On Ratchet Respectability and Beyoncé’s Sexual Politics
Omise'eke Tinsley and Revolutions in Black Feminism
The following is from Omise’eke Tinsley’s Beyoncé in Formation: Revising Black Feminism.
Yes, my Femme-onade mixtape started as a family affair, but now I’m going to play with something a little different. Something for those nights when you’re with your girls, laughing in your living room or bedroom getting ready to go out or stay in together. For nights when you’re enjoying each other’s curves and angles and D’ussé and swag and the promise of that good good later. Because carving out space in our homes, our languages, our lives where we can push sexuality and womanhood into shapes that work for us—that’s black feminist work, too. So let’s talk about sex, Beyoncé fem(me)inists, and not just the marital, put-a-ring-on-it kind. Let’s talk about how to make it creative, messy, profitable, hilarious; not just for women but for femmes, for those of us who wrap our legs around the legs of butches and femmes and transmen to hold on for the “most bomb pussy, because of whom sleep evaded.” This is sexuality and fem(me)ininity for our generation of Southern black women.
Do you remember? Beyoncé’s black python trench coat peek-a-booing a deep plunge La Perla bodysuit, thigh-high stockings, and sin-red Louboutin pumps as she strolls into the headlights of a Rolls Royce limo and climbs in back with Jay Z. “Now my mascara running, red lipstick smudged / Oh he so horny, yeah he want to fuck,” she croons as Jay runs a hand between her lacy thighs in the backseat. You know you remember, because how could you forget? Beyoncé’s “Partition” video was “so sexy,” entertainment reporter Olivia Wilson swooned, “you’ll want to have sex with it;” so sexy, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly fumed, it would inspire horny teenagers to make babies in backseats. “Partition” may be the steamiest video on a visual album as hot as Texas in August, from its praisesong for cunnilingus (“Blow”) to its D’ussé-soaked bathtub sex (“Drunk in Love”) to its celebration of female ejaculation (“Rocket”). And lots of grown-ass black women like me said yaaasss to this black wife-and-mother getting that nasty, turnt up, squirty good good and not feeling bad about it.
“Much has been made about how explicitly sexual this album is, but to me, it’s one of its shining points,” black feminist blogger Cate Young noted. “This album is sex positive in a very powerful way, and that’s an important message for black women to receive. It’s incredibly important that black women know that they do not have to shrink themselves or deny themselves access to pleasure in pursuit of respectability.”
Now, I was remembering “Partition” when Lemonade gave me a medium close-up of Beyoncé in the back of a limo, wide black hat covering her eyes and red light bathing her face and cleavage as she sings the first lines to “6 Inch”: “Six-inch heels, she walked in the club like nobody’s business. . . .” Hell yes, I thought, here comes the sexy! And I was right—but the sexy came different than in Beyoncé. In “Partition,” Bey and Jay ride tangled in each other, oblivious to anything outside their luxury limo; but here Beyoncé, alone, peers at seedy streets with grate-enclosed windows, flashing signs for ATMs and cigarettes, and faceless men plodding by. And in “Partition,” sex is no-holds-barred recreational, messy as scandal—“he Monica Lewinsky’ed all over my gown”; but in “6 Inch” sexiness is work, getting over without getting off.
Beyoncé rides the limo to a peep show where “she work for the money from the start to the finish” and “don’t gotta give it up ’cause she professional.” The red-lit ho stroll of “6 Inch” is a different world from the luxury ride of “Partition,” a scene where sexiness has to provide something besides orgasms to be good—and if it’s not good, Queen Bee’s not having it. Angelica Bastién sums up the difference between this album’s “sexiest song” and Beyoncé’s: “In her last album, Beyoncé was at her most sexually liberated. She dives even deeper into the topic in Lemonade, looking at it beyond simple lust and the ways a crumbling relationship can change the texture of sex. . . This is Beyoncé at her most grown-woman level.”
