[This blog post was written by Dr. Leeja Carter, an Assistant Professor at Long Island University – Brooklyn. It was published September 9, 2018.]
From time to time I’ll view something, perhaps a commercial, movie, or television show and experience authentic confusion followed by disappointment due to the lack of cultural awareness, historical context, microaggressions, and cultural appropriation. These “cahfubbles” (my technical term for icky situations) can be due to many things, and perhaps I’ll address my thoughts on that in a later post. But one such example is the Ruth Baden Ginsberg (RBG) book and movie. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Ruth Bader Ginsberg, but the term, “notorious” and the image of her with a crown on her head, used for the book’s title, cover image, and in subsequent marketing of the documentary is problematic. Why? Because while it characterizes her trailblazing and iconic work it also whitens the origins of ‘notorious’.
I first spotted this when the commercial for the RBG documentary was released. The word “NOTORIOUS” was placed in front of her name. Seeing this my initial thought was oh no they didn’t. My next thought was I get where they are going with that, but it’s problematic. After a trip to Google, I found the book written by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik titled, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ::sighs:: Now I found myself in this mental space where I’m praising progress (“YES, thank you for honoring our powerful, strong women!”) while noticing that there are apparent issues in the manner this was done. So now I have to sit in a complicated space that includes satisfaction and disappointment recognizing (as usual) how capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy create a situation where there is no clear winner.
Christopher Wallace popularly known as The Notorious B.I.G. was a Black rapper murdered in the 90s. It is no secret that Black men and rappers are represented within the media as criminals, aggressive, violent, and low class. The Notorious B.I.G. during his time was presented as a thug and criminal due, in part, to his criminal past, the storytelling of his life through music, and questionable associations during his career. However, let’s be clear Biggie became a successful musician, entertainer, and businessman and used music to share, connect, and elevate black culture. However, while rap and hip-hop music is a billion dollar industry listened to by all races, religions, and creeds to be a Black male rapper makes you violent, less educated, and on the margins of civilized society. I say this to say, Biggie is considered one of the best rappers of our time, yet race, profession, and his personal history have caused society to associate his artistic brilliance to violence and being low class. This perception gives way to the acceptance of his and other Black and brown artists’ work being appropriated, erased, or labeled less than artistic.
So, of course, the media have no problem taking a portion of Biggie’s name “Notorious” and well known artistic visuals to complement and celebrate Ruth Bader-Ginsberg; because while the magnitude and impact of Biggie’s work during and after his time have been downplayed his reach is still enough to accent the trailblazing work of a white woman.
Was there a thought about how the labeling and imagery related to and appropriated hip-hop culture or just a motivation to reach non-white, working and lower class folks recognizing that the majority of hip-hop consumers are within this demographic?
Some may read this critique and interpret it as me having an issue with RBG, or as anti-feminist. Feminism must be intersectional, and without understanding the complexity and subtlety of human existence within the context of equality and oppression, we are allowing ourselves to be forced into a division. Using the issue of Biggie and RBG, the catch 22 is that at the center of this issue are women, black men, and hip-hop culture. With one group seemingly benefitting and the other being silenced, appropriated, and exploited.
This is one way in which white patriarchy wins. They force choice through cultural appropriation, dissonance, generational ignorance and what I’m terming “sectional feminism.” At some point, we have to recognize that there can’t be “sides” and acknowledge the complex centers, the uncomfortable grey areas, and the often-silenced middle ground.