“We are pleased because we are pleasing”: Black Panties and The Body’s Grace

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via Pitchfork.com

Last weekend, in the car with two besties from Chicago, I asked a really buzzkill question when one of them started talking about R. Kelly’s new musical proposal, “Marry the Pussy.” Echoing the kind of infamous celebration of the new album that appeared in feminist publication Jezebel a few weeks ago, my friend insisted that “Marry the Pussy” was a celebration, what Jezebel writer Isha Aran called “a magnificent ode to pussy.”

“But,” I asked, the mood dying around me already, “…does the pussy have any agency?”

Crickets.

“Like, what I mean is…does the pussy want to get married? Does Kels even care?”

Agency is at the center of some knotty issues in feminism and pop culture. In the recent debates around Beyonce’s feminism, her agency–that is, her ability to make and execute decisions–is never in question. Its the agenda of those decisions that we wonder about. But a lack of female agency is crucial to indicting some of the most popular, and most sexist, pop songs of the last year. Lack of female agency is what makes “Blurred Lines,” “How Many Drinks,” and yes, “Marry the Pussy,” so misogynist. We’re easily fooled by the appearance of celebrating, even honoring, the women in these songs. They are all about how women and women’s body parts are beautiful and desirable. The problem is, the also all depict women as objects without desires or boundaries of their own. Robin Thicke’s refrain in “Blurred Lines” of “I know you want it” is a common trope we’ve all heard before–so often, perhaps, that it loses its insideous nature. “I know you want it” means “Don’t say anything,” or worse, “It doesn’t matter what you say — I’m not listening — I know, better than you do, what you want and need.”

And “How Many Drinks,” which I’ve written about on its own merits, is just creepy. Mix in the alcohol and the song is a pretty forward date-rape proposal for one lucky, too-drunk-to-consent young lady.

Now suddenly on Monday, the Villiage Voice posted an interview with Jim DeRogatis, who originally investigated the R. Kelly sex crimes allegations in the 90s, and whose findings–that Kelly’s crimes were numerous and real–were generally forgotten or ignored by much of the R&B-loving public. And those crimes were seriously ignored in the last six months or so as Kelly’s star rose again, fueled by his headlining spot at the Chicago Pitchfork Music Festival last summer. Consumers crooned over the new album until a few days ago, when the Voice reminded us just how short our memories were. What DeRogatis reminds us of is that behind the great dance tracks is an acknowledged sexual predator who, with Sandusky-like perseverence, preyed on and assaulted dozens of young targets over what seems to be decades.

To this day, any reporter who so cares can go to Cook County and pull these records, so it drives me crazy, even with some of the eloquent reconsiderations we’ve seen of Kelly in recent days, that they keep saying “rumors” and “allegations”. Well, “allegations” is fair, OK. You’re protected as a reporter, any lawsuit that has been filed as fact. The contents of the lawsuit are protected. So these were not rumors. These were allegations made in court.

In the few days since this interview was published, there has been a kind of public catharsis of fresh R. Kelly renunciation–a painful remembering of all the things we chose to forget in the interest–of what?–of including “Remix to Ignition” on every party playlist, ever, and then some. Noteworthy, among many, are Rembert Browne’s careful self-critique for Grantland; Alyssa Rosenberg’s portrait of a serial pedophile for ThinkProgress; and Jamilah Lemieux’s are-you-ready-to-ditch-him-NOW? for Ebony. In all of these pieces, there is a familiar refrain that goes something like: I don’t know why (they, you, I) let him get away with it, but (they, you, I) did, and that’s okay, I guess, but it has to stop now. As Rembert says, “we can move forward. But we can’t let R. Kelly come with us.”

*

In his “The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, explores the nature of bodily love and Christian love, ultimately writing a Christian defense of gay marriage. In his discussion of the novel The Towers of Silence, Williams discusses the meaning of “the body’s grace”:

Sarah has discovered that her body can be the cause of happiness to her and to another.  It is this discovery which most clearly shows why we might want to talk about grace here.  Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. (Williams)

In the paragraphs that follow, Williams describes human sexuality and intimacy with incredible sensitivity and understanding. He explains that intimacy occurs from a position of mutual vulnerability, and that deep arousal and intimacy arise not just in physically getting off but in creating pleasure in a partner one loves.

For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire”. We are pleased because we are pleasing. (Williams).

This is William’s definition of sexual health–a sexuality that takes pleasure in the pleasure of another. It is under this rubric that he can find homosexuality a healthy sexual practice while relationships with children instead fall into the same category as rape or necrophilia–because in the case of the latter three examples, the pleasure of the partner is not part of the equation. Williams writes, “These “asymmetrical” sexual practices have some claim to be called perverse in that they leave one agent in effective control of the situation – one agent, that is, who doesn’t have to wait upon the desire of the other.” Sexual perversions occur, Williams says, when a sexual actor wants all the power in the relationship and isn’t turned on by the agency, desire, or stimulation of his or her partner. Valueing one’s partner’s pleasure is what makes “I, a man, am attracted to adult men and I cannot help who I love” different than “I, a man, am attracted to young children and I cannot help who I love”– although there are arguments against this, the idea is that in the case of child abuse, an abuser may be attracted to children but he doesn’t care about his pleasure, only his own.

Arguing that healthy sexuality depends on vulnerability, and that marriage protects vulnerability by encouraging lovers to open up to one another without fearing that one will flee in shame, embarrassment, anger, etc., William extends his conception of “the body’s grace” to advocate, really beautiful, for the blessing of marriage between any two adult people who love each other.

*

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Chicago Sun-Times headlines via blogs.villagevoice.com

“The Body’s Grace” has been on my mind because it centrally informs my question to R. Kelly: “You may want to marry it, but what does the pussy want?” Williams’s essay gives us a theological language for understanding why R. Kelly and Miguel and Robin Thicke’s “celebrations” of female body parts are not admirable–they are selfish. Their lyrics are based in pleasing themselves, not the women they sing to. Listen again to “Black Panties” and just notice how many times Kels says the words “I want.”

Now, you might object that a song like “Legs Shakin’,” the album’s opening track, is all about a woman’s pleasure. And indeed, the song is all about Kels performing cunnilungus until “your legs shakin’.” But when we look closely at the lyrics–and to the squeamish, beware, ‘cuz these are explicit–we see a description of oral sex that focuses on the man’s choices, man’s skill, man’s needs, man’s prowess. Kels sings,

Cause I’m about to make my mark on you girl…If you let me do (Let me do) what I want to you
Girl I promise through this whole night I’ll be kissin’ you
Until your body cums, until we see the sun
Send you into to shock girl once I touch you with my Taser tongue
And then I just wanna get her wide open
Give her what she been missin’ and feelin’

As much as I appreciate some pop culture celebration of lady-lickin’, the more I read these lyrics the more I notice the absence of any female agency. You know, a woman saying, “Hey Robert, you know what feels great? When you lick the middle like an Oreo.” And then Robert could say, “Hey, girl, since part of my pleasure resides in pleasing you, that will make both of us very happy.” Given the diet of pop culture lyrics we’re handed daily, it’s hard to imagine what a more female-agented version of this song would sound like. But let’s imagine…imagine if “Legs Shakin'” were combined with “Single Ladies” plus some Lil Kim. You know, like…

Spotted in the middle of the club

Dancin’ so fine, I think I’m fallin in love
So I went over and asked do you wanna dance
And you said you’d give the Kels a chance
Hours later, when we home at my crib
You said, Hey– I like where you live!
Now let me show you what else I dig.
And you told me to go
Down, down, down….

*

To conclude on another note…In all of this week’s hand-wringing, there has been a lot of communal soul-seeking along the lines of “Why didn’t we mind for so long?” Why didn’t we care that R. Kelly was a pretty openly acknowledged child abuser? DeRogatis suggested himself that it’s because “nobody matters less to our society than young Black women.” However, I think race is at play in another factor here: namely, that sexual deviance is part of our archetypes of black men, a flawed concept which is also based on a portrait of black female deviance, which resists the idea that black teenage girls are capable of being abused. I keep thinking of a line from DJ and artist Meaghan Garvey’s review of Yeezus over the summer. She wrote,

In reality though, Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.

Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.

I bring this up because, like Chief Keef, R. Kelly “isn’t white America’s worst nightmare.” Even though he makes us feel bad about ourselves when we notice we’re giving him a free pass for being a child molester, “he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into”: hypersexual, uncontrollable, animalistic.

I’ve said it before, but this R. Kelly shiyt is just another jewel in the crown that is 2013 as a nadir of racial cultural politics.

TB out.

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