By Heidi R. Lewis
Recently, social media was set ablaze after Oxygen revealed it was developing a reality TV show featuring rapper Shawty Lo (real name Carlos Walker) entitled, All My Babies’ Mamas. Yup, all 11 of them. Or is it 10? In any case, if you were able to watch the preview before it was removed from the web, you noticed that these women seem to be continuously struggling with each other for power. They argue over the amount of time and money Walker spends with his children. They’re upset that he’s building a relationship with a 19-year-old woman—his eldest child is also 19. For these reasons and others, Nick Chiles called the show a “festering stew of ratchetness.” It was no surprise, then, that online petitions quickly ensued calling for boycotts of the network and the show. This tends to happen when “ratchet,” “black women,” and “reality TV” converge. You may remember the boycott of Basketball Wives (BBW) and other ratchet reality shows initiated by Star Jones.
Ratchet was first popularized when rapper Hurricane Chris released his debut album 51/50 Ratchet (2007). For Hurricane Chris, ratchet meant getting excited, partying, “going hard.” More recently, though, ratchet has become a derogatory term leveled mostly at women, but especially black women. In these instances, ratchet is used to describe women that are unintelligent, loud, classless, tacky, and hypersexual, among other things. One of the most popular takes on this brand of ratchet has to be the “Ratchet Girl Anthem” (2012), a parody song written by Emmanuel and Phillip Hudson and produced by DJ Suede. Their video has garnered over 37 million views since its release almost a year ago, and was eventually repackaged as an official video for BET. Think of ratchet as a combination of Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel, and the Welfare Queen—every controlling image of black women Patricia Hill Collins taught you about all rolled into one. So, while the term itself may be relatively new, the construction isn’t. And ratchet black women on reality TV aren’t even all that new. I remember when Tami Roman gave us a weekly dose of ratchet on MTV’s The Real World: Los Angeles, almost 20 years before giving it to us on VH1’s BBW: Miami.
In response to all of the uproar about All My Babies’ Mamas, Brittney Cooper wrote “(Un)Clutching My Mother’s Pearls, or Ratchetness and the Residue of Respectability.” She also previously examined Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta in her essay, “Ratchet Feminism.” The latter asks whether or not “ratchet” can be considered feminist, and the former asks whether or not ratchet effectively challenges the “politics of respectability” that have plagued black women for decades. Both pieces were a breath of fresh air for me, because many black women in academia are struggling, and having conversations can help mitigate some of the conflicts and tensions.
My own struggles with ratchet came to a head when my colleague alerted me to the “Bury the Ratchet” campaign being launched by Michaela Angela Davis. The campaign will begin with a symposium at Spelman College this March, when black leaders will examine how reality TV shows featuring ratchet black women are “harming Black culture.” The symposium will be followed by a public service announcement featuring black women discussing their feelings about such depictions. Along those lines, Davis argues, “It has become completely evident that there has been a brand of women from Atlanta that are adverse to what most of these women are like.” To be honest, I’m not struggling with ratchet as much as I’m grappling with false binaries like this—binaries that are being manifested in conversations about all things ratchet. However, the either-or dichotomies erase women like me, and others, from the conversation.
Davis started the campaign in order to “get the spotlight off the ratchetness and on the successful women in Atlanta.” Well, wait a minute. I wasn’t aware that “ratchet” and “successful” women were mutually exclusive. What if some network decided to develop a reality TV show about me, or sisters like me? I’m a well-educated, happily married mother of two. I’m a professor at an elite liberal arts college. My husband has been a successful entrepreneur for almost 4 years. I admit that representations of black women like me are scant across all genres of television. Think about some of the reasons so many black women faithfully watch MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show and ABC’s Scandal. But, I’d be just the kind of candidate Davis would be looking for to combat these ratchet images of black women on reality TV, right? Well, probably not.
I have no qualms admitting that I can be a bit ratchet at times. Okay, a lot of times. You should have seen me and my husband on New Year’s Eve this year. Trinidad James anyone? You should have heard me talking to my sistercousin after a meeting one day a while back. “They don’t even want me to go there, okay?!” You should have read that blog where I wrote about Li’l Wayne and cunnilingus. Ooooweeee! You should have seen me and my homegirl on the deck overlooking my backyard this past summer. “If you ain’t gone finish that last li’l bit in that bottle, I will.” You should have seen me and my other homegirl in the bar that night a few years ago. Talk about snatching wigs! Okay, I think I’ve said too much already. But, see, therein lies the problem. Said too much for what? Too much for whom? My family? My friends? My colleagues? My readers? I guess I really do have some qualms after all.
And *this* is what I’m struggling with. The kinds of binaries regarding ratchet presented by Davis are, I would argue, as harmful as, if not more injurious than, the ratchet black women on reality TV. I came to this conclusion after re-thinking Hazel Carby’s “policing of black women’s bodies” theory, as well as Darlene Clark Hine’s “culture of dissemblance” theory. The former theorizes the ways black women’s bodies are policed by the folks who control the dominant culture, and the latter theorizes the ways black women police our own bodies in attempts to self-protect against those aforementioned folks. That said, there are unrealistic ontological expectations for black women coming from every angle, but it hurts more (at least for me) when those expectations are coming from us!
Do we hate ourselves and each other that much? Yes, I was disgusted when Brooke Bailey and Jackie Christie got physical on BBW: LA this season. Don’t get it twisted, though. I wasn’t disgusted because of embarrassment about how their actions made me or other black women look. I’m not here for any viewer that saw black women everywhere in place of Brooke and Jackie. First, Brooke and Jackie are not representative of all black women. Second, I was disgusted because I thought their fight was stupid and unnecessary. ”Y’all are really fighting because Brooke said she would break up a physical altercation between Jackie and Draya [Howard] that hadn’t even happened!? Stop it.” I digress.
Maybe some of you can tell me how it is that some black women who cry foul about ratchet black women on reality TV were hollering, “Yes, girl!” and “I know that’s right!” when Jill Scott sang, “I’m ‘bout to take my earrings off, [and] get me some Vaseline!” on “Gettin’ in the Way” (Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1, 2000). Now, let me be clear. I’m not comparing Jill Scott to Brooke or Jackie, per se. I’m suggesting that an analysis of black women’s reactions to ratchet in its various contexts, manifolds, and appearances is much-needed, because inter-textuality and thus positionality are everything. Jill Scott is a beautiful singer/songwriter with topics in her catalogue ranging from you-tryin’-to-steal-my-man-so-I’m-‘bout-to-beat-yo’-ass to my-man-love-me-and-can’t-nobody-tell-me-nothin’ to almost everything in-between. She’s complex, opaque, and talented. However, none of that really mattered when she lyrically threatened to beat the shit out of another black woman for crossing that line. I wonder if she thought about that when she leveled her own Twitter critique of ratchet black women on reality TV.
This makes me ask: Which forms of ratchet are acceptable and which are not? The ratchet sure to flow from the women on All My Babies’ Mamas is probably not okay with Davis and her supporters, because, after all, these women are just babies’ mamas. They’re nothing more than some child’s mama. Not only that, they each procreated with some tattooed, gold-mouthed rapper who became famous for an ass-shaking anthem called “Laffy Taffy” (Down for Life, 2005). The ratchet that flows from The Real Housewives of Atlanta (RHOA) is also probably unacceptable, because, after all, those women are nothing but so-called fashionistas that pull each other’s hair over he-said-she-said gossip and who-said-what-on-Twitter beefs. And the ratchet flowing from BBW is probably unacceptable, because, after all, those women are nothing but gold diggers who sleep with basketball players for money.
However, those of us who actually watch these shows know that’s not completely true. We don’t know much about the women on All My Babies’ Mamas yet, but we do know something about the other ratchet black women on these shows. We already knew Kandi Burruss of RHOA is a successful singer/songwriter from her days with R&B group Xscape. But we know from watching the show that she has parlayed her celebrity into a successful web series (Kandi Koated Nights), boutique (TAGS), and pleasure products company (Bedroom Kandi). We know from watching Malaysia Pargo of BBW: LA that she launched her Three Beats jewelry line last year, and donates part of the proceeds to the Boys and Girls Club in Watts, CA where she grew up. Why don’t they get a pass from Davis for their ratchet behaviors? They actually are successful by their own standards. So am I. Would the privilege that my Ph.D. affords me grant me a pass from Davis? My privileged place of employment? My heterosexual privilege?
Cooper asks a very important question in her essay, “(Un)Clutching My Mother’s Pearls, or Ratchetness and the Residue of Respectability”: “Are any of us winning in a scenario where respectable and ratchet are the only two options?” My answer is emphatically, no. I would not only not be winning, I wouldn’t even exist! Black women are complex, and I don’t think many of the existing conversations about ratchetness reflect that. Davis says that “mean, gold-digging women” come to her mind when she thinks about ratchet. Well, not mine. Not necessarily. Sure, ratchet sometimes entails that. However, sometimes, it doesn’t. I’m not so sure I’d really aspire to fit what I perceive to be such a narrow construction of “success” anyway. I think I’d much rather define “successful” and “ratchet” on my own damn terms. I’m done being policed—by other black women and everyone else.
Heidi R. Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Feminist & Gender Studies at Colorado College. Her teaching and research focuses on feminism, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity (black culture especially), Critical Race Theory, Critical Whiteness Studies, Critical Media Studies, and popular culture. She has articles forthcoming in the Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Pan African Studies, and a reader examining the influence of rapper Kanye West. She holds a Ph.D. (2011) in American Studies from Purdue University, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies.