This Village Voice piece was e-mailed around the office with the subject line: "Ugh." You need only read through the lead to see why: We're transported to a Brooklyn, N.Y., nightclub on a Friday night, where a butch bartender spies her "femme girlfriend" getting hit on by a woman wearing "boyish hip-hop gear." The bartender hops the bar, pushes her way to "her woman" and gives her "a rough, disapproving shake," before dragging "her quarry back to the bar, where the girlfriend will remain standing in silence the rest of the night."
Siya, a 20-year-old rapper, says that's standard fare for "AGs" -- or "aggressive" lesbians: "It's a property thing." At all times a femme girlfriend "could be looking around, searching for a flyer AG," she says. The "bitches ain't shit," crotch-grabbing swagger of some mainstream rappers has been adopted within this particular lesbian subculture, according to the Voice. AGs employ rappers' typical chest-thumping declarations of manliness: Baggy pants, baseball caps, tattoos and diamonds. Same goes for the view of women as collectible -- and yet entirely dispensable -- tokens: At one point during the club night described in the Voice article, the DJ yells, "If you came in here to steal another chick's bitch, let me see your hands in the air!" Hands shoot up.
As a member of the MTV generation I'm none too proud to admit that at this point I'm fairly inured to much of the misogyny in some of mainstream rap. My teenage years were marked by the murder of Tupac (who penned the cautionary "Fake Ass Bitches"), for instance, not John Lennon (whose generation-defining anthem asked listeners of both sexes to "imagine all the people/living life in peace"). And yet, despite being mostly desensitized to hearing it on the radio, when I see the "bitches-and-hos" attitude played out in the real world, it's still shocking. And in the lesbian community, the ridiculousness of this kind of abuse is especially glaring: Women who have created a subculture outside the hetero-normative mainstream are using old-fashioned, mainstream sexist values to objectify other women. The Voice describes a fight between two AGs over a femme; one participant yells, "Suck my dick, nigga!"
As much as rap culture feeds the AG/femme scene, which is predominantly black and Hispanic, it's important to acknowledge that appropriation of typical hetero gender roles is hardly limited to this particular lesbian subculture. But the relationship between gangsta rap and cultural values is the subject of plenty of debate; some blame rap for much of the violence and misogyny in American culture, while others thankfully observe that these evils have been around a lot longer than the current crop of chart-toppers. For its part, the Voice piece connects the AG/femme subculture to the gender constructs of thug rap, noting that AGs often recognize few female role models, looking instead to "men, hoodlums, dudes that are in the 'hood all day," in the words of one AG quoted in the piece. (And, perhaps this should also speak to the limited range of visible black and Hispanic role models in general.)
In some contexts, this kind of appropriation of gender norms can be wonderfully subversive. For instance, Eric Parker, sohh.com content director, tells the Voice that many male hip-hop fans find "more masculine" female rappers a challenge to their "personal ideals of masculinity," thus AGs are largely excluded from the industry. By contrast, the AG club scene sounds pretty liberating: "Behind these brick walls," the Voice's Chloe A. Hilliard writes, "the girls are free to be badass rap stars and their girly dates. They're free to grab their crotches, kick it to a pretty girl, or dance in a tight embrace."
But then there's the "bitches-and-hos" aspect of the AG community. How to reconcile these different facets? Is misogyny any better -- or worse -- when it's coming from a woman? I'd say no, at least in the most basic, moral and philosophical senses. It should be equally disturbing coming from either sex.