By Talia Meer
As critical dialogues about race in the Antwoord’s ”Fatty Boom Boom” video emerged, I was certain that a gendered analysis would soon follow. I was wrong. While South African commentators have critiqued the use of blackface in the video — UCT’s Adam Haupt deftly contextualises Die Antwoord within histories of class and race in South Africa — these crucial conversations are painfully audible against the silence surrounding how the female body is represented: we are missing the misogyny.
By misogyny I mean everyday hostility toward women: gender-based discrimination and violence, sexual objectification (including the shaming of women’s bodies that do not conform to the image of the ideal sexual object) and sexual subjugation/oppression (not allowing women free sexual expression, enjoyment or control). Often these violences are perpetrated, and rendered banal, through the representation of women and women’s bodies in popular culture and the media. In its attempt to humiliate Lady Gaga (due to personal vendetta or beef with her label Interscope), Die Antwoord’s video employs an arsenal of popular misogynistic memes.
1) ”Hey fatty” — amid tabloid skinner about Lady Gaga’s weight and her disclosure of her struggles with anorexia, the title and refrain ”Fatty Boom Boom” is no coincidence. Given her massive adolescent following, Lady Gaga’s reflection on the physical and psychological scourge of battling an eating disorder is powerful. Unfortunately this video reaffirms that the best way to bring a girl down to size is to pick on her size.
2) ”What’s in your pants?” — when the frazzled Lady Gaga look-alike is rushing into the doctor’s room, an ambiguous black phallus wobbles briefly in her crotch (04:01, look again). I am still uncertain how to interpret this. Here are two suggestions: 1) It’s a reference to media buzz that Lady Gaga is a hermaphrodite (has male and female genitalia) or 2) given the context of the video, is a sinister reference to the reduction of the black man to his phallus superimposed on the popular trope of Africa as the site of disease and/or perverse sexuality. Both connotations are problematic: whether ridiculing non-conforming bodies or exoticising non-western bodies, it frames genitals as the ultimate weapon in this assault on the pop-star.
3) ”Your vagina is disgusting” — the depiction of vaginal mucous and the removal of an insect from the vagina are loaded in a global culture that vilifies women’s bodies and sexuality and portrays vaginas as requiring douching, perfuming and bejewelling. This is not new to popular culture. Dancehall music holds the prize for vagina-hating but this video is a close contender. Given the context of pervasive gender-based violence, where women’s sexuality is largely portrayed as negative, taboo or submissive and where sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) are highly stigmatised, this music video is yet another depiction of women’s bodies as sexualised, violated and diseased. So while defenders of Die Antwoord will doubtless assert this as satire, meant to ridicule the unwitting (white) tourist, the point is made, if it is made at all, on an all too familiar site of violence, the female body.
4) ”She asked for it” — finally the bedraggled Lady Gaga look-alike is devoured by a lion, doubtless due to her poor choice of outfit: the infamous meat dress. The idea that ”what you wear makes you responsible for what happens to you” is one all too familiar to women across the world. Both the mini-meat dress and the lion, and the miniskirt and the sexual predator, invoke the already pervasive view: it is her fault.
It is significant that there has been no public conversation about the misogyny in this video. In private however, as with the racism of ”Fatty Boom Boom”, three feeble defences of the misogyny in Die Antwoord’s video have emerged. The apolitical focus on the sleek production of the video: “whatever you think about them, the video is a masterpiece”, the de-historicised ”double standard” — ”how can the black paint be offensive when they also wear white paint”, and in this case, ”in other videos, they make fun of men too” and finally, the argument ”it is not misogyny, it’s satire”.
In this last response lies what I call hipster exceptionalism (usually manifest in hipster racism and hipster sexism/misogyny): the idea that something ordinarily offensive or prejudiced is miraculously transformed into something clever, funny and socially relevant, by the assertion that said ordinarily offensive thing is ironic or satirical.
This, by its very formulation is absurd. If dancehall music, portraying vaginas as hateful and filthy, is sexist, so is Die Antwoord, and it makes no difference that the detractors are skinny-jeaned trendsters rather than dread-locked selectas. Here perhaps is where race, class and gender analysis come to bear on each other: do we make exceptions for hipster misogyny because it is a cooler, classier (or classist), less familiar, and often more subtle kind of misogyny?
We need to learn how to address the glib retort ”but it’s ironic”. More importantly though, we need to acknowledge that when critiques of popular culture fail to include a gendered analysis, they are perpetuating misogyny by not calling the artist out on it, by fostering an environment where it is accepted to assault, abuse and degrade women.
Talia Meer is a researcher with the Gender Health and Justice Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. She completed an undergraduate politics, philosophy and economics degree with the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2008 and a master’s in development studies in Halifax, Canada. Her current work focuses on gender-based violence and she is keenly interested in popular culture and its contribution to a culture of violence against women.