by Sherronda J. Brown
I spent an hour or so reading through Erykah Badu’s tweets and mentions from the last few days so that y’all wouldn’t have to. There is dissonance between what Badu actually says and what she claims to believe.
What she says: “Girls should dress modestly in order to help men from being distracted by their exposed skin because men are naturally and understandably attracted to developing girls.”
What she claims to believe: “Girls are not responsible for how men see them.”
First of all, Badu doesn’t seem to fully understand some of the concepts that she is discussing. Take biological predisposition vs. socialization, for instance; or what is naturally occurring due to evolution/biology vs. what is cultivated by societal expectations and permissions. She repeatedly argues that adult men’s attraction to “flowering” young girls is “natural” and “understandable” (but also declares it “unacceptable”), and she prescribes “longer skirts” as a remedy to young girls drawing the attraction/attention of their adult male teachers.
The biggest question here is: if it is a biological “impulse” for grown men to be attracted to girls that age, then why do the length of their skirts even matter? If we are going to write off all men as having an inherent desire for “flowering” girls, then why are we even bothering to have a conversation about girls’ dress code?
The fact is that gender cultivation exists and that all genders experience it from the time that we are infants. In fact, our parents make decisions and assumptions about us based on what they believe is our gender even as we are still in the womb (girl = pink; boy = blue; other genders don’t exist). Gender cultivation is a form of socialization and it continues well into adolescence and adulthood. As we get older, we learn more and more about what is means to exist in our gendered bodies. To be a boy/man means to be aggressive and strong and dominant. To be a girl/woman means to be timid and submissive and to (aspire to) be pretty.
Girlhood and womanhood become defined by the ability of girls and women to embody these characteristics while also complying with our patriarchal society’s expectations which demand that they be both virginal and slutty, both sexually unavailable and easily accessible, both modestly dressed and visually attractive for male consumption, [insert another sexist and/or misogynistic contradiction here]. As such, the sexualization of girls cannot be divorced from the infantilization of women (i.e. referring to grown women as “girls” or the expectation of grown women to be hairless like prepubescent girls). This is seen especially in fetishes like the “naughty school girl”, or “daddy” kink, or the fact that a young woman selling her virginity on the internet is such a lucrative practice. All of these things contribute to how boys/men are socialized to view girls/women, while also contributing to how girls/women are socialized to view themselves.
Girls are conscious of and grappling with these messages even before they begin “flowering”. Wearing certain clothing (or styling their hair a certain way or experimenting with makeup) is merely an adherence to what patriarchy expects from them: to display themselves for the male gaze as valuable, attractive female subjects.
I find it necessary to note that Badu also tweets about “age appropriate” as well as “professional” attire. The argument about what is and isn’t “age appropriate” for girls has many factors, including generational differences, cultural differences, and our collective fear of female sexuality/sexual expression, as well as the automatic sexualization of the exposed skin of girls/women. Likewise, the argument about what is and isn’t “professional” has racist, colonialist, sexist, and classist implications all up and through it. But that’s a conversation for another time.
What Badu seems to be trying (and failing) to explain cogently is that she believes that we should educate both young girls and boys about sex and sexualization at an early age. Most of us agree on this point. Of course we should teach everyone about the harms of patriarchy and how it affects us all, especially how it uses our bodies. I’m all for that, all day, every day.
The problem is the fact that her argument is rooted in (internalized) misogyny. The amount of focus that she places on the behavior of girls in her stories is troubling because she frames it as if the girls are trapping boys/men. In her accounts, it seems that the boys/men are the victims and the girls are the predators.
What is also troubling is her language. Words/concepts like “modesty” and “sacredness” are being conflated (to paraphrase a friend on this subject, “My nakedness is sacred, bih”). For Badu, “modesty” (but modesty according to whom? Think about who gets to determine that and why) is a form of “empowerment”. Her opinion on empowerment is valid, but it is not universal. Modesty empowers some and not others. Just as nudity empowers some and not others. Purity empowers some and not others. Hoetry empowers some and not others. Etcetera and etcetera.
She’s speaking from a spiritual perspective, which would be acceptable if this were merely a spiritual issue rather than a systemic/systematic societal one. The kind of “power” that she is talking about is not the kind of power that we are dealing with here—a hierarchical/patriarchal power structure. The power dynamics between an adult man and an adolescent or prepubescent girl cannot be ignored in favor of Badu’s nebulous spiritual power that she wants to teach young girls to “will” (wield?), because within this dynamic, the men have all of the power and the girls have none. She can preach that god is a woman until she is blue in the face, but that does nothing to address the deeply ingrained belief that girls can invite their own abuse(s)—sexualization and objectification—by being a “distraction” to male teachers.
But I guess this is all okay because Ms. Badu is “just talkin” and enjoys “dialoguing” with all of us. Except that it’s not, because conversations like these have real implications for people’s lives. This is the kind of logic that gets rapists acquitted because a rape victim/survivor appears to be older than she is. This kind of logic is central to rape culture and I read it undeniably as rape apology.
Her argument perpetuates rape culture because its foundation is misogynistic. And her gospel of “modesty” is intimately related to the dangerous brand of black patriarchy and its agents who try to “queen” black women into submission. One does not have to explicitly say the words “I blame the victim” in order for one’s argument to be victim-blaming. Badu’s tweets reveal that she believes that girls can bear responsibility, by virtue of their hemline, if an adult man (or anyone else) sexualizes them.
She and her supporters are refusing to recognize the fact that we live in a society in which girls are always-already sexualized and boys/men are always-already socialized to view these girls as sexual objects/subjects, regardless of male biology or female attire. This is why it is an absolute imperative that we challenge currently accepted doctrines about the “naturalness” of men’s attraction to young girls. Not only is it lazy, androcentric logic, but it is also dangerous thinking that leaves our girls unequipped and unprotected against patriarchal violences.
Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies.