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‘Shade’ Has Lost All Meaning

If white celebrities aren’t engaging with the origins of shade, they’re just being mean online

Whenever a celebrity publicly critiques or shows distaste for another famous person, news outlets tend to label the insult or commentary — incorrectly — as “shade.”

Earlier this week, singer Lana Del Rey was slammed after she posted a statement to Instagram seemingly throwing a group of mostly black female singers under the bus for why her albums have been “crucified” by the media and music charts. Quickly, Del Rey’s call-out was labeled “shade.”

Last week, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi took a jab at President Donald Trump, expressing concern that taking the drug hydroxychloroquine might hurt the president due to his “age group and his, shall we say, weight group — morbidly obese, they say.” Earlier this year, Pelosi ripped up Trump’s State of the Union speech and snubbed his handshake. This all occurred nearly a year after CNN, in a headline, labeled her a “master of shade.”

When cookbook author Alison Roman called out Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo for capitalizing on their own public profiles to sell merchandise, Roman faced backlash for swiping at two Asian lifestyle entrepreneurs — especially considering Roman is working on a line of bespoke culinary tools herself. “Alison Roman Shades Chrissy Teigen,” Us Weekly wrote.

But Del Rey didn’t shade Beyoncé and Cardi B; she called them out directly. Pelosi’s fat joke wasn’t shady — it was a direct attack. Roman’s comments didn’t fit the bill either. None of this is shade.

So what is shade? Shade is the art of the insult. Black women coined and defined the term, as Curry College professor Seth E. Davis notes in his dissertation Shade: Literacy Narratives at Black Gay Pride

Famed ’90s trans drag queen Dorian Corey defined shade perfectly in Paris Is Burning, the seminal documentary on New York City ball culture. “Shade is… ‘I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly. Now, that’s shade,’” she says in the doc. 

To shade someone is to see them so fully that you can’t help but notice the tiniest details about them. Shade is subtle — so much so that the best forms of shade go undetected. 

Why does it matter if we impose the word shade onto Del Rey’s diss? “What you’re seeing is people online projecting shade upon what it is that [these women are] doing in almost like a hopeful, optimistic way,” Davis tells me.

To shade correctly, you have to fully comprehend the big picture. Roman saying Chrissy Teigen sold out, or Del Rey implying Megan Thee Stallion was “fucking” her way to a hit song, suggests they didn’t actually understand the pervasive biases, industry-wide issues and intersectionality at play — even as they attempted to show the challenges they face as women in male-dominated fields.

Del Rey made this clear in her several responses to the backlash over her comments. In a second Instagram post, Del Rey chastised her detractors for inciting a “race war.” “Making it about race says so much more about you than it does about me,” she wrote her critics. (Roman, on her Instagram, followed up with an apology and acknowledgment of the “broader, related discourse about cultural appropriation in the food world.”)

Good shade, then, is social consciousness. To that end, Davis has an issue with Pelosi’s handshake snub being read as anything resembling shade. “To project shade upon them when they’re walking out this very public performance is some bullshit,” he says. A hand gesture is not actionable resistance; it’s just an act.

“People want to have a cute conversation: ‘Is Nancy Pelosi, a middle-aged white woman, throwing shade like black queer people do?’” he adds. “What does it matter if she was throwing shade or not throwing shade if we aren’t critically engaging with the materialized of black queer people?”