Much as I love bejeweled Beyoncé from “Partition”—and you know I do—this red-lit Beyoncé offers edgier possibilities for imagining black feminist sexuality. Uncomfortable and imposing as six-inch heels, Lemonade’s vision of sexual power ditches glossy sex-positivity for ratchet feminism: a sexual politics born out of the creative ways “everyday Black women—including those who self identify as ratchet, thots, baby mamas, gold diggers, money-makers, bawse bitches, and haters” negotiate sex that works for them.
Straight out of black Louisiana, ratchet circulates in Dirty South hip hop as an insult leveled at black women seen as uneducated, hypersexual, gold-digging, confrontational, or tacky. But the word is reclaimed by feminists like Brittney Cooper, who embraces ratchet as a celebration of the unabashed sexuality, fierceness, and resilience of Southern working-class black women. With the Crunk Feminist Collective, Cooper imagines: “This new moment (not wave) in feminism represents the feminism of Sapphire’s belligerent daughter smacking gum and rocking bamboo earrings, cherry-red lipstick, a Black Girls Rock! T-shirt, and some Js, while listening to Beyoncé’s ‘Flawless’ on her iPod. Ratchet culture, accessorized with gold-plated grillz, spinner rims, and twerk tutorials, is the antithesis of respectability.” Prior to Lemonade, Beyoncé—a diva rumored to only have had sex with her husband, who Aisha Durham calls the “Southern belle of hip hop”—floated above ratchetness in public opinion. But fed up with giving up wifely lap dances and blow jobs without getting what she wants, Lemonade’s narrator drives the ho stroll in search of how ratchetness can work for her—in search of how she can get her own without fear of being called pushy, thirsty, or slutty. Done cleaning up Lewinsky-esque messes, “she fights and she sweats those sleepless nights / But she don’t mind, she loves the grind.” Love the grind, sisters, and love, the grind: the work, hustle, the daily same-old, the dance you do in six-inch heels.
All sex and all kinds of sexiness are transactional in one way or another. Martha Nussbaum points out we all “take money for the use of our bodies,” and the labels black women get slapped with for our bodily work—ratchet, ho, gold digger—are “stigmatization . . . based on class prejudice or stereotypes of race or gender.” The wedding ring Beyoncé wears in “Partition” doesn’t change the fact she’s making money from (singing about) a blow job—and instead of stigmatizing her for that, what if we celebrated her using sexuality as an artistic medium and getting paid for it, too? If we need to admit all sex can be work, well, we also need to recognize all work can be creative, and L.H. Stallings pushes black feminists toward “analyzing what has been termed sex work through the immaterial of creativity and imagination, conceptualizing it as art experience.” Driving into Lemonade’s narrative of marriage with red lights and peep shows, “6 Inch” opens space for us to see that marriage (or any relationship) shouldn’t be the end of black women expecting to get something real for our sexiness. And that getting that something is its own kind of art—one that, like Beyoncé, we develop over the course of a sexual lifetime, cultivating the dancerly skill you need to slay in six-inch heels.
Beyoncé fem(me)inists, I absolutely adore that part of my job as a professional purveyor of black women’s pleasure politics is surfborting through popular culture looking for the ways fierce black women and femmes lay claim to our unapologetic sexiness. And the April that Lemonade broke the internet, the blogosphere was rich with black feminist sexual self-expression—no small part of it taking up Beyoncé’s videos as a prop to ramp up our public sexiness.
A week after Lemonade dropped, self-styled video vixen Karrine Steffans took to the blogs to remind everyone she gave Jay Z a backseat blow job years before Beyoncé sang “Partition.” “Over 15 years ago, I had Beyoncé’s husband,” she declared. “Yes, I was one of Jay Z’s Beckys back in the year 2000 for about three minutes, which is about as long it takes me to satisfy a man in the back of a Maybach while overlooking the beaches of Malibu.”
Karrine had told this story before: her sexual thank you to Jay Z (who cast her in his 2000 “Hey Papi” video) features in her industry-rocking 2005 memoir Confessions of a VideoVixen. Jay Z, Ice-T, Ja Rule, Doctor Dre, Bobby Brown, P-Diddy, Xzibit, Usher, Lil’ Wayne, Fred Durst, Vin Diesel, and Shaquille O’Neal are among the entertainment giants she recounts bedding and popping ecstasy with in the early 2000s when she worked as a video model and earned the moniker “Superhead.” Many clutched pearls and wagged fingers at her revelations, branding her a Jezebel and suggesting she be ashamed of herself. But Karrine never has been.
She’s not shy about her transactional sex: “To stay afloat, I had to hustle . . . being hip hop’s version of a prostitute—sleeping with men in the industry, both artists and label executives, for which I received money.” But she’s also clear this makes her no better or worse than the men she fucked. “I’m a woman and I can suck as many dicks as I want, just as men can suck as many pussies and asses as they want. And believe me, they do! . . . You can’t slut shame me, bruh,” she posted. “You’ve got all these men out here taking dicks on Monday, snatching pussies on Tuesday, sucking anybody’s ass on Wednesday, licking their bestie’s nuts on Thursday, beating their wife on Friday, raping women on Saturday, praising the LORD on Sunday and you want to shame a woman for having sex?”
Not satisfied with calling out men’s sluttiness, Karrine reminds Black Twitter that renowned black women come with “hoe histories,” too. A month before Lemonade’s release a Twitter war was ignited by her proud memory of being a best-selling author and Oprah guest at age 26. Users shot back: “You sucked dick. Honestly, that ain’t the route I want” and “I look up to Oprah. I want to be a woman like Oprah not you. Everything you do is tasteless.” Not having any of it, Karrine volleyed, first, that she certainly had just sucked a dick—her husband’s—underscoring continuities between “ho” and “wifey” sex; and second, that Oprah was like her—“Oprah was a hoe. She was promiscuous after her rape, admittedly.” She expanded: “Oprah was promiscuous. Maya Angelou was a prostitute. Believing a woman worthy of praise has never had a sexual or ill reputed past is silly. So many great women have had horrible reputations. Take a long, hard look at our strong, honorable black women and see how their sex plays a part in their stories.” Snatching back ho and passing it out as a badge of honor, Karrine demands that readers honor black women for what Robin Boylorn calls “ratchet respectability.” Instead of dividing black women into ratchet versus respectable, “ratchet respectability is an effort to . . . humanize black women’s experiences without demonizing them”: to insist that ratchet sisters deserve respect, too, that “black women can use ratchetness to resist and challenge hegemonic norms and that most black women (or at least those I know, myself included) can be both ratchet and respectable (sometimes at the same time, sometimes situationally).”
Karrine writes lots of things I find unhelpful, like her woman-to-woman advice that anal sex is best saved for husbands. But she also writes things that blow up tired sexual scripts in ways I adore—like her clarification that anal sex goes both ways in her marriages: “I have a strap on named Pinky. Ask my ex husbands. I will make a straight man love dick in a heartbeat and I’m not ashamed of any of it.” Always and everywhere, Karrine shows up to give us ratchet feminism’s foundational lesson: that everyone has some ratchet in them, some part of them unapologetically partaking in what’s “foolish, ignorant, ho’ishness, ghetto, and a dance” (to borrow from Stallings).
Oprah, Maya, Coretta Scott King, Michelle Obama, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter—it’s important to imagine our black women icons have sketchy sexual histories and ghetto moments whether they actually do or not. Because only when we imagine ratchetness as a tool able to serve the best and brightest among us can we build solid defenses against slut shaming; only when we believe ratchetness isn’t below us—and sometimes just might be above us—can we disarm the charge of ratchet, thot, chickenhead, hoe, and any epithet meant to keep black women in our sexual place. “A woman is all things,” Karrine’s Lemonade reflection opens. “She is your Becky. She is your Beyoncé. She is the embodiment of all that is light, all that is dark, all that is all. She is your wife. She is your whore. She is your priestess and your infidel.” Claiming this complexity and challenging us to do the same, Karrine can declare: “I am a woman and I cannot be broken. Especially not over some dick, chile. Now, bend over and open up.”
Excerpted from Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism by Omise’eke Tinsley, © 2018, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.