Does WAP Empower or Objectify Women?

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Cardi B (who I love) has a new song, WAP, which stands for wet-ass pussy. It’s #1 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart.

Let's start by checking out this remixed music video that highlights the multiplicity of gay men and the LGBTQ+ community. It has amazing dancing:

I love that vid. But when a friend and I watched Cardi B’s original music video, my friend commented: “wow, this seems quite focused on the male gaze.” Initially, I was inclined to agree with her. Cardi B's video feels like it’s objectifying women.

But when I looked at the Wiki entry for WAP, I saw that folks on the left celebrated the video (as “unapologetic in celebrating the sensuality and sexuality of women”), while folks on the right critiqued it (“this is what happens when children are raised without God and without a strong father figure”).

I found myself re-evaluating my position. Is WAP empowerment or objectification?

I. Empowerment/Objectification is an example of Coherent Pluralism

First, readers of this blog should recognize this as a classic example of Coherent Pluralism. Empowerment and objectification are two sides of the same coin, like appreciation vs. appropriation.

We should try to see both sides as fully as possible. Yes, WAP seems like objectification—it perpetuates and commoditizes the male gaze upon female bodies. And yes, WAP seems like empowerment—it’s black women owning agency around their sexual power.

There’s truth to both perspectives. And that’s ok. I love inserting a slash to show that WAP is both female empowerment/objectification. You don’t need to be on the left to see it as empowerment. And you don’t need to be on the right to see it as objectification.

So we know it’s a yes-and. But which one is more true? We want Coherence in addition to Pluralism. To determine this, let’s define empowerment and objectification. Empowerment comes from the self. e.g. “To actively decide to look sexy tonight.” While objectification comes from the other. e.g. “To see Cardi B as a sex object.”

Then we can ask, how much power does each perspective hold? Who has power?

Cardi B has lots of financial and social power. And the lyrics of WAP explicitly (quite explicitly 🙂) emphasize female sexual power. So WAP is pretty empowering. On the other hand, the (most often) men who objectify Cardi B here have less power. Cardi B doesn’t really give a shit what they think. So WAP is less objectifying.

Note that power determines the magnitude of the empowerment vs. objectification, but it doesn't determine its existence. Cardi B can't control whether you objectify her or not. Cardi can only control how empowered she feels by her music video. The impact of her empowerment and your objectification depends on power.

This idea that "everyone has their unique perspective" holds true in other scenarios as well. For example, my (unsubstantiated) instinct is that young teenage girls or boys may see the video more as objectification. Even if Cardi B wants wants the video to be received as non-objectifying, teenagers' developing minds are steeped in the status quo of female objectification, so they may see the video as objectifying. (As opposed to a retired confident old woman who sees the video and laughs.)

II. Be Wary of "Empowerment Washing"

Whether it's empowering or objectifying, it's definitely the case that Cardi B is making a lot of money off the video. And she is likely making more money given her revealing clothing. Sex sells.

How should we think about this? Is it "ok" to sell female empowerment? Or female objectification?

The main point I want to make here is that selling the Symbol (of empowerment) is decoupled from the Reality (which may be objectification). It's a classic example of the Symbolic being different from the Real:

We saw this dynamic with empowerment/objectification as well. There's a Real truth of "what happens in the video" (sexualized clothing), which is distinct from the Symbols we place on it (of empowerment/objectification).

We can sell empowerment while still objectifying. As this article shows:

Using terms such as ‘empowerment’ and ‘modern female sexuality’ have become means of exploitation to sell goods and services.
The problem is that sexually objectifying standards and images are masquerading around telling us all that its empowerment.

This is a long-running debate. For example, what was Playboy Magazine's role in the sexual revolution?

While Hugh Hefner claimed his company contributed to America's more liberal attitude towards sex, others believe he simply exploited it.

This is all an example of the "greenwashing problem." Yes, being environmentally-friendly is good. But therefore people will signal green-ness without actually doing anything.

Here, it's Empowerment Washing. Yes, female empowerment is good. And therefore, people will signal empowerment without actually doing anything.

I'm not saying that WAP is Empowerment Washing. I am saying that it is incentivized to be. Markets optimize for products that people want (empowerment) at the lowest friction / cost (keeping the status quo of objectification).

III. Empowerment vs. Objectification is an Antifragile Attractor

And finally, like any good Coherently Plural internet debate, empowerment vs. objectification is an Antifragile Attractor. Because there's no right or wrong answer for whether WAP is empowerment or objectification, we can debate it ad infinitum. There's lots of delicious texture here for us to consume. (I went down some deep internet rabbit holes to write this piece.)

The empowerment vs. objectification debate feels like a Clear Important Path on top of an important, hydra-like Antifragile Attractor. And to some extent it is important.

But be wary of these Antifragile Attractors. They can suck your time into a black hole :).

I hope this article helps you understand these debates more. As a white male, I'm especially interested in your feedback on this topic. Am I missing something because of my privilege. Let me know!

Here's my Roam page with research.