Blackfishing is a word that though more or less unknown little more than five years ago, has now become part of everyday speech. While certain blustering gammons still pretend not to understand – that by applying a black aesthetic to a white body it’s reframed in a way that is more palatable to other white people – most of us know what it is, and more importantly that it’s A Bad Thing To Do. Co-inciding with this growing awareness is the slow decline of blackfishing as a rebranding technique. Once a tried-and-true strategy for those looking to gain clout, typically ex-child stars and the entire Kardashian family, blackfishing is now a very risky business. Case in point ? Jesy Nelson. The ex-X-Factor star was at the centre of the latest explosion of the debate around cultural appropriation, and is likely the first major celebrity (ok, that might be pushing it) for whom the consequences of blackfishing have not only backfired but actively tanked the attempted rebrand. Not only did it do nothing to propel her away from her past as a member of a bubblegum-turned-girlboss group, but it turned people against her so violently that they felt comfortable going after someone whose other major claim to fame is the damage done to her mental health because of online abuse.
The most interesting thing about this whole controversy is how the accusation of blackfishing has become one which is so heavily morally weighted that it seems to halo the person criticising the blackfisher – they’ve done something bad, so they become an open goal for criticism. Despite having been the focus of a 2019 BBC documentary highlighting the damage trolling had done to her mental health, driving Nelson to attempt suicide, ‘Boyz’ – the branding, the Tiktoks, the performances – has been the ship that launched a thousand memes. You can see the impact of being accused of blackfishing in the difference between the responses to two clips –the Tiktoks that started it all, and videos of her Jingle Bell Ball performance.
Let’s be honest here – the Tiktoks that were released to hype up the new single, were blackfishing by the book. Grills, du-rags, basketball shorts, big curly wigs and a tan so deep that Jesy, who’s white British, appears darker than her mixed-race ex-bandmate Leanne Pinnock. Add in the cohort of black/mixed-race male back-up dancers (which, when the song is all about liking ‘bad bad boys’ plays into some very nasty stereotypes), and there is no defence. It was a wince-makingly tone-deaf rebrand. Part of the issue is that her team seems stylistically to have thrown the book at her – if they had toned it (and her tan) down a little, it might have been easier to overlook. But by theming her comeback so heavily around an aesthetic that is so blatantly lifted from the black community (or basically a white person’s stereotyped idea of it), it’s hard to understand how they didn’t see the screaming backlash on the horizon. Most of the criticism, however, was measured and valid – pointing out the appropriation and breaking down why it was bad for those struggling to keep up at the back. The next round, however, was in response to the Jingle Bell Ball performance. Even though Nelson was way closer to her natural skin tone, and wore an inoffensive costume, she got absolutely shredded online – for the performance itself. Now, of course you should be able to say what you like about celebrities online but bearing in mind her own history with online criticism it was quite surprising to see the speed at which the Jesy Nelson hate train was fully boarded.
It seems of the consequences of blackfishing is carte blanche to be criticized for absolutely anything else, which is handy to bear in mind when you think about the gradual shift away from the blackfish aesthetic over the last few years. Even those who’ve blackfished so hard it was basically their entire brand are stepping away – think about the Kardashians, whose empire was built on the appropriation of the body-type and lip-shape of black women, have allegedly had BBL reductions (although at the last count they had 5 kids by black men between them, which will be a heck of a lot harder to whitewash). There are a lot of theories as to why this is – first of all that, naturally, as a trend blackfishing was always going to have an expiration date, which is one of the major problems with the practice in the first place – that the non-black people who’ve hopped on the bandwagon for clout can just as easily hop off again, treating it as a phase rather than a real, solid aesthetic. More positively, you could say with more (though still nowhere near enough) proudly black artists at the top of their fields than even 10 years ago people have become more used to seeing the black aesthetic on black bodies, something that the decline of centralised whitewashed media has no doubt contributed to. Cynically, I’d also say that the biggest factor (though they’re all at play) is simply the increased accountability. And not only accountability, but the vulnerability it brings. Though blackfishing was obviously never ok, it’s now a truth universally acknowleged – and that means that it isok to jump on anyone caught doing it, and we all know that internet loves a dog-pile, especially one where you can then permanently justify your criticism as being from the moral high ground.