Four Videos of Women Being Unladylike
The way that gender has been constructed in our society is ... like, a course. There are university courses on this. It's a big topic, really big, and really complex, and any attempt to summarise it is doomed to failure. But we all have a vague understanding of what it means to be ladylike, or feminine, or to behave like a woman "should".
Here are four videos that, in different ways, told that discourse of gender appropriateness to go fuck itself.
Pearl of a Girl - Kristeen Young
"I never knew I was a girl until they stooped to tell me."
Kristeen Young is what the reactionary media has for decades now imagined feminist music sounds and, of course, looks like: an angry screechy screaming woman smoking, swearing, sitting with her legs more than two inches apart, and generally being unladylike. There's always been this idea in our group subconscious that women should, whatever their goals, whatever their intentions, whatever their situation, still, at least, look, sound and, most importantly, act like women. Mary, the mother of Jesus - who is an obvious adjunct to this song about religion's desire to control women - is often held up, in countries like Ireland, as an ideal of womanhood: passionate in her love and devotion, but never to the point of visible distress or misbehaviour. Mary wept precisely once, and was otherwise a passive, stoic observer, and so, too, should be feminists. Make your point, argue facts, ask for better pay, or for more respect, certainly, but, please, remember to do it like a woman.
Kristeen's target here is religion. All religion. Religion as an institution has always defined very specific roles and behaviours for women ... but you need neither me nor Kristeen to explain to you the very well-known (at this point in time) problems with the handling of gender by organised religion.
"You are accused of being a woman. I want you to be aware that we take that sort of thing very seriously around here. But it's okay, we've found a couple of things you can do to make up for your unfortunate problem. You can be a servant, or you can be a whore. Pick one."
A lot of the philosophy of feminism comes down to answering that charge/question. You could say: "No, there are other roles I can fulfill." You could say: "No, men and women are the same." You could say: "No, there's nothing wrong with being a woman."
Kristeen Young says: "Fuck you for even asking the question", then screams at you, then dares you to tell her she shouldn't have behaved in such an unladylike manner.
Let 'Em Come - Scroobius Pip, P.O.S and Sage Francis
"Maybe our kind don't fit around here."
We all remember when Smack My Bitch Up came out. It was rude, it was sexually aggressive, it was uncouth, and it had a huge twist at the end, which was that, surprise!, women can be rude, sexually aggressive, and uncouth. I doubt Jonas Åkerlund meant any real social commentary here; he just thought a gonzo lad's night out provided the opportunity to do something funny and memorable. Whatever his intentions, this video got wedged in the zeitgeist and created this trope, especially in the UK, of the "laddish lass".
Enter Scroobius Pip. On the surface that's all the Let 'Em Come clip is: yet another laddish lass chortle. But, as ever with Mr Pip, there's a deep, subtle, thoughtful twist here that makes it worth talking about. Two twists, in fact.
First, this is a gender flip. These three women are intended to be representations of the three rappers. Nina Kate isn't just a woman acting like a man; Nina Kate is Scroobius Pip. She's listed as such right off the bat. She raps his lines, she talks to the viewer as him. But she's a him that he isn't: more aggressive, more forward, more prone to the old argy-bargy.
And secondly, note the reactions of the men in the video. One man gets a pat on the cheek and looks kind of flustered. He's a timid-looking guy, he's received the attention of a very forward woman, and he reacts accordingly. One man accidentally spills a drink and immediately tries to defuse the situation. He doesn't want a fight, and he's worried that's what this will be. So this isn't women being men; this is women being women, but being treated by men in the same way that men would treat men: with respect.
Caught Out There - Kelis
"I hate you so much right now."
This is a song about a woman being pissed right off that she's caught her man cheating on her. Kelis is pretty fucking angry. What's powerful about this video however isn't the anger, it's how it's represented. Kelis is physically active in her anger. Go back to Kristeen Young and the idea of the stoic, ladylike woman who, in her emotional distress, should still be placid, and inactive. "Why wasn't I good enough for you? Now I'm sad. I'm leaving". That's how women are supposed to respond to this situation. At most you can take your man's things and eject them from your space, cast him out. How do men respond? Actively, physically. "You're a slut, I'm yelling and controlling this space, now I'm going to hit you."
How does Kelis respond? In both ways. Her verses are a mixture of anger, confusion, and sadness. Her chorus is pure rage. She just keeps saying "I hate you" and then yelling. That's pretty ragey. Angered beyond the ability to explain how angry you are.
But the video does a lot more than that. The man in the video is utterly passive. He shows very little emotion. He is a passive bystander to her anger. The few things he says are affirmations, and not even male lines - he voices the female best friend part of the conversation. The man has been completely silenced. And more: he's showing the bruises and cuts on his face of someone who has been the recipient of a beating, and at one point is even shown backing away from someone and trying to calm them down.
There was a minor controversy at the release of this video, a suggestion it might be depicting or even justifying domestic violence. I don't think that's the intention here (though I'll agree that a video like this, possible in 1999, certainly couldn't and shouldn't be made in a 2017 where domestic violence is in the public awareness and being, at least tepidly, addressed). The man isn't actually there; he's simply a representation of the red hot violence she's feeling in her rejection. What matters here is that Kelis, in presentation, is rejecting the role of the quiet woman and is venting her anger actively, physically, and in a most unladylike manner.
Quiet Storm - Young M.A.
"I tried to be girly once, but fortunately it didn't work."
Young M.A. is the latest in a long tradition of butches whose answer to the question of "How are you going to fit inside your gender?" is "I ain't". Young M.A. is indistinguishable from any other kid coming up in the scene right now, except that she's a woman, and she's a lesbian, but to hear her talk about it that's not a gimmick, that's not a difference maker, she's still a worker, she's still had to hustle to get to here, she's still had to grind to get this good, and she's still made it on the strength of her game, and that's it, that's what it's always been about: Rosie the mechanic just stepped into a place her gender was never accepted, got to work and excelled because she was just that good, gender be damned.
In the rap scene there's always been powerful and successful women. You look at someone like Li'l Kim, or Remy Ma, or Missy Elliot - all undeniably on top of their game, all commercially successful, all mixing it with the men while maintaining control. But they were all overtly, deliberately women. If Young M.A. didn't tell you she was a woman you wouldn't know it: not by her look, not by her style, not by the things she raps about. She's still selling O's on the street, she's still ripping on haters, she's still flipping your girlfriend at the club, she's still got a grill, a glock and a baggy, her flow's not quirky, her bars aren't light. She's just one of the guys, you can get to the top as a woman without getting your tits out, twerking, and fucking Drake, and you do that by saying "Fuck gender, this is just me, and I'm damn good at what I do".