One thing that came up with varying degrees of productivity in last week’s post about Donald Glover’s casual misogyny, and that was raised in the reaction to some comments that made Doctor Who‘s Steve Moffat the target of online ire was the that individual women behave in really rotten ways, and so shouldn’t rappers et. al. be able to complain about it? And of course the answer is yes. A lot of great art has come out of women doing men wrong and vice versa. The trick is to do it without suggesting that all women are golddigging bitches, or declaring that as reparations, you ought to be allowed to go out and have sex with absolutely anyone you please without having any obligations to anyone you sleep with. As with most things, revenge and complaints about being mistreated make for better art the more specific and creative the narratives get.
1. Use a specific name: The single best example of how to do this right comes from a woman, the great Erykah Badu. “Tyrone” uses specific names to call out individual perpetrators of generic behavior. “Now every time I ask you for a little cash / You say no but turn right around and ask me for some ass” or obnoxious famewhoring are sins lots of people are capable of perpetrating. But by calling out a specific person for committing them, the audience can absorb the idea that these are bad things to do to a partner, and even join in the condemnation of Tyrone’s pal, without tuning out because they assume they’re being accused:
2. Use singular pronouns: Maybe I missed this, but apparently some folks thought Cee Lo Green’s “I’m over that snooty golddigger” anthem “Fuck You” was sexist. I’m not persuaded by that argument: it may be unattractive that some people date or marry based on what their partners can provide for them, but it’s undeniably true that some do. That said, the fact that the song’s set up so Cee Lo is talking to a specific person for most of it, and talking to one other person in the “fuck her, too” line. It ends up reading as specific and appropriately targeted anger rather than a generalized condemnation of women in general:
3. Use specific anecdotes: Now, I’d never say that Kanye West has uniformly charming attitudes about women or anything. But he tends to use very precise details in songs about his conflicts with women. In “All of the Lights,” which I love, he explains that “Restraining order / Can’t see my daughter / Her mother, brother, grandmother, hate me in that order / Public visitation / We met at Borders / Told her she take me back / I’ll be more supportive”:
It’s the combination of Borders, which gives us all an immediate imaginative hook into the scenario, and the hierarchy of folks who hate him that make this something more than a generic complaint about a custody dispute. It’s funny and sad all at the same time. Even if I think Kanye sounds like a creep, the shame of only being able to see your daughter in public at a chain bookstore resonates.
Similarly, there’s that verse in “Golddigger,” a much less sensitive and more paranoid song about the dangers of sleeping around when you’re rich and famous, where he says, “I know somebody paying child support for one of his kids / His baby mamma’s car and crib is bigger than his / You will see him on TV any given Sunday / Win the Superbowl and drive off in a Hyundai / She was suppose to buy you shorty TYCO with your money / She went to the doctor got lipo with your money…18 years, 18 years / And on her 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his.” The verse makes me feel gross because I’m embarrassed by the prospect that any woman would do something like that. It’s a horror movie. But the specificity is precisely what makes it frightening — unlike the idea that all women are out to get at Kanye’s money, the idea that one woman could do something like this is plausible and unnerving:
4. Unless you’ve suffered a completely inexplicable driveby wrongdoing, admit culpability and build a narrative. OutKast’s “Miss Jackson” is a perfect non-sexist She Done Me Wrong song in almost every way: specific names, a single woman (bringing this nicely full circle, Erykah Badu), singular pronouns when you’re not using a name, marvelously illustrative details. But it’s also about a relationship where both parties failed. “I wish I could / become a magician to abracadabra off the sadder / Thoughts of me, thoughts of she, thoughts of he / Askin’ what happened to the feelin’ that her and me / Had, I pray so much about it need some knee pads,” Andre reflects. The Big Boi verse that follows is intensely bitter, claiming that “Jealousy, infidelity, envy / Cheating, beating, and to the Gs they be the same thing,” but even if his sins are exaggerated, he doesn’t really deny that they’re real: