1992. A ramshackle living room wallpapered with punk-show flyers and slogans: Meat is Murder! Fugazi! Stop the Genocide! Saturday afternoons, Positive Force (PoFo), the punk rock lefty do-gooder organization that I was trying desperately to make mine, met amongst the sagging couches, reused plastic containers crusted with last night’s hummus, and pillows that cushioned the heads of many a punk rock luminary passing through town to do a PoFo benefit show. Before we started the official business of signing up to wheat-paste posters for the next benefit show around Washington, DC, two ladies with messy hair clipped back with bright pink and yellow plastic barrettes announced that a new group, Riot Grrrl, would start meeting Sunday.
“It’s all women,” they said. The way they said it definitely sounded like “womyn.”
Hey! I was a woman who liked punk rock but felt marginalized by a lot of the macho bullshit that comes parceled with it. They invited all the women at the meeting, but I still felt nervous. My feminist cred was tenuous at best. I recently attended a PoFo discussion group and mumbled my way through my take on the essay “Goodbye to All That” having nary a clue what “all that” was. But maybe Riot Grrrl would show me the meaning of all that. Plus, the barrettes looked super cool.
Every PoFo meeting started with an icebreaker question. Some PoFolks used the questions as an opportunity to blind the group with their punker-than-thou cred. (Maximum Rocknroll was cited, multiple Ian-s were mentioned. MacKaye or Svenonius? That was the question.) Others, like yours truly, limped toward humor.
At my first meeting, the question of the day was “What’s your favorite cartoon and why?”
“Bugs Bunny, because he doesn’t play by the rules,” said one guy.
“Wonder Woman, because she’s a strong, bad-ass woman,” said a woman with a shaved head who, earlier, had slipped me a xeroxed booklet she called a “zine.”
I answered, “Mr. T and Friends, because they work out their problems using gymnastics.”
A few of my pierced and randomly shaved-headed comrades chuckled. I bit back a smile, hoping I was closer to being surrounded by the punk rock activists as they chanted “One of us! One of us!”
The day the Riot Grrrls came to the meeting, the question was juicier: “How do you feel about Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’?”
How did I feel about Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ode to large, black butts? I wasn’t sure. I was glad that I wasn’t the first to answer lest I lose ground from my minor Mr. T and Friends triumph.
I’d first seen the “Baby Got Back” video while half-watching MTV a week earlier. I had yet to discover the joys of hip-hop beyond the Beastie Boys, some casual Run DMC listening, and Public Enemy. I’d dismissed hip-hop as not for me. My white, middle-class suburban self didn’t get it. It wasn’t punk rock. But the Sir Mix-A-Lot video caught my attention. While punk rock cursed and raged against the status quo, it never really talked about the awesomeness of a big butt. (I’d yet to stumble onto Queen’s ode to fat-bottomed girls.) And Mix’s desire for butts, big healthy butts, was so up front, I couldn’t turn away. No he didn’t, I thought, practically gaping at the TV.
When Mix rapped, “When it comes to females, Cosmo ain’t got nothin’ to do with my selection,” I felt a tingle of recognition.
In my political consciousness-raising groups, we talked about the subjugation of women in a political sense, but still the punk rock boys flocked to the waifs whose ankles swam in their Doc Martens. But Mix didn’t want those females. He appreciated the round and juicy. From a lady who had buns to spare (and years of body self-hatred), this came as welcome news.
Most of the answers from the PoFo fellows were the same line about how objectifying women is bad—which it is—and I could see them stealing glances of the proto-Riot Grrrls after giving their take on the butt-loving anthem.
Then it was my turn.
“I like the song, because even though it objectifies women, I appreciate that he’s trying to expand the body types that are considered attractive.” I stuttered. I didn’t yet have the ability to describe the racial dimension to the song, that it appreciated black women’s bodies specifically.
The question time was not a time for discussion. It was like a talking stick. If it wasn’t your turn to talk, then you remained quiet. When the question reached the Riot Grrrls, they were quick to refute my answer.
“Objectifying women’s bodies is totally fucked. Even if he’s like saying that larger bodies are cool. What about all the skinny girls? He’s being an asshole to them.”
Point taken. Although I didn’t think one song could counteract the hegemony of the thin female body in popular culture.
Months later, after I’d gotten a few Riot Grrrl meetings and some Women’s Studies classes under my belt—and figured out what “all that” was—I would come to agree with them and leave my appreciation of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s butt song behind. I felt retroactively embarrassed for myself. How could I have been so lame, so willing to participate in my own oppression? The memory of my naiveté made me cringe.
Still, Mix’s flirtation with feminism was more sophisticated than Ice-T, who claimed his song “The Girl Tried to Kill Me” had feminist pluck because it was about a girl (sic) who had the power to kill him with sex. By comparison, Mix was practically the Andrea Dworkin of the rap world.
