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If Bella Poarch Was A Porch…

Creative writer J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith waxes poetic on 'Steel Magnolias,' the fantasy of Internet popularity, and the 25-year-old who rules TikTok

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Words by J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith

I’m attracted to the word porch here because I realized I’ve been mispronouncing TikTok star Bella Poarch’s name. That middle “a” threw me off. I thought, “Ah, must be more exotic, like the car manufacturer:” Bella Porsche—vroom vroom, fast car to stardom. Afterall, she shot to fame just four months after starting on TikTok, thanks to creating the most-liked video in the platform’s history, with nearly 60 million likes to date. This past year, the LA-based 25-year-old transformed herself into a recording artist dropping hit music video after fierce hit music video. Bella Poarch has become a beacon of a new American fantasy, one that is anchored in our reverence of technology and our evolving obsession with ideas of salvation.

In an interview with Ethan and Hila Kline for The H3 Podcast, Poarch talked about her experience growing up in the Philippines, where she was adopted at the age of 3 to live on a farm until about 14 years old. She was abused by her white adoptive stepfather and moved to the States in search of his medical care. A neighbor noticed that there was a lot of yelling in the house and while Bella was taking out the trash one day, the woman asked if she was doing all right. It would be the first time Bella encountered a stranger who cared about her well-being. 

Directly after high school, she left home to join the military, where for three years she perfected her self-image, working out, sculpting that bangin’ body, and where she connected with a diverse group of people out on the open ocean. All while gaining the self-confidence to take control of her life.

 

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This idea of porches hits close to home, so to speak. Pronunciation: /pɔɹtʃ/, which is just fancy phonetic spelling for porch and Poarch. The porch, holding cultural significance, a status symbol, one piece to the decidedly American iconography of wealth, or at least home ownership, neighborliness, family planning, and the suburban sprawl. The porch, a place where people greet each other and say their goodbyes, where people gather, and where the milkman and paper person leave their offerings.

When I think of porches, I immediately recall images from another era. I revisit scenes from the 1989 classic, Steel Magnolias, its hairspray-prone cast line dancing in burb-chic soirées held on somebody’s front lawn, the porch a transitional frame where the cast of the Children of the Corn run wild and play tag, and where Julia Roberts, as Shelby, tells her mama that she’s decided to bring a baby to term with a man she barely even knows, despite the fatal complications multiple physicians warned her about.

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The porch is also where trick-or-treaters ask strangers for pieces of candy when it’s dark out. And it’s where Jehovah Witnesses trespass to spread the Gospel. 

If Poarch was an actual porch, your first thought would be, “She’s a wraparound porch!” Because everybody loves a good wraparound porch. Perhaps, something like a beautiful veranda on which to host big gay summer brunches (she loves casting gay influencers in her music videos). The kind of brunches with booze flowing, twunks (like her cousin, Bretman Rock) and daddies emerging from a night of dirty dancing and the occasional poppers, carbs and syrups entering late-morning bodies like the holy ghost.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, if a twunk is talking babies out in public, he’s a little slut and nothing like our diabetic beloved, Shelby. You’re also thinking, “But Steel Magnolias is racist!” All the Black folks folding napkins and putting away silverware––racist servant shit.

 

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Which is exactly why if Bella Poarch was a porch, she would definitely not be of the Steel Magnolias kind. A gathering place from another dimension, where Easter is somehow always around the corner they had to celebrate it not once but twice in one film, with all the happy white folk kiki’ing on porches galore—and in too much cloth for God’s sake.

In 2022, I mean a metaphorical porch: Poarch is like that threshold situated between the interior and exterior—the colonial, perhaps turn-of-the-century bungalow, symbol of domestic life and the whims of all the myriad elements of the outside, virtual world. She represents not a turning point but a concretizing of an American demographic disavowing that quintessential American promise of the white picket fence, the single-family home, and the good wife rearing white babies. Instead, to be American increasingly means going after cybernetic glory.

Shelby’s excitement over her “blush and bashful” wedding day colors have taken new form—on Bella’s face. Only this time, the signature TikTok look consists of blush on her cheeks, just under the eyes, and on the bridge of her nose. Actually, it’s inspired by Japanese illustrations and anime, where hints of rouge are colored into the joints, chest, and face to symbolize heightened sensitivity—both emotional and erotic sensitivities, especially within young schoolgirl characters.

