Happy International Women’s Day! Shoutout to the women organizers who are leading the revolution–Black trans women, the women of Black lives matter, Indigenous women, Latina and Chicana women, Muslim and Palestinian women, Asian women, migrant women, radical white women, queer women, women around the world who are fighting patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and all the systems of violence and exploitation that use abuse and aggression to keep women globally from owning their labor, their bodies, and their choices.
I thought today would be a good time to make space for myself to write about some of the women’s issues that have been on my mind since I moved to the Bay Area two years ago. For multiple reasons, which I’ll discuss below, being here–away from the activist communities I was lucky enough to embed with in Syracuse–has pushed me to develop my feminist consciousness, because feminist thinking allowed me to forgive myself for some of the choices I made, to see the larger structural forces that brought me here and have shaped my time here so far.
Did you guys see this story, in the Washington Post yesterday, about the pervasive culture of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Sterling Jewelers, parent company of Kay and Jared Galleria? Apparently a class-action lawsuit involving SIXTY-NINE THOUSAND female workers has been going on for years but the documents involved, which had previously been in confidential arbitration, were just released last weekend.
If you thought the corporate culture in Mad Men was television hyperbole, check out this article for depictions of a culture of no-holds-barred sexual predation by upper management of young saleswomen.
Routine sexual “preying” at company events “was done out in the open and appeared to be encouraged, or at least condoned, by the company,” Melissa Corey, a manager of Sterling stores in Massachusetts and Florida between 2002 and 2008, said in her declaration. Continue reading →
Last night, my boyfriend and I started watching Making a Murderer, the new Netflix documentary series that suddenly everyone is talking about the way last year everyone talked about Serial. It’s a drawn-out real-life series that explores the contradictory story of Steven Avery, a maybe-maybe-not murderer and rapist.
As we settled into bed to watch the show, Ryan said, “I think he’s an accused rapist.”
“I think he’s a murderer,” I replied.
This was a coded conversation. Over the past year or two of must-watch TV, I’ve developed (and communicated) a real aversion to shows scripted around the same boring sex crime, where a young white woman’s mutilated body is unearthed from the elements, from woods or water or some grimy basement. In fact, my boyf and I have come to share–several times now–a moment of recognition and resignation when we realize that another of the shows everyone is raving about is, at its core, about investigating the disappearance, abuse, rape, and death of some white woman who is never a character but instead plays the canvas that the white guys in the show get to puffer up their masculinity around. How trite.
Kyle Chandler in Netflix’s Bloodline
Thank you True Detective, thank you Lake of the Woods, thank you Making a Murderer, thank you Bloodline. That last one was hard to take. I thought this show was about a family trying to hold their hotel business together against the creepy rising waters of the Everglades? Oh, and also Kyle Chandler, the town detective, has to slowly pull a pale Latino woman’s mutilated teenage body from the dark dikes, then lay her out on a table so that the camera can slowly, slowly pan over the gruesome makeup this actress with no speaking lines spent so much time receiving, so we can see how much empathy he has, give him a good excuse to look real torn up. Fun. He looks upset about it
It’s not that I don’t want sexual assault stories told. I’m a survivor; our stories are important. It’s that these stories aren’t really about us. They’re medeival, hero’s stuff, chivalrous men discovering, protecting, avenging. The rape victims never matter in TV stories about rape.
In several pieces of writing about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, I’ve suggested that America’s ongoing fascination with the Kardashians’ penchant for dating Black men is rooted in a hundred-year-old lynching narrative in which white women are continually at risk for defilement and death by oversexualized, dangerous Black men. Peep the assault scene in Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson’s favorite movie, in which the white woman character dares to open her family’s gate and immediately makes herself vulnerable–neigh, responsible, even–for being chased off a cliff by a unrestrained postbellum Black man.
In an essay for The American Reader I wrote a year ago, I considered the seeming absurdity of the Kardashians’ total domination of pop-media spaces that previous summer, even as news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, and the protests that followed, spread (with little help from major news networks) around the globe. I argued that “cumulatively, what we are watching is a dissimulation of a lynching, where the murder happens in one corner of our screen while our coy rationales withdraw into the manifolds of popular culture.” That is, if we zoom out a bit from the individual television programs and look at the wider picture, what we see is a hypermediated recycling of the same story that was told under Jim Crow to justify lynchings, a story about the threat unrestrained Black men pose to white women’s bodies. The obsessive fixation with stories of white women’s despoilment on TV is a Pavlovian bell ringing through cultural history, calling up our country’s worst memories and worst arguments as it tenaciously fights against progress–against police reform, against prison abolition, against integration of the public schools, against affordable college, against the payment of college athletes, against anything that could allow a Black man to walk freely around in the open air in a neighborhood where a White girl might open her gate–a resistance as powerful as the one culture waged a hundred years ago when Black activists fought to protect their own from being murdered for an endless list of insipid excuses.
Cultural fear-mongering on the cover of Star
One of the most surprising things about Making a Murderer is how, in the second episode, we see Steven Avery become a cause celebre for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin in the 1990s. Ah yes, the plight of the blue-eyed blondie who looks like every other blue-eyed blondie in Wisconsin demands the attention and sympathy of state lawmakers. I couldn’t help thinking what a diversion this had to be of justice-based activism in Wisconsin, when the face of wrongful incarceration is a smiling white guy, in the state that has been ranked the actual worst for Black Americans in the nation. HuffPo actually named Milwaukee–the regional capital of the area where Making a Murderer takes place–as the worst city for African Americans in the nation. Yet Steven Avery becomes the face of criminal justice reform, a face so compelling that without being sued or threatened, state lawmakers tried to rustle up a 6-figure settlement for him.
Can you imagine government functionaries producing reparations for a person of color without any external pressure to do so?
And then, in the second episode, we get another dead, raped white girl, a twenty-something, actually, who only talks once because mostly she’s missing or dead, laid out in the woods somewhere waiting for us to imagine what cruelty she experienced, waiting for white men to argue their goodness and integrity over the backdrop of her naked ass.
Netflix originals are cool and all, but where is the network that is ready to tell the real, diverse, systemic, important, exciting stories that this planet is brimming with? Stories of war, migration, agriculture, drugs, extortion, exploitation, mining, slaughterhouses, activism, revolution? From the perspective, goddamnit, of someone other than the white men who are invariably running things? I’m ready to watch them–and I think I’m not the only one.
I spent a long weekend at the biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference in Tempe, AZ, and boy (girl!) was it needed. After moving away from Syracuse in May to finish my degree while living with my partner in California, it had been far too long since I’d been surrounded by smart colleagues and conversation about writing, literacy, and rhetoric. I missed it. I missed you guys. A lot.
Being at the conference also gave me some perspective on the choice that I’d made. It’s hard to talk about my situation this fall without feeling a lot of shame and self-indulgence, because my position is a privileged one. But the vertigo of being among my peers all weekend gives me the perspective to admit the truth: it’s been a really hard four months. I left radical activists who challenged me and inspired me every day to move to Silicon Valley, the suburbs where strains of oligarchism float through the air like pollen, in an environment built for cars and nuclear family privacy, except I’m usually in the house alone. And not teaching or being a student has been seriously challenging to my sense of self-worth. How do I know I’m valuable if a teacher or student didn’t tell me so today, and I am just barely affording my grocery, gas, and medical bills, let alone conference travel?
Faced with this situation, time has spun backwards. I’ve regressed, whiling away the hours doing the dishes and the laundry, wishing I had a dog. Not pulling my weight financially makes me feel worthless and useless, and I pick fights with my partner because I don’t feel deserving. I feel like a loser. I have to keep reminding myself that I was supporting myself just fine until I quit my job to move to the most expensive megalopolis in the country.
Being at a conference gave me the perspective to acknowledge how isolated I am out here, how hard it is to be away from one’s colleagues, mentors, and friends, and has allowed me to forgive myself a little for not being as productive as I wish I’d been these past few months, for taking some time to adjust. But being really busy for four days also felt so good, and lit the fire under me again. Forgiving myself for taking some time is giving me motivation to get over it and get to work.
via The Feminist eZine, “The Problem that Has No Name”
But this wasn’t any conference–it was a feminist conference, which meant that great conversations didn’t hover in the abstract, but descended down to the complex material realities of our everyday lives. During lunches, attendee Ames Hawkins was wandering around with a microphone conducting micro-interviews for podcast Masters of Text, asking folks what their favorite moment was of FemRhets so far. My co-panelist LaToya Sawyer and I told the mic our favorite part was Ann Morton’s incredible opening keynote, where she discussed leaving her career in graphic design to begin making textile art that built and engaged the Phoenix community. Now that the conference is over, though, I know that my favorite moment came later, at the graduate student happy hour on Friday night. One of the women I met asked about my move out to California, and I admitted how isolating it had been. We and a few other women began talking about the choices we had made for our relationships–three of the women I spoke to had chosen their PhD programs based on proximity to their partners, all men. We shared the conflicting feelings we had about these choices, how strange it felt, especially as feminists, to feel ourselves limiting ourselves–and was it limiting ourselves?–for proximity to the men we loved. We talked about the structural inequalities which ensure that, when partners decide (with egalitarianism in mind) to follow whichever of them has the higher-paying job, the men inevitably have those jobs and the women are left to compromise. We talked about the ironies of a post-Women’s Lib world where two partners who each invest in their careers means a whole lot of long-distance relationships.
I haven’t written on this blog regularly for some time. But today I put weekly blog posts on my calendar. I want to hold myself to a higher standard from here on out. I want to acknowledge the confusing situation I’m in but not waste the luxury of it. Mostly, I want to write. Hope you’ll be hearing more from me soon–and shoutout to the awesome women and men I met, talked with, presented with, and created knowledge with last weekend. I needed y’all.
On Saturday night I was groped in a club in Chicago. When I whipped my head around to see who had done it, I thought I could identify my assailant by the way he was furiously speeding away, not looking back. A run-by grabbing. By the time I turned around he was well away from me but I thought that was him, anyway, speedwalking through a crowd of people chatting and standing mostly still.
I brought the water I was ordering to my boyfriend on a nearby couch, told him what happened, and then watched as the man emerged from around the corner and stood by the ping pong tables, taking pictures. I told my beau I was going to go yell at him.
We walked over and I said something like hey you just grabbed my ass and what the hell, not even sure it was him, expecting him to deny. But instead he gave us this blank stare, touched his chest, shrugged, said sorry, said, What do you want me to do? It was fucking creepy. I guess in the end he said he’d leave.
We went back to the dance floor and I felt this wave of guilt because what I should have wanted was to take his picture, to drag him to the bouncers and say, This man assaulted me—don’t let him in here ever again. Fuck, call the police! That’s illegal, right? Assault?
As a rape survivor I hate when we call rape sexual assault. Calling rape sexual assault makes both invisible. Sexual assault is this man purposefully molesting me. Sexual assault is my classmate in graduate school following me into my apartment after getting me drunk and unzipping my sweater while I cried hysterically, frozen and in shock. Sexual assault is grabbed breasts, dicks, and asses, a feel-up during a pat-down, any forced or unwanted touching, kissing, or contact. Rape is assault with penetration. Of a vagina, of an anus, of a mouth. We make all the assaults invisible when we forget the word rape, which is another, worser, thing, a thing often done also by the men and women who commit assault.
The whole night my friend kept saying that Soho House, where we were, was “the eating club of Chicago”–and now, after this dude visibly groped me in open well-lit space and no one noticed or seemed to care, I find myself remembering when I was being raped my freshman year of college in an actual eating club and one of my friends stood at the front door of the club begging the bouncers to let her in and get her friend, because someone called her and said I was in trouble. We’ve talked about it since, she and I, the useless irony of security guarding the doors but not protecting the people inside.
And I think also of the seven Syracuse University campus security guards manning the doors at occupied Crouse-Hinds Hall, getting paid the overtime the Administration has complained loudly about to eat potato chips and turn away lawyers and food deliveries at the door. Maybe, maybe, for our safety, we could have used one guard, to walk around the space regularly and make sure everyone inside was actually medically safe.
Now I have been a rape survivor for ten years and I have educated myself on sexual predators and I know, for example, that among men who rape, their average number of victims is 6. I know that not a lot of men are sexual predators but that the ones who are do it repeatedly. And I see the smug sociopathic mug of this dude who grabbed me offering with blank stare to leave and I’m kicking myself for not taking his fucking picture and showing it to the bouncers or the cops or the whole internet because he knew what he was doing well enough to leave quickly so he could do it again, and who knows what else, too. And in the rape culture we live in, the onus is on me, the victim, to make sure sex offenders don’t further offend. But I never heard of the victims of poor people’s drug use being forced to be aggressive and press charges if they wanted those poor drug addicts of color to end up in jail.
What is security? Whom does security make secure?
I have never heard of a security detail in which off-duty policemen are specifically hired and trained to walk around a space making sure sexual predators are not assaulting or raping people. Have you? If the man who groped me had thrown a punch he would’ve been out on the street immediately, but no one is looking for assault and I don’t know who would’ve cared if I’d asked them to. That’s just the price of admission, for being a woman in a bar, these days.
I want a world where security makes women more secure. Where there’s one security force to keep the bar exclusive and cool, sure, but then there are trained people inside the premises looking for vulnerable passed out women and men and going to them and finding their friends and getting them out of there safely and stopping strangers from fucking with them and arresting the people who do. I want a security guard who is scanning the bar scene and noticing when a man purposefully speeds past a woman to molest her unconsenting body as he passes by, who calls the fucking cops on him because that is sexual assault and assault is illegal and, in this imaginary world, it is recognized that sex offenders are repeat offenders and it is a legal priority to get them off the streets, because unlike nonviolent drug users, for example, they actively and inherently are a threat to those around them.
And in this imaginary world women and men who say they are assaulted are believed and not demeaned and not blamed because in this world the fact that 2% of rape accusations are false is as taken for granted as the broken window theory that sends black teenage potheads to jail and gets a man murdered for selling loosies on the street. As Lil Wayne says in “Dontgetit,” the outro to his Carter III, “we don’t have room in the jail for the real motherfuckers, the real criminals,” He describes a sex offender moving into his neighborhood. “They givin me a paper—is that a misunderstanding? ‘Cause I really don’t understand it.” But I really don’t want to know that answer.
Kanye Kendrick lookalike wannabe GGgggrrrrrrr, via theroot.com
I need to make a confession: I love the song “Loyal.” I’m thrilled every time it comes on the radio, and I don’t have to pay Chris Brown to hear it. It tastes like candy in my ear holes. I just want to listen to it on repeat, its ringtone rhythms pouring sugar down my spine. Continue reading →
In March, I presented in the film podcast Bonnie and Maude‘s live show, YOU ARE HAIR. Yes, it was all about hair. Now you can watch the clip, interspersed with my visuals, below. (You *should* watch the whole thing. But to watch mine, select “Playlist” in the upper-left-hand corner and choose video #3.)
In my talk, I discuss the winter wave of celebrity pixie cuts, focusing specifically on Beyonce and Miley Cyrus–how they debuted their cuts, and how they were constructed in their music videos. Enjoy–and he sure to check out the rest of the night’s program here! Special thanks to Kseniya and Eleanor for hosting and producing these clips!!
[this is an excerpt from a final-paper-in-progress called “’Write the story yourself’: Literacy as Social Practice in Hiphop Feminist Art, Scholarship, and Activism”]
In her “Hip Hop and the Black Ratchet Imagination,” L. H. Stallings points to the way that Issa Rae, the creator and star of the web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, has her protagonist J “strap on hip hop” as an outlet for her righteous anger (136). Stallings is referring to those moments when, in fits of frustration, J sits down on her bed and writes furious, explicit, gangsta-inflected rhymes. In her text, Stallings focuses on J’s male-oriented gender performance to explore the queerness of what she calls the “Black Ratchet Imagination.” But we might also see J’s scenes writing raps, one of which appears in the series’s first episode, as a complex literacy event* that not only queers J’s gender identity (a theme brought up in other parts of the episode) but also queers, or questions, her middle-class status, her participation in the information economy, and professional rappers’ processes when writing ridiculous, shallow, expletive-laced lyrics. Continue reading →
Last night I watched the first episode of Veronica Mars and it blew my mind. I have never felt a need to write an episode recap so badly as I did watching that pilot last night. I mean, holy shit, one of the first shots of the episode is of Veronica cutting a black classmate down from a flagpole to which he’s been duct-taped, naked, her face at about waist-height.
Granted I’ve been studying lynching, but these are loaded opening shots for a girls’ after-school special. Continue reading →
In a previous post, I discussed some of the lyrics on R. Kelly’s new album, “Black Panties,” alongside the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his essay “The Body’s Grace.” Looking at the lyrics to “Marry the Pussy” alongside similar lyrics in songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miguel’s “How Many Drinks,” I noticed a similar ability to disguise male desire and male need in the trappings of celebrating women. Each of these three songs is about what a male agent wants, and each of these three songs denies or obscures the agency of the women they’re sung about or to. But in making women (or women’s body parts) the objects of desire, these songs lull critics into thinking they are pro women, so that Jezebel calls “Marry the Pussy” a “magnificent ode to pussy,” and another source I can’t find calls rapist R. Kelly’s album “sex-positive.”
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?” Continue reading →
Y’all, it is a bull market out there for appropriating Black culture. Sell, sell, sell, ’cause folks are buying. You got twerkers on hand? Set them around a white lady and open the auction. Miley was just the beginning. It’s a bonanza out there.
a still from Miley’s video “We Can’t Stop,” via vimeo.com
For a few months now people have been asking me when I’m gonna blog about Miley Cyrus–her VMAs performance, her recent music videos, her appropriation of ratchet cultural signifiers–it all seemed so in my cultural wheelhouse. There was only one thing standing in my way: I don’t like Miley Cyrus, and I don’t like her music. No special offense, really, to Miley. It’s just, I’m a busy lady, so when I blog about something it’s because, even if I find it problematic, I am attracted to the music or the star enough to spend my free time researching, listening, and writing around them. Continue reading →
Yesterday I got schooled by two feminists of color on twitter, @NanticokeNDN and @thetrudz. It was kind of like being workshopped at life. You get a ton of criticism really fast, and it stings going down, and some of it’s useful and some of it’s not. Thinking through that critique, and implementing it, is helpful and important. Continue reading →
Jezebel had a nice piece on Miley’s twerking and cultural appropriation: On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the idea is that Cyrus’s new video and general new ‘tude are a disrespectful appropriation of black southern culture, a move rooted in Cyrus’s privilege to “accessorise” with minority accoutrements but still move in privileged spaces with money and clout. Continue reading →
Miguel is a stylish new R&B crooner with a new post-Akon/Neyo aesthetic, so I’m sorry that his new single, “How Many Drinks,” is full of predatory one-liners. The music is sultry, true. And whenever it comes on the radio, I admit I groove for a second before I remember what song it is.
I’m not the first listener to be turned off by. At the LA Weekly, Shea Serrano describes “Why This Song Sucks.” (Answer: because it’s rapey). At Madame Noir, Clark Gail Baines asks whether it’s ok to still jam out to a song that, if its lyrics were directed to her at a bar, would have her “two step[ping] in the opposite direction.” And while the video posters at Clutch, Rap-Up, Absolutepunk.net and 2DopeBoyz don’t say anything of the kind, commenters at all four compared the lyrics’ scenario to “date rape.” But the best treatment of the song came in Twitter conversation between @BShariseMoore, @UrbanGrief (Lisa Good), and @sisterprofessor (Dr. Zada Johnson) in a series of tweets, from which Johnson segued into a great discussion of the falsetto in R&B, and BShariseMoore follows up with a blog post that breaks down the song’s questionable lyrics.
It’s a damn shame Miguel’s people didn’t notice a sociopath wrote their new track. This song is filled with really classic predatory logic, from using alcohol as a weapon for committing assault, to distorted thinking that blames the victim for something she didn’t choose. I know you guys think I”m being a total killjoy here. And I’m thinking of the scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin when Steve Carrell is told to go for the drunkest girls in the bar, and he ends up with Leslie Mann, who of course is hilarious and it gets very funny. But the depiction of Mann as the aggressor is disingenuous. In real life, real drunk girls are vulnerable to real predators, not affable adult virgins.
Even if it’s not fun, it’s important to look at lyrics like these to remind ourselves how blurred conceptions of consent are in our popular culture, and in popular depictions of courtship. Miguel’s lyrics describe a seduction that focus entirely on his wants and his needs, which describe a pickup as a process with only one ending, whose only variable is not whether a woman might want to sleep with him or not but only “How many drinks?” it will take to get her there.
The song opens with Miguel’s assumption that because he’s attracted to a woman, he’s entitled to her.
Frustration: watching you dance.
Hesistation: to get in your pants
Come closer, baby, so I can touch
One question: am I moving too fast?
So the song opens with Miguel, presumably at a bar, “watching you dance.” Immediately he feels “frustration,” which I’m reading as both sexual frustration but also anger: you have something he wants. But it’s all about his feelings, not yours. He feels frustrated, so you need to “come closer” so that he “can touch.” (What, is he supposed to come over to you? Ask you to dance? Too lazy.) Miguel has “one question: am I moving too fast?”–but from the lyrics that follow, it doesn’t seem he cares what your answer is. He already knows how the night will end, and your opinion doesn’t matter.
‘Cause I ain’t leavin’ alone, feel like I could be honest, babe,
We both know that we’re grown
That’s why I wanna know
How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?
Yeah, you look good and I got money
But I don’t wanna waste my time
Back of my mind I’m hopin’ you say two or three
You look good, we came to party
But I don’t wanna waste my time
The chorus is where things get aggressive. “I ain’t leaving alone,” said instead of sung, is an almost threatening statement. It suggests to a woman that there’s only one way out of here, and it’s with me. The next two lines sport some faulty logic: Assumption: “we’re grown” (meaning what: we’re both DTF?); ergo (“that’s why”) there’s only one question here (“I wanna know”): “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?” Miguel knows you’re coming: you’re a grownup, right? And, because he’s grown, and you’re grown, and he looked at you, your desires must be identical to his. Or if they’re not, he doesn’t care. The “one question” he asked you is not, “Do you want to go home with me?” or “Are you attracted to me?” or even “Wanna fuck?” It’s, How drunk do you have to be, or how much money do I have to spend, or even how much do I have to talk to you “to get you to leave with me,” which if you do, I will assume that is consent to sleep with me (though it isn’t).
The next few lines strike me as pathologically narcissistic, as Miguel lays out what he’s comfortable with in this situation (spending money) and what he’s not comfortable with (you spending his money without the payoff). Twice Miguel repeats that “I don’t wanna waste my time.” This line would read hugely different to me if he said “I don’t wanna waste [your] time,” giving some small indication of the woman’s subjectivity, like that she could be disinterested in him. And why is the “back of my mind hopin’ she’ll say two or three”? Because then she’ll be good and drunk? Or because more than that is expensive and who needs four or five, honestly? Miguel, in the “back of your mind” you should be sayin, I hope I’m being respectful of this woman’s boundaries. She seems kind of drunk, maybe I should ask for her number and call her tomorrow.
Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the song is interesting because it shows how rape culture and alcohol culture intersect. On “How Many Drinks,” he raps, “Pool full of liquor then we dive – in it/Knowing if I lick her I might die – in it.” The first part of this couplet is lifted from Lamar’s track “Swimming Pool (Drank),” where the voice of an experienced partier explains to Lamar, “First you get a swimming pool of liquor then you dive in it.” However, as one of my students V. J. demonstrated in a great paper last near, “Swimming Pool (Drank)” is a polyphonic narrative that uses multiple voices to demonstrate a really ambivalent attitude about drinking. Yes, one voice advises “diving in,” but another voice, identified as Lamar’s “conscience,” reminds Lamar that he’s “drown in some poison abusin’ my limit,” and the chorus depicts the anomie of a life of binging, hangovers, and the real boredom of addiction.
But this ambivalence is totally lacking in Lamar’s track on “How Many Drinks.” It’s almost as though he misquotes himself, takes his own words out of context, and distorts the meaning of (and tarnishes the subtlety of) his original song. Lamar’s lyrics don’t have the same narcissism as Miguel’s: his lyrics, which aren’t so brilliant, depict the choice to get together as one he and the woman make together: “Ah, what do we have? Your empty heart and my empty bottle and yellow cab.” That is, it takes two people’s desire, not just one: she’s had a break up, he’s had some drinks, there’s a taxi waiting outside. What’s really striking to me about Lamar’s verse is the effect it has on our reception of the sampled song, “Swimming Pool (Drank).” Because as listeners there’s this impulse to read the values of “How Many Drinks,” which is about getting a girl drunk so you can bang her, onto “Swimming Pool,” to forget that the latter actually questions alcohol culture as self-destructive, and instead remember it as a binge drinking anthem.
At the end of the remix, Miguel tries to spin his sleazy pickup as an exercise in women’s lib with a dash of YOLO:
I ain’t judgin’ if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
What? More power to you if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
Let’s go, shit, we only live once right?
Whatever action verb is used for sex is mixed out, but it sounds pretty clearly like “fucking” to me. Sorry, guys, but this is what rape scholarship calls “cognitive distortions.” In Miguel’s outro, the cognitive distortion is that while earlier in the song he was the one deciding “I’m not leaving alone,” suddenly the woman is an engaged participant with agency and choice. These lines also function to remove Miguel from responsibility while implicitly shaming the female. Suddenly “I ain’t judgin'” her decision to be promiscuous. Of course, these lines are laden with implicit judgment. In fact, they are nearly victim-blaming. Suddenly the empowered woman “decide[s…] to be fuckin’ tonight.” What happened to the girl you only had one question for? The sarcastic congratulations, “more power to you” only makes the line more offensive. They equate women’s victimization with women’s empowerment. If you wants to be liberated, go ahead, but you’re gonna get fucked. By Miguel. Yucky.
So, I finally raised my white flag and started listening to Drake. This was on the heels of a lot of Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how each of these three male artists writes and performs songs about female characters. (I’m thinking here of Drake’s Take Care, Ocean’s Channel Orange, and Lamar’s Section.80 and Good Kid, mAAd City). At first, my response was positive, both personally and politically – I felt noticed as a female listener: hey, he’s talkin’ ’bout ladies, he’s male but he cares, he notices the women around him. Cool. Then, my critical impulses jumped in: hey, talkin’ about ladies is great, but I shouldn’t be satisfied by men talkin’ bout women. Where’s the women talkin’ ’bout women? And then, finally, I started collecting evidence, listening to the songs about women more closely. I started wondering about these tracks’ emotional content: why sing a certain song about a female character instead of about yourself? What can these artists achieve emotionally through female characters that they can’t or won’t approach through their own male selves?
These questions are rooted in my longtime interest in gendered values/vices, a subject I’ve discussed briefly here before. To briefly summarize where I’m coming from (and you can read more at the linked post), I’ll just note that traditional Western Christianity tends to see self-sacrifice as a virtue and pride as a sin, a la Jesus Christ. However, in the 1960s feminist theologians began to criticize this vision of virtue and vice as tailored primarily for the powerful, for white, heterosexual men: if you’re in power, self-sacrifice can be virtuous, pride and overreach can be sinful, sure. But for folks who are oppressed, who are voiceless, inculcating the “virtue” of self-sacrifice tends to reinforce their oppression. These feminist theologians suggested instead that for oppressed peoples, self-assertion is virtuous, while self-abnegation is a vice, a revision also taken up by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he asserted that those in power will never give up power willingly, but it needs to be claimed by the powerless: i.e., the virtue of pride.
I mention this all because I’ve noticed in Drake’s work especially a use of female characters to elide pridefulness. On his album Take Care, while Drake is braggadocious, he doesn’t take wholesome pride in his accomplishments and hard work; instead, he ascribes pride to female avatars: mother figures in “Look What You’ve Done” and a female love object in “Make Me Proud.”
On “Look What You’ve Done,” Drake proudly recounts his rise from obscurity to fame, the hard work and the lucky breaks, but repeatedly redirects his pride from his own self to a grateful honoring of his mother and another mother figure who supported him. Of his mother’s health problems, he asks, “But maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard/If you were healthy and it weren’t so bad.” In this moment Drake resists taking pride in his own work ethic. Perhaps a work ethic isn’t manly, but altruism is: so Drake suggests he worked hard not because he was a hard worker, but because he had to be a man and take care of his mother. He continues:
Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on
[Lil Wayne’s] thinking of signing me, I come home
We make a mixtape with seventeen songs
I almost get a Grammy off of that thing
They love your son man that boy gone
You get the operation you dreamed of
And I finally sent you to Rome
I get to make good on my promise
It all worked out girl, we shoulda known
Cause you deserve it
These lines fascinate me because Drake is being playfully prideful, braggadocious: “Oh it’s my time, yeah, it’s on,” and he alludes to his hard work when he makes a Grammy-nominated mixtape in record time. But these declarations of pride and hard work are quickly redirected from effeminate pride in oneself to manly self-sacrifice, i.e., taking care of Mom: “you get the operation you dreamed of…’cause you deserve it.” What I’m wondering here is, why can’t Drake deserve it? Didn’t he work hard, didn’t he make this music? But recognizing his own hard work in a serious way seems uncouth, and so he transforms his own pride into gratitude and self-sacrifice by using his achievement to take care of Mom.
