Why Erykah Badu’s Opinion Is Dangerous
When I was a preteen, I did what preteens do. I hung out at the mall. My mall was called the Burlington Center. It was one of the main attractions in my small New Jersey town. If you were 12 to 14 — it was there, or the movie theater. I spent most of my weekends there — getting glamour shots with my rotating best friends, window shopping, congregating in entryways (to the dismay of business owners). The specifics of my time at the mall didn’t matter to me, what mattered were my first samplings of some semblance of autonomy. There were no teachers to tell me what to do, and my mother was not there to regulate me. I did have a helicopter aunt, though, who on outings with my cousin, would haunt the food court to make sure we were safe — but even she kept her distance.
That aunt was married to my father figure. My own dad wasn’t around often (I can count on both hands the times he resurfaced), and so his brother stepped up to the plate. His daughter and I were close in age, and we called ourselves sisters. I spent a lot of my time at their house, and my cousin and I made a ritual of getting ready for the mall. We’d swap clothes, we’d give each other make up tips that we’d picked up in magazines or on television. We were in quiet competition with each other, always trying to out beautify ourselves, but lifting one another up, simultaneously.
At school, most of the girls were white. They looked like the girls in the movies and magazines, the girls sung about in songs. I felt ugly at school. But getting ready for the mall, putting on my scented lip gloss, my white eyeliner, my silly body glitter — I felt beautiful. Never for long, though. We’d try to hurry out the door, but my uncle always caught us. He’d say “come give me a hug goodbye,” but we knew what it was — it was an inspection. We’d go back to his den, and he’d say “What’s that on your mouth? Go wipe that shit off.” Or he’d say, “There’s no way you’re walking out of here in those shorts, go put on some pants.” And we always would. And I’d be back to the version of myself that felt ugly, unadorned.
My uncle thought he was protecting us, but it never worked. At the mall, I got catcalled at as young as 12. Groups of 17-year-olds, 20-somethings, even older, would whisper “Pssst” as I passed by. They’d whistle for attention, they’d say “come here.” Some were more brazen, some would tell me what they’d do to me if they got their hands on me. Some would approach, ask me my age, say there’s no way I could be my age (because their disbelief excused their attraction to me). I felt dirty. I felt marked. But I didn’t know what to call it, then. It felt like the natural order of things. I felt like I was born to be prey for their predatory behavior, simply for being a girl, simply for having a body.
My uncle thought he was protecting us, but he did damage. Instead, I learned to restrict myself. Instead, I learned that my body was not mine to do what I pleased with, that ultimately it was a vessel for male consumption — that if I didn’t want to be consumed, I had to stick to looking unappetizing. Everything I did with my body was tailored to men. I began to consider them when I dressed, I avoided what I thought would catch their invasive eyes. I sacrificed confidence for false feelings of security. But nothing kept me safe.
A few months ago, I was back in my hometown to drop my son off at my mom’s. I had an event to go to, and I stopped in the Burlington Center to buy shoes. When my husband and I pulled up, we weren’t sure if it was open, the parking lot was so empty it seemed abandoned. It was a ghost of itself, eerily outdated, and hollow. Walking through it felt like a dream, my memories dancing before me. I gave my husband the tour, pointed out significant places. This is where I used to buy my Baby Phat jeans. This is where I got those absurd glamour shots. This is where I used to get my nails painted. We passed by the food court when a particular memory struck me:
I was in elementary or early middle school. My dad was in town. He, my brother, and I were having lunch. My dad was mostly quiet, listening to us bombard him with all the things we wanted him to know about us. We lost his gaze at one point, his head snapped across the court to a woman walking by.
“I’m sorry, son, I was listening,” he said, looking back at my brother. “It’s just — you see that woman’s body? It’s perfect. You don’t understand, now, but one day you will. She has the kind of ass you can’t not look at. I got distracted.”
I cringed at the memory. I thought about myself, then. I was a child, maybe a year off from being the person grown men snapped their heads at. I was maybe a year off from that feeling of violation, that feeling of insecurity, that feeling of being in danger. In that moment, my father reinforced the notion that my brother and all boys were not responsible for controlling their sexual impulses. He reinforced that women’s bodies are on display for them, that men can’t possibly resist. He reinforced for me the bad lessons that my uncle taught me about who my body was for, about how “respecting” it meant keeping men always in mind. That reinforcement is dangerous. That reinforcement is victim blaming. That reinforcement hands power over womens’ bodies to men. And it doesn’t protect shit.
