The recent news that ATL rapper Shawty Lo (of Laffy Taffy fame) may be the potential star of a new reality show featuring him, his 11 children, and his 10 baby mamas had this feminist searching for somebody’s pearls to clutch, seeing as how even the First Lady’s love of pearls has not inspired me to cop a strand of my own.
I watched the trailer for this latest train wreck out of Atlanta in mild disgust and mega internal conflict. On the one hand, I felt compelled to embrace this potential portrayal of what one friend called an “alternate family.” I mean, my family, composed of my single mom, my only-child self, my cousins who were stand-ins for big brothers, and more recently my step-family is certainly “alternate.” At least I felt that way as a kid when I was asked to fill out those old-school ditto sheets with the members of my family, which curiously left absent slots for cousins and aunties and grandparents.
And when I see the “rabid” nature of respectability politics that makes grown-ass women feel justified in referring to other sisters hustling trying to make it as “brood mares” I am reminded that I don’t ever wanna be down with the myopia and pathology of the respectability racket either! It is so absolutely clear that this respectability shit IS.NOT. working, no matter how much we remix it. The refusal to see that requires what I like to call indignant ignorance, and frankly ain’t nobody got time for that!
On the other hand: this Shawty-Lo biznass is utterly ratchet! And ratchetness gives me pause, every single time! It’s meant to. Ratchet acts are meant to be so over-the-top and outrageous that they catch your attention and exceed the bounds of acceptable saying.
This is the manner and mode of ratchetness that Bey seems to be invoking (successfully or not, you be the judge) in this pic which had the internets all ablaze over the weekend.
Bey’s ratchetness is about flamboyance, about doing the most, and “Bey-ing the most.”
Shawty-Lo’s brand is “ghetto” “hood” ish on steroids.
In this regard,his show is certainly poised to succeed. (And it ain’t even aired yet.)
So my initial thought to my friend on FB was: “When there’s a show about a woman and her ten baby daddies then we can have a discussion about alternate families. Until then, this just sounds like women with few options capitulating to Black male patriarchy.”
By-and-large, I believe this is true. But it is also true that I find something fundamentally off-putting about a brother with 11 kids by 10 different women, even though it appears that he supports them all, claims them all, and works to have some level of relationship with their moms. I’m tired of brothers not having to be emotionally accountable for their relational choices. I’m tired of the way patriarchy’s love affair with capitalism sets men up to think that manhood and fatherhood are tied to one’s bank account.
Patriarchy exempts men from having to emotionally grow the fuck up.
I mean, it’s great that Shawty Lo knows and claims all his children. But um, WHEN did that become the standard?!
Men don’t want superficial relationships, but they have little motivation to cultivate the habits of character—emotional generosity and maturity, selflessness, self-confidence (not EGO) – that are necessary for good relationships. Intuitively most men reject women who want them only for what they have, and rightfully so. But these same men are rarely challenged to cultivate the kind of emotional consideration that they seek in others. They want these things from women, benefit from the time we spend cultivating these attributes in our friendships with other women, but are so ill-equipped to provide them themselves.
Even still, in the crevices of my wrinkled forehead are the residues of my own respectability politics, my ambivalence about the limits of our alter(n)ations, and our excessive celebrations of alterity. Even as our generation works hard to stop clutching the pearls and with it the respectability that we think is held in tact by the thin tie that binds, we are confronted with the challenges that led our foremothers to embrace respectability in the first place. We might not be striving for big R-type Respectability, but we are all over little-R respectability.
Well, “ask me what I do and who I do it for.” For the future kids, for my mama, my grandmama, my aunties, all those people, for whom I am the embodiment of hope.
When I was growing up, watching way too many girls become mothers before they had the resources to make sustainable lives for themselves and watching my mother hustling to make ends meet, I caught the cautionary tale real quickly. Whatever you do, don’t do this.
