Monday, February 25, 2013

Beat the P*ssy Up: On Misogyny and Black Bodies (Again)

I've been singing Frank Ocean's praises lately. There was a time when I didn't know who he was and didn't care much for the hoopla around his "coming out." I still maintain that he told a story of falling in love with a man, which is lovely but different. Still, I have since purchased and been converted to being an Ocean fan through  Channel Orange. As many a critic has pointed out, it's fantastic--one of the best albums of 2012 (I think, I haven't listened to a lot of new releases this year, but it's good). Here's what I like about it: the flow, it feels like an album, which I don't think many have in recent years. Each song progresses into the next and provides a story--a story of individuals, communities, souls and spaces....

But this is not an album review and I am not a music critic.

I start this post out with Ocean because I've been thinking a lot about his song "Pyramids," a ten minute story of the transition from one "Black queen Cleopatra," to another. There is something about this song, which tells the story of Cleopatra, the "jewel of Africa" of the past, and Cleopatra, the dancer of today who works at the Pyramid to keep her N*gga's bills paid, that rocks me a little. Look, he doesn't really give either Cleopatra a voice and he plays around with the Black queen (which is always connected to the Black ho) trope a bit too much, but there is a vulnerability there, a complexity, it seems, to the relationship between the narrator and the woman he loves (?).  And there's not just a vulnerability with her, but a vulnerability with his performance as a pimp/lover. And, even though we don't get her perspective, modern Cleopatra comes off as having some agency. Other reviews suggest that she is clueless about her objectification, the "cycle" she is caught up in. You know, because sex work always and only demonstrates a woman's lack of sound decision making skills. But, I don't see it that way.  There is something humanizing about both of the contemporary characters in the song. The way she says his name, which makes him feel like "I'm that N*gga, tho I'm still unemployed." And, she's working at the Pyramid tonight...It reminds me of stories Me'shell Ndeogello has told about Black lives, ones that aren't often celebrated. Maybe it's a stretch and I'm still working it out in my mind and it may just be because I've known women who have worked in the sex industry my entire life--friends and relatives who have worked as dancers and escorts--and that's why it rocks me. Women many of us collectively discard cause they choose it. So, therefore, they like it.

In my mind, "Pyramids" is in conversation with the recent outrage over Lil' Wayne because there is a similar discarding of women. If, for some reason, you haven't heard, about two weeks ago, a lyric to Lil' Wayne's unreleased song, "Karate Chop" was leaked on the web. One of the lyrics of the song claims that Wayne "beat[s] that pussy up like Emmet Till." A reference to Emmett Till, the 14 year old African American Chicago native who was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman on a Mississippi street on August 28th, 1955. He was beaten beyond recognition. Tortured by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, shot in the head and then submerged in Tallahatchie River with barbed wire, holding a cotton gin fan in place, around his neck.

Yeah, that's what he referenced. That's how he beat the pussy up. I can't speak to Lil Wayne's motivations because there are no words.  Till's family has issued an an open letter, here. And Davey D. has posted a response, here.
But, what I can speak to is how this outrage should also call attention to the lack of humanity and violence associated with the phrase, "beat the pussy up." And, I situate this conversation between two men because I need men to take this on, and to be outraged. Not because your "queens" are being disrespected, but because women are being discarded and treated as objects (not a new story) in our collective imagination.

The phrase beat the pussy up seems to be increasingly popular: This is not the first time I've heard it, nor the first time that Wayne has used it, and it isn't even the first time I've talked about it on this blog. I casually mentioned it once in reference to a Rainbow Noise lyric (Jay Squared, from IMMA HOMO), "I beat the pussy up, call me Dyke Turner." You heard that right: Dyke. Turner. Dyke Turner, you know referencing the man who beat his wife, Tina Turner, regularly. Raped her, regularly.

I don't understand the level of disassociation from one's self: disassociation as a Black person, as a woman (and queer person) to be able to pen lyrics that reference violence enacted on folks that share identities with you. The violence embedded in the lyric, the violence of capitalism, of the recording industry, of a culture that is invested in "controversy," record sales and profit, at any expense, is beyond what I want to imagine in this moment. To use the name of a child, or a Black woman, both of whom were treated so inhumanely to garner attention--Wayne, his record label, the media who have reported on it--is soul crushing. And I understand this latest challenge to actually be outraged about the entire  lyric: what stands out to many is the cowardly reference to the murder of Emmett Till. But, it's also a reference to violence against women--not a woman's body part, as some have suggested, but violence. Correct me if I'm wrong, but beating up (as in I beat the pussy up) is synonymous with phrases like "kick the shit out of," "beat down," "hit over and over, really hard" or just, "hurt, intentionally," no? So, you "kicked the shit out of that pussy," you "beat that pussy down," you "hit that  pussy over and over, really hard," or, you "hurt that pussy, intentionally." And I'm not talking about rough sex or intense sex between consenting adults. I'm not a prude. I know what fisting is :).