This picture of acceptable virtues and vices is expanded on “Make Me Proud,” which similarly resists pridefulness but celebrates and encourages a female other–voiced literally by Nicki Minaj–to take pride in her accomplishments. On this track Drake paints a picture of a girl working hard, balancing her academic/career aspirations with her social/superficial concerns. Remarkably, she pulls it all off, and Drake expresses a kind of sympathy for what a catch she is, how she must be getting hit on at every turn:
weekend in miami, tryna study by the pool
Couple things due, but you always get it done….
You said niggas coming on too strong girl
They want you in their life as a wife
That’s why you wanna have no sex
Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right
Cause you don’t love them boys
Pussy run everything, fuck that noise
That line in there: “Why you wanna protest, why you wanna fight for your right” – in invoking the feminist mantras, Drake gently mocks them, mocks this girl he supposedly loves. And this dressing down of her righteous and well-earned pride in herself is continued into the chorus when, first of all, the girl’s achievements are conflated with her physical appeal, and second, her pride in herself is something that appears to need to be validated by Drake:
I know things get hard
But girl you got it, girl you got it there you go
Can’t you tell by how they looking at you everywhere you go
Wondering what’s on your mind, it must be hard to be that fine,
When all these motherfuckas wanna waste your time
It’s just amazing, girl, and all I can say is…
I’m so, I’m so, I’m so, I’m so,
I’m so proud of you (x3)
Everything’s adding up, you’ve been through hell and back
That’s why you’re bad as fuck and you…
And then Nicki jumps in – unlike Drake, she can inhabit pride in a way he is not permitted to:
B-b-b-bad I am
All of them bitches I’m better than
Mansions in Malibu babblin
But I never mention everything I dabble in
…Done did the pop tour, I’m the realest deal,
The best legal team so the deals is ill
It’s Mac, OPI and a fragrance too
Apparel, I’m dominating every avenue
Cobblestone, good view, lil gravel too
Gotta pay for the entourage travel too
Cause I’m fli-fli-fly, I’m flying high
Ain’t got time to talk, just Hi and bye
It’s interesting to ask, in this context, whether Nicki’s braggodocious lyrics, above, are qualitatively different from Drake’s. (We’ll look at another song of his in a moment). Taken on their own, I would say they’re not: she’s better than bitches, she has a great team, brand-name deals, she flies her entourage around, etc. Drake brags about the same shit. I think the difference is the context, the introduction Nicki receives. “That’s why you’re bad as fuck,” he says, and she replies, “Bad I am,” as though Drake gives her permission to take pride in herself and she accepts it, as though she condones his validation of her worth.
It’s also fun to watch Drake and Nicki’s genuine chemistry and affection in the video of “Make Me Proud,” above. Because when they are actually rapping the lyrics to each other the song has an even clearer dialogic quality. And we see then that not only does Drake sing to Nicki, “I’m so proud of you,” but she sings it back to him, gesturing to the audience: “I really am so proud of this guy.” It’s almost maternal, a mother saying she is proud of her son. Perhaps that’s the invisible voice missing from Take Care: maternal pride (though actually it does appear, dressed as gratitude, at the end of “Look What You’ve Done”). Drake doesn’t need to be proud of himself; he’ll be proud of the women, and the women will be proud of him.
I compare “Look What You’ve Done” and “Make Me Proud” with a number of other songs on Take Care in which Drake engages with female characters and variously brags, acts falsely humble, appears emotionally unavailable, or alludes to a private emotional self but resists trespassing beyond a set core of manly emotions: sexual appetite, generosity for women and friends, gratitude/blessedness, blase oversaturation at the volume of food, drink, pussy he gets, empty apologies for said emotional unavailability. But never can Drake say, I worked hard, I earned this (only female characters can say that); and while Drake can say I mistreated some women, he is never mistreated by them – he uses them for sex, they use him for money, but his heart is never broken (that is weak): thus, “Cry if you want to, but I can’t stay to watch you, it’s the wrong thing to do.” I.e., Drake’s sin is emotional unavailability, he’s too tough to love you right now, but he’s rational enough, smart enough, chivalrous enough to break your heart to your face, instead of “end[ing] up lying, and say I love you too.”
There’s more to say, but I’ll stop here. I’m interested to hear what y’all think – all fictional characters are in some sense avatars of their authors, and I’m hoping to create space for us to notice the different characteristics rappers care to occupy as themselves versus as female fictions in their work. We also see this going on in Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and lots of Kendrick Lamar tracks, but I’ll save that for another day. Peace y’all.
click the pic to listen to “Bow Down” at Huffpost.com
Beyonce’s inauguration performance, half-time show, and the recent release of her new single “Bow Down” have provided grist for the production of an enormous amount of writing.
Or, to use another metaphor:
Beyonce’s inauguration performance, half-time show, and the recent release of her new single “Bow Down” not only made waves, they have left a wake of scholarship and criticism behind them.
As the whole country, and certainly the popular media, have accepted Beyonce’s Napoleonic christening of herself as “Queen Bey,” these last three Beyonce experiences have spawned conversations about whether Bey is a feminist, post-feminist, capitalist feminist, black, black enough, the Queen of Pop, ratchet, anti-feminist, and so on. A few days ago she released “Bow Down,” which commands the listener, “Bow down bitches, bow down bitches.” You know. ‘Cause she’s the queen. And you ain’t.
If I have any argument to make in this post, it’s that Beyonce knows she can say whatever she wants and the whole country will flip their shit about it. Whatever her use of “bitch” signifies about feminism, post-feminism, or anti-feminism, the one certainty here is that Beyonce used it on purpose and knew it would problematize our picture of her as a Michelle-Obama-hugging-post-racial-feminist. Because Beyonce has her image on lock.
Mostly what I want to do here is simply marvel at the size and scope of the cultural conversations generated by this song, that halftime performance, that inauguration lipsync and non-apologetic press conference. As pop culture scholars, we should be thanking her for pushing the envelope, rocking our boats, giving us something to type about. And here I defer to my colleagues and offer a selection of rockin’ readings about Queen Bey, listed in order of how much they fascinate me, though all are fascinating. (I didn’t find boring links for y’all!)
Ok, here we go:
Maco L. Faniel contextualizes Beyonce’s “Bow Down” in southern rap history and aesthetics (Maco L. Faniel Blogs)
Mark Bittman eviscerates Beyonce for her PepsiCo endorsement deal (fascinating for Beyonce’s cultural saturation, even into the food column – The New York Times, “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?”) (I also wrote about that post before)
Rahiel Tesfamariam and Joan Morgan sound off on Twitter about “Bow Down’s” use of “bitch” (check out their whole feeds from 3/20 and 3/21)
RN Bradley considers “Bow Down” as a flirtation with the ratchet (Red Clay Scholar)
Avidly examines the masks of Beyonce’s face, at the Superbowl and in the more distant past (Avidly, “On Beyonce’s Face”)
Guthrie Ramsey argues that the scandal over Beyonce’s inauguration lipsync is part of a historical American obsession with authenticity (Dr. Guy’s Musiqology, “Beyond Beyonce Gate: Looking for the American Authentic”)
Anne Helen Petersen decodes Beyonce’s Tumblr and then argues for Bey’s ambivalent relationship to feminism (ok, these could be at the top of the list, but I link to Petersen all the time, so read those other great scholars first- Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, “Decoding Beyonce’s Tumblr”)
GQ’s cover story on Beyonce has no philosophical problem sexifying and celebrating Bey simultaneously (interesting mainly for the sexy pics and the philosophical problems raised, but not acknowledged- GQ, “Miss Millenium”)
David J. Leonard thinks haters on the Halftime Show are enforcing a “politics of civility” (NewBlackMan, “Beyoncé, The Super Bowl and the Politics of “Civility””
In the wake of the Super Bowl, Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak christens Beyonce the King of Pop (Gawker, “Beyonce Knowles is the King of Pop”)
Ann Powers argues that Beyonce’s Super Bowl show is kind of the apex of black American female pop performances (NPR, “The Roots of Beyonce’s Super Bowl Spectacular”)
Sophie Wiener suggests that Beyonce is probably, but not neccessarily, a feminist (The Atlantic, “Is Beyonce a Feminist?”)
