I have been thinking a lot about the way we wield words—and the way we wield words when we are threatened or feel defensive, when we feel someone has hurt, offended, or upset us. I have been trying to pinpoint the emotional wells that make us tap into abrasive language that we may otherwise skip.
More specifically, I have been dwelling a lot on hip-hop performer Azealia Banks’ body of work and her Twitter—where she freely uses “faggot,” a word that still carries the power to hurt for some queer men, a word that is devoid of sting for others.
I will get back to that shortly.
Last year, I had the honor to be included in It’s Complicated—a multi-part essay collection edited by Judy Berman and Niina Pollari that invites feminists to write about their complicated relationships with artwork they adore, but which they recognize contains problematic and misogynistic overtones. It’s Complicated carries a framework for a way of looking at the way we consume current culture and art that extends beyond how feminists relate to pop culture.
Here, a short list of media and art that offends some part of my identity, but which I can’t help but adore:
• The American Horror Story franchise
• Madonna’s 1998 album Ray of Light
• 95% of all Bollywood films
• Joyce Carol Oates
And yet, AB’s Broke With Expensive Taste does not appear on that short list because I have never felt threatened or offended by her usage of the word “faggot.” Have you heard BWET? Unlike Eminem’s oeuvre, AB doesn’t drop the f-word. In fact, AB is pretty good about keeping BWET a very classy affair.
But you did not come here for an album review; you came here for an attempt to untangle problematic words and the people who use them. You came here to learn why you and I might be on different sides of the aisle of this issue.
Sure, I thought AB’s usage of “faggot” was problematic, especially as a performative flourish on a far-reaching platform like Twitter. For whatever reason, though, I didn’t feel threatened or offended—as I did when Iggy Azalea discounted the struggles of black men and women, or called herself a “runaway slave master”—or as I did when Eminem rose to fame on the back of the f-word, watching as friends of mine deemed him legendary. The city of Detroit looks at Eminem as some kind of hometown hero. I still cringe when I read articles to that effect.
There are people, gatekeepers, who are deciding which performers’ usage of problematic language is going to get them blacklisted from the good graces of tastemakers. These gatekeepers are on the mastheads of magazines; they decided that Eminem hating “faggots” is not all that bad, that Iggy calling herself a “runaway slave master” is not all that problematic. But AB taking on a counterstrike campaign against folks who start flame wars by using hateful language? Very problematic.
We know the world of the gatekeepers is not so diverse.
Then came the firing shot—an indictment of gay white bloggers and reporters by AB. Rafi D’Angelo had a measured reading of AB’s critique. It’s one that I think sets the stage well when debating AB’s use of the f-word:
Everybody was all up in arms as if she said she can be a bigot because she has money, but clearly that’s not what happened. Mitch came for her pocketbook. Azealia let him know her accounts were just fine, thanks, and gave him an “I am woman, hear me roar” for good measure.
Below, I am joined by Tom Bardwell and Zach Wilcha, a couple of fantastic queer men who noticed the same pattern of problematic language and gatekeeping I did—but had different responses.
ZW: I don’t care much for AB’s music, except for “212,” which I keep on my running playlist.
TB: Glad you said it, Zach. I only like some of her music. “212” is undeniable for sure, though I much prefer the Fantasea mixtape to BWET in terms of musicality and pop star zeal.
RG: BWET was one of my main jams last year, and continues to be this year as well.
The Key to Fag City
RG: I want to start with this tweet from performance artist and writer Max Steele:
I adored it because it exemplifies how there are many of us who are choosing not to be bruised by a word—and acknowledging that AB’s comments do not stem from prejudice, but from another place.
ZW: This tweet actually really bothered me. I don’t like when anyone proclaims that they’re speaking for a monolithic gay community. I wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t speaking for me. That kind of discourse implies that you can either applaud AB’s rants or support the entitlement of white, racist, misogynist gays.
RG: And things are rarely that either-or. Yet, I feel this kind of monolithic gay community attitude when media outlets and personalities are telling me how I should feel when a certain pop star uses a word.