But, this is different, there's an emphasis on that in all those sentences because it's that pussy, nothing else. No woman attached. Unless, she's alternately being referred to as a Black queen. You know, like how Chris Brown beats Rihanna one day, tattoos an image on his neck that looks like a woman beaten the next day and then, later, tweets a "Happy Valentine's Day to all the beautiful women, our queens, mothers, daughters" to his 12 million followers?  It's dehumanizing. Can we think, for a minute about the whole woman, your queen, who is attached to that pussy? Like a whole person? I fear, that this is how we are comfortable thinking about women, particularly young women and young women of color these days. Days when we're mad at Rihanna for getting back together with her abuser  Chris Brown. Or days in which a leading "comedic" newspaper feels justified in calling a nine year old Black girl a "cunt." As in:

And I need you to be as outraged about these seemingly different, but really the same kind of objectification as beat the pussy up. Beat hard, over and over again. Kick the shit out of. Rihanna makes her own decisions, Lil Wayne writes his own lyrics (and LA Reid approves), and The Onion writers tweet their own "jokes." But, we download and follow and bop our heads along and then are outraged when someone muddies and disrespects Civil Rights history. Disrespects the memory and life of a young, murdered Black boy. And, yes to that, rightly so. But, I need you to also be as outraged about the violence that comprises the first part of that lyric. A lyric that someone thought up (more than once), ran by their record executive (more than once), and got a pass and paid for (more. than. once). The violence that allows us, as a culture, to dehumanize women and girls--particularly the ones who we think deserve it.  The ones we dismiss because "some girls like it like that." The modern day Cleopatras. That violence, that dismissal is not separate and is directed at all Black bodies. Yours. Mine. Hers.

Yeah, I need you to be outraged about that. Now.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Serving Fish: This One's a Snapper!

I watch RuPaul's Drag Race pretty religiously and have written about what I love about it, here. I even watched the contrived--let's just give Chad Micheals the crown and some prize money since, apparently it was difficult to give Sharon Needles the crown outright--Drag Race All Stars this summer. So, when Season 5 started three weeks ago, I had my DVR ready and happily watched after a long first day of classes.

So, it's clear I have a little bit of love for RuPaul (p.s. part of the title comes from her). No, I don't listen to his music, but I feel like I've been a champion (never gonna stop) of his work for quite some time. She's pretty mainstream, what José Muñoz might call, "sanitized, assimilated" drag, but I just love seeing a 6 foot tall Black man doing a pretty standard drag performance. And he's made a mainstream career out of it. Now, I don't know RuPaul, she may be the most fame hungry, celebrity grubbing, will never stop using the pejorative "tranny (!)" and supporting Shirley Q. Liquor (!) drag queen out there, but I have to hand it to her. He has managed to produce and maintain one of the gayest shows on television right now. In a moment when all things are gay, or gay-loving, we love the gays!--she and her writers have managed to make it just a little bit gayer. Not only is it a show about drag queens from all around the world, LA, New York (Florida and Puerto Rico), but it is a show almost entirely made up of challenges. And I love the challenges. As others have noted, this is where the real, un-assimilated gayness comes out: the "get on your knees and put your lips in this hole" challenge; "reading is fundamental" challenges; "make videos  where you lip synch to all of RuPaul's songs, available on iTunes" challenges; and then, there are the requisite "pit boys" with muscles and fully stuffed briefs. Just crass. Gay. Lovely. Plus, there are regular references to ball culture past and present with phrases like, "Extravaganza," the aforementioned "reading" challenges, etc. I love it! Sometimes I squeek with glee at each offering. It's refreshing in a moment of increasingly assimilated gay television ("Queers--regardless of race, gender, or class--are just. like. you, everybody!" so sayeth the stock gay characters on current shows).

So, back to Season Five. I was all ready to fall in love with some of the queens and RuPaul again this season, as I have in seasons past, especially when Monica Beverly Hillz came on: "I'm Monica Beverly Hillz, with a Z." My heart and eyelashes fluttered. Plus, her lip synch for your life performance of Rihanna's "Only Girl in the World," made me grapple, in a good way, with my complicated frustrations with Rihanna at the moment. Mostly, in the form of a download of the song, not revolutionary, but I'm working it out.