I was so surprised, last December, to read Sasha Frere-Jones’s scathing dismissal of Rihanna’s singing voice. “Rihanna’s voice isn’t big or compelling,” he wrote, “and it works mostly by sounding relaxed and drooping, with a hint of a West Indian accent, a descending twang that sounds a bit like moaning. Her voice has a distancing effect, and it conveys not emotion but, rather, a position of powerful detachment.”
To my ears, Rihanna’s voice is leaded with emotion. When she’s lazy, her stillness reads boredom, but when she’s working, and she was at the Grammy’s last night, all I hear is pain, her voice big and moving but its brilliance dulled by hurt, as though she can’t breathe deep enough or smile wide enough to let her vocals glimmer. She sounds contained, clipped.
Like millions of Americans, I find Rihanna incredibly compelling. In her performance of “Stay,” at the Grammy’s last night, she sings like a woman who means it: she really does want him to stay. We know who she means: Chris Brown. The Grammys producers help us out in this interpretation by cutting to him, clench-jawed in the audience, whenever Ri performs.
Anne Helen Petersen explains that “[a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen…with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip)…. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.” Petersen offers examples like Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts to illuminate the creation of a star. Rihanna is a severe contrast to those to fun, wholesome white women, because Rihanna is creating an image of herself as a domestic abuse victim. This has been reinscribed most recently by “Stay,” but also very explicitly in her guest vocals on Emimen’s “Love the Way You Lie” and Drake’s “Take Care.” Suddenly, what Frere-Jones sees as “detached” suddenly reads “disassociated.”
The chorus of “Stay” tells of ambivalence trumped by physical desire.
Not really sure how to feel about it
Something in the way you move
Makes me feel like I can’t live without you
It takes me all the way
I want you to stay.
As on Eminem’s track, Rihanna is performing the role of a woman stuck in acycle of a violent love. These lines are all about physicality trumping, and ultimately melding with, emotional truth. A man who can “take me all the way” colors what she wants, not needs: “I want you to stay,” whether or not that’s good for her. “Stay” doesn’t have to allude to violence for us to fill in the blanks. A quick mention of “dare” and “around we go” and we know this is about her addiction to Chris. She loves him even though he’s bad for her.
On “Take Care,” Drake promises to “take care” of a girl with some baggage. No one mentions domestic abuse, but again, we read it in. Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” is more explicit, with talk of burning and hurting. Again and again, Rihanna reifies our image of her as a woman pulled into abusive relationships, needing to be saved. And we keep watching, because the Rihanna in pain is increasingly the Rihanna we know and love.
In her performance of “Stay” on SNL, emotions move across Rihanna’s mannequin face in suggestions: the suggestion of fear, of anger, of lust. Her vowels are closed off and her lips are full and red. As a viewer invested in Rihanna’s image, I get the sense that summoning this genuine pain from inside herself, which I do hear playing across the timber of her voice, takes whatever energy another performer might devote to reaching the audience. But instead of complaining that she doesn’t dance enough, we should shut up and feel lucky to get to watch this sexy, masochistic performance. We’re perverts, voyeurs, watching this beautiful woman squirm.
By comparison, Rihanna’s Grammys performance last night was more emotional. She seemed to have a hard time looking at the audience, where Chris Brown sat waiting to be shown on camera. When she sang, “All along it was a fever,” she looked sick, in pain, and we knew it was for him. “I put my hands in the air, and said, ‘Show me something.'” This is a woman dying for the thrill of experience, and we’re living vicariously, buying into every flinch. We want her to want it. We want her to fall. We are the sadists to Rihanna’s masochist. When she mimes her lover’s words, scrunching her perfect nose in pain, “If you dare, come a little closer,” she could be speaking to us.
Someone behind Rihanna, maybe herself, is very smart, and very sick. Who keeps picking these autobiographical songs for her to sing? Who keeps her recording with and appearing with Chris Brown? Is this really love, or a brilliant publicist who understands how stars work, and that as consumers of Rihanna we want to see her struggle and lose?
At the end of his article, Frere-Jones wonders whether “appreciating Rihanna’s work may demand that we accept the idea that her disregard of herself is a source of freedom, or of power.” Frere-Jones’s “power,” I think, refers to some kind of feminine self-assurance, that is, empowerment. He is wondering whether Rihanna’s blasé, as a kind of self-expression of her own boredom, represents empowerment in the same way that Beyonce’s self-objectification as Stripper Queen of the Superbowl does. I don’t know whether Rihanna’s ennui means she’s empowered to not give a shit or whether, as her handlers might have us believe, she’s seriously hurting. But her inaccesibility is certainly central to her star power, because her stillness leaves blanks we color in with pain. Someone is inventing Rihanna as a tragic woman, the kind of sad sex kitten Marilyn Monroe turned into when the light was wrong. Rihanna’s songs are for us, and about us, about this fucked up relationship we’ve found ourselves in with her. “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn?” she asks us, then answers herself, “That’s all right, because I like the way it hurts.” Rihanna’s not the only one who loves her pain: we do, too. We’re watching every moan. Rihanna wants us to stay, and we will.
In my first post on this subject, I considered two important questions: why care about celebrities at all, and why care about Kimye when there are Mr. and Mrs. Sean Carter? For the first question I used the work of star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen to suggest, as she does, that “when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves.” Celebrities resonate with us, and divining why a certain star becomes a superstar is a project in self-understanding and cultural scrutiny.
My second question held Kim and Kanye up to Beyonce and Jay, their natural foils. I suggested that loving the former more than the latter, as I do, is a function of their lives’ messiness and mistakes. In reflecting my own life’s messiness and mistakes, Kimye’s love is fragile and human in my eyes. I am invested in it because I too have made mistakes and been judged harshly, and if their love can last then perhaps so will mine.
When Kim and Kanye began dating in earnest, I was very, very excited. They were on the cover of the Chicago Sun Times and I still have that paper next to my writing desk. Remember when people threw royal wedding-watch pajama parties for Will and Kate? I didn’t. I don’t care about Will and Kate. But when Kim and Kanye hooked up I would tell anyone who would listen that when they got married I would throw a party about it. Think: Grown N’Sexy KIMYE Wedding Bash! I would wear stilletos and a metallic dress in their honor and we would listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on repeat until it got late enough to switch to R. Kelley and Notorious B.I.G.
But before the engagement announcement arrived, Kim got knocked up. And I have to tell you, I was disappointed. I wanted to throw my engagement party. I wanted them to do it in the order you’re supposed to do it. Bey and Jay did it! Hell, they got married in secret! What happened to “first comes love, then comes marriage”?
And in noticing my reaction to Kim’s pregnancy, I realized that even though I loved this couple because their lives were messy, I still wanted their relationship to be neat.
Ye’s banned MBDTF artwork with painting by G. Condo
In America, Kim and Kanye’s coupling represents a deviant sexuality on almost all possible fronts. In almost all the ways a heterosexual couple can fit into America’s historical portrait of deviant sexuality, Kim and Kanye fit the bill:
1.Kim’s curves are objectified (the sense is,k by her, for money). Also, she made a sex tape, which reads pornography. Her body + the sex tape both read prostitute.
2. Kanye is a black male rapper, which reads criminal/violent/drug dealer (not–as we might hope–“poet/artist”).
3. Kanye is a black man attracted to a white woman, which reads “Birth of a Nation” lascivious, hypersexed, dangerous black man out for your white daughters.
4. Kim is a white woman attracted to a black man (and, in the past, other black men) which means she’s addicted to sex, dirty, somehow animalistic, somehow less white and more Armenian, i.e., Arab. (SNL: “And to all our boyfriends, Happy Kwanzaa!”
5. Kim allegedly married basketballer Kris Humphries for financial gain in the form of royalties from her television show and televised wedding special on E!, which reads that she sells her intimacy for money, which reads prostitute. See derogatory phrase: “fame whore.”
6. Kim is an adulteress with a capital scarlet A: she started dating Kanye and is now impregenated by him while still legally married to Humphries.
I don’t have the energy to defend that all the above are extant American prejudices or taboos. Watch “Barack and Curtis” or “Birth of a Nation” or read some of the suggested’s before. What I’m interested in here is how all of these taboos become coopted into a heteronormative, pro-marriage and pro-family narrative when we as a culture become invested in these two sullied individuals’ relationship. Even this morning there was an article in the New York Times about some prominent conservatives’ shift towards a pro-marriage (any marriage, gay marriage) agenda. And in rapper Macklemore’s video for “Same Love,” a celebrated pro-gay marriage song, we see a similar move, the normalization of gay people through marriage: “same love,” not “I respect your different love.”
Kimye on the Chicago Sun-Times front page, April 6 2012
Interestingly,when Kim and her ex Kris Humphries first called their marriage quits, the media (see SNL, below) demonized Kim as a woman who would sell her intimacy for the price of a televised wedding special on E! But now that Kim is pregnant, the narrative has switched to a demonization of Kris for refusing to give Kim a divorce because of his “desperate need for revenge” and “power.” Whether this new narrative arises from the power of Kim’s publicity or America’s genuine affection for Kimye, I don’t know. But the fact remains that as a culture we seem to want Kim and Kanye to stay together and get married–a triumph of our conservative, pro-family values, and a testament to those values’ ability to somehow cleanse what we view as sexual sins like prostitution, miscegenation, adultery.
In her book Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar suggests that the recent welcome Americans have showed to homosexual couples in mainstream culture has been accompanied by the shaming of a new set of bodies, namely Arab bodies who have been branded as “terrorists” (Puar mentions The L Word and Six Feet Under, 132, to which we could add Modern Family and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). Writing in 2007, Puar argues that our nation still uses sexualized humiliation and violence to mark criminalized sexuality. In the Jim Crow south, to be a black man whistling at a white woman or even just a black man was a sexuality that marked its owner’s body as available for state-sanctioned violence and murder. These days, Kanye can rap about “30 white bitches” and we all laugh. But Puar suggests this is the illusion of progress. While we pat Kanye on the back, out of sight, at Abu Graib, new bodies are available for state-sanctioned violence.
I’ve started already to extend Puar’s arguments on queer bodies to extend the kind of non-normative sexuality we see in the coupling of Kim and Kanye: a sexuality that invokes sex work, laciviousness, interracial coupling. Puar argues that queer sexualities are absorbed into the national project as a way to manage threats to the social order. She writes, “homonormativity is both disciplined by the nation and its heteronormative underpinnings and also effectively surveils and disciplines those sexually perverse bodies that fall outside its purview. Thus the nation not only allows for queer bodies, but also actually disciplines and normalizes them” (49). That is, a normalized homosexuality is still heteronormative–that is, pro-heterosexual practices and behaviors. But by accepting homosexual behavior of a certain kind, the nation is able to regulate and control those behaviors. Meanwhile, what is unaccepted and unregulated has shifted to a new target: in Puar’s argument, terrorist bodies, who are not welcome in our polity and instead still subject to violence, not cooptation.
I want to suggest that interracial relationships and even in some senses sex work are being “surveiled and disciplined,” and therefore normalized, in the persons of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, through our insistence on their marriage. Let’s take a look at Kim Kardashian’s appearance on The View in September, when she and Kanye had been dating for 6 months (my Sun-Times, above, is from April of last year). Feel free, first off, to note that Barbara Walter’s first question for Kim is what part of her body she doesn’t like. Way to build a girl up, Barb. But it’s this later moment that’s more interesting to me:
Around 2:12 – –catch that? Barbara asks, “What about marriage? Do you want his child? Where are we?” Everyone laughs at Barbara’s candor, Joy says “No rush,” but Barb pushes on, claiming, “You gotta ask!” Why, Barbara Walters, why have you gotta ask? Kim demurs: “Well technically I’m still married.” Barbara is undeterred. THese are the terms of her acceptance of Kim as our Armenian-American darling. “You’re divorced, undivorced, whatever,” Barb pushes on. “Are you really thinking in terms of a permanent relationship?…Have you talked about children?”
At this point, Whoopi Goldberg, bless her heart, flops over in her chair and says, “Jesus.”
Kim starts explaining how she does want kids, and she wanted them before but “didn’t take the time” to pick the right person.
Whoopi interjects, a voice of reason.”You move too fast, you move too fast.”
“Exactly,” says Kim.
Now, imagining that Kim Kardashian is a real person with real feelings who really moves too fast, Barbara and Whoopi sort of represent our two impulses with Kim. We want her to slow down and get to know herself and be patient with her decisions, but we also want her decision to be marriage, ideally to Kanye. It’s healing: it feels good as a nation to celebrate the interracial coupling of an amateur sextress and a guy who insulted two national darlings, George W. Bush and Taylor Swift, on national TV.
If Puar was here, she might ask what violence our celebration of Kimye is obscuring? Who don’t we love when we love Kimye?
…and this one I’m struggling to answer. The families destroyed by drone strikes or the prison-industrial complex? The children killed not in mass suburban shootings but by daily inner-city gun violence? What don’t we see when we bathe in the starlight of Kimye? I am thinking of the New Jim Crow, of the families whose lovers and fathers and mothers are in prison, of the fathers taken away for state-sanctioned violence not for whistling at a white woman but for having small amounts of drugs on them when they were racially profiled and frisked by police, of these men who if they are released into certain states will never be able to vote, no matter the race of the president on the ballot. In loving Kimye, whom do we forget?
Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?
First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:
Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.
…[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).
Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?
(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.
Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.
But enuf of that.)
From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:
When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit. As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters. Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were. Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.
So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:
Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.
Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.
For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.
But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.
Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?
Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.
The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.
So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.
Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)
Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.
Bear with me here.
Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)
Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.
The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.
I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Just listen, for a minute.
We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,
How many people you know could take it this far?
So many stars [scars].
Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.
I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.
Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye? We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.
After I wrote my post on 9th Wonder’s lecture at Michigan, in which I argued that 9th modeled producing skills for the audience, I started thinking about what skills I could model for my students. I was already aware that I try to model respectful, specific language when talking about touchy subjects like race or sexuality. But what I really want to model is skills – and my skill, the reason I teach a writing class, is that I’m a writer. But it’s frustratingly hard to model writing practice in the classroom. Usually I’m either lecturing or reactive, giving tips or offering feedback. It’s rare that I actually write something my students see. I have one short close reading that I hand out, but that’s it.
Yet lesson planning is a kind of writing I do before class every day. By arranging a set of texts and a set of questions in 120-minute chunks, I’m using my writing skills of argument, research, evidence, and structure to arrange materials for students so that the texts tell a story and build an argument. When students make connections between texts in class, the secret is that I did a lot of the work for them already – I arranged the texts for that class.
This semester, my advanced class English 225 had an A/V hookup, so toward the end of the semester I began experimenting with putting my lesson plans up on our class blog, instead of keeping them private on my precious looseleaf. And I like to think that by making my lesson plan public, I’m modeling the early work of argument: following the hunches that put texts in dialogue with one another, explaining their links, formulating questions. Making space for argument to begin. Anyway, I did this twice this semester. The first time was about falling masks in Afrodiasporic literature + music, and the second is about 50 Cent and hiphop masculinity, below.
The text that follows is what I posted on our class blog and showed on the overhead projector during class. I had students get into small groups. After each video or audio clip, I asked students to discuss some of the questions I raised in their groups, and then we talked over the same issues as a class.
Marc Lamont Hill writes that (perhaps falsely) outed rapper “Big Daddy Kane was hip-hop’s playboy extraordinaire. With his good looks, braggadocious lyrics, a flashy persona, and even a pimp-like name, Kane’s very identity signified a carefully crafted and extravagantly performed masculinity” (Hill X).
A decade and a half later, another rapper who “extravagantly perform[s] masculinity” is 50 Cent. In his lyrics and videos, 50 Cent’s performance of masculinity makes specific claims about what it means to be a man. This masculinity is in relationship to oneself, to material goods, to women, and to other men.
Examining a selection of 50 Cent’s music and videos, we can ask what values his image projects. What does it mean in this universe to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What is the nature of heterosexual courtship and relationships? Which characteristics are valued and which are scorned?
Listen: “Many Men”
Many men, many, many, many, many men
Wish death ‘pon me
Lord I don’t cry no more
Don’t look to the sky no more
Have mercy on me
Have mercy on my soul
Somewhere my heart turned cold
Have mercy on many men
Many, many, many, many men
Wish death upon me
Watch: “Candy Shop” ; “Window Shopper”
Byron Hurt’s mini documentary “Barack and Curtis” explores the impact of 50 Cent’s masculinity on the American conception of black masculinity, and then compares that image with the image of then-new President Barack Obama. According to Hurt, how does the appearance of Obama challenge the vision of masculinity presented by 50 Cent?
At some point every weekend, I spend about an hour giving myself a manicure. It’s a labor of love, and inconvenience: add to that hour the also-half-hour-or-hour spent not doing anything but gingerly pressing “play” on that day’s webisode of Melissa Harris-Perry. I’ve jumped the gun this week: my nails were chipping, so I took the plunge even though it’s only Friday. Removed last week’s nail polish, soaked my fingertips in warm water in the sink, pushed back and clipped my cuticles, clipped my nails and gently filed them. All that’s left is to apply four coats of the too-sheer nontoxic nail polish I’ve been using, but I can’t do that until I’ve typed my piece.
At some point in this flurry of filing and clipping I thought back to the sin of sensuality, a concept I studied as a college senior writing a thesis for Princeton’s Religion Department. My junior year independent work had focused on late 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian realist and Cold War hawk who advocated action against dangerous enemies tempered by critical self-reflection. For Niebuhr, whose theology developed against the backdrop of enormous multinational wars and power struggles, the greatest virtue was self-sacrifice, the greatest sin was pride, and men fell more easily to the latter than the former.
For Niebuhr’s feminist critics, his use of “man” and “men” as generic human pronouns was important, and more precise than Niebuhr realized. Valerie Saiving Goldstein’s 1960 article “The Human Situation: A Feminist View,” was the first to articulate the feminist critique of Niebuhr’s theology. Focusing her argument on the visions of love and sin articulated by Niebuhr and Anders Nygren, she considered their views that “man’s predicament [rises] from his separateness and the anxiety occasioned by it.” According to Nieburh and Nygren, Goldstein argued, the anxiety of autonomy led these male theologians to “identify sin with self-assertion and love with selflessness” (100). Pushing oneself to be an individual was construed as sinful; virtue was constructed as relinquishing one’s identity in the interest of others. Goldstein’s concern is not over the reality of this assertion, but rather its presentation as universal. If this vision of love is not redemptive, it is not normative; if “human nature and the human situation are not as described by the theologians in question, then the assertion that self-giving love is the law of man’s being is irrelevant and may even be untrue.” Goldstein boldly claimed that a theology which inaccurately represents the spiritual needs of all people needs to be changed.
According to Goldstein, the experiences of growing up male and female are different: a boy has to prove he is a man, while a woman has only to wait until she is a woman. “[M]asculinity is an endless process of becoming, while in femininity the emphasis is on being” (105). Her conclusions suggested an entire new category of sins and virtues for the powerless:
For the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specifically feminine forms of sin—“feminine” not because they are confined to women or because women are incapable of sinning in other ways but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character structure—have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as “pride” and “will-to-power.” They are better suggested by such items as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self definition…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self. The fact that her whole growth toward womanhood has the character of an inevitable process of bodily maturation rather than that of a challenge and a task may lead her to dissipate herself in activities which are merely trivial…[Indeed,] the specifically feminine dilemma is, in fact, precisely the opposite of the masculine. (108-109)
In fact, Niebuhr was aware of a second type of sin. Daphne Hampson draws attention to to the existence of “[t]wo types of sin, the refusal to relinquish power and the refusal to claim it” (“Reinhold Niebuhr on Sin: A Critique,” 56). Although it plays only a bit part in Niebuhr’s writings and is usually overlooked, the refusal to claim power is referred to by Niebuhr as the sin of “sensuality.”Implicitly, however, it seeps through his oeuvre as the shadow of all his assertions. For every agent of power who sinned in pride, there is always the powerless, whose agency has been corrupted. This is perhaps most clear in his comments on the African American community, whose uplift he saw depending on their decision to take power for themselves, for it would never be given to them willingly (Niebuhr, “The Preservation of Moral Values in Politics”). And this point was taken up by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals” (King).
A number of later feminist theologians took up Goldstein’s call and proposed feminist values as alternatives to Niebuhr’s self-sacrifice, values Barbara Hilkert Andolsen’s focus on “honesty, courage, and self-assertion” and “mutuality” (“Agape in Feminist Ethics”). As Fule puts it, rather beautifully, taking up the language of “sensuality” carries its own “weight and shadow” (“Being Human Before God”). Sensuality still rings as a sin–delighting in fleshly pleasures, that sort of thing. No lay person thinks of the word “creatureliness.”
Which brings me back to my manicure. If pride were sinful and self-sacrifice the only virtue, it’d be an affront to paint my nails and a Godly service to keep on biting them instead. But as I sat on the closed toilet seat with clipper in hand, working through my fleeting sense that I should be doing something more productive, this rush of ideas crossed my mind. That it’s okay to be a proud creature for an hour, to tend to my body and enjoy its health. Goldstein, Hampton and Andolsen might suggest that beyond simply tolerable, it’s actually virtuous to take care of ourselves. My fingers do a lot of work for me (see: above), so it’s both reciprocal and right that I let them relax once in a while.
UPDATE: Of course, now that I actually watch the above video, with its keyboardist looking like Cornel West with only a dash of ?uestlove, I wonder whether my whole nails shebang isn’t an example of the sins of triviality and diffuseness that Goldstein warned about, rather than an embrace of creatureliness. Managing vice and virtue sure is a tricky business. What do you guys think?