ZW: Like I tweeted the other day: “Annoyance with both AB and misogynist, racist, white gay dudes does not have to be mutually exclusive, think-piecers.”
His tweet underscores that divide.
I know that by participating in this conversation and expressing discomfort with AB, I run the risk of being branded a racist or someone whose privilege aligns him with the media’s gatekeepers. I also know that it’s a tiny problem compared to real racially-based problems.
TB: I’m from the age too where being called a “faggot” from real homophobes carried real heft. But we’re not talking about a homophobic person. We’re talking about this young black pop star on Twitter with a sizable queer following.
RG: While I think AB can definitely stand to be more considerate with her words, I think for me to tell her how to argue her—surprisingly valid—points makes me guilty of mansplaining. I can dislike (and I do) how casually she tosses around “faggot”, but I also look at BWET and other aspects of her persona and simply do not get “homophobe.” What I do get is a petulant pop star who knows how to speak up for herself and fight back against people who come at her. She’s being herself.
TB: I too feel troubled when inserting myself into discussions on someone’s tone. Especially a black woman’s tone. It feels for sure like mansplaining.
ZW: I’m very conscious about when instincts to police others’ tones kicks in, particularly if that tone springs from a minority or woman. Full disclosure: I’m a gay, white, cis male who is hyper-aware of all the attendant privileges that come with it. I am in an interracial relationship of many years and I work with an underserved, urban, minority population. I also understand that just because I have a working knowledge of the privilege I enjoy on a day to day basis, it doesn’t mean that I experience it any less.
RG: It’s why I think your voice is important in this discussion—most of the noise I’ve received or heard from white gay men has been horrible, vicious, and mean-spirited, when I’ve actually been seeking to have discussions. Yet even with the three of us, as queer men, discussing a queer woman’s presentation of self on social media, hints at some degree of inherent mansplanation.
TB: That we get to take up space, set boundaries and parameters, that we know more about gender bias. I do not buy into the notion that as a gay man we somehow have access to femininity.
Particularly, gay men feel affinity toward black femininity, which gets played out by many of our fave drag queens who parody “blackness” back to us as sassy and ghetto-fab imitations. Harmless fun.
The Open Secret
TB: But suddenly we, as an LGBT community, must all be offended by a known provocateur that refuses to tow the line. The gay media machine is obvious now. AB called out the open secret.
RG: While I agree with Zach that it’s not so black-and-white, I rarely feel represented in how the gay media discusses issues like this—they so often miss the mark on race and the nuances of identity. And yes, Tom, AB did call out the open secret.
TB: It seems to be run by a system enraptured by the thrill of anointing new divas via blog posts or splashy, PR-orchestrated stunts. The stars-du-jour are coined by the gay media machine with click bait headlines, and they live for their gay fans, and make a few pandering quotes about equality, maybe even have their publicist book a few gay nightclub gigs.
Then the latest trend comes along to eat up the attention. On to the next! The machine is very forgiving of certain divas that say offensive things. Your Kathy Griffins and wannabe Rihannas.
RG: So edgy, right? It is also a culture that is forgiving to women who are willing to be boxed into the “YAAS, QUEEN!!11″-ification of female performers. You’re also spot-on with the observation that AB refuses to be complicit in the perpetuation of the drag or sassy expression of black femalehood. This kind of expression never settles well with me. I think the way many cultural critics want to see AB is not consistent with the way AB wants to be portrayed. And that’s okay.
TB: Joan Rivers, before she died, called the FLOTUS a “tr*nny.” But folks were told to get over it. Black transgender people were told to stop being so sensitive. “Oh, she’s a legend!” Amanda Bynes called RuPaul a nasty slur, but the narrative quickly shifted to lampooning her spiraling mental health issues. Alec Baldwin has repeatedly called people the f-word in public, but sites like Towleroad published an episode of his video series that openly baits gay men.
RG: So you’re wondering… just where do we draw the line?
