Pop Culture

What the WAP: Part 1 – Black Feminist Scholars on Black Women’s Popular Culture

What Black feminist scholarship, literature, or concepts came to mind for you when you reflected on the song and video for WAP?

Dr. Jennifer Turner, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hollins University, conceived of What the WAP as a series that centers Black feminist scholars and their perspectives on contemporary Black sexual politics. In the first few parts of this series, Dr. Turner engages in conversation with Dr. Melissa C. Brown, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. During this conversation, Dr. Turner and Dr. Brown elaborate on how the church, family, and popular culture prompt Black women to negotiate controlling images through either a politics of pleasure (Joan Morgan) or a politics of respectability (Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham). 

In this first part of the series, Dr. Turner and Dr. Brown explain how their research and the Black feminist scholarship they engage with shape their interpretation of Cardi B and Megan thee Stallion’s #1 hit single ‘WAP’ and the cultural response to the video and song lyrics. Specifically, they respond to the question: What Black feminist scholarship, literature, or concepts came to mind for you when you reflected on the song and video for WAP? Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this conversation!

Cardi B – WAP feat. Megan Thee Stallion

Black Feminist Scholarship as a Lens on Black Women’s Popular Culture

Turner

My research is about low-income Black single mothers and how the intersection of race and gender shapes their motherhood identities and mothering activities. So, while my research is not on the topic of Black women’s sexuality, one of the things that I look at is controlling images, specifically, the welfare queen and the baby mama. I’m interested in how those controlling images come up for low-income Black single mothers, and how they shape their perceptions of themselves as mothers and how they carry out their mothering activities.

In relation to Black women’s sexuality, I’m interested in respectability politics. For instance, in my dissertation research, I found that the mothers in my study were trying to achieve an  ideal of respectability politics, which, as we know, is middle-class based. That came up a lot for me when listening to WAP and reading and hearing about the public reaction to it. 

In terms of scholarship and literature that came to mind when I first heard WAP, obviously,  Patricia Hill Collins’ notion of controlling images. Specifically, the Jezebel controlling image, which,  as we know, is a Black woman who has an insatiable sexual appetite. The hoochie is one that she also talks about. Also, the Sapphire, because Meg, Cardi, and this new generation of women in hip hop black are known for asserting themselves, talking back, and being aggressive.

I was also reminded of Angela Davis’s work examining the legacy of slavery and how it has shaped the treatment of Black women’s bodies. Her book, Women, Race, and Class, and her chapter in Words of Fire especially came to mind. She wrote about how during slavery, Black women’s bodies were only valued to the extent that they produced more slaves and to the extent that they helped white people take care of their children. So, I was thinking about how for Black women, our bodies have never been our own. They’ve always been someone else’s, whether it was the slave master or our husbands or our fathers. In terms of husbands and fathers, you can extrapolate that to all women, but specifically for Black women as slaves, as chattel, our bodies were just never our own. So, I think,  when we bring it back to contemporary times, seeing black women take ownership of their own bodies and sexuality is very threatening for some people.

Brown

Right.

Turner

Finally, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s notion of a “politics of respectability” is a huge one because, in many ways, respectability politics has shaped the response to the song.

Brown

I love that. Yeah.

Brown

So what do you make of how people have taken up and interpret the concept of respectability politics in a way that deviates from her original argument? I think what these critics are saying is that though politics of respectability is a strategic resource, it’s  also used to police other Black people and cause them harm.

Turner

I think  it’s important to trace the roots of the concept. In my dissertation, I talk about how when low-income Black single mothers use this term, they’re using it to affirm their humanity. Black women throughout history have been trying to achieve the ideal of respectability so that they don’t fall victim to harmful stereotypes and controlling images, but, like you said, the way that the concept has manifested itself today, post-civil rights, is very harmful, and we often see Black elites, the Black middle class, Black religious leaders and conservatives employing it in dangerous ways.

Brown 

We can also think about the contradictions of how in the very same month that Cardi B and Megan thee Stallion release this song, Pastor John Gray is getting exposed for not only having an affair, but also denigrating his wife to the  woman that he’s having an affair with. There’s a cognitive dissonance, in that Black women literally owning their sexuality upsets people more than the duplicity of people who are invested in this kind of respectability.  The Black church is an institution that unfortunately deploys respectability politics against certain types of Black women.

Turner

Yeah. It’s tied to power, resources, all of those things. 

Brown

So like you, Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins definitely inspires my work and my thoughts about the song, specificially, how controlling images as these frames of Black womanhood that we have to negotiate. 

The music video also made me think about Mireille Miller-Young’s concept of illicit eroticism because of how the sample modified the original song from “there’s some hoes in this house” to sound proximate to “there’s some whores in this house.” My thought was, well, if there’s some whores in this house, that’s a brothel, and not only is it a brothel, but it is clearly a brothel that these women own and have the agency to profit off their sexuality. 

That to me is also what Joan Morgan calls hip hop feminism. Many Black men owe their rap careers to the strip club but in their music they denigrate strippers. Megan thee Stallion and Cardi B are saying actually I own my sexuality. For example, when Megan thee Stallion says that line about how when I’m on top and he asks whose it is, I spell my own name. 

Turner

I love that, and it’s funny because having heard the song a million times, finally, one day, I listened to it, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is totally her owning her sexuality!” 

Brown

Since my research  is on the Black strip club in the U.S. South, I  wanted to excavate the history of Black women doing sex work in physical spaces for commercial sexual activity. People don’t even know that a century ago, there literally were whores in a house. Some of these women owned their homes and got extremely rich. I’m not sure if Cardi B or her team knew the history, but the fact that the sample and the video invokes it so perfectly, reflects how women are starting to grapple with how everything we do is capitalist, including how we express our sexuality. 

Turner 

That’s such a good point, and that also makes me think about OnlyFans as a means for women to own their sexuality, to make a living, to supplement their income, and so forth.

Brown

Right and and Onlyfans facilitates the desires of a predominantly male consumer base who choose to use it. A lot of men critique it saying they won’t pay for nudes and yet women can only sell nudes because men created the market. There’s double standards. 

Final Thoughts

Dr. Turner and Dr. Brown use a Black Feminist lens to argue that WAP exemplifies a contemporary Black sexual politics that creates space for Black women to imagine their bodies and sexualities outside the purview of a white supremacist heteropatriarchy. Cardi B , Megan Thee Stallion, and other Black women rappers are arguably leading a new sexual revolution in which Black women boldly (re)claim their bodies and sexualities as their own. In the second part of this discussion, Drs. Brown and Turner reflect on the stories they were told about sex and sexuality in girlhood and how those stories have shaped their relationship to their bodies and sexualities.

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