In the winter of 2011, I found myself in a familiar funk. It was my birthday and I was creeping ever closer to thirty; it was winter in Oregon, and the ceaseless rain had begun in earnest; and I had just gone through yet another break-up. But as I battled through the post-break-up blues with endless evenings of YouTube surfing, I stumbled upon Kanye West’s strange, strange film Runaway. I wasn’t into hip-hop yet; I didn’t know anything about Kanye, except that I’d seen his “Gold Digger” video a few times and that Rolling Stone was declaring “Runaway” the single of the year. But I was instantly hooked by the scenes of him zooming in a sports car beneath a pink sky, snarling, “The plan was to drink until the pain over…But what’s worse? The pain or the hangover?” I was hypnotized by the sarcasm, by the strange mix of excess and self-awareness. So I dragged my sorry self onto the bus and rode to a mainstream CD store, somewhere I could snag a cheap copy of My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy for myself.
And thus began my love affair with the cultural icon that is Kanye West – that quintessentially American asshole who declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and who was able to make “Let’s have a toast to the douchebags” into an anthem and an apology all mixed into one. I could not stop listening to this album. I was a poor graduate student with a strange penchant for old technology, so I was riding the bus around town with my blue Discman, listening to “Monster” on repeat, feeling the first inklings of reawakening fierceness. And while I certainly identified with the crazed, quicksilver rapping of Nicki on “Monster,” I also found myself getting some swagger and attitude by identifying with Kanye. I related to the strange world he sketched for us on Fantasy: a world of overindulgence, good intentions, bad tempers, failed relationships, loneliness, and compensatory swagger. I was having a strange, gender-bending encounter with an album that openly used women, that admitted at one moment, “I know I did damage” but that countered such self-awareness with Pusha-T’s bluff-call: “I did it – alright, alright, I admit it – Now pick your next move: you can leave or live with it.” Opening up a line of questioning that continued as I grew to love more and more hip-hop that was, at some level, misogynistic, I asked myself why I was feeling so powerful by identifying with an emotionally distant, explicitly male persona?
We hardly need one more reflection on the complicated relationship between hip-hop and misogyny; so many people have already said it so much better than me…Yet the explosion of Internet chatter about Chris Brown’s appearance on the Grammy’s had me wondering again about empowered feminist women like myself that love the assholes of hip-hop. How could I even begin to sort through the connection between street swagger and woman-hating without making excuses, being reductive, or simply shunning the rhymes we love in spite (or even, I am going to argue dangerously, because) of their venom? Or, to adopt the comparison Phoebe drew brilliantly in her own musings on Chris Brown, is there somewhere for female hip-hop fans to place themselves that falls between Team Breezy and the Swifties, somewhere between a post-feminist dismissiveness of violence against women and a reactionary fear of any aggression?
Bad Boys vs. Bad Girls: Blaming the Victim
Thinking about my love for Kanye and my frustration at Chris Brown, I can’t help but return to a distinction that I made in my previous discussions of Rihanna: the distinction between controversial behavior that seems realistic and that which seems unrealistic, hyperbolic, potentially pretend. I argue that Rihanna has sparked controversy with videos like “Man Down” and “We Found Love” because these videos are just a little too real in their depictions of unhealthy sexual relationships. While the distinction between public responses to Kanye and Chris Brown is slightly different, I think it still hinges around the American public’s fundamental desire to maintain pop cultural representation as distinct from reality. But in this case, instead of villainizing Chris Brown for his real world behavior, the fan machine re-encodes his domestic violence within fantasy. What didn’t happen in his songs or videos never happened. Meanwhile, they hate Kanye because his entire persona centers around being, as Obama said, a jackass; he’s a jerk on the stage and in his songs and at all the awards shows. It’s not that Kanye has a simplistic dichotomy between good real world behavior and bad, asshole persona; it’s that it’s hard to tell where the real Kanye stops and the hip-hop persona begins. Just look at his Twitter feed or his public behavior! So, in the real world, Brown has been involved with domestic violence charges; the most Kanye has been charged with is breaking a paparazzi’s camera…Yet Kanye remains the whipping boy of female fandom because of his repeated, rude behavior to female musicians at awards shows, culminating with the infamous interruption of Taylor Swift.
While I don’t want to give Kanye a by on rude, aggressive confrontation with women, I do think it’s worth noticing that his fairly limited aggression (contained within the realm of the awards show and always apologized for later) has generated far greater antipathy than Brown’s behavior. What does this say about hip hop and misogyny? That we as women are okay being punching bags as long as men continue to idolize us? That we don’t mind physical violence as long as we’re allowed to be glorious public icons, untarnished by the very challenge and swagger that marks hip-hop braggadocio as a whole? For me, the Brown-love, Kanye-hate is troubling because it suggests that embodied, active misogyny might generate less social concern than misogynistic lyrics or representations of femininity.
