Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T-ability Politics

Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T-ability Politics



Black female artists in the entertainment industry face special obstacles, such as the politicization of their bodies (from hair to fashion) and marketing ploys that play into race and gender stereotypes. However, Black women artists find different ways to negotiate their power as creative entrepreneurs. My research explores how Black female artists are impacted by the politics of respectability and how they negotiate their position as Black women in an industry dominated by white men. Scholars have studied Aretha Franklin, how she exploded as a Soul singer in the early 1960s, and her immense vocal talent, but often neglect to explore and analyze the obstacles she encounters as a Black female artist. I examine Franklin’s hair transformation, the presentation of the physical self and artistry alongside the sociopolitical movements that concerned the Black community and Black women at the time. I find that while there may be times where it seems that Franklin appeased marketing ploys and respectability politics, she negotiated this by employing Black feminism and her artistry (physical presentation and lyrics) to push against such notions.  


The politicization of Black women and their bodies, from hair to body shape, has had a consistent presence in the world, more so specifically in America and other Western nations, with the entrance and domination of white European colonizers and their subjugation of native and Black communities that were there before them. The history of such politicization and the significance has been covered in various books and studies in which intersectionality between feminism, colorism, racism, and sexism are front and center and cannot be ignored. This politicization becomes important to analyze when it comes to the entertainment and business industry, and even more so in the case of Black women. In the entertainment industry, Black women often have to navigate and negotiate their creative and artistic power in an industry dominated by whiteness and Eurocentric beauty standards. 

I examine and analyze the possible ways Aretha Franklin’s hair and its transformation over the span of her career might or might not reflect the norms and politics of Black women’s hair in American society. In doing so, I will also explore how the music labels and norms of the times in which her hair transformed from one era to the next might or might not have followed the politics of respectability. Aretha Franklin serves as a rich case study because she is lauded as one of the greatest Black female singers and whose career spanned through various times in which Black lives in America were changed—from Jim Crow South to the civil rights Movement to second-wave feminism. This is important to note because existing studies of Aretha Franklin fail to recognize and analyze the obstacles that she faces, as a Black woman, in an entertainment industry dominated by the white beauty standards that Black women have dealt with all of their lives. 

Literature Review

In Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?, Maxine Craig she discusses the history and the various ways in which Black women negotiated social norms concerning beauty standards. In the early to the-mid twentieth century, popular entertainment forms constantly portrayed Black Americans with exaggerated traits, and actors would even portray Black Americans in blackface. In addition, beauty standards were controlled and dominated by whiteness that favored white skin, blonde hair, and Eurocentric facial features and body types—all features that tended to exclude Black people. To counter these portrayals and appeal to these hegemonic ideals, Black Americans were taught to “repair” their physical appearance through grooming such straightening their hair to “look well groomed” since kinky hair was taught to be “shameful.”1 Black women of the generation before the civil rights era, who worked in positions that had very little social respect and value for the white community, were often looked at as undignified. In combating these beliefs, they were taught to believe that dignity, for the Black woman, could be gained through their behavior and presentation such straightened hair, clean dresses, and extravagant clothing. This became to be known as respectability politics in which certain ideas about values, physical presentation, and behavior that Black people are pushed to conform to with the belief that in doing so, would be for the betterment of the Black community as a whole. In addition, the push to conform often comes from the white community and even the Black community who may have been taught that following these ideas are the ‘proper’ way for a Black person to be seen as. Thus, respectability politics plays an important role in the lives of Black women, from hygiene to grooming, and is passed from generation to generation. This is important to note when exploring and analyzing Black feminist thought since it concerns resistance to stereotypes and norms concerning Black women.

In Patricia Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, she provides an in-depth view into Black feminist thought in which she states that there are a multitude of responses that Black women employ in response to pre-conceived notions about life as a Black woman such as the legacy of Black women always struggling.2 Similarly, in the article “Performing Black Subjectivity,” author Kimberleigh Jordan discusses how Black feminism is performed in the context of Black female artists. This article compares and discusses the different ways in which Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé perform Black womanhood and the experiences of Black women through their one of their influential works, Amazing Grace (2018) and Homecoming (2019), respectively.3 The author interrogates how Franklin was portrayed in the film, within the setting of the church, in the early 1970s in Watts, Los Angeles, a predominantly Black community in a post-civil rights context, examining how her portrayal is linked to her being a Black woman and the sociopolitical movements of Black women of that time period. Jordan argues that Black feminist performance is centered on the experiences of Black women through physical performance which is then rooted in resistance to hegemony and patriarchy.4 Thus, the presentation of Black women’s hair is linked to standards and beliefs about hair connected to Eurocentric features and straight hair for the first half of the twentieth century and became challenged in various ways, such as through cultural nationalism and the “Black is Beautiful” movement. This article is useful in my work for analyzing Franklin since it points to the importance of how Black women portray and use their appearance and own physical motion to resist and push back against white notions of Black women’s bodies. Furthermore, this article also highlights the ways in which these two women do resist and push back against such ideals which will be applicable to my analyses of both of them in different time periods. 

