemble attending a slumber party hosted by a charming narcissist who conflates sexual intimacy with control—which is, as it turns out, exactly the persona projected in her songs.

Indeed, the movie presents her coy domination of her dancers as intrinsic to what makes her successful. Being rude, not nice, is Madonna’s brand: At one point, she playfully asks an assistant, “You think you can work for a bitch?” But she is also shown as a font of tough, society-improving love. Likely picking up on the ballroom slang of the many queer people of color she employed, Madonna refers to herself as a mother to her dancers. Her parental duties extended to her music and performances, where she spoke out for sexual freedom and gay rights.

More than three decades later, few could argue that work hasn’t helped break all sorts of social barriers. But working for a liberator clearly wasn’t always fun. A number of dancers sued Madonna after Truth or Dare’s release, alleging invasion of privacy and emotional distress (the suit was settled out of court). In the movie, she throws around homophobic slurs, and in one scene, the sole straight dancer in her contingent seems hurt by her condescending attitude. “Every goddamn day, you throw this little fag stuff on me,” he says. Madonna remarks, “Oh God, I love having children to watch over.”

Bad-boss behavior never got Madonna canceled; rather, it became part of her enduring legend. Tales of high-handed and harsh conduct are endemic to celebrity culture, especially in the cases of canonical divas such Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand. Many a star has weathered bullying allegations from employees without much notice outside Page Six. (Surely some misbehaving men are spared even that.) But for a few reasons, the recent allegations against Lizzo now seem like an existential threat to her, throwing her entire value proposition into jeopardy.

Other accusers have come forward since the dancers’ lawsuit. The documentarian Sophia Nahli Allison publicly stated that she’d found the singer to be “arrogant, self-centered, and unkind.” In September, a former employee in Lizzo’s wardrobe department also filed a suit alleging an “unsafe, sexually charged workplace culture.” (Lizzo’s representative labeled those claims an “absurd publicity stunt.”) Though some industry figures have signaled ongoing loyalty toward Lizzo—she just won a humanitarian award—many fans are heartbroken. The feminist website Pajiba offered a “heavy, disappointed sigh” when breaking news of the dancers’ allegations to its readers.

The disappointment is rooted in two issues. One is the appearance of hypocrisy: the notion that a public champion of inclusivity would foster a climate of body-shaming and racism (on the latter point, the dancers’ lawsuit alleges that Lizzo’s managers took extra scrutiny toward Black employees). The body-shaming allegation indeed does have an explosive ring to it—but as Tirhakah Love at Vulture points out, the details are a bit vague. The lawsuit only describes Lizzo and her choreographer asking Davis why she had become “less bubbly and vivacious,” which the dancer interpreted as referring to her weight gain. Determining the intent of such comments from afar is impossible.

What’s more important, as Love writes, is that Lizzo now seems like a “mean girl.” We are, it has been said, amid a #MeanToo reckoning, in which a number of prominent employers have been put on blast for bullying the people who work for them. The consequences have not been even: Ellen DeGeneres’s reputation cratered following workplace-related allegations in 2020, but public reaction has been muted to a recent Rolling Stone report about Jimmy Fallon’s on-set outbursts (both hosts apologized to their crew without commenting directly on particular allegations). But a few post-#MeToo cultural tides really are converging of late: a reinvigorated movement for workers’ rights, a broader awareness of how power hierarchies can go wrong.

Lizzo and many other divas of our moment have in some ways surfed those tides. Their success is expected to replace old and toxic paradigms of stardom—the pop princess controlled by Svengalis, or the self-indulgent rock god and his groupies—with fierce, competent egalitarianism. This isn’t really a fair expectation, but it’s also kind of a beautiful one. If what’s alleged against her is true, Lizzo would be wise to reevaluate her management style. But either way, she and her peers face a deeper challenge: making the fantasy they represent real.

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