Gone are the days of VCR machines for wedding gifts or Pa shootin’ off his guns at the damn birds every ten minutes. I invoke Steel Magnolias here partly because all the porches involved in its filming, but mostly because at its core is a story about a woman who wanted to make for herself a life on her terms. And though she made the decision of having her child, in the end, I’m not totally convinced that Shelby’s fate was totally her own. It was among the last films to capture the fantasy of white America’s Southern charm, its fallacy of wholesome suburbia, its blatant erasure of people of color as acceptable candor and lo-fi, low-res entertainment.

It’s often said that the internet has accelerated and disrupted nearly every industry since those days. That, today, we demand more of what was once only found in science fiction. And though, in 2012, there’s since been a remake of Steel Magnolias, starring a mostly-Black cast with heavy hitters like Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, and Jill Scott, Bella Poarch demonstrates best just how far we’ve come. As the internet continues to change, so do the ways we construct our identities and how we see, how we reach, others.

Poarch, a self-proclaimed gamer and anime fan, has amassed a following precisely because she’s situated herself at the doorstep of the next cyber revolution: glitchy NFTs, 10-second viral clips, more frequent metaverse shenanigans as the avatar-creature you’ve always dreamed yourself to be. With hits like Build a Bitch, visually she toyed with the self as cyborg, some viewers speculating that she might actually be an AI. Her chewy lip-syncing and her facial expressions were almost too perfect that conspiracy theorists claimed she was nothing but a clever algorithm engineered by Warner Records.

The American landscape is forever shifting. We’re terraforming mountains and prairies and wetlands into immense solar and wind power plants, into buzzy warehouses for all our cloud computing needs, into more and more homegrown chip manufacturers, electric vehicle factories, and somebody’s overheating their home slowly mining new cryptocurrencies. The world wide web of stuff that we’ve been dreaming up for decades is coming into fruition and our collective psyche, our bodies, more than ever, are primed to live within the adaptive technologies we’ve yet to imagine.   

But she has proved herself to be much more than binary code. With songs like Villain, Living Hell, and Inferno, whose lyrics testify that perhaps there’s a little more darkness behind that veil of innocence. Ah, so she’s a shadowy porch then... 

John Berger once wrote, “to look is an act of choice.” But to keep looking is an act of love and admiration. To look at herself anew through a screen, allowed her an entrance into fantasies about who she could become. She reinvented her past in compelling ways that make millions of people want to like, comment, and subscribe. Our looking allows us, best of all, to imagine ourselves, with a sense of courage and curiosity, out of the chaos of previous generations’ misgivings.

In just these past two years, and most recently through the release of her EP, Dolls, a wholly new type of global superstar has taken the interwebs by storm. Now she’s on the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine, in dozens of podcast and YouTube interviews, on radio stations, featured on various Twitch channels, and livestreams.

Her songs are haunted and mysterious but always driven by a will to survive, her resistance and fight against a reality confined to just one static place. She’s everywhere. Her pop sound steals from the barriers of a world where hell, heartbreak, and calamity are always knocking at our front doors. The difference now, Poarch shows millions of fans she’s willing to, as she sings in Villain, “flirt with fear.” And when the whole damn thing is in flames, it’s our fantasies that legitimize our wants, our desires to conquer our fears. If Bella Poarch was a porch, clearly, she’s on fire.  

Published on September 22, 2022

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Words by J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith

J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith is a Chamoru-Filipino, queer poet living in Seattle. His family is from Dededo and Chalan Pago, Guahan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia (University of Hawai'i Press), Moss, Poetry Northwest, among other publications. He has performed and read original work at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, the Center on Contemporary Arts, and at various festivals and conferences. He received an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop and is the director/curator of the contemporary art gallery, From Typhoon. He covers culture and entertainment for JoySauce.

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Art by Robinick Fernandez

Robinick Fernandez is a prolific and visionary creative director whose work blends the worlds of art, architecture, design, and fashion. For two decades Robinick Fernandez connected art with design for global brands, and his work has left an impact having navigated across many countries and cultures including Europe, Asia, the United States and beyond. For his next venture, he celebrates his Filipino American roots as Creative Director for JoySauce, being committed to cultural storytelling, sustainability, forward-thinking design, and conscious content .