In a similar fashion, Victoria Malawey’s, “‘Find Out What It Means to Me,’” applies Collins’s work in her analysis of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Malawey argues that Franklin subverts the overall meaning of the song and notions behind gender roles and respect in the 1960s, and part of her strategy for doing so can be understood through a Black feminist perspective by using her position as a Black female artist.5 Thus, one of the main themes of Black feminist thought is resisting the legacies of struggle which can be seen in Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in the ways she subverts notions about gender roles in a racialized context that were controlled by the male gaze. Another facet of physical presentation that is important to analyze is fashion in which there connections between what one wore and what it signified to listeners in terms of identity and what the artists associated themselves with.

In the article “Souls Intact: The Soul Performances of Audre Lorde, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone,” author Emily Lordi discusses how soul, as a music genre, was marketed in popular music as dictated by the sociopolitical climate of the 1960s. Lordi argues that Soul was an important marker for Black identity which encompasses various facets of Black American life from food to media/entertainment to ideas about racial identity and community. Additionally, the article also highlights the importance of labels given to famously highly praised Black female soul artists, such as Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, in which they connate narratives about Black women and suffering. This article is important for my work in analyzing Franklin and how racial identity comes into play when it comes to marketing in music and how narratives about Black women as artists are dictated by the sociopolitical climate and norms about Black American womanhood. In further exploring the connection between marketing and fashion trends, it is important to analyze how certain genres may be used for activism through fashion. 

In Tanisha Ford’s  Liberated Threads, she explores the history behind fashion, as a form of activism, for Black women. Ford specifically focuses on the emergence and marketing of “Soul” to argue that Black women were forced to follow the politics of respectability that dates back to the Victorian-era of the nineteenth century. This trend, she argues, could be seen with the clothing, hairstyles, language, and the religion that the Black community followed.6 In the article “Uniform Ideals,” authors Monica Sklar, Camilla Barrow, and Paige Leone discuss how the style of fashion was used by Motown as a marketing tactic to Black Americans, specifically the middle-class. Additionally, the article argues the importance of such fashion as being a reflection of the respectability politics in which through these fashion styles, a new image of Black Americans could be created. The authors of the article also discuss how Detroit, as a city, was changing in relation to social movements and how American culture was being transformed by such movements. This article points to the importance of physical appearance in the entertainment industry, specifically music (namely, Motown) and fashion/beauty, and in my research, it provides context as to how other Soul-oriented record labels of the 1960s were able to differentiate or not from Motown. These two works not only allow me to analyze my case study concerning respectability politics and gender performance but also with the consideration of how race and fashion trends factor play a role in marketing artists. Thus, “Soul” can be seen as a pathway to signify one’s association with activism through physical presentation that was dominated both by respectability politics and fashion trends.

As a result, my research questions focus on a singular Black female artist, Aretha Franklin, and pose these two questions: How does Aretha Franklin’s transformation in physical presentation (hair and fashion), from the 1960s to 1970s, reflect the social norms about hair, Black women’s bodies, and the politics of respectability? Additionally, in what ways was Aretha Franklin’s artistry and physical presentation dictated by the music industry and marketing tactics for a Black female artist in the 1960s and 1970s?

Method and Data

The reason Aretha Franklin serves as a rich case study because she is lauded as one of the greatest Black female singers whose career has spanned through various times in which Black lives in America were changed—from the Jim Crow South to the civil rights Movement to second-wave feminism. Furthermore, studies on Aretha Franklin have often focused on how she exploded as a Soul singer in the early 1960s, discussed how her vocal gift emerged and flourished yet often ignore how Franklin’s daily encounter with ideas about physical presentation (hair and fashion) and music may have been shaped by social norms about physical presentation, beauty standards, and marketing ploys.  

