A few weeks before Beyonce had the social media thirsty for #lemonade, Prince was still rocking out Atlanta with his own brand of purple magic, and before President Obama came at the black lives matter movement activists sideways….singer, songwriter, and Queen of the Hoteps Erykah Badu made some comments on Twitter that sparked an intense debate around sexuality, gender, and personal responsibility. Her comments came shortly after sharing her thoughts on an article discussing young girls and skirt length at schools. She suggested that girls should wear longer skirts to avoid distracting male staff members. Recently, I sat down with Berneta L. Haynes, consulting editor of the Evolving Man Project, to talk about the implications of Erykah Badu’s comments.
Why were Erykah Badu’s comments (about little girls and women needing to cover up themselves to avert the male gaze) problematic? Why the outrage?
Lornett: I think that with celebrity and the way our culture worships them, it gives people like Ms. Badu a major public platform. Unfortunately, these celebrities have an inevitable tendency to put their foot in their mouths. I feel Ms. Badu’s comments put the responsibility solely on young women and girls by advocating that they should cover up. Apparently, we savage, unevolved grown men, can’t control ourselves around provocatively dressed little girls and teens in high schools and junior highs across the globe.
This is, of course, ridiculous. It seems to me what’s more problematic is the New Zealand school that made this decision to make girls cover up. Suggesting that male staff members can’t control themselves and will ogle at little girls in mini-skirts reveals a very condescending view of male sexuality and men’s ability to practice self-control. This attitude and way of thinking are insulting to any self-respecting man. It’s just as silly as uber-conservative Muslims who advocate that all women should wear burkas because men can’t control their sexual urges and will sexually pursue these women. You know, because the Quran and Bible tell us that the flesh is weak and tempting, depending on your particular interpretation.
Berneta: Yes, it’s ridiculous and incredibly insulting to men and women. Look, I’m going to keep this very real: Erykah Badu needs to fall all the way back on this issue and just stick to making art. Her comments were messed up on so many levels that it’s difficult to even know where to start dissecting all of it. But let me start here: in what world should a little girl have to cover herself to keep grown ass men from looking at her? Can we just start with that generally wack premise? That premise is not only sickening but outright insulting to men, basically suggesting that they can’t control themselves. But it’s worse than that. It indicates to girls that they are sort of to blame if a grown ass man does decide to get sexual with them. Her argument was all around sick, and I’m honestly baffled by the folks who defend it. I remember a common defense from Erykah Badu’s supporters was that she also called out men directly and told them to do better. Yes, and that’s all she should’ve done, and left little girl’s fashion sensibilities out of the discussion.
Are there problems with third wave feminism? Is Ms. Badu’s mindset a result of contradictions within mainstream feminism?
Lornett: I think women face a slew of challenges, and if you add race, religion, and sexual orientation to the mix it all creates a huge hurdle for women. But I think this victim-blaming approach needs to be addressed by both men and women. Women and girls are subject to rape, harassment, unwanted sexual attention when wearing anything from miniskirts to turtlenecks.
I think feminism is going through a revision and deconstruction. This is a great time for younger women and men to challenge sexist assumptions and old-fashioned ways of thinking about both sex and gender. Urging young women and girls to cover themselves up because boys will be boys or men will be men is an ancient school of thought that’s just plain wrong. It allows men to escape responsibility. Men need to call out other men who sexualize little girls and young teens.
Berneta: Feminism is definitely going through a revision. I don’t even know what feminism is anymore, to be honest, or whether we’re still in the Third Wave. Feminism has evolved to mean so many different things to different people, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it sometimes obscures the goals. I really prefer Alice Walker’s term “womanism” because the “feminism” I see nowadays is just so status quo that “feminists” now spend a good portion of their time harping on about the wonders and strong womanness of Beyonce’s latest video. I’m not sure I want to claim the label of “feminist” anymore when it’s been turned into something so vacuous. Of course, there are feminists out there doing on-the-ground work in the communities and with regular women. But we don’t mean that sort of feminism when we talk about feminism nowadays.
