Amanda Gorman: Prophet On A Precipice

Friday, February 5, 2021

Like many, I fell under the intoxicating spell of young poet laureate Amanda Gorman's words, grace, and sheer likeability at the inauguration.  She offered something symbolic – and especially resonant with minority women – that we in America desperately need.  My teenage daughters, one Bulgarian-Roma, the other Chinese, found her enchanting.  Gorman expanded their horizons of possibility, helping them envision themselves in places traditionally populated by symbols of exclusion and other boundary markers.  Flanked by VP Harris, Senator Klobuchar, and others, Gorman signaled that something new is afoot.  Take courage, see further, and imagine a different sort of world.

But will the world really offer new possibilities for my daughters and others like them, or was the inauguration just a shining moment before business as usual? 

Just a week after the inauguration, news stories emerged informing us that Gorman had signed with International Management Group Models.  From what I read, this contract will help her to develop her brand, fashion line, and career, ostensibly spreading her message and influence further than her words might travel propelled by their own force.  According to Wikipedia, IMG Models represents more than half of the highest paid supermodels in the industry, among them, Tyra Banks, Niki Taylor, Giselle Bündchen, and Kate Moss.  Shortly after the modeling announcement, news media heralded Gorman’s agreement to "perform" at the Super Bowl, reading a new, original poem.  

I find myself disappointed with these developments.  Constrained by the demands of lucrative contracts, allegiance to the moguls of fashion, and in tacit support of the domesticated and eroticized depictions of women in the Super Bowl, I fear Gorman’s words will be tamed, softened, de-clawed.  Who will the new Amanda Gorman be to my minority-group daughters as she joins the worlds of success and sensuality?  Will her words still threaten the powerfully reductive images of race and gender hawked by the fashion industry and big sport?  What happens to the words of the poet when they are engulfed by the comforting fashions of popular culture?  Do we listen to the poet like we read a Hallmark card, seeking little more than pithy inspiration? Do we respond to Gorman’s inaugural reading with a mental, “You go girl!” and a fist-bump or high-five?  Can we let ourselves be a little undone by prophetic words that demand better of us?  Might we tear our clothes, gnash our teeth, repent, and fall on our faces?  Or, will we order a pizza, drink beer, watch the Super Bowl, and drown out words that condemn the old ways with the frenzied dazzle of spectacle?

Can Amanda Gorman fight “business as usual” while representing those most vested in preserving the status quo?  

Undoubtedly, there are things I don't know, but signing with a "top" modeling agency compromises some of Gorman’s symbolic value for me.  IMG has profited greatly from the toil of women in developing countries who provide the unnoticed slave labor of global supply chain capitalism in the textile and cosmetics industries.  Additionally, organizations like IMG are so very good at reinforcing hegemonic femininity and driving our passive acceptance of eroticized and undernourished images of women and girls as normal and even good.  IMG is the agency that signed Kate Moss, the supermodel (what a term!) who is known for saying, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."  If you have the courage to watch the film "Killing Us Softly," you will get a sense of the depth of this hegemonic stranglehold on women (and, of course, men).  As for the Super Bowl, have a look at last year's erotic half-time performance, and know that the Super Bowl is watched by every 10 year old boy and girl in the US and Canada, among other countries.  The Super Bowl is so popular, in large measure, because it reinforces hegemonic masculinity and femininity -- powerful, violent men and the eroticized women who cheer them on.  Despite the well-documented racism and sexism permeating big sport, many of our churches routinely advertise the Super Bowl as a public good for youth. 

Those who might counternarrate the dominant culture – people like Amanda Gorman – are usually silenced by the powerful forces of those who want to keep things just as they are.  Gorman's Wikipedia page states, "Amanda S. C. Gorman is an American poet and activist. Her work focuses on issues of oppression, feminism, race, and marginalization, as well as the African diaspora."  I do hope she can resist wealth, powerful modeling companies that have invested so much in unidimensional depictions of women and girls, and the Super Bowl which is second to none in reinforcing women as sexual and domestic, men as violent, and the social divides of race and class as acceptable and insignificant.

Prophetic voices rarely have impact when they sit in the box seats with the oppressors.  

I hope Amanda Gorman is different.  My daughters don't need to see someone cozy up to the modeling world, the fashion industry, and the Super Bowl.  They get enough of that every other second of their lives. They need something new.  They need her words, and they need them to bite back at the powerful ones who have been quite content to profit from their lesser status in this world.

Maybe Gorman will speak powerfully against IMG and the Super Bowl.  It would be a bad career move, but such is the lot of the prophet. 

My daughters will be listening.  

Matthew S. Vos

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