For my data, I have chosen specific album covers and selected songs from albums from Aretha Franklin ranging from the 1960s to 1970s. For every decade, I have chosen a mix of one to two recorded songs and visual performances to track the possible changes over time in Aretha Franklin’s artistry. This is important to note since album artwork acts as an entrance to the identity of the artist and should “say something about the product inside.”7 The selected songs and album covers are: “Today I Sing the Blues” (1961), “Respect” (1967), “Young, Gifted and Black” (1971), and Amazing Grace (1972). The selected visual performances will be Amazing Grace (2018) and the outfits from the film. Using the selected data, I will analyze lyrical content, the year it was released, and how Aretha Franklin was portrayed in the album cover and live performance, specifically focusing on physical presentation. Furthermore, for visual performances, I will apply analyses based on Black performativity, Black womanhood, Black femininity, and fashion.


Today I Sing the Blues (1961)

On the Aretha album cover, we see that Franklin’s hair is styled into a beehive shape, she’s dressed in a flannel top that covers most of her body, and wearing black gloves. This styling of Franklin’s physical presentation is linked to the emerging trends in America in the late 1950s to early 1960s where fashion trends were dominated by “aspirational Ivy League and post-New Looks 1950s elegance.”8 This is important to note since these trends were prevalent in Detroit, the city where Franklin was raised, and indicates that Franklin and her record label, Columbia, were keeping up with the changing fashion culture. This also points to the direct correlation with the desire to keep in line with what was currently popular in the music industry. For example, Franklin’s physical presentation can be linked to the marketing style of popular girl groups of that era, such as the Supremes from Detroit, where “respectability [was used] as a tactic, a tool with which youth from inner-city backgrounds could scale the social and professional ladder and earn success according to the standards of middle-class, suburban whiteness.”9 As a result, the use of the beehive hairstyle and the elegant yet conservative style of dress can be directly connected to respectability politics in presentation since by using a hairstyle (beehive) that was connected to girl groups, it markets Franklin as an artist who wants to reach the same target audience—Black American women who desired social mobility and success that was linked to the standards set by the white, middle-class community. 

The content of the song follows mainly a blues heartbreak song, where the lyrics describe being left heartbroken after an ex-lover breaks up with the singer. Franklin follows the footsteps of the previous Black blues women before her, who challenged “representations of love and sexuality in women’s blues [that] often blatantly contradicted mainstream ideological assumptions.”10 Franklin, like her foremothers, challenged what most popular songs by women were discussing such as heartbreak songs that yearned for their lover to instead, discuss Black female sexuality, which was continuously resisted against. Furthermore, Franklin discusses Black female sexuality in the context of colorism with the lines, a “fate” that leads her to “the losin’ end in every love affair” that only occurs to her. This can be read in the context of colorism where there was “widespread rejection of dark brown skin and a beauty standard that favored light-skinned women.”10 While Franklin was brown-skin, placing her in a favorable position for romantic partners, it can be argued that the lyrics can be seen as universal to most Black female listeners since the lyrics are sung by a Black female artist which allows Franklin to further follow her blues foremothers. Franklin asserts her authenticity as a Black woman by following the lineage of previous Black blues women before her, where her position as a Black female artist allows the song to be read in the context of issues that were not talked about at that time, thus employing female liberation and Black feminism that previous Black blues women did before her.

Respect (1967)

On the album cover of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Franklin is seen in a dress with a shimmering design and her hair straight but styled in an upward, curly fashion. At the time, the “Detroit Sound was more readily identified with the Black bourgeoisie” and mainstream music was more “sophisticated [and] elegant.”11, 12 The connection of elegance and sophistication to mainstream music marketing demonstrates a direct link between respectability politics and artist marketing. Franklin wrote in her autobiography that “as a nightclub performer, I am mindful of the pioneering women who preceded me . . . they were highly respected vocalists who understood the art of elegant presentation . . . leaving the impression that the African American chanteuse was responsible, qualified, and fabulous.”13 As a result, there is no question that Franklin herself was not mindful of the importance of respectability politics and the significance of how one presented oneself, especially the Black community, as role models of respectability politics. Thus, Franklin’s presentation can be directly connected to the standards set by the white bourgeoisie, which in turn, the Black bourgeoisie followed and set the tone for respectability politics to be followed and aspired to fit in to.

