May 24, 2011
“In 12 years, there have been 6 million dead men and women in Congo and 1.4 million people displaced. Hundreds and thousands of women and girls have been raped and tortured. Babies as young as 6 months, women as old as 80, their insides torn apart. What I witnessed in Congo has shattered and changed me forever. I will never be the same. None of us should ever be the same.” – Eve Ensler, May 2009
The World We Live In
The situation Ensler describes above has only gotten worse and its “intractable” nature, documented by yet another report on the extent of sexual violence in Congo, led her to declare last week, “Here’s what I Am Over/400 thousand women getting raped a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo/48 women getting raped an hour/1,100 raped a day.”
As she rightly points out, we live in a world that “… has allowed, continues to allow 400 thousand women, 23,00 women, or one woman to be raped anywhere, anytime of any day in the Congo.”
Of course, we also live in a world in which Odd Future can release a song (“Swag Me Out,” from the Radical mixtape) containing the line (picked more or less at random), “”Nigga we/take a girl/rape her in the back/of the fucking jeep,” followed soon by, “Chop a bitch head off/Then get a pleasant nut off/Bitch!” In fact, in this world, the band can appear on Jimmy Fallon’s show and even have an interesting article written about them in the New Yorker.
I’m not the first to make the connection between the reality of rape and wide-scale violence against women and the lyrical content of this up-and-coming hip hop organization. Indeed, that there might be something wrong with this music, the men who make it, and the men who celebrate and support it in the media and in the industry has been pointed out both by musicians like Tegan and Sara (well, specifically Sara), and bloggers like Sady over at Tiger Beatdown, the Feminist Music Geek, and others.
Men and Rape
But even as thoughtful people express their dismay at the budding success of Odd Future, they run into the following problem: Generally speaking, the culture is still dominated by men and men don’t want to confront the reality of sexual assault (not to mention a host of other realities from domestic violence to human trafficking).
First of all, they don’t like to deal with it on any level: they don’t want to think about it or talk about it with other men or (especially) women. Second of all, they don’t want to look at their complicity in creating and maintaining the world that Eve Ensler is “over.” Third of all, men willfully tolerate the representation of sexual violence in book, music and film, and some even actively seek out such representations (just as some artists actively seek to create them).
If acts like Odd Future—or, for that matter, Cannibal Corpse or Slayer or authors like Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), Jerzy Kosinski (Blind Date), or the Marquis de Sade—that represent acts of sexual violence meet with any kind of notice or acclaim, it results, in part, from the distance that men maintain to the fact of sexual violence. In other words, we men can, apparently, consume sexual violence as an aesthetic object without consequence or ethical pang. There is something undeniably disturbing about this undeniable fact.
Now, while the argument that violent sexual content leads directly to violence against women—outside of those cases where the violence is perpetrated in the actual creation of the content itself, as is the case with some pornography—may be problematic (after all, men watch, read and listen to this stuff and don’t all rape women, right?), the argument that such content at best reflects a cultural indifference to the reality of sexual violence, or, at worst, implicitly condones it, is less so. How else can we explain its prevalence (and once you start thinking about it, you see this kind of content pretty much everywhere)?
Opposition to implicit messages, however, the existence of which can be slippery enough to establish, is one thing. Opposition to explicit messages (“I want YOU to do THIS”) is another. The question then becomes whether or not the work of groups like Odd Future not only explicitly condones but even actively advocates sexual violence against women (not to mention gay men). Is this their “message,” as Sara calls it, or not?
Imagine: Songs with Messages
As much as Odd Future sing about raping, torturing and murdering women, I do not believe their message is, “Rape, Torture and Murder Women.” I don’t believe they have a message at all, strictly speaking, and, frankly, don’t believe any popular music nowadays has a message (other than, “I want to get with you” or “I want to be rich”).
Seen from this perspective, whether you sing about heinous acts of atrocity or about feeling bad because you think no one likes you, it really doesn’t matter; the music you are producing has the primary goal of self-expression (which our individualistic culture prizes as a value in and of itself) and the secondary goal of making money. (If you have a record deal, naturally, the goals may be reversed).
Changing the world or simply ending end-able suffering, in the vast majority of cases, is not even a tertiary goal. I mean, can you name one Top 40 or Top 100 hit out today that has this as a goal at all? I thought not.
That being said, I agree that the fact that Odd Future can get up on national tv and sing, “Forget the mask/I want her to know it’s me,” and have that be OK, is appalling. But it’s appalling precisely because they sang it and it didn’t matter. For this reason, I firmly believe that the thing that people are really struggling with when they are shocked by the music of Odd Future is this: How can something that is so obviously messed up be, at the same time, utterly meaningless and, in the end, of no consequence?
Nevertheless, you don’t need to dig into the emergent underground to be equally appalled. Indeed, you need look no further than Katy Perry’s current hit, “E.T.”, wherein she sings, “Wanna be a victim/Ready for abduction.” Is this a sentiment that speaks out against sexual assault or cultural assumptions about what women want? Quite the opposite. What’s worse is that the song also includes lyrics that, sans profanity, place Kanye West squarely in the same camp as Tyler, the Creator: “I’ma disrobe you/Then I’ma probe you./See I abducted you/So I tell you what to do.” To my mind, all this work is cut from the same cultural cloth.
The Real Problem
Are the lyrics of Odd Future, or Kanye West for that matter, the real problem?
I don’t think they are, though I don’t think they help, either. The real problem is that women are raped by men they know, by strangers, and, in some cases, systematically by armed men in the course of ongoing military or political conflict. That problem is only made worse (I hesitate to say “caused”) by that fact that we live in and with a culture that allows—and to some degree depends on—the production, exchange and consumption of musical, literary and cinematic products that use rape (abduction, sexual torture, etc.) for sensationalist entertainment and absurdist humor (not to mention for deeper, darker pyschological reasons).
As human beings aware of the world and how it works, we are left with a question: Will doing something about Odd Future’s music, to the extent that it is part of what can only be called “rape culture,” actually help us deal with the real problem: rape?
One legitimate answer is: No. They’re just making music. Listen to it or don’t. Art is not reality and focusing on the work of artists, as opposed to the deeds of actual criminals from the IMF to the DRC, is a diversion and, in many ways, the easy way out.
Another legitimate answer is: Yes. By changing the culture, we change attitudes and behaviors and this will result in a better, safer world for everyone.
What Is to Be Done?
If we think changing the culture is one way to go, should Tyler, the Creator be called on his shit as Sara suggests? I don’t think that would go far enough (or that he would care. Check his Twitter stream if you have any doubts).
Should this stuff be banned? That’s how it would be dealt with in some countries (and how I might have dealt with it in my more Stalinist moments), but that goes too far for some in this country.
Should we work to educate boys and men on sexual assault, teach them how to be responsible, compassionate people who are comfortable with their feelings about sex and sexuality and willing to confront other men when they, implicitly or explicitly, seem to condone or advocate sexual violence in any form? That might actually be a good start and address both the cultural and the real issues.
What do you think?