Whitney is Every Woman?: Cultural Politics and the Pop Star
Camera Obscura-A Journal of Feminism and Film Theory, 09-01-1995
By Marla Shelton
An American pop icon such as Whitney Houston raises questions about the politics
of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the consequences of cross-over marketing in the
music industry. My study attempts to unravel the layers of media representations that
construct a contemporary pop superstar. While my conclusions are specific to Whitney
Houston, one could consider any contemporary African American female pop singer, such as
Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey, in a similar manner. My goal is to gather the various texts
of a popular performer and trace the specific historical conditions that influence her
presentation, consumption, and acceptance. Houston's pop success in the music industry and
her career longevity have produced a broad array of texts created over a decade. These
Houston texts provide historical markers through which to trace an icon's shaping and
evolution in relationship to American social progress. If the struggle for affirmative
action programs, desegregation, and civil rights during the 1960s can be understood in
part as a fight for access to the lucrative marketplace of the commercial mainstream, then
the result is a Black and white cultural integration that can be located in the industries
of music, television, and film.
The historical setting surrounding Whitney Houston's rise in the popular performing arts
coincides with Republican governments under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In a
resume of the 1980s media landscape, cultural critics have noted specific moments of
reactionary rhetoric, racial and class-based strife, a fracturing of identities, and a
feminist backlash. The 1980s remain an intriguing and unusual setting for an African
American woman's spellbinding effect on the popular imagination.
In order to understand how texts perform around the performer, my methodology borrows from
several cultural studies paradigms and blends a sociological approach with formal analysis
of media texts. To consider the commodified publicity materials and discourse surrounding
Houston can be illuminating and problematic. In this essay, I respond to several arguments
espoused by critics Nelson George, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, and Jacquie Jones, by name,
but undoubtedly several other cultural critics influence my position on Houston. The texts
I offer as data provide evidence about Whitney Houston's audience; however, more specific
ethnographic research on the use of these texts would refine classifications of Houston's
large audience. My discussion of cross-over marketing attempts to bridge three media
forms: music, television, and film. I construct a narrative and define a dominant ideology
in popular media texts about Whitney Houston in order to uncover the strategy she employs
to remain unique and popular.
To deconstruct the multi-texts of Whitney Houston we must first describe the history of
the popular American music industry. When Houston was 21 years old in 1985, her first
album, titled Whitney Houston, was released. The album was produced by Clive Davis for
Arista records and it quickly broke sales records by selling approximately 30 million
copies around the world. Currently, it remains one of the top selling records in the
history of American music. The commercial success of this album represents a cross-over of
Black music (R&B/Soul) into the hybrid, yet predominantly white category of Pop music,
through careful marketing and promotion. While Black music has long reached white and
ethnically diverse audiences, the 1980s marks a period when two musical race markets vied
for dominance in the commercial sphere only to meld more and more into the popular
mainstream. While music streams have been defined as Black R&B and white Rock, and
both categories have been dominated by men, during the 1980s racial and gender exclusivity
in each market decreased.
Some pessimistic critics conclude that this convergence signals the demise of R&B and
a loss of cultural capital for the African American community. During the 1970s, when
large corporations bought Mom-and-Pop shops selling Black music produced on independent
labels, few could imagine that by the 1980s, commercially viable Black music production
would be part of white-controlled corporations and exclusively available at Tower Records,
Virgin Megastores, or the like. The displacement of Mom-and-Pop organizations and
independent Black music labels may reflect a power drainage on Black cultural capital;
however, more optimistic critics endorse the restructuring of sales and production in the
music industry. Currently, Black indies reminiscent of the 1970s operate as divisions in
large music organizations and take advantage of better production facilities and broader
distribution networks. Black artists and producers within this corporate structure
maintain a semblance of autonomous control over the creation of their cultural products,
even though dominant ideological pressures persist. The success of Whitney Houston's music
falls within the parameters of this debate.
Houston's artistry captured a large audience and signaled consumers' growing proclivity
for R&B music. According to a 1990 interview, Houston's debut solo album was produced
to be a crossover album that would break out of the small Gospel and R&B niche. She
desired a world- wide audience and career longevity. This strategic decision to produce a
pop music and not an R&B album stirred up controversy for an African American woman in
music because music sales are bound to cultural politics. As Paul Gilroy emphasizes,
"records as cultural artifacts are encoded with meaning ... and are (significant) of
black experience."  The issue of control over the production of Black experiences
like Black music propels the political debate surrounding contemporary Black popular
cultures. When Black albums are produced to appeal to whites, to cross over and join the
mainstream with a conscious, strategic intent, this merging complicates the meaning of the
experience of the music, which includes the influences of several contributors to the
music-making process and the listener's own experience in using it. Moreover, the intent
of crossover marketing materializes in the musical format and style, as well as in the
album cover art and video promotional tools. Gilroy writes "the visual arts will play
a key role in this, [the re-reading of a nation's cultural history by placing race at the
center rather than the margin] not just because of the tremendous vitality of the black
fine art during the last decade, but because architecture, aesthetics and art have
recently emerged as politically significant issues." Whitney Houston's popularity
and representation in magazines, on television, and in films complicate the applicability
of a Black Fine Arts aesthetic to popular visual culture. Furthermore, her icon allows the
issue of gender to enter the forum of Black cultural politics.
