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Pimp Chic

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jill Di Donato Author of Beautiful Garbage: A Novel, and Professor of English

The issue of relationship "exploitation" has been on my mind lately. There must be a way that "interdependence" can exist between a man and a woman where no one is getting "exploited." Our culture comes up with models to address the exploitation factor, but more often than not, these models miss the mark. I'm thinking in particular of this relatively new glamorization of pimping, which is a misguided notion.

Today's pimp goes beyond the stereotype popularized in mainstream culture by men like Iceberg Slim and Harvey Keitel. In recent years, the controversial term "pimp chic" has emerged as a catch phrase generating buzz by mainstream media outlets and their renegade counterparts. But what exactly is pimp chic, and is it a problematic concept or one that can assist the evolution of the way our culture classifies relationships?

Generally defined as the appropriation of pimp culture by mainstream society, pimp chic has influenced fashion, music, advertising, and has even infiltrated our vocabulary. When used as an adjective, i.e. "that (object of value) is pimp," the term pimp denotes super-elite status, class (as in classy) and style. As a verb, to pimp means to improve, make more fashionable, and indicates a rise in status: i.e. "Pimp My Ride," "Pimp My Tee-Shirt," even "Pimp My Lounge" -- the tag line for a Virgin Atlantic ad campaign promoting an exclusive airport clubhouse. I'd just like to point out that to prostitute oneself or one's belongings lacks the same semantic cache.

For years, pimps have often set fashion standards, dressing in brightly colored zoot suits, expensive furs, and adorning themselves with extravagant jewelry. However, these standards have always existed on the fringes of mainstream culture; they've been popular in urban subcultures, not in suburban malls or on Parisian runways. But all of that is changing. The designer Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy Haute Couture created an outfit for Madonna that he called "Gangster Pimp." The garment, which she wore in her "Sticky and Sweet Tour," was a frock coat in black stretch satin, trimmed with pleated black silk organza and embroidered with jet beads. Granted, haute couture is not what I consider mainstream; in fact it's quite the opposite, reserved for a select few fashionistas high atop the socioeconomic pyramid. However, trends in haute couture will often trickle down into a designer's ready-to-wear lines, and pimp chic is no exception. For example, take the accessible line of clothing designed by Roberto Cavalli for H&M. The New York Times described it as "pimp-wear" for fashion insiders. It sold out in one day. Luxury lines like Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and the UK line Phat Pimp Clothing often use pimp imagery (i.e. one man flanked by several scantily clad women) to appeal to their clientele.

We have to wonder: Does pimp chic imply that pimping is chic? And if mainstream culture accepts pimp chic, does that mean that it's ready to expand the rights of sex-workers and notions of sexual freedom? Hmm.

For many feminists, the concept of pimp chic is appalling. Some detractors of pimp chic conflate all sex work with sex trafficking and insist that all sex work is rape. They point out that there's nothing glamorous about sex trafficking and furthermore, that young men and women play out pimp culture in real life situations, and that's not okay (i.e. it's exploitative and degrading to women). Of course many of these critics are not advocating for the rights of sex-workers either. But as a woman who supports sexual freedoms and as a citizen who thinks the state has no right to interfere with who we sleep with or why, I can say that the popularization of pimp chic still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Here's another way women get the short end of the stick -- pimp culture is glamorized, given status and even mainstream cultural accolades, while sex-workers can't get basic protection under the law.

Perhaps what gives pimp chic its luster is the notion of the pimp that both embodies and rebels against our current cultural mores. The pimp is a capitalist, pure and simple, driven by the desire for profit (sometimes via exploitation), status, and his piece of the American Dream. At the same time, his maverick (or maybe not so) ideas on how to turn a profit challenge dominant culture ideas about morality and family. As a culture, we seem to be fascinated with complex notions that simultaneously reinforce and confront the rules we so cling to.

With the onset of pimp chic, mainstream images of pimps are more diverse than they used to be. We know (thanks to rap group Three 6 Mafia) that "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp." The song, which won an Academy Award for best song in 2006, describes a new kind of pimp -- one who is complicated and vulnerable, caught up in the struggle, with dreams of his own beyond the sex trade. The film in which the song appeared, Hustle and Flow is a root-for-the-underdog movie, a real testament to American Individualism. At the heart of the story is the message, if at first you don't succeed, use guerrilla tactics to achieve your dream. What could be more American than that?

The lyrics, written by Three 6 Mafia and performed by DJay (Terrence Howard) with Shug (Taraji P. Henson) singing the hook, portray the pimp as contemplative and introspective, aware of his socially-constructed environment and his place within it: "North Memphis where I'm from, I'm 7th Street bound/Where niggaz all the time end up lost and never found." It's not so much a vindication of pimp culture as it is a lamentation. It's short - only two verses long and doesn't offer a get-away-plan or promise of a better life to come. This is important, I think, as it points to the pimp's vulnerability above all else: "I'm tryin to have thangs but it's hard fo' a pimp/But I'm prayin and I'm hopin to God I don't slip." It's a pop-culture rarity to encounter a man so vocal about his vulnerability, especially a pimp, traditionally viewed as exploitative to the women who work for him.

But what about the women pimped out in Hustle and Flow? Shug's hook on the Academy Award winning track definitely adds to the beauty of the song. But, what about her dreams? Doesn't she too deserve narrative? Isn't her struggle for a better life just as American? It seems that while the pimp becomes chic, the women who work for him remain in the shadows. I'm all for relationship diversity, but if we're going to accept diverse notions of pimps, let's really have at it.

I'm all for expanding our notions of pimps, and if we're going to do that not only do we need to acknowledge that "pimp chic" continues the tradition of privileging men's experience over women's but we also need to acknowledge a wide range of pimps who often get lost in our focus on trafficking. Anyone who passes along a number and gets a kickback can be a pimp. If we really expand the notion, perhaps matchmakers or dating site moguls, people who profit from arranging romantic liaisons between two consenting adults are also pimps? Or ad men and model agents who use other people's bodies, their sex appeal and sexuality to sell goods and turn a profit? That sounds like pimping too.

And I assume this isn't going to make me very popular, but I'd include lazy boyfriends, anyone who's ever relied on his girl's dime while he pursued his band/skateboarding career/doctoral degree, anyone who tells his girl to shelve her dream in order to support his is essentially a pimp. It might be American, but that sure isn't chic.

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