Let's get one thing out of the way here at the top: I don't listen to a lot of music or watch many music videos. I also don't follow Kanye West's career. Basically, though I sometimes listen to it, I really don't know crap about rap.
On the other hand, I do know a little something about monsters -- both the human kind that take pleasure in others' pain and the fictional kind, like vampires, that are all the rage these days.
West's latest video (it hasn't officially been released) is a little of both.
It flashes back and forth between West and fellow rapper Jay-Z and a variety of ghouls and zombies. The lighting is dark. The images are nonlinear. Like many works of art (and yes, I do think it merits such a label), different people will see in it different things.
To Johnathan Fields, the video is essentially a defense of blackness , particularly of Black men. Fields argues that West is responding to the "idea that Black men are sexual predators." To him, the "zombies and monsters represent a... willingness to fight back."
The notion of a monster as a racial metaphor is neither new nor original. I wrote about it at length in this piece on vampires. As just one relatively recent example, consider this short excerpt from Robert Neville's internal monologue in I Am Legend (the link above has a longer excerpt).
Friends, I come before you to discuss the vampire: a minority element if there ever was one, and there was one.
But to concision: I will sketch out the basis for my thesis... Vampires are prejudiced against.
The keynote of minority prejudice is this: They are loathed because they are feared. . . ."
Is that West's point? That Black men are prejudiced against because they are feared?
I wanted to see such a meaning. I looked for it, both in the lyrics and the video. I tried to see what Fields saw. I couldn't. What I found rather was one misogynistic image after another.
There are two types of women in the video: the ones who are either dead or lifeless and the ones who are monstrous.
"What is the meaning and impact of images like this?
The lifeless women are nevertheless depicted as sexual objects that West literally manipulates on the bed for his enjoyment. In a scene near the end, he places one woman's lifeless head on his lap. Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell described it as "a rape scenario set to a soundtrack." I agree.
Unfortunately, it is hardly harmless fantasy. Perhaps it's entirely coincidental that the video was produced precisely when Julian Assange is being charged with rape for reportedly having intercourse with a woman while she was asleep (and therefore unable to consent), but even if that is the case, the video's message -- that, whether awake or asleep, whether sober or drugged, whether conscious or not, women can be used for men's sexual gratification -- is more than a little troubling.
But even more than that, the video not-so-subtly suggests that complete female passivity, lifelessness, and even death are erotic. In one scene, several dead women hang from nooses. In another, West holds a decapitated woman's head.
"The depiction of lifeless women as sexual objects suggests that women have no other function."
"Everybody know I'm a muthaf-cking monster" he says with a mixture of pride and bravado. In an earlier scene, the women's hands are all over him. In another, they push against a closed door to get closer to him.
The implication is unmistakable: Monstrous men -- the ones who treat women as inanimate objects -- are sexually attractive, which means that, by extension, monstrous behavior on the part of men is sexually attractive, while, for women, what's sexually desirable is passivity, lifelessness, and death.
Seem farfetched? Consider this photoshoot from America's Next Top Model or this Jezebel expose on the fashion industry's preoccupation with death. West is merely copying an established trend. All he adds is a certain misogynistic nonchalance.
The video finally gets interesting at the 3:37 mark. Here we finally see a woman capable of independent thought. It's a fanged Nicki Minaj brandishing a dominatrix-style riding crop, alternatively interrogating and seducing a pink-blond version of herself. The scene switches back and forth between suggested sex and violence, effectively intertwining them. On the one hand, it is yet another instance of equating sex with violence, but finally there is also something more. The pink-haired Minaj is neither helpless nor lifeless. To the contrary, though she's tied up, she is uncowed. And when her hood is lifted, she confidently defends both her singing career and her so-called "Barbie" style.
"In the video's only redeeming scene, Nicky Minaj alternatively interrogates and seduces her alter self."
In this scene, Monster works on two different levels. On one level, there is the surface sexual tension between the dominatrix and the submissive. On another, there is an internal struggle over issues of identity and public image. The video gives us a window into a young female performer who is aware of her image, aware that it has been and continues to be financially lucrative for her, while at the same time recognizing that it is fake and shallow, and therefore both unflattering and incomplete. There is another side to her that she wants us to know about, a wild, dangerous side that simultaneously loves and wants to destroy the "Barbie" version. Unlike West's self-indulgent complaining about female fans who both love and hate him, this is compelling drama that is actually worth watching and discussing.
The above neither justifies nor excuses the earlier misogyny. But one of the defining characteristics of monsters is that they don't have redeeming qualities. The moment we begin to like or sympathize with any part of the monster, it is no longer a monster but a flawed being. From this perspective, West's video isn't monstrous; it's just deeply, deeply flawed.
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