Not justifying. More like confessing. And inviting us–respectable, supereducated brown girls, the ones who “did it the right way,” whatever the hell that is– to tell the truth about our continued investments in respectability, and about all the ways that our love for all things ratchet is as much about getting free as it is about reminding ourselves of all the reasons why we made the choices we made. So we wouldn’t end up like that. Like them.
I mean it could be good ole fashioned “Chickenhead Envy” on my part. Cuz damn. It definitely feels like “Hoes be winning.”
But are they really? Are any of us of winning in a scenario where respectable and ratchet are the only two options?
Yes, the alternate family that Shawty Lo and the Baby Moms have built may be subversive, transgressive, and even admirable in its insistence on creating meaningful kinship bonds despite the dictates of respectability. Alternate families are incredibly difficult to create and structurally discouraged at every turn. And in some ways our affective lives (our emotional selves) have not caught up to the space, time, and resource demands of this neoliberal moment.
Ratchetness emerges under these conditions as a kind of habitus through which (some) working-class folks and folks with working class roots interact with every aspect of their lives from entertainment to family to government.
(Hurricane Chris performs “Halle Berry”–one of the first songs to popularize the term “ratchet” in front of the Louisiana Legislature, watch around the 6min mark.)
More and more though, I am coming to understand that subversive and transgressive politics do not a revolution make. I mean how exactly does the subversion and transgression represented here undercut patriarchy?
Just because it’s alternate and non-normative–and thus even potentially queer– should I as a feminist embrace it?
From what I see, this radical reimagining of family works primarily to balance the public portrayals of Black men as oversexed deadbeats against the reality that “as long as he takes care of his kids,” we can’t really have anything to say, because ultimately “he ain’t that bad.”
What do we do with a man that sleeps around unprotected with all these women given the alarming rates of HIV infection in ATL? (And how many people will come to this post and remind me that the women also chose to have unprotected sex with him?!)
As I watch the mothers of Shawty Lo’s children form strategic alliances all in the name of parenting their children and getting what they need from this ONE man, I think about the continued imbalance of power that Black men have over Black women despite all the ways white capitalist supremacist patriarchy conspires to keep Black men locked into a form of subordinate masculinity.
I know that should this show become a full fledged series, everyone will focus on the Mamas, on how stupid they all were to take up with dude, who has a reputation for foolishness. Their maturity and the wisdom of their choices will surely be discussed.
His? Not so much.
As I’ve said before, reality (television) frequently makes Black women the victims of persistent acts of disrespectability.
So even as I unhand my (mother’s) pearls, I think this show among others can invite us to think about Black women’s deployment of ratchetness as part of a kind of disrespectability politics.
Or in Bey’s case, as a kind of joy and celebration, that the rush to respectability simply doesn’t allow.
Elsewhere I have written about ratchet feminism, primarily as a kind of female friendship forged in the midst of complicated relationships among men, their mothers, and their many women. I think this show will place this concept on the table again, as it demands we think about all of the creative ways women negotiate patriarchy.
At the same time, we have to think about how the embrace of ratchetness is simultaneously a dismissal of respectability, a kind of intuitive understanding of all the ways that respectability as a political project has failed Black women and continues to disallow the access that we have been taught to think it will give. #AskSusanRice
We must ask what ratchetness itself makes possible, even as the gratuitous and exploitative display of it attempts to foreclose possibility. What does ratchetness do for the ratchet and non-ratchet (and sometimes ratchet) alike?
Are Black women not always already perceived as “ratchet” anyway? As over-the-top, excessive, doing the most and achieving the least, unable to be contained, except through wholly insufficient discourses, like ghetto, and hood, and ratchet. AND respectable.
Are Black men “ratchet”? Can white women be ratchet? Is this ratchet?
I don’t have the answers. And I’m not knocking these moms. The best I can do here is own my contradictions and then let go of these damn pearls, because despite my desire to hold on, this ain’t our mothers’ feminism.