Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘’WAP” was an instant hit. With 26 million views in its first 24 hours, it became the biggest debut for an all-female collaboration on YouTube. These R&B stars have talent and influence. So why are they choosing to portray themselves as “whores”?
Maybe it’s to be expected; R&B has long portrayed black women as ‘hoes’, ‘whores’ and ‘bitches’, which is a specific example of a wider misogyny that underpins many other genres and songs. WAP itself is a resampling of Frank Ski’s 1993 “Whores In This House”. The difference is that in this all-female song, it’s the “whores” who have the voice, and are apparently speaking for themselves.
Needless to say, the song has earned a lot of column inches and airtime with the commentators, and as you’d expect, some love it and others loathe it. Various commentators called it out for being too explicit; conservative critic Ben Shapiro called it “really, really vulgar” and Republican congressional candidate James Bradley said it made him want to pour holy water in his ears. In response, Cardi B tweeted: “I can’t believe conservatives soo mad about WAP.”
Criticism from conservatives has been dismissed by fans and more liberal critics as squeamish, misogynistic pearl-clutching. It’s assumed that men were simply offended by women “taking control of their bodies, their sexuality, and their pleasure’. In the Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi writes, “There’s something about women (black women to boot!) taking charge of their sexuality that drives conservatives up the wall.” Many others hailed the song a sex positive triumph and empowering, unconstrained by ‘respectability politics and slut-shaming’.
Fans also rightly pointed out that male rappers simply don’t attract the same kind of controversy when they use the same kind of language. On Twitter, Zalika U. Ibaorimi, a scholar of African diasporic studies at the University of Texas, posits that the problem conservatives have is with the fact that these black women aren’t having their sexuality policed.
The implication is that these women are free and empowered: that they have real autonomy, that they’re making their own choices.
But of course, no choices are made in a vacuum. The reality is that these women are not singing their own song but (literally) rehashing an old one. There’s nothing original about reenacting tired, sexist tropes. Far from being liberated, these women are fitting the mould, taking on the identity of a sex object.
We would of course agree with the objection that it shouldn’t just be female rap artists who are held to account for their sexism. So often, R&B lyrics – and indeed lyrics of many other genres – are shot through with unbridled misogyny that often glorify the objectification, exploitation or victimisation of women. Whether the degradation of women stems from a culture of toxic masculinity, reflects wider social values or is simply an easy way to ensure commercial success, this type of lyricism should always be challenged, never tolerated.
The way some R&B music stereotypes black women as sex objects is reflected in mainstream online pornography and in society more generally, something Dr. Carolyn West brilliantly outlines in her recent documentary on the issue. But much as these sexist and racist tropes are exploited in today’s popular culture, they actually originated in the American slave trade when the sexual exploitation and abuse of black women was justified by notions that these women were depraved and less-than human. As Cherice Hopkins from the organisation Rights for Girls points out, the white coloniser constructed black women as promiscuous seductresses with loose morals and insatiable sexual appetites.
This appalling sexual exploitation has real-world consequences today. In America, those sold in prostitution are disproportionately women and girls of color (and those buying prostituted people are disproportionately white men). Countless stories of survivors make clear there is nothing even faintly empowering or glamorous about being prostituted in the real world, where you’re stripped of your dignity and humanity, reduced to an object to be used and abused. Prostitution is almost never an individual choice, but a systemic form of oppression, bound up in other intersecting and oppressive power structures.
In the light of the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements, we want to see women of all colours and backgrounds genuinely empowered; it’s hard to see how that can happen while black women are self-objectifying and conforming to tropes well-established by men. Let’s not imagine that this song came out of nowhere- or that it won’t fuel the propaganda that keeps the sexism and racism alive and well. The groundbreaking 2017 Girlhood Interrupted study suggests that adults tend to view black girls as less innocent than white girls, less in need of nurture, comfort and protection and less vulnerable or victimised. Black girls are also far more likely than white girls to be trafficked into the sex industry and when they are, they’re more likely to be thrown into the criminal justice system than treated as victims.
WAP has bought its female artists a fleeting fame and fortune, but it has added to the heavy cost borne by some of the most vulnerable women and girls in society. For black girls, the choice isn’t whether they can dress and act like “whores”, but whether they have the freedom not to.