Icons of Black popular culture are marketed through the construction of certain aesthetic
characteristics. Stuart Hall points out that within Black popular culture, cover art can
represent style closely aligned with music to add up to Black cultural capital:
"Style--which mainstream cultural critics often believe to be the mere husk, the
wrapping, the sugar coating on the pill--has become itself the subject of what is going
on." We can look to images in Houston's music videos to discern how her style is
signified through her voice. Houston' s renditions are typically imbued with a
soul-searching tone and an inspirational, spiritual elegance. Her emotionally moving
deliveries resound above compositionally flat musical accompaniments. Furthermore, the
image of wholesomeness is constructed through conservative, sophisticated costumes. Both
vocal artistry and dress complement her performance style, which can be characterized as
more sedate than dance-centered vocalists such as Jody Watley, Janet Jackson, and Salt N
Pepa. Consequently, Whitney Houston's performance style provokes skepticism about her race
and her authenticity because she does not resemble typical R&B singers, nor does she
resemble the typical white popular singer. Specific examples of this skepticism can be
found in popular African American media texts, which I will discuss later. These examples
delineate the particular space of accusation that Whitney Houston occupies in tandem with
her popular appeal. Houston's performance style mixes cultural signifiers by creating a
synergy between a Black voice and body and a white musical format and theatricality,
generating contradictions that force the reconsideration of race-based categories.
Furthermore, Houston's vocal style operates to subvert the dominant culture's insistence
upon logocentrism. Stuart Hall posits that through Black music the Black Diaspora
deconstructs the logocentric world founded by the mastery of writing. He writes: "the
people of the black Diaspora have ... found the deep form, the deep structure of their
cultural life in music." Whitney Houston initiates the deconstruction of writing
as she embodies the music she sings. Houston's cultural power lies in her voice and
despite her lack of songwriting credits, her voice becomes her signature of authorship.
Moreover, the promotion of Houston's voice and music in video texts highlights the
conversion of the Black body into Black cultural capital. Hall suggests that we
"think of how these cultures have used the body- -as if it was, and it often was, the
only cultural capital we had. We have worked on ourselves as the canvases of
representation," then Houston's icon expands the perception of a female body as a
"canvas" beyond traditional representation strategies. Houston's physical beauty
can be described as soft, delicate, symmetrical, and compatible with idealized dominant
European features, while remaining in accord with Black aesthetic traits such as skin
tone, accent, and gesture. During the stylish music video age of the 1980s, Houston's
popular status relied on her voice, body, dress, and beauty, which readily appealed to a
larger audience than any R&B predecessor. Access to music video allowed images of
Houston's body to complement her signature voice. Becoming more than a flat canvas,
Houston's icon became embodied through her voice and represented by rapidly expanding
Cross-over marketing always raises particular questions of consumption and audience. The
artwork on an album cover/cd cover promotes the voice on the radio just as the video image
sells the lip-synching singer. Album covers maintain a nostalgic place in Black popular
culture. Gilroy claims "pictures on record covers still enjoy a folk art status [such
that] they are outside the mainstream." Yet, I propose that the appropriate vantage
point may not be outside, for contemporary Black records strive to be or are already
produced as part of the mainstream. This inside track is the result of conscious
cross-over marketing, the conglomeration of the music industry, and post-Civil Rights
integration. As a symbolic mulatto icon where race and class codes are mixed, Whitney
Houston represents the integration of white and Black America during the 1980s. This
mixture coincides with a fantasmatic loss of authenticity, the residual effect of which is
nostalgia. More specifically, Houston personifies an unstable Black middle-class entity
that cannot be completely accepted and celebrated by the majority of African Americans
because during the 1980s this community became even more economically and politically
oppressed. Houston's economic privilege, the result of crossing over and gaining wide
appeal, must be reconciled with a community becoming increasingly impoverished.
As the media constructs her, Whitney Houston was born to be a star singer. Her mother,
Cissy Houston, is a successful singer who sang back up to Aretha Franklin and Elvis
Presley, and a founding member of the group, Sweet Inspirations. Houston's first cousin,
Dionne Warwick, enjoyed a long stint during the early eighties on a music countdown show
titled "Solid Gold." According to interviews, Houston grew up in a musical
environment in a New Jersey middle-class setting. After a solo at her Baptist church at
the age of 12, Houston decided singing was her life's work. Her mother encouraged her to
listen to Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, and Luther Vandross, for whom she later sang
backing vocals. As a popular figure, Houston's success invokes some irony because she sang
back-up to the aforementioned older artists in her teens and then went on to outsell them
by her early twenties. While Whitney Houston can be placed easily in the musical history
of African American female singers that progresses from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella
Fitzgerald, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, and Tina Turner, what distinguishes
her from this impressive group are the multiple visual representations that accompany her
voice and the historical context of her career.
Around the time of Houston's breakthrough, other Black singers competed with her to take
the top spot: Janet Jackson, Anita Baker, and Sade all demonstrated cross-over potential.
By the time Whitney Houston' s second album was released in 1987, Vanessa Williams had
joined the pack of commercial competitors, and Mariah Carey followed soon after 1990.
Moreover, two established singers utilized music video promotion to continue selling
records; Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner rekindled their popularity. Unlike the pop charts
in the mid-eighties that seemed devoid of female vocalists, the R&B charts were
inundated with Black female talent. Music award shows reflected the fierce competition.
Attention to album cover art sheds more light on the politico-racial climate in
the United States. For example, Gilroy points out that Aretha Franklin's 1972 Amazing
Grace cover captures her wearing traditional African garb. In this representation, Africa
symbolizes nature and goodness in opposition to America's artificiality and corruption.
Afrocentrism counters the evil Black America myth. The cover contributes to Franklin's
success in capturing a Black listening audience. In contrast, on the cover of the 1985
Whitney Houston album, we see a young Houston, with her hair slicked back off her fresh
young face, her lips closed, yet pursed. She poses in a white dress that reveals her bare
shoulders and kneels in a pond of water as if she is Nerfertiti. Images of Afrocentricity
in Houston's cover art are an effort to maintain her core audience. Water reinforces the
image of a simple, natural, and youthful "girl" who sings about good love. She
is a gem, a black pearl of talent, in her paradise of music. The verso artwork pictures
Houston in a bathing suit posed on the beach in a shot that rivals a spread in the Sports
Illustrated swim suit issue. From the cd artwork of Houston's album one can note that the
Afrocentricity of the 1970s has been slicked down by pastiche that references visual codes
suggesting Africa, but only to connect them to a sign that relates more closely to America
in the 1980s. Despite all the Black posturing, Whitney Houston had been pegged early on in
her career as a young Lena Horne, that is, a Black singer with white appeal. Unlike
Houston, who seemed to knock down the doors and occupy white stages, Horne's performance
venues were limited due to the political climate surrounding her career.
While Houston and Aretha Franklin may resemble each other in some folkloric ways,
musically they stray apart. There are apparent differences in musical format and vocal
style, as Nelson George notes: Compare Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston. Franklin's
music always relied heavily on the black inner city experience, and especially on the
Black church. When she forgets that, she stumbles. Houston is extremely talented, but most
of her music is so "color blind," such a product of eighties cross-over
marketing, that in her commercial triumph is a hollowness of spirit that mocks her own
Houston's music videos are decisive in making her a blatant cross- over marketing product.
During the early 1980s, music video production garnered televisual popularity in the
promotion of rock music, a predominately white, male-voiced category. In contrast, the
predominantly Black female-voiced category of gospel music lagged in the production of
music videos and this may reflect gospel music's current smaller market share. The videos
for Houston's first album are notable for eschewing "soft porn" and gimmicks
such as blue hair. In the video, "I want to dance with somebody," frequent
costume changes present her as a mannequin, whose well-proportioned physique and dancer's
posture show off designer clothes. When her hair is released from the bun, as it is
pictured on the album's cover flowing in elaborate curls that flatter her well-structured
visage, it becomes evident that motion pictures can accentuate the attractive Houston
features. Under fluorescent lights, her skin captures the exciting colors the camera and
image work to project. She developed a performance style that music video culture of the
1980s highlighted during a time when the display of excess sold to an audience hungry for
electronic gimmicks. Consequently, the visual style of soul and R&B music dissipated
with Houston's adoption of music video promotion. Yet, Houston communicated notes of her
African American cultural heritage through alternative means in the media.
Entertainment magazines and periodicals construct a Whitney Houston persona by relying on
race and class discourses. Initially, Houston stories appeared in African American
journals such as Jet, Ebony, and Essence. In this register of the African American popular
press, class, gender, and intraracial differences nuance each reading audience. In
general, these magazines underscored Houston's upstanding contributions to her African
American community and the music world, and her strong familial ties, illustrating that
the Black audience was a core supportive audience. Gradually, with Houston's musical
success, her icon crossed over to appear in Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Life, Harper's
Bazaar, Glamour, People, Premiere, and Good Housekeeping. Each of these targets specific
reading audiences and follows journalistic formats that range from news coverage, music,
lifestyle, and film, with less conscientious attention to race.
Even while race may separate the reading audiences of these two groups of
periodicals, dominant ideological values, such as middle-class aspirations, respect for
education and religion, and belief in the traditional, heterosexual family configuration
unite them. As the construction of Houston's icon evolved, a narrative of the middle-
class family developed. Jet reported that Houston's parents wanted her to finish private
Catholic high school before embarking on a professional career. And when she started
modeling Houston's mother wanted her to model strictly junior fashions to protect her from
the overtly- sexualized poses of adult advertisements. Whitney's modeling career as a
teenager foreshadowed her later cross-over success; she appeared in Seventeen and Glamour,
two periodicals with a large white readership. Houston's presence in visual media extended
beyond the African American race market as ideological similarities appeared between Black
and white presses, both of which were seeking to reduce the factor of race as a
segregating influence in American social life during the 1980s.
Due to her youth, Houston navigated the media through a trope of the family upheld by
dominant society and targeted to both African Americans and whites. The family is, as
Gilroy points out, "an important cultural trope of the black Diaspora."
However, Gilroy points out the pitfalls when the family is reinscribed in a hegemonic,
patriarchal order that equates Black social and political life with a crisis of Black
masculinity. However, I am positing that Houston's icon challenges Gilroy's oedipal trope
of the family by illustrating how female gender and middle-class status can reconfigure
the family trope.
In fact, as an icon, Houston can be read as a challenge to a patriarchal family trope in
pop culture. Complementing the maternal line of stardom Houston inherited from Cissy
Houston and Dionne Warwick, Houston's father subsequently took credit for her initial
success by handling the business details. An article in Ebony characterizes Houston as
"Daddy's little girl" who "knew better about life" from the close
mother-daughter relationship she sustained as she toured with her musical siblings.
Houston's vocal training followed Gospel and Soul traditions due to her family background,
while the media depicted her as a princess in an entertainment dynasty. In addition to
family as a cultural trope, Houston's icon expressed a respect for God to appeal to an
African American audience. However, Houston' s goody-goody, God-fearing image, which
the Black press strongly publicized, soon fell prey to scrutiny and accusations as the
Houston icon quickly matured.
On her second solo album (1987), simply and more personally titled Whitney, Houston
employed four male producers to execute the tracks, and the album charted seven number one
hits. The cover art captured a standing Whitney with a ponytail of curls, smiling and
wearing a man's undershirt with jeans. The image communicates a more aggressive singer
than the first album cover. Notably, reviews were accepting and pleasantly surprised, as
if the album reassured us that the first release was not a "fluke." The album
debuted at #1 on Billboard's R&B charts, confirming her acceptance among the race
market. Yet with the "little girl" image fading fast, media outlets found it
harder to apply the trope of the family to Houston.
Media texts other than print journalism reveal a growing fragmentation in Houston's
audience. The success of Houston's two albums in the pop charts backfired in the African
American community. For example, on the television comedy show "In Living
Color," she was the butt of criticism and was compared to Janet Jackson. While
her live shows for the second album were void of dance numbers, her energy and spontaneity
captured the audience who could afford the price of admission. Unfortunately, the small,
supportive live show audiences did not coincide with the mass Black audience and Whitney
was transformed into "Whitey Whitney" among the smaller factions of her audience
confounded by the massive cross-over appeal of Houston's music.
However, not all the discourse surrounding Houston during this phase of her career is
negative. Alongside comparisons to Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand in People magazine,
the white press figured Whitney as a racial exception to the musical mainstream.
Furthermore, gossip trade magazines such as The Enquirer reported on her scandalous
lifestyle and her alleged lesbianism, which served to disrupt the dominant heterosexist
ideology of mainstream publications. As rumors of her bisexuality and lesbianism permeated
Houston interviews and magazines, spreads that positioned her as heterosexual began to
appear. Titles of articles such as "Whitney and the men in her life" testified
for Houston's desire to enter the bonds of heterosexual marriage. Romantic connections
linked her with Eddie Murphy and a professional football player. When asked about
matrimony in 1987, Houston responded that she would need ten years before settling down,
but that she was eager to raise a family.
By the early 1990s, the family trope positioned Houston's icon more as a matriarch than as
a daughter. Houston matured during a three year courtship before a 1992 wedding to Bobby
Brown. When they married on her New Jersey estate in a well-publicized ceremony, media
reports continued to accent her race and class position. The guest list included business
and entertainment moguls such as Donald Trump, Robin Leach, and Gloria Estefan, to reflect
the ethnic diversity of an elite social circle, while the Black press described the estate
as the pinnacle of luxury. There were attempts to romanticize the union, but the upper-
class material possessions and the presentation of a fairy tale wedding in the media were
unable to mask the shady past of her partner.
The orchestrated marriage complicated Houston's persona and marked a stage of audience
recuperation in her career. Houston's marriage to a younger man with a smaller career, who
admitted to having children with other women who he never married, and who was raised in a
working- class section of Boston, was an effort to reestablish the trope of the family
with a touch of romance. However, it was not Houston who defended her choice of a husband,
but Bobby Brown who legitimated his spouse by calling her "a real black woman"
who had a touch of "b-girl in her." Houston's marriage to Brown submerged
her in an intraracial discourse, as it complicated the issue of race by highlighting
gender and class differences. In terms of persona, the marriage bolstered Houston's
display of blackness and maturity and reduced Brown's street rogue image. The couple
quickly released a duet and a video about how much they love each other, "Something
in Common." The marriage confirmed Houston's heterosexuality as it shed her little
girl image and lesbian cast and restored a new portrait of her as a Black woman.
Houston's womanhood was legitimated by marriage and her ability to rehabilitate a wayward
Brown into a respectable African American father. Publicity announced Houston's
pregnancies and miscarriages and made public her personal condition as she continued to
perform and film promotional music videos in spite of her changing shape. These images,
along with gossip trade magazines reporting the trials and tribulations of her
"rocky" marriage, functioned to create a discourse of the family that Black
audiences could identify with. As Gilroy states, "images of black family
complement the trope of family that appears in the cultural forms themselves. They are all
around us in the selling of black popular culture." Notably, images of the family
sold the icon of Whitney Houston.
Furthermore, the trope of the family must be read from a political perspective because, as
Alexander Crummel points out in Africa or America, "The family is seen as the key
unity out of which nationality is built [and is] ... the central means of cultural
reproduction."  However, despite attempts to prop Whitney Houston up as an ideal
who upholds middle-class family values, her icon oscillates to reveal the vulnerable state
of the Black woman in contemporary culture.
One critic can argue that race is synonymous with family: "Race, like families, are
organisms and the ordinance of god. Indeed, race is family...." What occurs when
races mix? However, the film, The Bodyguard, released in 1992, illustrates the complex
apprehension associated with interracial relationships. The Bodyguard launched Houston's
film career and placed her in a predominantly white Warner Brothers' production, working
for Lawrence Kasden (producer/screenwriter) under the direction of Mick Jackson, and
acting opposite large box office draw Kevin Costner. Although the film presents itself as
a story about Frank Farmer's (Kevin Costner) role as a bodyguard, a closer look reveals
that the story revolves around the threat posed to Rachel Matron (Whitney Houston) by a
hired assassin. In the process of securing Rachel's safety, Frank and Rachel's personal
worlds collide when they realize danger and deceit surround them. Rachel's livelihood
depends on her ability to dazzle her music and film audience. Moreover, she must prove
that she is responsible for her only son Fletcher. Fletcher's father is inexplicably
absent, and consequently, Frank Farmer operates as a potential father for the boy when he
and Rachel ignite a romance. Rachel's home is grandiose and filled with business
associates and few friends. Her milieu is conspicuously foreign and heterogeneous, as a
British public relations agent, an Italian American bodyguard, and ethnically mixed
dancers occupy her home. Rachel lacks a man to protect her, which prompts her to pay Frank
for his services. Consequently, the film inverts the typical racialized employer-servant
relationship and signals ambivalence and anxiety about interracial relationships. After
Frank and Rachel sleep together and mention loving acts that occur off-screen, denying the
spectator a pleasurable experience, Frank rebels against the relationship. He abandons the
ravaged, dark, and beautiful Rachel in a pile of white sheets. In turn, she publicly shuns
and humiliates him. Quickly, the film pictures separation and conflict more clearly than
images of the couple's union, as it proceeds to question the desirability of an
The narrative is unable to reconcile a taboo love affair, and it uses a frail work ethic
as a lever. Furthermore, it undermines Rachel's role as a mother. When Fletcher mediates
between the two mismatched lovers by talking with Frank and quotes Rachel's foul language,
Frank chastises him. Rachel's influence directly alienates Fletcher from a prospective
father figure. Finally, a desperate Rachel retreats to Farmer's care for safety and
companionship. Consequently, Rachel, as the employer and mistress, tumbles from her
superior position, abandons her artificial and closed world of ethnic companions, and
accepts Frank's conditions.
The film positions women as responsible for destructive acts when Rachel escapes with
Frank to his father's bachelor cabin. A snowy, desolate backdrop and the lack of a
mother's or wife's presence, create a remorseful atmosphere, accented by somber interior
and harsh exterior lighting schemes and a melancholy soundtrack. After we learn that
Farmer's attendance at his mother's funeral has caused him to miss the day of work when
President Reagan was shot, more feelings of regret surface when Rachel's sister, Nickki,
reveals herself as the perpetrator of violence before she dies, unable to stop the hitman
she hired. Attributing Nickki's betrayal to jealousy illustrates the film's deep mistrust
of African American sister-to-sister relationships. While sibling rivalry may function
convincingly to sever brothers in the popular gangster genre films, this violent sibling
rivalry between two sisters is misappropriated in this hybrid genre film: domestic
melodrama-backstage musical-detective thriller.
Rachel, Fletcher, and Frank return to the artificial world of Hollywood to face more
violence as the film focuses on the mental stress of the lead characters. Throughout the
film, Rachel accuses Frank of being a "fanatic" and "crazy" and
reproaches him for driving her to the same brink of insanity. While love is unable to
unite the interracial couple, they can share similar mental flaws. The narrative allows
"craziness" and corruption to cross racial and gender lines. White men are
Rachel's assailants and, by the end, her feelings and her misconceptions rival those of
her stalkers. When Frank and Rachel' s union unravels, the dramatic shoot-out serves to
excuse Frank's previous misdeeds and restore his credibility as a bodyguard, with a
gesture of sacrifice prolonged by slow motion photography. Rachel wears the sign of male
violence on her expensive gown, which soaks in the blood from Frank's wounds. At this
point, horror surrounds Rachel and Frank's relationship.
Rachel is the strong-willed matriarch of a broken family who goes out on the
metaphoric limb, the stage, to reap only material rewards and she suffers evil
consequences for them. All the Black men in her world are ineffectual and function to
gauge the deficiency of Black men in this upper-middle-class world. For example, Farmer's
conversation with the Black chauffeur is the first and only verbal moment where the
narrative enunciates race in a derogatory manner. Farmer describes the chauffeur as a
lazy, cocky man who will be hit, as he delivers a punch-line to a joke that, in light of
contemporary cultural politics, is not very funny. According to the film, a lower-class
Black man is not suitable to save Rachel. Furthermore, Rachel wants a virile man without
gray hair, and she never obtains him in the end. The film suggests that it's better for
her to be alone and to tame her sexual lust for white skin. In the end, Frank and Rachel
separate, the makeshift family disintegrates, and the charade stops with a fleeting kiss.
The film reflects the contradictory position of Black women in contemporary society and
undermines Black feminist notions. Rachel represents a breadwinner and single mother and
simultaneously, the regressive Black woman, when her livelihood and happiness depend on
the emotional support of a white man. The film text expresses an uneasiness with the
racial and economic conditions of Rachel's status by denying her the means to improve her
emotional life without placing her career in jeopardy. The film exposes sisterhood, both
white and Black, as a falsehood, while Black men register as a hopeless non-factor. Rachel
remains a solitary, tragic shadow of success, whereby the film communicates that there is
no emotional salvation for a middle-class Black woman.
Houston's role in the film Waiting to Exhale repeats a role transition similar to the one
set forth in The Bodyguard. In Waiting to Exhale, Houston moves from the superstar and
glamour queen set to become a member of a working, middle-class clique. Waiting to Exhale
received praise for its representation of African American women in a middle- class
milieu. Based on the novel by Terry McMillan, directed by Forrest Whitaker, and
distributed by Fox Pictures, the film is refreshing since it makes African American women
central to a Hollywood film narrative without representing them as drug-starved
prostitutes or corpulent maids. However, in spite of their class-based success and
material rewards, the women bemoan their single status. As if singlehood creates a stupor,
throughout the film these women seem drawn together and confined in the domestic space of
a living room as if by an uncontrollable desire to lament their failed efforts. The film
fails to convey whether a Black man could cure their emotional hangovers, as it strikes an
accord that covers two extremes. The film's conclusion offers Wesley Snipes and Gregory
Hines as antidotes to the loneliness of singlehood even as it advocates single motherhood.
Houston's character floats in the middle of this ideologically disparate scale. Jacqueline
remains single and childless, yet her role in the narrative is central through recurring
voice-over monologues in the film text, in addition to the film's publicity, which
highlights Houston' s prominent place in the ensemble cast. Again, we see how Houston' s
voice becomes the signature mouthpiece for the film's promotion with the theme song,
"Shoop." The music video, also directed by Forrest Whitaker, focuses on a
close-up shot of Houston's face. Shots of Houston sporting a short and mature coif are
cross-cut with scenes from the film. The video concept's originality stops with Houston's
hair style as its stark simplicity underscores the "straight and narrow"
politics of the film.
The Preacher's Wife, a film directed by Penny Marshall, allows Houston to
"return" to the gospel roots typically confined by the pop music mainstream.
Houston's role allows her voice to transform her character into a conveyer of godliness.
Houston's soundtrack and musical performances in the film carry the picture over any ebbs
in action and abstract conflicts, building toward a climatic ending when she rouses the
audience through song. In the film, Houston substitutes as a young Virgin Mary and her
chastity and kindness uphold high moral codes. Houston's central role as the preacher's
wife supports family unity in the midst of crisis, however, the film has difficulty
expressing any intimacy between the three stars and exemplifies Hollywood's inability to
capture Black love. The most physically moving and visceral scenes are when Houston sings.
The filmmakers take great pains to show Houston sweat and gleam from her musical releases,
but any similar signs of emotion for her lovers evaporate when she meets a tempting angel,
played by Denzel Washington, or when she reconciles with her husband. Awkward dialogue and
settings make the struggle to convey sexual tension in this Black love story difficult.
Furthermore, the film creates a Black community where there is only intraracial, class
conflict. The film's nostalgia is apparent when it questions economic "progress"
in the Black community and rests on an idealistic notion that racial unity will solve all
From her film roles to Houston's real-life role as a wife and mother to
interpretations of her
sexuality in gossip magazines, representations accumulate to place the Houston icon in an
accusatory space. While strength and maternalism shine forth in magazine spreads,
vulnerability and weakness characterize Houston's feminine place in Hollywood. Only at the
local level and through community outreach can Houston's icon escape negative accusations.
During the 1980s, Houston donated money to build Houston Estates, a housing development in
Newark, New Jersey and in 1989, she founded the Whitney Houston Children's Foundation. She
has been honored for her committed charity work by media organizations such as VH-1.
