Leaking topless photos, sexing in limousines, and twerking while wearing a diamond-encrusted bra will get you crowned “Queen of THOTS” (current slang for hoe) in a hot second. Rihanna’s topless photo on a French magazine cover got her shipped to THOT Land, where Beyoncé has been exiled since the release of “Partition.”
Lots of folks are concerned that these sexy singers are bad role models because of their young fan base. Now, I wouldn’t bump “Drunk in Love” in the car with my little cousins riding in the back seat, nor would I use Rihanna’s “S&M” video as a stand in for sex-education conversations. But for mature audiences, the vixens of the music industry may be some of our best sexual agency role models.
Okay, fellow feminists, womanists, and everyone in between: I know what you’re thinking. Not too long ago I thought the same thing. I’d watch music videos and think: Why would Rihanna twerk in a thong in the “Pour It Up” video, when everyone knows black women’s bodies are viewed as hypersexual? Why would Nicki Minaj pull so much attention toward her ass when everyone knows the story of Saartje Baartman’s Venus Hottentot 19th Century “freak show,” where she was mocked for her huge ass? We all know that black sexual politics dig deep into a painful history of inhumane treatment of the black female body, and that in searching for our decolonized image, we often turn our noses up to super-sexy black pop stars.
Yet, as Hip Hop feminist Joan Morgan said in her well-known seminar, “The Pleasure Principle,” we should have a “relationship with the history that doesn’t over-determine our sexuality or our choices.” As Morgan and others examining pleasure politics argue, we need to incorporate pleasure into our black feminist discussions. In only focusing on the damage done to the dehumanized black female body, we do ourselves a disservice.
So why not re-humanize it for ourselves? In discussing pleasure politics as sexual agency, There are a few things we can learn from these so-called bad role models.
For someone who grew up and is still constantly being told, “be careful what you do with your body,” seeing women doing whatever the hell they want with their bodies is quiet refreshing. Beyoncé doing the “Uh oh Uh oh Uh oh” every time she performs “Crazy in Love,” or Rihanna twerking in YouTube videos shows a liberated body moving as it pleases. These women don’t confine their movements to other people’s definition of the word “respectable.” They twerk, and they’re proud of it. They teach us to “do our thing” and not be so preoccupied with the way people hypersexualize our bodies. Those ideas about respectability only serve to hold us back from fully expressing ourselves through dance.
These pop stars are also masters at articulating pleasure, something that lots of women who are unsatisfied in bed could use a lesson on. Kelly Rowland’s declaration of how she likes her “Kisses Down Low” is a sexually assertive statement, especially considering the low statistics of women who reach orgasm during vaginal sex. Even if orgasm is not the end goal, sometimes sexual partners need a bit of direction. Women who unapologetically tell their man “Watch N’ Learn,” like Rihanna, might enjoy sex even more.
In the way these vixens use their bodies, they claim authority over their sexuality. They aren’t concerned about being called fast-tailed girls, hoes, THOTs, or any other trending racially-charged word for black women who show off their bodies, boldly articulating pleasure, and enjoy a lot of sex.
Now, I’m not blind to the fact that the white male patriarchal gaze is at play in the creation of these women’s sexual personas. The size of their waists, shape of their hair, and other defining factors fit right into the usual, nearly impossible standard of beauty (and it’s a lot easier to be confident in your sexuality when you fit the mold). These artists are businesswomen, selling a brand and making themselves and a lot of people very wealthy. One could argue that in being so damn sexy, these pop stars cash in on perpetuating the deviant black Jezebel archetype. I can’t say I completely disagree. However, that archetype was branded upon black women centuries before our favorite artists of today and previous times took the stage. The stereotypes does not simply go away when women stop twerking and singing about sex. Dismantling these stereotypes is a tall order, and the responsibility doesn’t rest exclusively on famous women. Stereotypes cease to exist when ignorant people stop looking to Beyoncé, Rihanna, or even Michelle Obama as their sole idea of black womanhood. There are billions of us on the planet, you know—and we each express our sexuality in unique ways.
So I’ll nominate Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, and Nicki Minaj for sexual agency role model awards, because when we look beyond respectability politics, stereotypes, and music industry bureaucracy, sometimes it just feels good to twerk.
Check out more of Shae’s writing at A Womyn’s Worth.