*1 out of 2 awardees of the Yuan Changying Prize, sponsored by genderED
Photo above: Still from ‘WAP’ Music video. Directed by Colin Tilley
In the piece written as a Gender Observation Assignment for the course Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World, I focussed on Wet-ass Pussy- a song that became popular in the summer of 2020. Within a week of release, it had already reached first place on Billboard’s Hot 100 (Billboard, 2020). Many hailed it as a landmark moment in feminism and women’s liberation- finally a woman of colour able to freely express her sexuality. The entirely unreserved lyrics and provocative music video is, without doubt, incredibly sexual, and leaves nothing to the imagination. However, is this unadulterated expression of sex really as liberating as it’s being made out to be? In this paper I will show, using the example of WAP by Cardi B, the new and old ways in which Women’s bodies, and more specifically Black women’s bodies are framed in the music video industry and in broader Western media, and show how WAP is a highly-problematic culmination of sexist and racist stereotypes.
WAP And Liberation
As Gill (2008, p.39) states, women have been used as sex objects in advertising since perhaps as long as advertising has existed. This was especially effective with historically predominantly male owned or desired products, such as cars. However, as purchasing trends have changed in recent decades, media and advertising companies no longer want to exclude the desires of women from their marketing campaigns. Therefore, companies have begun to use something Goldman (1992) called ‘commodity feminism,’ where, as Gill (2008, p.39) puts it, they ‘incorporate the cultural power and energy of feminism while simultaneously neutralizing or domesticating the force of its social/political critique.’ Women have been recast from passive and subject to male gaze to seemingly wanting to objectify themselves because it is part of their own sexual desire to do so. Sex continues to sell, but women are included in the sale through rhetoric of ‘empowerment.’ Gill (2003, p.104) frames this as a shift from “an external male judging gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze.” In which women can ‘choose’ to conform to male-created standards of beauty. It is no longer purely objectification, it’s a ‘liberated’ choice to become an object.
Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion follow the markings of this trend quite closely. In the music video they dance with very little clothing on, and make provocative gestures implying that they wish to “put this pussy right in your face [and] swipe your nose like a credit card.” In order to dissect this, one must also look at the hierarchies of the music industry as a whole. Music industries have traditionally been nearly entirely controlled by men. They have a long history of sexual abuse and harassment (Bennett, 2018,p.31). At the bottom of it, they are marketing companies, who understand that sex sells. They don’t simply create images independently- they create them within an already normative framework that appeals to hegemonic ideas of masculinity and femininity. So within an industry deeply engrained in the patriarchy and complicit with promoting hegemonic gender roles, it seems unlikely that WAP was a fully independent promotion of liberated and un-warped womanly sexual desire, especially considering that three of the five writers were men.
The portrayal of sexuality as presented in WAP is likely not a realistic one. Instead of being presented as a sexual subject capable of emotional and intimate sexuality, the women in WAP are presented as objects, (sometimes quite literally with sculptures of women’s naked body parts being presented throughout) begging for men’s penises to be inserted into them.
“I want you to part that big Mack truck right in this little garage” (Cardi B, 2020).
In fact, most of the song revolves around what the women want to do to men with their genitalia, instead of focusing on the women’s own sexualities. As Janice Turner (2005) states in an article about lad’s magazines, the line between pornography and reality has become increasingly blurred in recent decades. “The sexually liberated modern woman turns out to resemble – what do you know! – the pneumatic, take-me-now-big-boy fuck-puppet of male fantasy after all.” WAP blurs porn with reality and presents unrealistic versions of sex as a liberated truth. In reality, WAP continues to portray femininity as passive and subordinate to masculinity.
A particularly poignant scene depicting female subordination occurs where the performers are lying on the ground, engulphed by phallic snakes. This is perhaps most representative of the actual context in which the song and accompanying music video were created- where the depiction of the ‘liberated’ choice to conform to white-male created stereotypes is really a facade covering the reality of the context of the music video in which Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are simply empty bodies subject to the snakes- the ‘phallic gaze’- of corporate male domination.
Representations of The Sexuality of Women of Colour
Failing to acknowledge other forces at play in WAP would be missing a large part of the problem. There is an entirely different set of gendered and racialised imagery that can be extracted from the song lyrics and music video when race is accounted for. A good place to start is through the performer’s caricatures of themselves placed within a historical context.
