Marwa Hamad wrote a wonderful post for Racialicious about Zayn Malik, the Muslim member of current British boy-band phenomenon One Direction.
Even though Marwa is an adult woman, she can still appreciate the value of having a teen idol who looks somewhat like her, who shares the same culture as her, who represents her experience in some small way. It’s disappointing but sadly not shocking that, in 2012, such representation is still rare, and still controversial.
The occasion for Marwa’s post is the fact that Zayn deleted his Twitter account in August owing to the number of racist tweets he received. As Marwa says, one “extreme right-wing columnist said Zayn was pimping Islam on people’s children through his ‘boy band Jihad’ and that the only direction he was facing was Mecca.” (Oh, you racists and your love of wordplay!)
Now, claiming that the teen idol world is a white-boy’s game is naive and willfully blind. Girls have been screaming for boys of color since the days of Frankie Lymon, and probably for many years before that. However, until the Jacksons in the 1970s, black artists were promoted to black girls, and white artists to white girls, and no one would have ever considered cross-polinating the teen idol hives.
One notable exception is highlighted in the invaluable book Who’s Your Fave Rave? , a history of 16 Magazine. (I can’t overemphasize the importance of this book for anyone who’s interested in the phenomenon of crushing and the history of the teen idol.) From 1967-1969, a young Hindu actor named Sajid Khan appeared in 16‘s pages.
Even though Sajid became a permanent Los Angeles resident after beginning his career in India, 16 still highlighted his exoticism as a desirable trait. As Who’s Your Fave Rave? puts it, “The magazine played the foreign card to the max: even the typeface used in article titles was quasi-exotic-looking…There were photos of him ‘praying,’ or meditating…And instead of the typical ‘Be My Girl’ entreaty, Sajid’s pleas were invariably, ‘Be My Princess.’”
Teen idols have always been seen as dangerous. They’ve always threatened that most valuable of possessions, the virgin innocence of our impressionable daughters.
However, as Marwa points out, teen idols of color have an added layer of danger imposed on their images, both from the general public and from those behind the scenes of the teen-idol machine. Marwa writes, “I started to wonder why it had to be Zayn that was labeled the mysterious, and even worse, bad one. Why couldn’t any of the other quiet boys be mysterious?” Her conclusion: “This marketing scheme was never an accident. Somewhere within the hierarchy of people who work to shape boy-band images and mold them into compartmentalized products for easy consumption, it was decided that Zayn, the half-Pakistani Muslim, would play the distinct role of the slightly foreign one.” And foreign = threatening.
The existence of teen idols of various colors, religions, and cultures is undoubtedly a net positive. Young minority girls get to see their experiences reflected in the spotlight of pop culture, while young white girls are exposed to other cultures and are taught that those cultures have value and are desirable. However, this positive is undercut every time the powers that be use race or religion as a marketing tool. Thirty-five-years after Sijid Khan, little seems to have changed.