Just consider the Twitter responses to these two men and their awards show appearances. In the aftermath of Brown’s appearance, there has been a string of troubling tweets that downgrade Brown’s behavior from legitimate act of violence to an “S&M” style fantasy: the women of Team Breezy question Rihanna’s accusations of violence, claiming that they would personally enjoy being beaten up by Chris Brown in a sexual context. And I don’t make that allusion to Rihanna’s song lightly. Part of what’s going on here is also a far-too-typical response in cases of violence against women: blaming the victim. That is, we are able to blame Rihanna for Brown’s violence against her because, according to the cultural rhetoric of woman-blaming, she’s the kind of woman that asks for such violence. I mean, just consider the outcry about how “We Found Love” was supposedly glamorizing unhealthy relationships. Brown’s real-world violence against Rihanna is not being taken seriously because her music video personas are sexy women that sometimes admit to finding pleasure in pain. Similar blaming has gone around for her “Love the Way You Lie” video, which depicts (in a way akin to “We Found Love”) the tug-of-war between a desire to stay and to flee. On my Facebook feed today, I saw multiple women arguing that Rihanna helped to create the public antipathy towards her through videos like this.
But we need to redraw the distinction between cultural representation and reality. Domestic violence is a reality that Rihanna experienced, and songs like “Love the Way You Lie” and “We Found Love” strike me as thoughtful, nuanced responses to the emotional complexities of abuse. If there wasn’t some sort of appeal in abusive relationships, women wouldn’t stay as often as they do. To admit that is to break the wall of silence that surrounds domestic violence far too often – to admit that other women understand torn emotions and that other women don’t dismiss women who stay in terribly destructive situations. To admit that is also to start investigating the dark side of misogyny that is hard to talk about as a smart, feminist woman – the appeal of power, the desire women might also have to tap into power, and the difficulty of separating cultural power from violence and woman-hating. In the strictest readings of misogyny, the only legitimate response for women to have in the face of powerlessness is withdrawal – refusal to play by the unfair rules that are stacked against them. What response is Rihanna allowed aside from pure dismissal of Brown? And where’s’ the emotional honesty in that?
Yet the rhetoric that Rihanna’s sexually suggestive or thoughtfully violent videos somehow justify Brown’s public redemption banks on a fundamental cultural lie – that “bad girls” somehow invite or deserve the violence against them whereas “bad boys” are just being boys. Boys can play with misogyny and we will forgive them; women better not deviate from strict ethical codes or they’ll just bring it on themselves. Meanwhile, the all-American good-girl Taylor Swift endured a far less trying ordeal but was swiftly and universally championed. Sure, it would be horrifying to be interrupted at a public awards show, but I had a hard time mustering an emotional response akin to the vitriol that erupted on Twitter after Kanye’s “Imma let you finish” moment. Kanye didn’t punch Swift in the face. He reacted with the kind of bad boy swagger that fills hip hop lyrics, but fans were angry because this hip-hop persona – this attitude that you’ll kill the haters, mow down the competition, and talk shit about anyone that doesn’t respect your rightful dominance – is rewarded if kept to the lyrics but tacky in the world of awards shows. The ubercompetitive nature of rappers was supposed to be just a fantasy. Its irruption at the VMAs blew that fantasy separation to shreds and challenged other American fantasies as well. The narrative of the hip-hop impresario who mows down the competition cannot exist in the same space as the narrative of the girl-next-door who overcomes heartache and becomes America’s sweetheart.
Thus, I had a hard time responding with a great deal of sympathy because, as Phoebe clearly argues, race was such a big part of the anti-Kanye explosion. As Phoebe said, “What followed was mass media madness framed in terms of of white and black. Taylor Swift became the poor young white passive female victim of Kanye’s crazy and overpowering outburst–a narrative which draws on a long and violent history of framing black men as threatening to white women and was used to justify white on black violence.” Along with being young and white, I would argue, Swift’s cultural image is that of a “good girl.” We can be more outraged at Kanye than at Chris Brown because Taylor Swift did nothing to invite such competitive invective on her!
So, without saying that Kanye’s behavior was justifiable, why should women be concerned that his behavior earned dismissal while Chris Brown’s invited forgiveness? Because this disparity reinforces the idea that you have to be a good girl in order to gain public sympathy. It reinforces a very insidious kind of misogyny, one that suggests that forward women, aggressive women, or sexy women deserve unfair treatment, even violence, while women who stay sweet and separate are allowed to complain if men offend their sensibilities; if you try to play the game on men’s terms and you are a woman, you deserve it if you take a punch or two, literal or figurative.
