The 2020 music awards season is upon us, a time of celebration and reflection on the year in music. Among the contenders for top awards is “WAP,” the hip-hop hit by Bronx-based artist Cardi B, featuring Megan Thee Stallion. A provocation of prudes, conservatives, and Ben Shapiro alike, The Guardian hails it claiming, “the [song] is unapologetic in celebrating the sensuality and sexuality of women.” “WAP” should be remembered not only for the streaming records it broke or even the milieu of sexual graphicacy, but principally as a commentary on the double standard pervasive in dogmatic male-female dichotomic sexuality— especially within the entertainment media. The meta-criticism of the double standard prevalent in gendered sexuality was significant as it nominally succeeds in celebrating women’s sexual agency, Black female liberation, and upending the stereotypic male-female power dynamic.
The most provocative aspect of the song is that it ostensibly challenges the patriarchy through its objectification of the male in ways conventionally seen in male-rendered media’s portrayal of women. The song is oblique in its objectification of men: veiled by their feminine charms and wiles, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion dupe the male into submission by manipulating him into a ‘complacent’ role of power, hoodwinking him into believing he controls the power dynamic.
The two rappers explicitly reference a superior/inferior relationship with the phrase, “your honor” while simultaneously addressing implicatively entrenched normative masculinity through lyrics, “make him feel like he cheatin’.” The line is referencing the social expectation of men to be disloyal to their partners — in fact, cheating often marks a successful, powerful male. In her seduction, she places the male into a ‘submissive’ position of power, creating the illusion for his benefit that he has achieved deferential status in society, all the while the female is in fact the true beneficiary of such an illusion as the male is subject to her will— which she can exploit for sexual gratification. The female is the ultimate holder of power simply because she is the one who “make[s]” the male “feel” like “he [is] cheatin[g].”
Of course, stereotypic masculinity is manifested through means other than a show of virility with cheating. Another common depiction is through physicality, which is expressed in the lyrics, “never lost a fight, but I’m lookin for a beatin.” While admittedly a double entendre, it has far more violent roots, referencing the physiological differences men exploit in order to control women. What is especially intriguing about those lyrics specifically is that the independent clause, “but I’m lookin for a beatin,” references male-on-female violence, yet the dependent clause, “never lost a fight,” implies the female’s power, subverting the conventionally understood male-on-female violence of the “beatin[g]” with the additional deft inclusion of the subsequent clause’s verb, “lookin[g].” When taken as a whole, the woman is in fact the one in control of any violence inflicted upon her, as her aforementioned history of strength permits her to seek out an aggressive man (conceivably the ‘toxic,’ stereotypical misogynist) with little to no risk to her person as she is in constant control, allowing her to maximize her pleasure. Taken in short, her wiles allow her power over the historical oppressor, reducing them to mere sexual objects unbeknownst to them.
We explicitly see the reversal of gendered relations in the lyrics, “put him on his knees, give him some’ to believe in,” elevating the female into metaphorical and literal positions of dominance. By all accounts, the song works overtime to center itself on the oft-debated ‘female gaze’ through its conspicuous objectification of men, but it does so at the detriment of equality for monolithic feminism. As culture operates within a patriarchal construct (evidenced by the song’s attempt of criticizing said patriarchy), and patriarchy is the ideological premise of the male gaze, it has inequality indivisibly entrenched in a system where patriarchal ideology unilaterally controls cultural institutions overtly or discreetly — thus every cultural norm is inherently patriarchal. Therefore, as this piece originates in a patriarchal system, it must still be understood from the male gaze.
The very idea that this song should be understood from the male gaze is rightfully controversial, as it putatively seeks to challenge the patriarchal double standard through feminine sexual agency— better known as the female gaze. The lyrics and music video seem to suffer from dissonance as lyrically it espouses women claiming control of their sexuality through adroit manipulation of power relations, yet the entirety of the music video is dedicated to women writhing and dancing in explicitly objectifying and submissive manners. And while it would seem that the video is an attempt to take control of their own objectification, the end result is still objectification. This can’t be understood as a zero-sum game where objectifying themselves validates the fact that objectification occurs at all, because their self-objectification presupposes for men that all women are potential objects of sorts. It does not matter to hegemonic society the means to the end, the only significant part is the end itself. As such, “WAP” does little, if anything, in advancing the feminist movement.
In crediting the song for empowering female sexual agency, it therefore assumes women are capable of objectifying themselves at equal rates of incidence; it assumes that a shared gender can be extrapolated to shared sexual abilities and preferences. Agents within the feminine identity are not equal (in terms of interests, identity, and preferences) and should not be treated as such— to do so strips their autonomy and individuality. “WAP” merely gives an erroneously narrow solution— claiming sexual agency— to a systematic problem.
Hidden within the lyrics of the song are references to other paradigmatic aspects of patriarchy, namely men as the financial earner. They sing, “pay my tuition just to kiss me/now make it rain, if you wanna [explicit]” which reduces sex down to a transactional scheme in which men are once again objects to receive gain from— in this case, financial. They even go so far as to say “[if] he [has] got some money then that’s where I’m headed.” The lyrics consequently allude to the idea that the only desirable males are the wealthiest ones. Ideologically regressive, such an implication leaves society in a hyper-competitive conservative state where communal action is seen as counter-productive to self-interests and women are simply in the market for a male who can care for them. While critics may argue that because the woman is the one who can control which man she chooses to use, said action is valid from a feminist perspective; however, a prison of your own choosing is still a prison.
Signaling men as a financial object to profit from, while problematic in other ways, is principally detrimental to the women who are not conventionally attractive or do not conform to stereotypical femininity. “WAP” only offers attractive female bodies as a mode to controlling the patriarchy, but such a solution leaves flagrant inequalities across the female identity inherent. Only the most sexual women are able to control the patriarchy, leaving behind the millions of women who do not identify as such. If we are simply trading one oppressive mode of thought for yet another, we have solved nothing.
It is here that we find “WAP” in a strange limbo of consequence and significance. Derision of the lyrics for its explicit nature, while valid to a degree, cannot be done without also acknowledging that male-dominated entertainment regularly employs equally explicit lyrics with far more demeaning connotations. In that same vein however, we also cannot praise the song for its messages because it condones power through sexuality, which forgets the women who are simply not sexual. The goal of feminism should not be to balance the male gaze with a female gaze, or to replace the male gaze with the female gaze, rather it should work to eliminate a gaze at all, and in doing so, build an inclusive and equitable distribution of power in society for all identities.