Erykah Badu reinforced those notions, yesterday. News broke about a school that enacted a policy requiring female students lower their hemlines, so as not to “distract” male staff members. Erykah Badu tweeted (to her platform of 1.7 million followers) that she agreed, that humans are sexual, that young girls are attractive, that some men naturally get distracted (and that preteen girls should do the work of preventing it by concealing themselves). She later backtracked, saying that she “sees both sides,” that men should control themselves and girls should conceal themselves — but the only one disciplining themselves with this policy is women. There’s a lot to unpack in her statements — I got the sense that she believes her opinions exist in a vacuum, but there is weight, context, and implication in her words.
She threw around the word responsibility, frequently. She said “We are all responsible.” But we are not all responsible for the victimization of young girls. The young girls are not responsible for their own victimization, simply for being born in their bodies. The men are entirely responsible for not controlling theirs. One thing implied, is that there is something that women can do to keep a predator from being predatory. This is just not the case. This line of logic has been used to shame and blame women for their own assaults, time and time again. Erykah insisted she is talking specifically about a “controlled environment” as opposed to the broader context, but being ogled at by a person in a position of authority, an adult, when you are a teen girl is a kind of assault. It’s an invasion, a stripping of bodily security. She repeatedly calls these girls women, seemingly in an attempt to assign them equal responsibility to adult men.
She mentions that there is a biological difference between men and women (the cisheteronormative erasure game is strong in all this), that men are inherently more sexually driven. This is a fallacy of patriarchy. Not only is it harmful to women (because it absolves all responsibility from men), but it’s harmful to men and boys as well. The line of logic that men are sexual beings, naturally aroused by –in her words — “women” of child-bearing age, has helped fuel the myth that women can’t rape men/boys (because they naturally want sex).
She repeats the hollow words over and over that men need to control themselves, while simultaneously absolving them of accountability for their deviant attractions. I got my first period at 11 years old. That’s child-bearing age for me and many girls. It seems Erykah Badu believes that it’s perfectly natural (biologically speaking, of course) for a grown man to be attracted to an 11-year-old girl. Her opinions are uncritical. Her opinions, when met with her platform, are dangerous.
It’s dangerous to tell girls that men can’t help themselves around them (or that it’s more difficult for them to help themselves than it is for girls to hide themselves). It’s dangerous to tell girls that their bodies need to be policed. It’s dangerous to tell girls that it’s only natural for adult men to want to consume them. It’s dangerous to tell adult men that it’s natural to want to consume young girls. It perpetuates a rape culture that keeps women from talking about their assaults by scrutinizing the ways in which they were “responsible” for their own rapes, by tempting men, by not tempering their bodies to the impulses of men.
Many people told her why it was dangerous. Many times she denied the danger. When confronted about victim-blaming, she deflected — said our daughters aren’t victims, “they’re sober minded young women taking active part in change.” As if a person can’t be both. Instead of acknowledging the damage she’s done, she spun it as an attempt at effective discourse — it’s a trigger fest. She’s spent the last few hours retweeting the vitriol of all of her foulest followers — some claiming women only dress in revealing ways to draw the attention of men, some thanking her for affirming their attraction to teen girls, some saying that men who say they aren’t attracted to young girls are lying.
And I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed because when I was a young girl, Erykah empowered me. And this generation of young girls doesn’t have that, they have someone telling them to shrink themselves, hide themselves, conceal themselves — for the comfort of men. I’m not writing this piece to bash her. I’m writing this in case some girl needs to hear this, from someone who’s lived what they’re living:
Forget what Erykah said. Wear what you want, wear the shorts, wear a turtleneck, wear the dollar store lip gloss, wear the leggings, wear the heels. Wear what makes you feel beautiful. Wear what makes you feel safe. For your own comfort. For you. Men are responsible for their actions/attractions/nonsense. Not you. Never you. Not at all. It is not on you to make it “easier” for them to resist violating you. It has nothing to do with what you look like. It has everything to do with overpowering you. Keep the power you can. You deserve power over your body. There is no one to be considerate about concerning your body but you.