TB: Since when are we as gay men so sensitive to words like “faggot” from an openly bi rap singer? From where I sit, it’s because she’s black. What if it had been Brooke Candy or Cunt Mafia or V. Nasty or even the chosen one, Iggy? I think there would have been outrage, sure. But that would’ve followed with an open letter, followed by formal written apology (via Tumblr, through their publicist). Then the machine would churn out a press release about how “The performer learned from their mistake” and has magically, “become a better person.”
ZW: I think you guys are totally right that many white, more established artists get free passes from the gatekeepers of pop culture society. And that sucks. I wish I had a better explanation for it. Our outrage economy seems to center on punishing the weakest. Or just pouncing on the next offense that shows up in the ever-quickening next media cycle.
RG: I want to be proved wrong on this, but I’ve only ever read scathing critiques about how “AB is disappointing and letting down the LGBTQ community” by white gay men. I don’t want to read about white men telling me how a person of color is not living up to their expectations—unless they are willing to argue their point intelligently and completely. Unless they are willing to do more than transform a person of color into LOL-worthy clickbait.
On Loving Complicated Art
RG: On the usage of “faggot,” I’m with Tom on this, too. I’ve had bullies who used that word problematically, even other gay men. I’ve actually felt threatened by those individuals. AB’s usage of the word is problematic, but never rises to the level of threatening to me.
TB: I feel like we’re allowed to enjoy problematic media. You know, music with swear words in it and language that is aggressive. At the end of the day, it is fine to engage with things that are subversive. My friend Freddie wrote about how if we chose to disengage from all problematic media, we wouldn’t have any entertainment left.
Ultimately this is complicated for me because I like rap music and the braggadocio that comes along with it. Slurs with multiple meanings, the dozens and picking on rivals, layers of code. Not all of the messages speak to me or are even aimed at me. But I like to be ratchet sometimes too. That’s okay.
RG: This is so important! It’s okay to like art that is complicated or that forces us to examine our relationship with it. Just how complicated does it have to get that we can no longer separate the art and the artist who creates it—and do we stop engaging with it?
TB: It doesn’t mean I endorse everything rappers say or do.
TB: Half of it I barely believe. Rick Ross was a corrections officer but still has viable street cred. I can’t stand Eminem or his long-standing juvenile swipes at gays in his lyrics, but he’s no better or worse than the next rapper. But he gets more attention and more of a pass from the gay media machine than other rappers like 50 Cent.
RG: Well, I always wonder what makes Eminem different from AB? Why is he allowed to use the f-word and still receive the red carpet treatment from pockets of the queer community, but AB, who is queer, cannot?
TB: I saw headlines and heard reactions from notable gay tweeters expressing outrage at how 50 was booked to play the True Colors Holiday Concert benefitting LGBT youth who have experienced homelessness. Like, “How dare he after what he said about Perez or that joke we can’t remember that he made about gay weddings!”
I have not seen Eminem do anything close to what 50 has done in terms of solidarity and outward support of LGBT issues, since that Elton John stunt back in the early ‘00s. But the gay media machine surely did pass around that patronizing cameo from The Interview where Eminem comes out as gay. Why can’t artists like 50 Cent ever be given a break over past indiscretions or usage of anti-gay slurs? Hmmm…
RG: Right. It is far easier for a ruling class of media elites to other performers of color.
Actually, Tom, you bring up an interesting world of double standards. I remember this Madonna incident which the gay media ordered us to subsequently forget. Madonna was “joking” or it wasn’t serious. I’ve had a couple of friends actually tell me it was an ongoing inside joke—but I am wondering who gets to wield what kind of language. Who is allowed to joke like that and who isn’t?
Feeding the Trolls
RG: So when is it okay for an ally to use a word derogatorily and when is it not okay? Only when a coterie of gatekeepers have decided so? That is frustrating because these gatekeepers share a very small, undiverse palate of sensibilities that don’t represent the larger community—or our own tolerances. These gatekeepers, for example, rarely hold themselves responsible for racism in general.