My newly awakened feminist consciousness still allowed me to indulge in a chuckle when my college housemate, Amanda, hollered, “So your girlfriend drives a Honda, doing workout tapes by Fonda, but Fonda don’t have a motor in the back of her Honda” when I was aerobicizing to Jane Fonda’s Favorite Fat Burners and doing my side bends and sit-ups. (Don’t worry, Mix. I didn’t lose that butt.) My appreciation crossed over into the ironic, can-you-believe-this-silly-yet-sexist-song area. And there it lay, undisturbed but for quote-offs with Amanda at appropriate Anaconda and liking-big-butts moments.
Until last Friday night.
2015. My daughter, Mavis, plopped in front of my laptop for the nightly ritual of me brushing her bird’s nest of hair while she watched videos. Initially, she watched songs from Frozen. Then I showed her some clips from Grease, which, thanks to the suggested You Tube videos that line the screen, led to Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock,” and, in search of something a bit more wholesome, B-52’s “Love Shack.”
Hearing “Love Shack” a few too many times after hearing it a million too many times during its heyday will do strange things to a person. Things like make a mom think Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” is appropriate for the preschool set.
“I want the song with the man who looks like August,” Mavis said. She was referring to Fred Schneider who bears little resemblance to her preschool buddy August.
I pulled it up on the screen then saw Sir Mix-A-Lot and a looming yellow booty shorts-clad bottom in the corner.
“Let’s try something new. It’s a song about butts.”
“Okay,” Mavis said cautiously.
I have let her down before. She proclaimed, “I hate that!” of Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and Devo’s “Whip It.” I didn’t think a song about butts could lose. Boy was I right.
She was entranced from the get-go by the valley girls trash-talking the black woman’s butt.
“That’s not very nice,” I said as they trashed the woman rotating on a pedestal, her butt thrust far out. I hit mute.
“I want to hear!” Mavis said.
“Uh, okay, but this isn’t appropriate,” I said.
“Why Becky not like butts?” she later asked.
“I don’t know. I do know that even if she doesn’t like someone’s butt, she shouldn’t call her names,” I said. Teachable moment or lax parenting? You be the judge.
Then Mix started spitting lyrics: I like big butts and I cannot lie!
I let her hear all about what Sir Mix-A-Lot wants to do with the large-butted ladies of the world, knowing that she had no inkling of the sex references. She’s in that sweet spot where she only sees the things that make sense to her like ladies shaking their butts in the camera and peaches shaped like bottoms.
The next day she danced around singing, “I like big butts and I don’t like lying! I like big butts and I don’t like lying!” A most delightful version of what she calls “The Butt Song.”
Two weeks later she showed no signs of stopping. She could probably recite the entire song if pressed.
Last night as my husband got ready to go out she grabbed his coat and said, “Call 1-900-Mix-A-Lot and kick those nasty thoughts.”
Then she cocked her head, “Mama, what does ‘Call 1-900-Mix-A-Lot and kick those nasty thoughts mean?”
“It means that you can call Sir Mix-A-Lot to talk about butts,” he said.
“Can we do that?”
In my repeated viewings of the video I have created a pro and con list in my head, which I would like to time travel and present at the First Riot Grrrl Convention:
|General counteraction of snotty Becky’s claims that the black woman is gross and “a prostitute” and “so black.”||Replaces one ideal body type with another ideal body type instead of appreciating all body types and humanity of women in general.|
|“Shake that healthy butt”—Who doesn’t love a healthy butt?||“You can do side bends or sit-ups, but please don’t lose that butt”—Sir, I am not doing side bends or sit-ups for your benefit but rather to be a healthy lady.|
|“My anaconda don’t want none, unless you got buns, hon”—Sexist or not: hilarious.||Emphasis on sex and wanting to sex up the healthy-butted ladies. I don’t think finding sex partners is the problem for large-and-in-charge ladies, but rather finding romantic partners and acceptance of their bodies. Although I concede that sex is a part of rap and rock music. The saying isn’t “Respect, drugs and rock n roll.”|
|All the butt imagery in fruits and the butt that Mix perches on while rapping.|
|“Well, Cosmo says you’re fat, I ain’t down with that.” Me neither.|
In sum total, while Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” is generally problematic in its emphasis on objectification of the female body, it’s also freaking funny and I can’t help loving it in a Joan Jett “I hate myself for loving you” way. (Picture me saying this sentence while pointing to a pie chart in the shape of a lush booty showing the relative merits and drawbacks of the song.) How many papers about the intersection of gender and race did the song birth? Academia thanks Sir Mix-A-Lot for the material.
Mavis’s love of “The Butt Song” shows no signs of stopping. I am growing tired of the song and how it runs through my head constantly. I asked if we could try another song, maybe some Missy Elliott. She refused.
“Maybe you should write Sir Mix-A-Lot a letter and tell him your daughter likes the song and he should write more songs about butts,” Mavis suggested.
I fear Mix would reply that this song was not intended for four-year-olds. I don’t think I could handle parent-shaming from a 90s hip-hop icon. Not-being-feminist-enough shaming from 90s proto-Riot Grrrls? That’s more my speed.