I think perhaps Third Wave Feminism paved the way for this evolution of feminism we see now. The feminism of today seems to retain many elements of the 90s variety but also some contradictory conservative pre-90s elements, and the latter is where I think Erykah Badu’s comments fall (if we can call her a feminist at all, after those comments). Some people referred to Third Wave Feminism, which rose to prominence in the 90s, as “Pussy Power Feminism.” I believe Bell Hooks referred to it that way. Older women back then seemed to look at Third Wave Feminism with disdain, like it was just young women making the whole movement revolve around sex, raunch culture, and sexual liberation when there’s that and quite a bit more to feminism.
Erykah came to adulthood in the era of Third Wave Feminism, and her words seem almost like a reaction to that school of feminist thought. Her words were kind of the opposite of the “Pussy Power Feminism” that some folks associate with the Third Wave. For instance, TLC–a great example of Third Wave “Pussy Power” Feminism–were singing about sex, being sexual and how they had every right to be sexual and wear whatever they wanted to wear. Erykah sort of said the exact opposite in her comments about girls. I don’t know where Erykah’s ideas fall into the realm of feminist thought. Maybe she’s just engaged in some general hotepry and couldn’t care less about feminist messages. I don’t know. It just seems like feminism is at a real messy crossroads right now, with a lot of competing messages.
Why does the blame for sexual harassment and sexual assault always fall on young girl’s and women’s dress and behavior?
Lornett: In systems of oppression, the oppressor is never held accountable for their actions. So instead of a school running background checks on male and female staff alike, they instead decide to tell young girls to cover themselves up. It’s basically starting these young girls off with the message that they are responsible for all the unwanted sexual attention they will receive from men from childhood through adulthood. From this message, these girls are to learn that “if you dress modest nothing will happen to you because bad things happen to promiscuous, scantily-clad women and girls.” This state-of-mind is just plain nonsense!
Another interesting point is that the little boys are not protected in this way, and there has been a slew of cases where teachers–both male and female–have had coercive or manipulative sexual encounters with young male students. All children should be protected from sexual predators. Yet we live a society strongly influenced by the Madonna-complex; hence women’s and girl’s innocence and self-worth are tied directly (almost exclusively) to their sexuality. For men and boys, self-esteem isn’t tied directly to their sexuality, and virginity isn’t valued for young boys.
Plus, a young teenage boy having sex with his “hot” lady teacher is supposed to be every boy’s fantasy, right? That’s a load of crap, but there have been women sex offenders who got off the hook after raping their male students, likely due to this exact type of thinking. Of course, these were attractive young white women. If they hadn’t been pretty and white, I’m sure the book would have been thrown at them. Sexual predators, males, and females should be punished and receive the help they desperately need. Pedophilia is pedophilia, no matter who does it. If you have a strong sexual attraction to young kids, then you need to seek professional help. The onus shouldn’t be put on kids.
Berneta: Exactly. My question as soon as I saw Erykah Badu’s comment was, “Okay, so what the hell are little boys supposed to do to keep grown ass men and women from trying to sexually approach them?” I guarantee you Erykah, nor her defenders can answer that question without undermining her original argument.
Why do we always blame the victim for sexual harassment? Look, it’s the same reason the blame for racial violence still falls on black folks and our “bad lifestyles.” Blaming the victim is sexy, and it’s the lazy person’s salvation in any discussion of inequality and injustice. It’s always the victim’s fault in cultures where people don’t want to actually think critically about issues and maybe interrogate some of their unearned privileges. Unfortunately, that seems to be most cultures. People are just lazy thinkers in general, it seems. That laziness explains how oppressive systems work and sustain themselves.
How does sexism negatively impact men and women?
Lornett: Sexism impacts men and women in many ways, but the most obvious example is the impact it has on women’s and girl’s self-worth, tying that self-worth to chastity. Women and girls are taught at a young age to be chaste. (This is especially evident for white women and girls, who don’t have to deal with racial otherness calling into question their self-worth. In this way, white women’s self-esteem seems to be tied exclusively to their chastity, whereas black women’s self-worth is linked not only to their chastity but to their race.) Early on, girls start receiving messages from their peers, family, media, and broader society about how they need to look a certain way, behave a certain way, or think a certain way. On top of the pressure to be chaste, women and girls have to navigate the world aware that they can be raped at any time, whereas men only think about the possibility of being raped when they ponder going to jail. In matters of sexual rejection, men fear being laughed at, whereas women fear being killed. These are the realities sexism heaps onto the shoulders of women and girls.
Men, on the other hand, have to deal with rigid hetero hypersexuality and less gender fluidity. Men are supposed to mask their own feelings and man up. What it means to be a man is solely defined in specific ways by society, and if you don’t fit into this social construct, you have failed. It puts a lot of pressure on men and, for some men, the only power they have is their perceived male privilege. That is why we have so many high levels of suicide, domestic violence, drug abuse, and depression among men in America. The meaning of manhood is in a state of disarray right now and is no longer what it was in the 1950s and 60s. I think things are changing in this decade, for the better.
These rigid Western gender norms put people into tight boxes without room to breathe many suffocate. It seems many indigenous cultures across the world had more fluid gender roles and equity among the sexes during previous eras. Viking women could just divorce their husbands by merely moving back onto their family’s land, and they owned property. Aztec women were given the same honor as male warriors who died in battle when they died during childbirth. But with the rise of Christianity, modernization, and globalization much of the equality among the sexes has been lost in the sands of time.
Berneta: It is suffocating. You’re absolutely right about that. I’ve always loved that one Margaret Atwood quote you mentioned:
It’s so true. I wish men understood this because that is what sexism looks like. That quote exemplifies the harmful impact sexism has on women.
Sexism impacts women further by convincing us that we somehow deserve the treatment we receive at the hands of men. It assures us that we did something to make that man follow us down the street, that we wore something inappropriate to make that male teacher say sexual things to us, that we did something to cause the sexual harassment at work. Sexism convinces us that lower pay for women is perfectly fine and that when women speak out against it, they are just complaining or misguided. Sexism, like racism, really screws with the mind in more ways than any of us can imagine.
What can everyday people do to promote gender equality?
Lornett: A lot. It’s not all doom and gloom. With the rise of the internet and social media, you see rampant sexism on the rise. Anonymous online jerks have threatened women worldwide with violence, rape, and death. But you also see a massive pushback against sexism globally. Look at the protests in India and Egypt against sexual harassment and rape. Egalitarian ideology is reaching a wide range of people, both men, and women. You have men who proudly claim to be feminist and critique racism and classism seen within the feminist movements. You have women reclaiming their rights by fighting gender discrimination and the pay gender gap in the United States and women fighting for the right to drive cars in Saudi Arabia.
What can we do to keep up this momentum of change and keep moving forward? Men who are conscious of sexism should call out, challenge, and educate their fellow male friends and family members when they are spouting out sexist nonsense. Men can become allies by understanding that sexism affects the lives of all their mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, and cousins daily.
Parents should teach their children from a young age that brothers and sisters are both capable beings and teach them how to have mutual respect for all people. There are real physical differences between the sexes, but without one another there is no human race. Every man and woman have 23 chromosomes each from their mother and father. So even biologically male and female are indeed equal. We can’t exist without one each other.
Women should continue to support each other and ally on women’s rights issues at the local level. Even becoming a big sister to a child can mean a lot to a little girl. Women across race, class, and religious lines should dialogue about how sexism intersects with other social identities and what new tactics can be used to combat it. Malala Yousafzai is a prime example of a young woman who challenges sexism in some of the harshest social conditions imaginable. There is always hope and what we can take away from Ms. Badu’s comments is that it started a much-needed conversation. Now action must be put into to place to continue to fight the fight for true equality.
Berneta: Ultimately, we can start by just talking and listening to each other. Listen to your female partner when she complains about the men who harass her on the street. Don’t assume she’s lying or just paranoid. Listen to your male partner when he talks about the pressures he experiences as a man at work or in the world in general. Don’t assume he’s lying or just paranoid. We have to start talking more and listening to each other, even when we don’t like what we’re hearing.
But a lot of folks just don’t know how to listen. For example, I and many others heard to Erykah Badu’s words. I listened, trying to understand her point and where she was coming from, and I saw many folks doing the same, respectfully disagreeing with her on Facebook. Did she listen in kind? Did she try to understand why people disagreed with her? No, not really.
Ultimately, we have to talk and listen to each other, but it has to be a two-way street. Often, there’s a person in the conversation who just talks and refuses to listen. We can start by calling that person out and encouraging him or her to hear more. After all, everyone has a story to tell about sexism. Let’s tell those stories and listen and exchange and learn from one another.