Has anyone ever called you a bitch? Perhaps the better question for most women is something more like when was the first (or last) time someone used that word to describe you? It technically refers to a female canine, but in popular culture, it is a malicious label assigned to women when they do something that another person views as unpleasant, or it is used to describe anyone who is submissive or subservient to another person. It has become a slang word to describe either a woman who needs to learn her place or someone who, regardless of gender, has claimed a subservient role vis-a-vi another person. It is a word that I detest whether it is used to insult or in jest because I believe that it is a word that is intended to humiliate. The first time someone turned to me and used that word as a weapon (in middle school), I was acutely aware of my blackness in the face of his whiteness and my femaleness in the face of his maleness. At that moment, I understood that as a black female who did things in the world that might in some way irritate others, I was liable to receive that word as a permanent label.
The problem I am naming is one that women across generational lines have experienced. Names like “bitch” and “whore” have done permanent damage to the psyches of women and girls. Women are not the only group who have been forced to endure abusive words because of their identity. All people who have been viewed as non-normative have endured verbal abuse. In recent years, there has been a call to “reclaim” some of this painful language to take the power away from the bullies who use it. On shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and other campy reality competition shows, contestants are frequently called “bitches” in jest. But, I think back to a poster that one of my middle school teachers displayed on her classroom wall that said something like “Just Kidding is Never Really Just Kidding.” Our humor and even our reclamation so often masks our deepest hurts. In this first part of my respectability series, I will talk about the power of language and the type of words I refuse to reclaim or accept. As a black woman, I fail to understand why I must change fundamental parts of who I am to conform to society while society makes no attempts to receive me.
In my opening post in this series, I explained the complications of Respectability. Respectability politics are elitist and exclusionary, but they also can be uplifting. Respectability is complicated. These politics create a feeling of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “somebodyness” in socially marginalized people. The politics of respectability are about order, but they are also about resistance. Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham explains that in the late nineteenth century, “Baptist women emphasized manners and morals while simultaneously asserting traditional forms of protest, such as petitions, boycotts, and verbal appeals to justice.” Respectability politics exists at a crossroads between the uplift of the poor and adherence the social mores of a dominant group, and that is the tension. Respectability politics would assert that the language we use matters, and on that point, I agree with respectability politics. I work toward self-love and self-affirmation, and I would like for others in my community to work toward love of self and love of others. That love is reflected in the ways we talk about ourselves and others.
Let’s turn our focus to popular culture. I feel a bit like a broken record because for decades, black feminists have cautioned against the sexually aggressive and misogynist tone found in rap music. Even when phrases like “little bitch” are directed toward other men, they are predicated upon the misogyny inherent in our society. These phrases, which are common in hip hop and rap culture, are akin to phrases used by softball coaches like “you throw like a girl” or public speaking instructors like “the pitch of your voice is distracting.” In our society, anything that is associated with the feminine is perceived to as less or problematic or deviant or frivolous. To counter that perception, women and girls are taught to be “tougher.” We are taught to stand in more “assertive” ways. We are taught to speak at a lower pitch. The problem is, by whose standard are we measuring ourselves?
Kendrick Lamar has earned a name for himself as a “woke” (socially conscious) rapper. Kendrick provides a fascinating perspective into what it means to be a socially conscious black man. His music and performances at once make profound social and political statements and dismiss the reality of black life, especially pan-African black life. It also does not speak to the experiences of black women or black folks who belong to the LGBT community. At the end of last week, Kendrick released a new song along with a music video called “Humble.” Listen to the song and view the video here:
You might notice that the song’s lyrics, the images in the video, and even the rhythm of the song do not adhere to the Politics of Respectability. The Politics of Respectability would condemn the words in the song which are aggressive and sexualized in their tone. They would also question many of the images which might suggest that black folks do not adhere to Victorian ideals, are irreverent in our approach to the sacred, and are sexually promiscuous. Finally, the Politics of Respectability created a firm divide between home and church life which were called holy and “street” life which was called sinful. So, churched folks were not allowed to consume the jazz music that heard so often in the clubs. Even the beat of “Humble” deviates from the sounds of respectability.
Today’s Gospel music borrows from the sounds of dis-respectability. Each generation’s borrowing from popular influences in music allows the message of Jesus to reach groups of people who might otherwise be ostracized from it. Indeed, a marker of the ministry of Jesus was that He communed with the religious society of His time called sinners. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. As He put it in Luke 4, Jesus had been anointed by God to “bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Jesus came to redeem the folks that respectability would consistently miss.
While rap is not my favorite style of music, I respect the art form. Rappers often have their fingers on the pulse of the social issues that impact their communities, and the ability to speak to their communities through their music and choices in almost prophetic ways. My critique of rap music in general is its insistence on using words like “bitch” and “nigga” that collude to demean blackness and black womanhood specifically. I am also disturbed by the genre’s insistence on portraying women as objects (which, I think, Kendrick attempts to avoid doing in this video.) While there are many efforts among marginalized communities to redeem and reclaim such words, I don’t find such words to be redemptive or worthy of reclamation. Both words figure prominently in Kendrick’s song “Humble,” and I critique it for the use of those words ad nauseam.
I get it; rappers use their music to destroy their competitors lyrically. They discuss their economic ascent, their sales successes, and their romantic conquests. My concern is about the words that are used to describe these life changes. The song “Humble” is pretty clearly an attack on another black male rapper or perhaps on various rappers. However, the use of the word “bitch,” even when used to denigrate a man is misogynistic. When the word is used to describe a male, it is meant to be an attack on his manhood. The problem is that it reinforces a false dichotomy of masculinity as powerful and femininity as weak or submissive.
Before I conclude, I want to note that there is some critique of the line in the song in which Kendrick says that he is sick of seeing women photoshopped and wants to see something real.
I don't find those lines in the song to be misogynistic; rather, I agree that they are intended to be a celebration of women and the natural bodies we inhabit. I think Kendrick intended to affirm that we do not have to put so much effort into changing ourselves to be beautiful in the eyes of men. When it comes to our looks, women are forced to make difficult decisions every day. Should we wear makeup? If so, how much? Is this skirt too short? Is this blouse too revealing? Do I need to lose weight? We must make the decisions each day that will help us to live into the fullness of who we are. We are free to self-define. So, my fellow Free Agents, self-define. Define your own beauty standard. Women are so much more than what the male gaze says that we are. We belong to ourselves and our Creator.