Still, my love has been short-lived. Beginning with the first episode and in every episode since, the queens and RuPaul herself, have made it clear that they are "serving fish." As in "I'm serving Rodeo Drive fish (Alyssa Williams)" or, as one of the queens said when she walked in to meet the others, "It's awfully fishy up in here," or, RuPaul's question before a recent episode of the behind-the-scenes Untucked (Come on, that is a straight up fabulous  name for a backstage show!), "Which one of these fish will surface to the top?" Ok, record scratch, dammit.

What's up with all the "fish" references?

I know I'm about to step off into something I know very little about, like the use of the phrase "serving fish" in drag queen culture. If we could've talked about RuPaul's Drag Race and "terrorist drag" last night in my graduate class, believe me I would've and I'd have a better understanding of the use of "fish" from several experts in the room. Still, my base understanding is that serving fish is performing an ultra-feminine, standard version of drag. Essentially what RuPaul has been serving for two or three decades, no? That's all well and good. It may not always be the most exciting form of drag, but I can get down with it. I love a good, standard queen--even pageant queens--who can bring it. But, really, serving fish? Do I have to hear this every time I watch, in or out of context? You want me to watch your show, support you, when you can't problematize that shit a little bit? Like, I think it's about 2013, can't we can throw out the female + vagina = fish reference? You know, like this more than reliable and yes I'm being sarcastic urban dictionary entry:

If you can't read it, the first definition is the "feminine drag" definition. But then, #2, whose definition reads, "A term used when someones vajayjay smells like it hasn't been washed for the past few days" gets creative and paints a scenario, "John: 'Oh my! I could tell you're serving fish from two corners away. Mariah: Shut up! I've been begging you to fix the shower for 5 days!"  Isn't that sweet: let me paint you a picture, just in case you didn't understand the first time.
I guess it's refreshing (like Summer's Eve) to note the number of folks who have given this a "thumbs down," outnumber those who give it a "thumbs up." Or, at least I thought it was refreshing until I did a little Internet search on fish and vagina--I know, the ways I fill my time--and there are several medical websites and numerous products to help women address our inevitable "fishy odor" or "odour."

with you from A to Z, for your V
You know, because, ultimately, we're just a bunch of gross, smelly, dirty bitches, it's been medically and pharmaceutically proven. And, try as you may, those of you who protest--that's not what that means, you're going too far with, etc., etc.--to prove me wrong, but I cough bullshit if you think this is not what gets evoked for every cis woman who is sitting and watching your show. And, it's a dire time for women--all women--right now in that our rights, our dignity, our humanity are being called into question this week with the (non)passage and reconstruction of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) by Congress. That might feel like a stretch to you, but I can't separate out these throw away, harmless, not really intended to mean what you think it means references--fishy, serving fish, fishiest--words that ultimately objectify, dehumanize, and dismiss women from the lack of governmental protections extended to Native American, lesbian, queer and transgendered women, undocumented women and teenagers. Can't separate it from the Republican-led efforts to ensure that women in these groups (which includes me, my partner, my nieces, students, and friends) are not treated like human beings under the law and are actually, actively denied the right to services offered to normalized, acceptable women--which includes, who? It's a small number. And, don't get it twisted, those of you who use this language, while I'm holding you accountable, yes, I'm not saying you're the cause of this--we live in a misogynist culture that already hates women. That's the way this shit has been set up. But for you to want me to continue to support this "innocent," used in another context language, is no different. And, you know, I'm just one fan, it may not make a difference if I turn the TV off on Monday nights, that might not matter. Still, you gotta complicate that shit a little bit more for me to stay engaged, to stay down, to hang in there with you queens and others who make up this "community" that I align myself with. Really, it's all or nothing at this point. We are moving into, I fear, dangerous times of assimilation where we cut out the ones we don't want (yes students in my graduate class I'm biting off our amazing discussion last night) to appear more acceptable. And, don't think you're not in that line up. I'm never one to cut anybody out, but you gotta step it up a bit and study up on this solidarity business for me to stick around.

Peek-a-Ru, Ru. I see you.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Happy Birthday, Marlon Riggs!

February 3, 1957 – April 5, 1994

We love you!
Brother to Brother Brother to Brother Brother to Brother Brother to Brother

Here's a link to a post I wrote a couple of years back...Love.