So while I don’t necessarily agree with some of AB’s comments on Twitter, I do get she’s someone who has figured out what makes a previously insulated segment of journalists tick. She knows how she can bait them when they try to bait her first.
ZW: I still think the word “faggot” is powerful. It’s not hers to use, whether’s she’s bi or not. I don’t know if she herself is homophobic. I suspect not, but the effect of her speech is. She should be called out for it. It’s problematic that only the white gay media machine is doing it. Again, it implies a dichotomy: That you’re either with the entitled few or with AB. I’m with neither.
RG: I think part of my problem is that her detractors—from journalists to angry music fans—don’t ever think to engage her in a conversation beyond trying to bait her. Then you have them joking about how “broke” she is—how classist!
These are folks who execute actions in order to fit her into a clickbait-friendly “crazy lady” narrative. And again, maybe it’s me, but I choose not to feel wounded by the f-word.
ZW: I understand that AB is someone who’s trying to provoke a reaction from entitled gays, and that’s totally fine. She should speak her mind. She does a great job of it. Some of the things she says are hilarious. Like anyone else in society, she should not be surprised that free speech comes with consequences. Frankly, she’s certainly on everyone’s radar more for her offensive tweets than any artistic accomplishment of hers.
If she really wanted to start a dialogue about the problems she was purportedly addressing, she’d wrap it in an easier to open package (like you guys did). She’s here to provoke.
RG: Well, I don’t think she’s “surprised” about the consequences, but about the fact that the consequences are so abusive. That people who are offended by her use of the f-word turn around and tell her that she should be lynched or call her a bitch, or use the c-word. Yes, the f-word is horrible, but so is the c-word. So is the eye-for-an-eye mentality.
ZW: I get that AB tweets to provoke, but I think you’re giving her too much credit saying that she’s exposing the open secret that the gay, white media controls most of the information we receive. That revelation may be a by-product of her rants for those who choose to see it.
RG: I guess I understand that frustration that she is ranting from. I think AB is a super-talented kid—and she is young and just starting. I’m in my thirties now and at her age, I remember being this annoyed by a media culture that constantly worked to keep my voice muted. I remember my frustration being reflected in the work I was writing during that part of my life, and predominantly white magazine editors not understanding or trying to understand my experiences.
TB: I think AB is talented. She is also young. AB is not my favorite artist but I don’t think people give her enough credit. Plenty of pop stars are messy when it comes to expressing themselves, the things they’re passionate about, the shit that pisses them off. It’s never pretty or packaged neatly. But how many pop stars of her age and status do you know that attempt to introduce their followers to the concept of Misogynoir and how anti-black misogyny influences the way in which the gay media machine dresses her down?
That nuance gets lost in white gays boo-hoo’ing over the use of a slur. I am bothered by the constant dismissiveness of her bisexuality. She declared it so publicly. She has performed at Pride events. The concept of “eating pussy” is in her music. It’s not our place to challenge her identity and/or require proof.
ZW: Most importantly though, racist, misogynist white gays definitely do not speak for me. There are more than two sides to the problem you guys are importantly addressing. I’m not here to police someone’s tone or applaud it. I’m just really disappointed that social media makes it seem like there’s no other choice.
RG: Things are never that cut-and-dry, for sure. I think a lot about how Pete Rosenberg and AB interacted in that Hot 97 interview—he didn’t necessarily agree with how she made her points, but he heard her out. He was able to engage with her on her own terms. I loved it. You can disagree with someone and still try to have a discussion without name-calling.
TB: I’ve also waffled back and forth on how I feel about AB. There are times where I think she’s just being petulant. That she’s not being provocative to stimulate dialogue, but saying provocative things that she knows will incite people. Often I find it hard to be on her side as well.
I get the impression that she doesn’t care who is on her side or not.
AB’s going to do AB regardless of how we feel.
Maybe there is no easy answer here.
Do consider this: If we have granted a man like Eminem a prolific career built on the back of using the f-word within his music, it should not prevent someone like AB, who keeps the f-words out of her music, from doing what she loves to do: Creating art that makes us think and dance.