During the times of slavery in the United States, Black women were often portrayed in two ways- As an overweight, intuitive matriarchal figure or as aggressively sexual, predatory, and animalistic (Baker, 2005, p.16; Bailey, 1988, p.38). The former was depicted in conjunction with the emasculation of Black men- where the woman is dominant in the household and tells the lazy and devious Black man how to behave. This stereotype was, and is, vilified as a challenge to white patriarchy. It also stands to uphold racist depictions of Black men. This sentiment was reflected in WAP when Cardi B states, “I don’t cook, I don’t clean” or where she wishes to “put [a man] on his knees”
The latter- the predatory and animalistic Black woman, was created in part as justification for the white ‘owner’s’ sexual encounters with their Black slaves. This racist ‘Jezebel’ stereotype continues today, with Black women being portrayed as large, loud, and predatorily lascivious. Plous & Neptune (1997, p.1) found that in popular media, Black women are far more likely to be dressed in animal print to symbolise a predatory nature. WAP is no exception, with animal print and dangerous animals featured heavily throughout, and the lyric, “In the food chain I’m the one that eat ya.”
According to Lundy (2018, p.62), the ‘Jezebel’ stereotype has transformed more recently to take the form of ‘Hoe’ (short for whore) or ‘Thot.’ This is where Black women, although not exclusively, are portrayed not only as sexually aggressive, but as manipulative and selfish. It is often used as an insult to put women down by calling them sexual deviants, and as Lundy argues, helps to carry out inter-gender oppression. However, in WAP it is embraced with the constant refrain throughout the song, “There some whores in this house.” Whereas previously, sexually promiscuous black women were looked at in a negative light, the stereotype has been increasingly utilised in a pornographic manner, where a large, horny, dominant woman is played out more positively. Nevertheless, this continues to corner women of colour into specific categories and limits the scope of what is seen as acceptable forms of sexual representation. Those who accept this image of black women as empowerment and as truthful ultimately accept the stereotype.
As stated, corporate feminism frames ‘liberation’ as a woman’s choice to objectify herself in a way created by men. This idea of “choice” was analysed by Foucault (1976) in his theories of Subjectivity. It was further expanded upon by Judith Butler (1997, p.4), where she states that in the process of ‘subjectification’ power structures shape the reality of how someone views themselves and their role in society, where hegemonic structures themselves influence the individual, and create a reality. Hence, two questions can be extracted from WAP. The first is the epistemological question of whether it is truly an unrealistic representation of women. If this depiction of women of colour and women in general and their sexuality is what is consistently presented in popular culture and media, albeit artificially by men, does this mean that there is actually a reality created by it? In other words, is it fair to say that it is such an unrealistic interpretation? The second line of questions is that of effect. If Butler’s theory of subjectification holds true in this case, to what extent? And is it the reality that we want to create? Despite being unable to answer the question of what true and realistic sexuality is, it is more certain that women should be have the agency to create their own devices of socialisation and subjectification, and the male-dominated media fails to provide a proper platform to do so. Furthermore, even if the lyrics and video were entirely created by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, they would still likely be embodying patriarchal values. Since they have not grown up in an equal society but instead a male-dominated one, they have almost certainly been subjectified over the course of their continuing socialisation to embrace a lot of the damaging gendered power structures anyway.
Ultimately, WAP aligns intimately with hegemonic power structures in a similar fashion to most other music videos created before it. It simultaneously continues to objectify women under a male gaze and attract liberal-minded people using the false alibi of empowerment. Furthermore, it perpetuates racist images of Black women which have become so normalised that many take them for granted.
Sasha is a first year undergraduate studying sociology and politics. He is interested in knowledge, ideology, and power relationships. You can find him on Instagram @sasharhd
BUTLER, J. 1997. The psychic life of power : theories in subjection, Stanford, Calif., Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press.
Cardi B; Megan Thee Stallion; Ayo the Producer; Ski, F.;Foye III, J. (2020). WAP. Los Angeles: Atlantic Recording Coporation.
Foucault, M., 1976. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An introduction, New York, New York: Pantheon Books.
GOLDMAN, R. 1992. Reading ads socially, London; New York, Routledge.