The song is all about demanding respect from her lover in various forms, such as financial and physical respect. In the era of the civil rights movement, women were taught to be subservient and respectful to male authority, to be confined to the domestic sphere, and to wear respectable clothing.14 In contrast to the lyrical content of “Respect,” Franklin empowers all women to demand respect, give up the submissive role that they were taught to have, and embrace the power they have as women. The song also provides a certain anthem specific to Black women; for example, bell hooks labels “Respect” as a song of “resistance” that “challeng[ed] Black male sexism and female victimization, while evoking notions of mutual care and support.”15  This indicates that the significance of “Respect” was highlighted for Black women especially since it resisted a form of sexism that was specific to Black women all the while demanding, not requesting or asking for, mutual respect.

In the lyrics of the song, Franklin demands financial independence and resists stereotypes about Black female sexuality. Lordi argues that “in the late 1960s, artists like Franklin and Simone not only reject the white patriarchal mythos of the Jezebel and resist Black bourgeois norms; they also insist on sexuality as a valuable part of Black liberatory politics.”Emily J. Lordi, “Souls intact: The soul performances of Audre Lorde, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 26, no. 1 (2016): 63. Furthermore, Black women may “internalize the controlling images and come to believe that they are the stereotypes.”16 This adds to the importance of “Respect” as a Black feminist anthem since these stereotypes only applied to Black women, not white women in America, and additionally, advocate for the importance of sexual politics and empowerment in gender roles within the Black community at the time of the civil rights movement.

Young, Gifted and Black (1971)

In the Young, Gifted, and Black album artwork, Franklin is shown in West African style of dressing with her hair wrapped and with stained glass in the background. This is connected to 

the Black Power movement in which racial pride was emphasized; for instance, “Blackness was redefined such that Afrocentric or ‘naturally’ Black hairstyles became associated with the authentic.”17 Thus, Franklin’s physical presentation can be connected to the Black Power movement and places her as a Black female artist involved in important movements that concern the Black community. Furthermore, Franklin’s presentation reflects the changing beauty standards of the Black community where it was expected to wear an Afro to indicate one’s involvement in such movements. 

Originally written and sung by Nina Simone, “Young, Gifted and Black,” emphasizes racial pride and empowerment with lines such as “to be young, gifted, and Black; Oh, what a lovely precious thing,” and “You’re young and you’re Black, you got your soul intact, You got the future, don’t you know it’s a fact?” This markets Franklin toward the part of the Black community that focused on emphasizing racial pride rather than focusing on the nationalistic and militant movement of the Black Panther Party. This suggests that Franklin’s album artwork may be an “easier” artist to associate and listen to for the Black community versus artists who took on the stance of the Black Panther Party movement in their artistry.

Amazing Grace, Album (1972) and Film (2018)

Continuing in the same fashion as Young, Gifted and Black, she performs Blackness and authenticates herself as part of the Black community through her physical presentation. In the artwork for the album, Franklin is sitting on the steps outside of a church and is dressed in West African style of clothing, connecting to the Black Power movement and cultural nationalism. Features of these two movements included “natural hairstyles, African clothing, the raised fist Black power salute, and other symbols and practices of Black identity [that] conveyed more than self-love; they expressed defiance against the dominance of white culture.”18

However, this can be seen differently due to the growing awareness and commodification of the “soul style.” This style was everywhere; as Ford writes, “anyone could purchase African-inspired clothing and perform their soulfulness and their Black consciousness.”19 The commodification of these aspects that were thought to be representative of what it meant to have Black pride and cultural nationalism led to the dilution in importance of the clothing and hairstyles that emerged. While Franklin’s presentation on the album cover cannot be seen in the same light as her previous album due to the commodification of such movements, it does reflect the changing trends towards Black beauty in the Black American community.

In the film, Amazing Grace (2018), Franklin can be seen wearing her hair in an Afro with two outfits: a simple long white dress and an intricately designed long green dress with gold necklaces. Similar to the album cover, her physical presentation can be connected to the movement towards cultural nationalism where “elements of traditional African dress and all things African [were seen] as a positive alternative.”20 Thus, her physical presentation can be connected to the changing social norms that were readily accepting the power of the Afro, in both racial pride and a revolutionary context, which can also be with various members of the choir and audience members. 

While the album cover may reflect a dilution of the significance of cultural nationalism, Franklin negotiates this in the film where she “steps into a liberated subject position in the pulpit and articulates her own self-naming.”21 Franklin employs Black feminism that challenges the position of the traditional female in church, where women are seen as subservient to the male, by positioning herself at the pulpit in which she voices the Black female voice. Thus, Franklin’s physical presentation reflects changes within the Black community about respectability in which beauty standards now included natural hairstyles and African-style clothing, and additionally, her performance in the church allows her to negotiate her position as a Black female artist in the church and the overall Black community. 

Discussion and Conclusion

Aretha Franklin’s change in physical presentation, over time, has direct connection to respectability politics. For example, at the beginning of her career, Franklin can be seen following beauty standards such as chemically straightened hair and mainstream hairstyles. Furthermore, this is also indicated by her style of dress in which the fashion wear highlighted elegance and sophistication. In following these beauty standards and fashion styles, her physical presentation can be linked to appealing to white, middle-class standards of “proper” presentation, thus, respectability politics. In addition to reflecting this, Aretha Franklin also negotiates her position as a Black female artist through her artistry and lyrics in which she employs Black feminism to subvert existing notions about Black femininity, sexuality, womanhood, and Blackness. 

One finding that may need further investigation is the commodification of the “Soul style” and how it may have influenced fashion choices; although I discuss it in this paper, further investigation is needed on its own instead of being one part of a paper. Another finding that needs to be explored further is the performance of gender and this being passed down through generations since it is not possible to trace whether other artists follow in the same resistance tactics Franklin employs. This could result in further discussions around the prevalence of respectability politics and whether the same tactics Franklin and other Black female artists used, at the time, are still viable for modern-day Black female artists in today’s music industry climate where there is more blatant pushback against stereotypical controlling images.

This paper hopes to answer questions surrounding the influence and impact of respectability politics on the presentation of the physical self for Black female artists and how they can negotiate their power as creative entrepreneurs through their music, lyrical content, gender, and race. By analyzing Aretha Franklin’s fashion, album covers, and lyrics I found that her physical presentation is directly connected to respectability politics but then changes as sociopolitical movements evolved beauty standards within the Black community such as the civil rights movement and Black Power movement. Furthermore, Franklin negotiates her power as a Black female artist by employing Black feminism in her lyrics in which she challenges and subverts existing notions of Black womanhood, femininity, and sexuality.

For future research, possible considerations can explore more into the commodification of important sociopolitical movements such as cultural nationalism and Black Power and how this may or may not hinder the power Black artists have when they use symbols, or identifiers, of such movements. Lastly, I hope readers can walk away from this paper understanding more about the ways Black female artists navigate identity politics in the music industry and how they must always negotiate and find ways to challenge existing systems that aim to oppress them.

  1. Maxine L. Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 27.
  2. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought Knowledge: Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 25-26.
  3. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought Knowledge: Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 25-26.
  4. Kimberleigh P. Jordan, “Performing Black Subjectivity: Enfleshed Feminism in Homecoming and Amazing Grace,” Feminist Media Histories 6, no. 3 (2020), 81.
  5. Victoria Malawey, “Find out what it means to me’: Aretha Franklin’s gendered re-authoring of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect,’” Popular Music 33, no. 2 (2014): 194.
  6. Tanisha C. Ford, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 70.
  7. Steven Jones, “Steve Jones and Martin Sorger: Covering Music: A Brief History and Analysis of Album Cover Design,” Journal of Popular Music Studies (11), no. 1 (1999): 83.
  8. Monica Sklar, Camilla Barrow, and Paige Leone, “Uniform Ideals,” Dress, (2020): 12
  9. Jacqueline Warwick, Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s, (New York: Routledge, 2007), 158.
  10. Angela Y. Davis, Blues legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 31.
  11. Van Dyk Lewis, “Dilemmas in African Diaspora Fashion,” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 7, no. 2 (2003), 174.
  12. Kimasi L. Browne, “Brenda Holloway: Los Angeles’s contribution to Motown,” in California Soul: Music of African Americans in the West by Jacqueline Cogdell and DjeDje Eddie S Meadows (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 334.
  13. Aretha Franklin and David Ritz, Aretha: From These Roots, (New York: Villard, 1999), 87-88.
  14. Ford, Liberated Threads, 70-71.
  15. bell hooks, Black looks: race and representation, (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992): 69.
  16. Collins, Black Feminist Thought Knowledge, 27.
  17. Cheryl Thompson, “Black Women, Beauty, and Hair as a Matter of Being,Women’s Studies 38, no. 8 (2009): 833.
  18. Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?, 99.
  19. Ford, Liberated Threads, 64.
  20. Kwesi Owusu, Black British Culture and Society: A Text Reader, (New York: Routledge, 2000): 123.
  21. Lordi, “Souls intact,” 88.
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