Back in August, I went to see Dave Chappelle perform at the Boulder Theater with my boyfriend and a gaggle of our best dude friends. A longtime fan of Chappelle's work, it was the first time I would be seeing his standup live, and I was stoked.
But halfway into his set, I had to turn off. If you are a female-identified person, a person of color, a member of the GLBTQIA community or any other under-represented or marginalized group, you know what I'm talking about. It's that inevitable time during a pop-culture-oriented experience when the subject matter turns on you: You become the punchline or the subject of harm or are put into a position of submission. Suddenly, you have to filter what is being presented to you.
It was as if I had blocked out all of Chappelle's horrific jokes about women before entering the building. It was like I only wanted to remember the groundbreaking work he did about race in America on Chappelle's Show or think about how much I loved and still love all the jokes in Half Baked. Sure, that feigned ignorance was my own fault. But it had me wondering: When, if ever, is popular culture going to be offered as entertainment for everyone?
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As a straight woman, a lot of popular culture is not really for me, anyway. Nor is most of it for people of color, people who fall all over the spectrum of gender identity or people who exist outside the confines of heterosexuality. It's sold to us, for sure, but it is not actually created with us in mind. As a woman, it is not meant to activate my pleasure centers or make me feel good things; it is not meant to make me feel good about my body or anyone else's body, feel good about the last 200 or so years of history, or feel good about being a woman in general, really.
But as a woman, I'm supposed to partake in this popular culture about me. Not only am I supposed to enjoy it, but I'm supposed to have analyzed it and have an opinion about it. I'm supposed to have decided if Iggy Azalea's butt is real, or if Nicki Minaj's butt is real, or, most recently, if Kim Kardashian's butt is real. Then I'm supposed to have an opinion on whether or not the humans attached to these butts are feminists or not. The problem with all of that is, I just don't care. I don't care if these women are feminists (or if their butts are feminists, either). I don't care if their butts are real -- because as a woman who is a human and a feminist, it is none of my business. Their bodies belong to them.
In general, I'm a modest person who doesn't care to look at strangers' butts most of the time unless I have actively chosen to do so -- but in the world of the Internet, there is no escaping it. Even if I didn't click on one of the hundreds of links proclaiming that Kim Kardashian's butt was going to "break the Internet," I was going to see her butt anyway. It was in my Twitter feed and in my Facebook feed -- not only in its original magazine-cover form, but also in dozens of positions of mockery. I'm sure many of you saw the video of the image of Kardashian's butt attached to a coffee maker so it made her look like she was, well, pooping when the coffee dispensed. (I won't link to the video, because I hate it so much.) I found the video to be so offensive that I thought about deleting the people who had posted it, but soon realized that would accomplish nothing.
But this butt problem and how we feel as female-identified people when the popular culture that mocks us is sold to us isn't a new problem. We've always been the gag. Here are just few examples that come to mind out of the thousands of times in my life that I've had to disconnect my thoughts and my feelings from popular culture to enjoy it.
Though I loved Goldie Hawn's bubbly-idiot routine on Laugh-In as a kid, it didn't take me long to realize that even when she was the star of the skit delivering the punchline, we were still supposed to laugh at her -- not with her.
Or the fact that I'm a collector ofvintage Playboy magazines
, too, and though the issues really are full of excellent writing (that age-old joke is true), they are also packed with sexist cartoons depicting young women with big boobies and no brains in precarious sexual positions involving old, implied-to-be wise men. So, while we (or just men, I guess) are supposed to be enjoying the women's bodies spread across these old pages ofPlayboy
, we are also supposed to be laughing at their bodies. (Can you imagine how progressive and history-changingPlayboy
would have been if Hefner had handed over power to women, even just in the cartoon section? I shudder to think about something so revolutionary.)
Not only are we the butt of jokes in pop culture, but we're the subject of a lot of derogatory lyrics in music. Female-identified folks have always played the submissive role in songs -- I remember first realizing what the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" was all about. What a bummer that this song -- a pop song featuring a marimba! Like, when has that happened before or since? -- is actually just about a sad, probably abusive relationship where the woman is compared to a dog.
Or every song on the Strokes' Is This It? -- the album I obsessed over in my early twenties -- which is mostly just about dude apathy and the women who throw themselves at it. Or my favorite Lil Wayne verse in Young Money's "Steady Mobbin,'" which is about murdering a woman (after a slew of other horrendous things happen) and sending her body in the mail back to her boyfriend. I won't even get into the lame ways literature and film have portrayed female-identified people for decades (though I could write an entire essay just on the disservice paid to women by last week's horrific, straight-white-male masturbatory fantasy and Starz Film Festival opening-night selection, 5 to 7.)
Sometimes it feels like popular-culture "events" like Kim Kardashian and her butt are created to get feminists riled up. They seem created to make us fight among ourselves and distract from whatever actual issue we are currently working on. Yes, the objectification of women is something we're working on. Yes, the Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman-like nature of the photos of Kardashian and the much larger issue of how many of us feminists are not tapped into intersectional feminism is something we're working on. But at the rate these roadblocks and distractions and butts keep popping up, well, we'll just get back to you on all of that.
In the meantime, if you're a writer or a comedian or a musician or a filmmaker, or anyone that has anything to do with the mass production of popular culture, do female-identified people a favor and think about us once in a while. Not in a creepy, sexual or object-like way. More in a "would a female-identified person/person of color/queer person find a joke about themselves funny?" way. The answer is probably not. In most cases, if you think it's offensive, it probably is. So be creative and write and create smarter. Work harder to be interesting. It will make you funnier in the long run -- I promise.
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