During the 1980s, Whitney Houston was honored by George Bush for her community action and
elected to a Board of Governors. The United Negro College Fund honored her for her
financial support of Black colleges, and for her wedding, the couple requested guests
donate to their favorite charities in lieu of gifts. At the local level, Whitney Houston
becomes less commodified and consequently more noble and philanthropic because her
generosity is geographically and demographically specific, unlike the expanse of commodity
In Black popular music, there are three points to consider: the production of Black
music, the diverse Black responses according to class ideology, locality etc., and the
burden on talent to prove its authenticity. As Gilroy writes, Music which was the centre
of black vernacular culture for such a long time, has acquired a new place and a new
significance. It is no longer the hermeneutic key to a whole medley of expressive
practices and is infrequently appreciated for itself or for its capacity to express the
inexpressible and communicate the effects of a history of barbarity that exhausts the
resources of language. They are burdened with the task of conjuring up a utopia of racial
authenticity that is everywhere denied but still sought nonetheless. This new role for
music as a cipher for authenticity has developed hand in hand with a technological
revolution in musical production.
By singing the national anthem at the 1991 Superbowl, and by performing a post-Gulf War
benefit concert for the Red Cross that was released for home video sales, Whitney Houston
gives a Black voice to the American nation. The fact that Houston's singing was
pre-recorded in case she suffered from laryngitis in the first case, and exploited by the
technology and commodification for video sales in the latter, suggests the common bind for
contemporary Black vocalists. Live music communicates authenticity because it is
temporally and spatially aligned with the singer's body; if the music is pre-recorded,
authenticity of performance breaks, and without the necessary spontaneity, authenticity
fades. The theoretical notion that Black oral culture can be at odds with technology
explains the questioning of Houston's popular success by her Black American audience and
critics. Her music can be highly mediated by technology and this tends to detract from the
signifiers of Black cultural authenticity. Gilroy writes that "it is interesting that
music has come to signify authenticity at the very moment when it has evolved into new
styles that are inescapably hybrid and multiplex in character." Some consumers,
such as strict buyers of R&B and Rock, for example, may dismiss Houston's music
because she represents an intolerable hybridity with pop music conventions:
"struggles over the commodification of black music are reflected in a dialectical
conflict between the technology of reproduction and the sub-cultural needs of its primary
consumers in the 'race market.'" From this study, a reader can surmise the
paradoxical nature of contemporary pop music that fulfills the needs of a race market that
been slow to embrace technological mastery. Part of the race market's antagonism to pop
technology is the dominant music industry's history of denying a subcultural group access
to technology. Furthermore, with multiculturalism's simultaneous denial and
pronunciation of difference, the race market disintegrates as it consistently redefines
itself through the artist and the consumer. That technology is the manipulator of
authenticity is apparent when one listener notes how Houston can sound "more
Black" on the single "I'm Every Woman" than on the earlier "I Wanna
Dance With Somebody."  By manipulating technology and the demands of the
marketplace, Houston can sound more "black" when it is necessary for her to
pronounce her blackness.
Houston's career started off as a non-threatening pursuit of the mainstream, where she
celebrated love as a race-effacing force in variations on one joyous love theme--"you
give Good love," "saving all my love for you," "the greatest love of
all"--made for safe, depoliticized easy listening. However, as the tempo in cultural
politics progressed, Houston was obliged to more openly define, embrace, and express her
blackness in order to maintain a large consumer audience. Her November 1994 concert for a
New South Africa, which was produced by her company, Nippy, Inc., captures the awkwardness
of this reclamation of her roots. Several Whitney Houston icon identities from her long,
varied career converge in this concert. We see an emphasis on her body translate into her
stage show. The set design utilizes her two album covers, which frame her face, to
decorate the wings of the stage and she employs dancers who resemble her individual body
aesthetic. The camera frequently frames Houston with the dancers to create a mirroring
effect. The dancing troupe excludes men by coupling young women with pre-pubescent girls,
who I affectionately call Little Whitneys. The loosely curled hair and the brown to yellow
skin tones of all the women create a Whitney-look-alike, ripple-effect, as we see Houston
in triplicate. This mimetic strategy contrasts with that of Madonna, who sets herself
apart as a performer by gender, ethnic, and racial contrast and who performs complex dance
steps with her troupe. By positioning herself at the center and dancing only rarely,
Houston projects a distinctive feminine diva quality. During the concert, she expresses a
nomadic discourse when she lists her experiences in foreign countries "I have been
to" and evokes the metaphor of herself as a reflection of the South African Nation,
which is highly provocative since the nation has been divided by a stringent Black and
white racial dichotomy. Houston presents herself as universal, a body devoid of race,
class, and sexual limitations because she relies on her singing voice to transcend these
Houston's inclusion of children performers in her 1994 concert speaks to her ability to
communicate her love of the young. While her film roles minimize her motherly instinct,
her 1995 and 1996 appearances on Nickelodeon's award ceremonies as hostess illustrate how
Houston' s icon is fabricated by layers of media. Houston captures a broad audience as a
result of this image weave. Currently, Houston attracts a more mature adult audience in
her Hollywood film venues, while her television appearances capture a more youth-oriented
market. Understood as a matrix, the media landscape has been saturated with Houston in
Houston's voice functions as the "true voice" of America in AT&T commercial
campaigns. This campaign is reminiscent of the use of Ella Fitzgerald' s voice to
distinguish between live performance and Memorex tape in the late 1970s. Houston's voice
resonates in a multi-racial nation and her body stands in for a global structure of
communication across various borders. While at the commercial level she seems to be both
accepted by dominant culture and to be upholding hegemonic principles, this article has
argued that her icon is not without problematic cultural implications regarding issues of
race, class, gender, and sexuality. As Gilroy argues, Races are not, then, simple
expressions of either biological or cultural sameness. They are imagined--socially and
politically constructed- -and the contingent process from which they emerge may be tied to
equally uneven patterns of class formation to which they, in turn, contribute. Thus ideas
about race may articulate political and economic relations in a particular society which
go beyond the distinct experiences of interests of racial groups to symbolize wider
identities and conflicts.
Whitney Houston's representation of blackness and Black womanhood in American culture
builds an image web where the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality converge. Her
career remains an important symbol in American culture of the identity rainbow and of that
rainbow' s inherent conflicts.
1. See Watching Race: The Struggle for Blackness in Television by Herman Gray
(Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995) and Susan Faludi' s Backlash (New York: Crown, 1991)
for good discussions of the political climate surrounding the production of images of
African Americans and women in the media during the 1980s.
2. I categorize print advertisements and journalistic articles as publicity texts and
distinguish movie posters and cd/album covers as artistic promotional materials where one
should consider the meanings created from photographic layouts. Furthermore, I consider
changes in the mediation of voice and the beauty aesthetic in music and televisual images
of Houston. My analysis of televisual images considers the industrial practices of music
television programming and the conventions of music video narratives and the growing
reliance on televisual images to market pop music. Moreover, I posit the success of
Hollywood feature films, The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale, as two converging points of
music and television audiences with the contemporary dominant practices of the Hollywood
3. See Nelson George's Death of Rhythm and Blues (New York: Pantheon, 1988) for
complete analysis of the race music market. George dismisses Houston's music as the
selling out of Rhythm and Blues, where I argue Houston's success marks a new stage in the
industry of popular music. George points out that a Black radio station in New York
regularly played songs by white performers: Queen's "Another one bites the dust"
and "Voices inside my head" by The Police. In the 1990s, radio stations that
play only "pop" records continue to blur the race market paradigms.
Consequently, a Phil Collins ballad may play next to a rap song by Snoop Doggy Dog.
4. Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (New York:
Serpent's Tail Press, 1993) 239. 5. Gilroy, Small Acts 79.
6. Stuart Hall, "What Is This Black Popular Culture?" Black Popular Culture, ed.
(Seattle: Bay Press, 1993) 27. 7. Hall 27.
8. See William Juleps Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (Chicago: U of Chicago
P, 1979) for an analysis of how race influenced the economic and political economy of
urban life during the 1970s.
9. Joy Duckett Cain, "The Soul of Whitney Houston," Essence December 1990: 54.
10. The 1986 Grammy Awards had Whitney Houston up against Aretha Franklin for
"Freeway of Love," Chaka Kahn for "I Feel For You," and Teena Marie
for "Lover Girl," Sade, Melba Moore, and Nona Hendryx. Houston was the top AMA
nominee with Alabama, Phil Collins, and Ricky Nelson all receiving 5 nominations. Whitney
won two awards that year. At the AMA, Tina Turner was the only African American performer
not to win strictly in the R&B category by winning for best pop rock vocalist in 1986.
Since 1986, Houston has won at least 12 AMA awards, 2 Grammys, and several other music
11. Gilroy, Small Acts 211. In this discussion a binary is established: Africa vs. America
corresponds to a natural goodness vs. a blackness imbued with fascism and corruption.
12. Nelson xiv. 13. Cain, "The Soul of Whitney Houston."
14. Gilroy, "It's a Family Affair," Black Popular Culture 303.
15. Lynn Norment, "Whitney Houston: Forever Daddy's Girl" Ebony June 1990: 132.
16. "Whitney Houston: For a talented young star, singing is a family tradition,"
December 1985: 155-162.
17. "Whitney Houston tells what God gave her," Jet February 1986: 58-60.
18. The comedy skit "Whitney's Rhythmless Nation" evoked criticism from Houston,
thought "Dancerless Nation" would have been more appropriate.
19. Author notes a publicity sign for Whitney Houston on a University campus that had been
modified by a passerby to read Whit-ey Houston. 20. Jet 20 March 1989: 12.
21. "Whitney says Bobby is 'all the man I need,'" Jet 17 August 1992: 12-18.
22. The television program, "In Living Color" continues to parody Whitney
Houston as a naive woman who takes care of all Bobby's children while he goes out and
cheats on her. It's even funnier when one knows that the show's producer, Keenan Ivory
Wayans, attended the Houston- Brown wedding ceremony. 23. Gilroy, Small Acts 24.
24. Alexander Crummel, Africa or America (Springfield, Mass: Willey and Co., 1891) 46.
25. Crummel 46.
26. See Jacquie Jones, "The Accusatory Space," Black Popular Culture 95-99. 27.
Small Acts 5-6.
28. Gilroy, Small Acts 6. 29. Gilroy, Small Acts 38.
30. Response to the presentation of "Whitney" paper at the Study of Popular
Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, July 1995.
31. Gilroy, Small Acts 20-21.
Shelton, Marla, Whitney is Every Woman?: Cultural Politics and the pop star.