What troubles me about my analysis is how it inverts the logic I turned on Rihanna’s videos. It suggests that I am able, as a female consumer of hip-hop and pop-culture, to stomach misogyny as long as it stays within a burlesqued world of fake personas. The over-the-top hip-hop impresario’s misogyny troubles me but I am able to distance myself from it. Meanwhile, real violence and misogyny make me deeply uncomfortable. I’m not admiring myself for responding this way, necessarily, but I am recognizing it. In the patriarchal culture that still dominates, despite feminism’s best efforts, power and misogyny are deeply linked. If my choices are to be a bad girl that deserves destruction or a good girl who invites only pity, I’m going to have to enter into a dark and twisted affair with power and misogyny in order to access to other options for identity. Thus, we repeat a paradox that feminism has recognized over and over again: that the struggle to access patriarchal power can invite women to identify with and participate in the very misogyny they hope to escape.
From Bad Girls to Bad Bitches: The Transitive Swagger of Misogyny
Given that never-escapable virgin/whore, good-girl/bad-girl dichotomy, is it any surprise that some women take misogyny into their own hands? I’m going to distinguish a scattering of different female hip-hop personas from the “bad girl” and call these the “bad bitch.” Consider Nicki Minaj one of the queen of the bad bitches. A bad bitch isn’t just sexy and daring. She doesn’t just break the rules. A bad bitch takes on the exact kind of swaggering hip-hop persona that a bad boy like Kanye adopts. She often becomes somewhat misogynistic in the process, too, by simultaneously objectifying her body and degrading other women that dare to compete with her. It’s by examining these female adaptations of hip hop swagger that we can begin to understand why women like me might identify with male rapper misogyny: because we don’t just experience hip-hip through the lens of our individual gender. Hip-hop plays with power relations as a response to oppression and cultural frustration. That translates regardless if you’re male or female as long as you are able to put yourself into the headspace of the rapper. This draws on what Sarah Todd has talked so brilliantly about – the “transitive property to the joy we derive from hearing Lil’ Wayne or Jay-Z declare themselves the best rappers alive; when they pump themselves up, they pump up their listeners too.” What’s scary and troubling about this transitive joy is that it can cross gender boundaries. We as women can identify with the feeling of superiority and winning; we can also identify with the thwarting of our rivals. Maybe we see ourselves as the bad boys, and now we’re defeating the good girls and bad girls alike by tapping into our inner bad bitch.
For instance, we see this exact kind of oddly gendered behavior in Nicki’s participation in the “Monster” video. The good girl is chained to a chair, the mouthpiece of all sorts of criticism and snideness, and she must be silenced by the violent intervention of Nicki’s “bad bitch” persona. This video embodies the transitivity of misogyny, showing how the literal violence towards women that Kanye and Jay-Z portray in their sexual relationships to zombie female bodies expands to include Nicki Minaj as well. Nicki’s resume of “bad bitch” appearances is lengthy – consider her spot in Ludacris’s “My Chick Bad” video or her off-kilter rap in Lil Wayne’s “Knockout.” One of her most interesting invocations of the “bad bitch” persona has been her recent video for the single “Stupid Hoe.”
Here, with her hyper-feminized, pastel palette and her at-times youthful wardrobe (that draws heavily from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” look as it transitions into wide-eyed territory), Nicki exaggerates the good girl persona to the point that it breaks and becomes hypersexualized itself. But in-between wide-eyed dances with a lollipop, Nicki Minaj also bends gender roles some more, imagining her female rivals as “sons” for which she will not take custody and declaring herself “the female Weezy.” As Sarah has so brilliantly discussed, there’s a fluidity to gendered identity that rappers like Nicki take on, oscillating between roles that defy male dominance by adopting it and roles that capitulate to male dominance by accepting sexualiation.
So is there a smart feminist response? Is there an identity that women can adapt that does not transform us into misogynistic monsters in our own rights? I do not want to suggest that women should continue to participate in competitiveness, aligning themselves with the boy’s club in order to access power and thereby reproducing the exact patterns of misogyny that led to their initial exclusion. What I am saying is that to live in patriarchy is to enter into a complicated relationship with misogyny, and that to be an asshole like Kanye or a bad bitch like Nicki Minaj is to take on a persona that is without clear limits but that also allows you to play with identity and power. The danger is when we let these personas begin to shape our real politics and identity. My love of hip-hop’s misogyny is sinthomic – I can derive pleasure from my immersion in an ideologically troubling experience, a place where reality and symbolism and imagination are tangled together. But I exist in an ongoing dialogue with feminism that makes it possible for me to dance in and out of relationship to such pleasure – to recognize the problem and the pleasure all at the same time. Can most consumers of pop culture do this? Should we worry that they can’t? Thousands of words later, my twisted affair with hip-hop’s misogyny still leaves me with nothing but questions. Is the power imbalance of hip-hop’s asshole rejection of women twisted? Yes. Is this dismissiveness and egotistical nature dark? Yes. But it is also, as Kanye concedes, at times beautiful. I don’t like the disempowerment of women, and perhaps what we need to hope for are self-swaggering raps that don’t center around women’s sexual identity and women’s objectification, by men and women alike. That kind of rap would be even better at helping me to lift my head up when I would otherwise feel cowed, giving me that transitive connection to a fierceness that few of us, men or women, can access in our daily lives without some kind of fantasy.