It’s clear enough that Ben Shapiro and Republican candidate James P. Bradley’s puritanical pearl-clutching over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s (censored!) music video “WAP,” which stands for Wet-Ass Pussy, is largely irrelevant.
Shapiro’s and Bradley’s statements decrying the explicit message of the song and the (un)dress in the video constitute the kind of performative moral panics that are so baldly opportunistic as to render them banal. (Though, aside from his ranty and tedious video, Shapiro’s tweets express a bizarre curiosity about the rappers’ vaginal health in which he solicits input from his “doctor wife”.) Yet, here I am writing about them because it is now a central function of being a public conservative scold to swerve boldly out of your lane and perhaps onto an entirely different highway, in another country. These hysterical men have made lascivious rap their business by cosplaying as responsible parents, framing their repulsion as dignity and concern. (Bradley exclaimed on Twitter that the song made him “pour holy water in my ears and I feel sorry for future girls if this is their role model!”) So, the moment has arrived at which we must reckon with the not-so-slick game potential conservative lawmakers and self-righteous “dark web” lecturers are playing by supplying us with their Wet-Ass Pussy takes.
In a tweet this evening, Cardi wrote, “I can’t believe conservatives soo mad about WAP.” It’s almost unbelievable except that, across the political spectrum, fear and fury toward Black female sexuality is commonplace, and has been.
As long as the U.S. has existed, white supremacy has labeled Black women hypersexual and untrustworthy—and thus, bad mothers—and from those stereotypes, respectability sprung forth (in fact, these characterizations were usually imported from Europe). During slavery and after emancipation, many free and then middle-class Black people, in particular, carried on with polite and modest comportment so as not to—they hoped—fall victim to racist distortions. Black women, specifically, saw themselves monitored not only by the white gaze but by Black men—and even other Black women, too. The advent of hip hop, and women carving a place for themselves as musicians and performers within the tradition, saw a mainstream repudiation of Black female respectability. Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Remy Ma, and others came on the scene with salacious lyrics and revealing outfits; Missy Elliott rhymed frankly and facetiously about sex. These women sprung from a legacy of clever lyrical impropriety in Black female expression—Ma Rainey was known for her sharp tongue and even Ella Fitzgerald had her moments.
Many of these Black woman rappers also grew up working class or poor. The postures of respectability were certainly not unheard of in their communities—from Portsmouth, Virginia, to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn—yet the creative imagination of these places often lived in gray areas between public and private, spaces harder to monitor in that they demanded inventiveness in their own ways: the church, the streets, the schoolyard, and yes, the bedroom. Men have been rapping, crooning, and belting about their sexual exploits from time immemorial, yet when women reclaim a space in this much-publicized arena, the same old scripts emerge. For Black women, this double standard is not merely the residue of the U.S.’s puritanical roots, but of the way in which racist assumptions about—and systemic devaluation of—Black women makes them always already too little and too much.
In 2014, Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” elicited plenty of overwrought commentary about Black female sexuality, riling up the cultural conversation around fat asses. Al Roker, for example, was disgusted by the music video, but generally, Minaj received more thoughtful engagement with her irreverent audacity. Mostly the same goes for “WAP,” a spectacle that, while not at all groundbreaking, is lyrically astute and visually multi-dimensional. The video itself recalls the work of Elliott, Minaj, and Lil’ Kim, as well as pop stars like Lady Gaga and Madonna, whose whiteness has often seen their artistry emphasized over their sensuality. In fact, that Republicans are loudly condemning the video only means that many more people will watch it, just as they “accidentally” did themselves. Megan and Cardi know this, and have taken all hand-wringing in stride, carrying on with the kind of self-confidence that a politics of respectability cannot supply and “future girls” would do well to take note of.