Bards in the Front, Shrews in the Back

Posted: February 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

By Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty. 

“You’re a feminist; how could you be into Shakespeare, what with all of the ‘witches’ and the ‘shrews?’”

Um, I’m pretty sure I never heard that question in grad school or at any point in my academic experience. It’s pretty much understood that, despite the disinheritance of a less-Imagethan-compliant daughter, the taming of an obstinate wife, and the inevitable insanity of the power-hungry femme fatale, it’s cool for a feminist to be into Shakespeare, because he’s good. He’s THAT good.

However, I am continually posed with that question in my current intellectual pursuit:

“You’re a feminist; how could you be into rap, what with all of the ‘bitches’ and the ‘hos?'”

Because, I say, like any art, when rap is good, it’s THAT good.

Why is it totally acceptable to give Shakespeare props for his skills, despite his apparent misogyny, but not, say, Ice Cube? I think it has something to do with who gets to define art. While our cultural reverence for Shakespeare stems from the way that he kicks ass with English (Sound and fury? Damn right.), it is made unquestionable by our acceptance of his stories as universal and his skill as peerless. His cultural position is dominant, white, male. However, we, even feminists, let him speak for us, because he does it so good.

So, Ice Cube brings a perspective that is not just different from that of theImage accepted universal, it is downright unsettling, to understate the matter. It is unsettling in that it doesn’t fit nicely into the cultural definition of art. It can’t. It comes from an angry, black dude, and that angry, black dude could not possibly represent the universal, according to the dominant (white, male) definition.

So, we dis it. It is violent. It is misogynistic. It disturbs the shit that makes us comfortable.

Guess what? That’s art. And, guess what else? When it’s done by the likes of Cube, it’s peerless: the man can rap. Yes, he is THAT good.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

When Hamlet accosts his mother and mind-trips his girlfriend, it’s totally cool because Gertrude’s tumble into “incestuous sheets,” means that Ophelia is sure to be Hamlet’s 100th problem. Yeah, go ahead and mess with your girlfriend’s head to fulfill your revenge fantasy against your mother: “Frailty, thy name is woman.”

ImageWhen Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy blast through America and the “awfully dumb…sweet little girl[s],” we are quick to forgive their youthful indiscretions because they are rebelling against the stifling square-ness of the 1950’s, and because Kerouac does it with such frantic, insanely sexy lyricism: “…I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything…”

When Anna Karenina finally offs herself, the only thing she CAN do in Tolstoy’s Russia (she did cheat on her husband, after all, and he’s got a rep and a fortune to defend, yo), we praise the beauty of the tragic love story: “Sensual desire indulged for its own sake is the misuse of something sacred.” That is, if it’s a woman’s indulgence.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t go mad for these writers. They are amazing, and they tell stories of the human condition in ways that challenge and move us. My point is, though, that this power of (seemingly universal, but, almost always white and male) art is not found only within literature; it is found in a good rapper’s flow.

When Ice Cube claims that “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money,” he is, as a matter of fact, speaking from the same misogynist universal as all the rest of these dudes, it just happens to arise from the culturally oppressed, rather than the culturally dominant. More importantly, his flow is so urgent, so angry, and so damn smooth against Dre’s hard-driving, irresistible beat, that his mastery is undeniable. So, I give him much respect: “Even saw the lights of the Goodyear blimp, and it read ‘Ice Cube’s a pimp.'”

As for my take on Norman Mailer and Eminem, I’d really like to claim that I represent as a feminist, but, like Jay-Z says, “Ladies is pimps, too.”

  1. Lee Lazar says:

    Well played, Professor Jocks Stelzer. This is the type of argument my father used to make not just the point for art, but for freedom of speech in America. We are fortunate to live in a society where the “non-dominant position” has a medium of expression, and there is nothing wrong with appreciating it if it is well presented. It would be nice if that sentiment translated to the political arena.

  2. cheryl munox says:

    I want to agree… but the hole that I find in your argument is that Ice Cube is a man of OUR times… and in these times we, as a society, have placed a high priority on mutual respect. To react to oppression by degrading others is completely regressive. The beat might sound liberating but I can’t help but hear the language created by a vicious cycle of oppression.

  3. DeanneM says:

    I believe that all music, regardless of whether I love it or hate it, should be respected based on the geographic area or socio-economic culture that it represents as it is an expression of the people that create it. Watching the Grammys last night (and every year) is always so interesting to me because of the vastly different types of artists and musical genres together in one forum and that we recognize all of them as worthy of award. However, I have to go with Cheryl on this one when it comes to some forms of rap. While we often do accept the misogyny of many writers from our past because of their amazing style of writing, why do we say it’s okay now? I agree that it perpetuates the cycle of oppression. Expressing your anger or frustration through music is one thing but degrading an entire gender for the sake of “art” is another and I don’t buy it.

  4. No way, Cheryl, I am NOT forgiving male writers of the past for being misogynist just because it was a symptom of their times. If we’re going to hold artists in our times responsible for representing the perspectives that we want them to have, I insist that we do that of artists of the past, too, even when they are amazing writers, as Deanne points out.

    I don’t mean to suggest that we should forgive Cube his misogynist lyrics because his lyrics come from a place of oppression. I mean to point out that I think THAT is the reason we don’t forgive him, while we’ll forgive the “dead, white, males”: because we can. That’s wrong, and I won’t do it.

    Plus, he really is a kick-ass rapper.

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