[Image credit: pmeidinger]
By now, anyone who doesn’t live under a rock is aware of the Giuliana-Zendaya controversy. For those who are not aware, E! News host Giuliana Rancic made this comment about singer Zendaya’s red carpet dreadlocks:
“She has just such a tiny frame that this hair, to me, overwhelms her. I feel like she smells like patchouli oil. Or weed! Yeah, maybe weed?”
Zendaya responded to Rancic’s takedown with grace and tact, but summed up her comments as “offensive.”
I empathize with the beautiful songstress. As a teenager, I was no stranger to being mocked for the color of my skin; high schoolers would tell me I smelled like curry. But we have to keep in mind the context of the show on which Giuliana made the comment, which many do not seem to be accounting for. The show is “Fashion Police:” a hilarious, lighthearted, sometimes brutally honest program whose sole purpose is to judge celebrities for their outward appearances.
I can’t speak for Giuliana, but I can say that she’s most probably not inherently malicious, and was just trying to channel the wit of the late Joan Rivers – a woman she idolized. Critics and fans alike put an immense pressure on the hosts of “Fashion Police” to ensure the show lives up to what it was before Ms. Rivers’ untimely death, and the hosts surely must have felt the heat. We all know Ms. Rivers wasn’t afraid to take chances with her words; how about the time she said:
“I said Justin Bieber looked like a little lesbian — and I stand by it: He’s the daughter Cher wishes she’d had.”
This comment could have no doubt been offensive to lesbians, as well as to Justin Bieber. From one perspective, the comment challenges the complexities of sexual identity and is inappropriate – just as Giuliana’s comments have been labeled in regard to race. But we did not threaten to get Ms. Rivers suspended from the show for saying this, because we admired the way she could humor us in unique ways. Shouldn’t we be granting Giuliana the same free pass?
Giuliana did not make her comment in a stiff setting such as the Oscars, nor did she tweet it, which would imply she menacingly scripted it beforehand. She got caught up in a moment of bashing and roasting on a show whose messages are intended to be taken with a grain of salt. We can all throw tomatoes at her for not being as smooth as Ms. Rivers was, but the way I see it, it’s no less than impressive that Giuliana would rather take risks in the name of the show’s legacy than sit back and stay mum.
Anyone who’s ever been made fun of for what he or she looks like can get mad at Giuliana for saying what she said. But the truth is, she’s not here to be a bully. She’s here to do a job, and try to do it well. The Giuliana-Zendaya feud is fascinating because it brings to light more than just race relations; it raises questions about the foundations of free speech in the press:
What should journalists be allowed to say? When are they crossing the line into grey territory? How mad should we get, if at all, when a seasoned host with credentials has an occasional slip-up? The fact of the matter is that every now and then, those in the public eye – comedians, and hosts, and rappers, and presidents alike – will make inconsiderate flubs. Kanye West, Louis C.K. and George W. Bush all lived down their worst. We should allow Giuliana to breathe, too.
Giuliana took the high road and publicly apologized to Zendaya. Maybe Giuliana’s comments were not rooted in racial insensitivity, but instead rooted in loyalty to the late Joan Rivers and her comedic brilliance. We can’t know for sure. Still, I do know one thing is for sure: the world of journalism, as we know it, is anything but black and white.