OPINION: The female body, misogynoir & the myth of meritocracy
In the premier episode from season three of The Fixer, Rowan Pope or 'Command' stands over his daughter Olivia, and rages: "How many times have I told you, you have to be what?". "Twice as good," she replies in a near whisper. And to that he bellows the last line in his anger-filled baritone, landing it like a blow: "twice as good as them to get half of what they have".
Joe Morton and Kerry Washington's stellar acting and the problematics of Papa Pope's potent patriarchy aside, the line is a hard-hitting commentary on race-based privilege, and rings all too familiar to those who know that who you are and what you have often determines what glass ceilings you will face on the road to success.
It's a blow to the often believed myth that hard work inevitably leads to the ultimate success, recognition and respect. It's an idea that the American Dream is built on, and that exists as the basis for the logic that we do not need any redress measures in democracies. It is often argued that 'people', which is frequently a thinly-veiled code for people of colour and women, just need to work harder, and stop complaining.
Any kind of attempt to address the unequal starting points and imbalances that people face by virtue of their race, class or gender or any other aspect of their identity, are seen as an enemy to the idea that 'some people' simply need to pull up their bootstraps, show up and put in the effort and success will naturally follow. It rests on the idea that we are equal, and everyone succeeds on merit alone.
While meritocracy rests on a pretty simple, and often believed, idea, it does not neatly translate into practice. It is often thought of in a vacuum and becomes complicated when it meets reality, where everyone does not start off in a system of perfect equality.
On Friday, rapper AKA posted a series of tweets that expressed his ideas about the perceived absence of female rappers in the country writing:
"If a female rapper is going to blow up this year, they're going to have to be as good, if not, BETTER than a really good male rapper.
"To be a prolific Female rapper in this country you are going to need 'the look' AND 'the bars' ...
"You cannot possibly tell me that there is not a female rapper out there with the total package! We're waiting for you, the game needs you".
While the initial tweet seemingly fits into Rowan Pope's ethos, it does not express the same idea at all, and appeared to endorse the idea at its heart. The tweets received a collective side-eye from many on the site, who pointed out the problematic idea at the basis of his claims, and the overt sexism it rests on.
It places unfair double standards on female artists, and reflects the highly prevalent belief that demands that women need to be sexy or beautiful to be successful, in addition to being talented in the extreme. It is a standard that does not affect their male counterparts, who do not face beauty and body criteria - and are allowed success, respect and recognition even when they do not look a certain way, or possess incredible talent.
Women have to be 'twice as good' to get even 'half the success' of their male counterparts both in and beyond the hip-hop industry.
As pointed out by Gugulethu Mhlungu and Janine Jellars in response to these claims: the rap industry, like many other industries in the world, is not a meritocracy. Meritocracy, is all-too-often, far too close to myth than reality. Artists do not simply get ahead on the basis of their achievement and talent. There are more politics at play.
The idea is not exclusively propagated by this incident alone. It is merely one illustration of the logic that often rears its head in narratives of success - the belief that it is all down to hard work, and not at all impacted by any external circumstances: by who you are, or other factors beyond your control. This logic that upholds this idea is that we all start off on an equal playing field. Those who get ahead, therefore, simply worked harder and no aspects of privilege play into it.
The myth of meritocracy is also not a new idea. It has been identified by many writers, academics and public intellectuals. There are deeply entrenched systems of privilege, bias and dominance that give some people unearned benefits and help them get ahead by virtue of these. It keeps all those who benefit from white supremacist capitalist cis-hetero patriarchy winning. This is not to say that merit or talent does not play a role, but it is more complicated than basing how success operates in our world on that alone. We are still haunted by problems of equality and justice.
Even Nicki Minaj, who AKA identifies as a 'female rapper' whom he respects, often speaks out against the racism and sexism that she experiences in the industry - the combination of the two has been termed 'misogynoir', to address the particular oppression that black women face as a result of their identity. Minaj might have killed her male counterparts in her Monster verse and repeatedly shown that she has 'the bars', but still finds herself referred to as a 'female rapper', which is used as a lesser title, as men in the industry are never referred to as 'male rappers' but simply 'rappers', and is often relegated to the best female rap album award category - subjected to vastly different standards.
Women are held to different standards in many different industries, not simply hip-hop. This is further complicated when race comes into the picture, as black women are repeatedly oppressed on both sides.
Despite her success (and absolute slay) on the tennis courts, Serena Williams has had to deal with being treated with phenomenal difference, disregard and disrespect. She does not get the recognition of her white and male counterparts, and is dogged by a potent combination of sexism, racism and body-shaming.
In an essay for Time, on her return to Indian Wells, a place where she was booed and subject to racist comments, she writes: "As a black tennis player, I looked different. I sounded different. I dressed differently. I served differently. But when I stepped onto the court, I could compete with anyone." Despite repeatedly proving that she is deserving of all her success and can 'compete with anyone', she is not treated the same by both fans and media - dogged by both blatant and covert misogynoir.
In one of the most quoted incidents of this, Russian official Shamil Tarpischev made racist and sexist remarks about Serena and her sister Venus, referring to them as the Williams 'brothers' and saying "It's frightening when you look at them. But really you just need to play against the ball." Their athleticism and strength, which for others would have been a site of merit and achievement, was turned against them in coded comments that obsessively focus on and fetishise their bodies as the sole reason for their success. A further example that "you have to be twice as good at them, to get half of what they have".
In a great essay titled ' Beyond Indian Wells: Serena Williams has been consistently disrespected for her entire career', Jenée Desmond-Harris argues that "even so-called complimentary commentary about Williams' athleticism is often grounded in stereotypes about black people (animalistic and aggressive) and black women specifically (masculine, unattractive, and overly sexual at once)." Criticism against women is often grounded in their aesthetics, rather than their achievement, with their success attributed in their bodies, rather than their ability or hard work. The black body, in this instance, is locked in what Delia Douglas, quoted in Desmond-Harris's article, refers to as "the essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies".
To argue against the way ideas of meritocracy have been interpreted and operate in society is to not to argue against the idea that everyone should succeed on the basis of merit, but rather for it. But it demands a recognition that there are many factors that play into who gets ahead, and gets the credit and respect they deserve.
Similarly, it is not to make a case for mediocrity, but to argue that some people face different standards on the road to success and are made to 'work twice as hard'. Many factors play into success and the world is not blind to the privileges that structure it. Success does not operate in a vacuum, far away from the struggles for equality and justice that continue to haunt our societies. For people who know and experience this first hand, Papa Pope's words resonate all too deeply, and they breathe through everything.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler