Rebecca Liu 31st December 2017
Belcalis Almanzar was born in 1992 to Trinidadian-Dominican immigrant parents in South Bronx area of New York. At nineteen, she started working as a stripper to escape an abusive relationship, before finding fame for her candid videos on Instagram and as a reality star in television series, Love and Hip Hop. This year, at twenty-five, Almanzar – now known to the public as Cardi B – became the first female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 Chart alone.
The song that brought this modern-day Cinderella story to life was Bodak Yellow, a loud, synthy trap beat punctuated by Cardi’s characteristically energetic, celebratory lyrics.
“Lil bitch, you can’t fuck with me if you wanted to,” she spits. “These expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes.”
There is a “great man” theory of history – excuse the male-centrism – that asks whether it is history that brings “great men” into being, or whether it is these “great men” that shape history. In the case of this great woman, Cardi B from the Bronx – as she is wont to call herself – has both tapped into a genuine cultural shift about the rise of the “dirtbag woman”, and leads the charge, adorned in bloody Louboutin heels.
Before Bodak Yellow was Broad City, a comedy-of-errors television show about two loveable stoner girls in New York. In 2016, there was the Fleabag, on the BBC, about a neurotic woman who masturbates to Obama and buys the filthiest (and/or most complicated) vibrators for her sister, while coping with the recent death of a dear friend. Dirtbag women are scattered throughout Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, and have long-since worked as standup comedians – Ali Wong is a great example. And let’s not forget Cat Person, the recent New Yorker short story, which sparked viral outrage over its honest depiction of a young woman’s psyche as she both pities, and is repulsed by, her sex partner.
The dirtbag woman is filthy, unfiltered, and unapologetic about her polarising interests and tastes
These cultural moments all point to the rise of the unrepentant “dirtbag woman”. Often coded as heterosexual and cisgendered, the dirtbag woman is filthy, unfiltered, and unapologetic about her polarising interests and tastes; whose interest in following the script of the traditionally “feminine” role in heteronormative relationships – if they have it at all – stops and starts at whether the dick is worth it.
Call it the third wave of female cultural representation. Much like the varying waves of feminist theory itself, the forms and iterations of female representation in popular culture can be divided into three major epochs. First, the Dark Ages, where women were entirely absent or mere decorations (see – the earliest Bond girls). Then came the Second Wave of Strong Female Characters, where women were represented as singularly capable and brilliant figures doomed to wander about in a morass of mediocre men.
Think Buffy, the skilled vampire slayer who navigates high school by day, and a revolutionary uprising of the underworld by night. Or Hermione Granger, the most brilliant witch in her year at Hogwarts. Marvel’s Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, a mysterious and terrifying competent assassin. And most recently, perhaps the greatest Game of Thrones plot twist of all is that Daenerys Targaryen, the young and tenacious Dragon Queen, emerges as the victor in a television series that has shown no qualms with extraneous rape scenes, casual misogyny and gratuitous objectification against women.
And yet, it is odd that these Strong Female Characters rarely get ownership of their own stories; in fact, the very fact that they are too good for their male-dominated worlds means that they often give themselves in the service of the men who – though flawed, lazy and weird – remainPerhaps power shouldn’t be understood as who our culture allows to be strong, but rather who our culture allows to be weak the real drivers of everyone’s narrative. Hermione spends far too much time in the Harry Potter doing Harry and Ron’s homework. Black Widow’s skills in espionage are only matched by her prowess at managing the egos of her male counterparts. Daenerys Targaryen, previously unmatched avatar for the good and uncorrupt, now spends most of her time surrounded by male advisees of dubitable wisdom.
Perhaps power shouldn’t be understood as who our culture allows to be strong, but rather who our culture allows to be weak
Faced with these banners of self-sacrificial goodness, the Dirtbag Woman reverses the script by refusing any claim to a higher moral ground at all. They are petty and judgmental – Cardi B recalled that when recording Bodak Yellow, “every bitch that I don’t like came into my head”; the resultant vengeance spiced up her bars. They are unkind and unfair – Cat Person’s female protagonist can’t help but be perturbed by her date’s unattractive physique. And when faced with the imperative to use their own inherent goodness to sacrifice themselves for the flourishing of a man – well, forget about it – “I ain’t about to sleep on my dreams for no man”, Cardi relates on TV series Love & Hip Hop.
Consider, for example, popular receptions in a sexual assault case: the pitchforks that come for any woman who isn’t a “perfect victim”, contrasted with the clamouring of people ready to attest that the man is “really a good guy who just made one bad decision”. In a world where female empowerment is associated with claims that there is something godly and transcendent about being a woman unto itself, the Dirtbag Woman ironically finds power by disengaging with this trope of ‘power’. In making oneself inevitably fallible, rude, and bad, the Dirtbag Woman finds power by refusing to become object of admiration – the Hermiones and the Khaleesis around whom men circulate –but rather subjects to whom everyday, ordinary and ugly life happens.
Race and class
Any discussion of womanhood today would be incomplete without an interrogation about the role of race and class. Cardi B’s domination of the Billboard Hot 100 was made all the more culturally significant by her being up against Taylor Swift, America’s then pop princess, and her revenge comeback song Look What You Made Me Do, in which the pop star takes aim against Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in an ongoing feud.
A black, working-class self-made musician from the Bronx, who came to public attention through Instagram rants where she railed against the inaccessibility of food stamps, against the white scion of an investment banker whose career highlights include dog-whistling racial tropes – see her song Innocent in response to Kanye West – and being one of the few remaining pop stars to remain silent on America’s tumultuous political climate today, perhaps due to her sizeable right-wing fanbase.
The pioneers behind the current movement on redefining womanhood are invariably black and working-class
The pioneers behind the current movement on redefining womanhood are invariably black and working-class, continuing a long tradition of these communities being the thankless movers of contemporary Western culture. And yet, there is some quiet justice: Cardi B ended up overtaking Taylor Swift on the Billboard 100 chart.
Now, more than ever, women are witnessing the ground shift under their feet about who they can be, what they can articulate, and how they want to confront power. It is on us to ensure the sort of politics we propound are kind, generous, and leave none of our fellow women behind. Anything less would be an insult.
Rebecca Liu 31st December 2017