I would be lying if I said that J. Lo’s “Ain’t Your Mama” isn’t exactly the kind of bass-thumping, foot-stomping, YASS-inducing summer jam that I have all intentions of blasting loudly as I drive down the shore this July. And although this fact makes me feel like a terrible feminist, I find solace in Roxane Gay’s admission that she can still “dance her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible”.
But the suggestion that “Ain’t Your Mama” has begun some kind of “female revolution” is extremely troublesome.
The song itself is rife with pop-feminism: the kind of feminism that Taylor Swift touts self-indulgently on Instagram, while strutting around with her extremely exclusive girl group and suggesting to young girls that she and her tall leggy counterparts are somehow the norm or accessible. This pop-feminism, grounded in capitalism, privilege, and celebrity, while attempting to bring important issues into the public sphere, continues to fall short over and over again. Pop-feminism is, simply, based in shallow pseudo-feminist ideas.
Lopez’s video begins with a painfully acted scene in which she is admonishing a boyfriend at a payphone and proceeds to go back to her job as a news anchor to tell women to “get mad”.
What Lopez doesn’t make clear is what, exactly, are we getting mad about? Her use of, not so much radical as accessible, quotes from famous women like Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton do little to clarify the link between Lopez being mad at her boyfriend and why women, as a population, should also be “mad”. The suggestion is shallow, and allows women to feel that getting “mad” about an annoying boyfriend or boss is equivalent to being exasperated about the real issues of feminism: the wage gap, sex trafficking, domestic violence, genital mutilation, rape culture, LGBTQIA rights, and actually inclusive gender equality in all public and private spheres.
Simply being “mad” at a man does not make you a feminist.
The video and song continue in these baseless and tired stereotypes of men and women alike. The entire backbone of the song hinges upon the idea that women, all hetero-women in fact, are tired of being “mama”s to their boyfriends. They are tired of cooking, cleaning, and “doing yo’ laundry.” The men are also presented in cookie-cutter ways: the uninterested husband, the sexist boss, and boyfriends who “play videogames”. The suggestion that men are children and that women shouldn’t have to take care of them is precisely the kind of anti-feminist rhetoric that is preventing an important civil rights and social movement from moving forward authentically.
Just like fad paleo diets and the idiots who lose a spleen trying to do Crossfit lifts made for professional body-builders, pop-feminism has become just another bandwagon to jump on. While the rising public interest in feminism is great, we must be critical of what kind of feminism is really being learned. When hyper-rich celebrities like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lopez are the ones producing the “feminist” messages that are heard around the world, well-versed feminists shudder at the irony that is vapid celebrities attempting (poorly) to engage critically in important social reform.
This is not to say all feminist celebrities are vapid and feminism-illiterate: people like Geena Davis, Emma Watson, and Matt McGorry, for example, are using their celebrity status and privilege to do a lot of well-versed and invaluable feminist work. Unfortunately, without all the shimmer and shine that stars like Swift and Lopez bring to the table, well-versed feminist work is often overshadowed by pop glitz and glamour.
Which is why we have a larger cultural responsibility to critically analyze media that is so easily and rapidly consumed. It is hard to excuse Lopez’s song as simply entertainment fluff. If Lopez did not intend to send a larger message, she would not have included quotes from influential women, or use decade clothing cliches to imply that this “mama” problem has been happening for a long time, honey. It feels an awful lot like Lopez is trying to jump on the coattails of Beyonce’s influential and intersectional anthems from Lemonade. While Lemonade also faces important cultural critiques from influential feminist scholars, as far as feminism goes, “Ain’t Your Mama” ain’t anywhere near the cultural relevance of Lemonade.
And thus we must consider the following: what will we do when young hetero-girls think that they have a responsibility, in the name of female empowerment and independence, to shun the men they are trying to build relationships with because they don’t want to “be [his] mama”? And what will young hetero-men think when they hear songs that continue to suggest that, not only are they childish, but women don’t need, or want, them and can do everything just fine without them, thank-you-very-much? What will hetero-relationships look like when they are full of resentment from both sides: women assuming men need a “mama” and refusing to be one, and men continually being perceived as, at best, childish and, at worst, unnecessary? These are destructive messages to send, especially to the young people consuming this media passively.
I am not saying that young girls shouldn’t have the confidence to be independent and do things on their own, or that they should stay in relationships that are unfulfilling. But sometimes, we all need a “mama”. “Mama”s play an important role in every person’s development – we associate “mamas” with comfort and unconditional love. Why should these be things we should refuse to give to partners in a shallow attempt at independence? It’s nice to share the responsibility of laundry when you and your partner are both tired from work. It’s nice to share in cooking dinner for each other after a long day because one or the other is just not feeling like cooking tonight. These are the tenets of a long-lasting and fulfilling relationship: shared responsibilities, give and take. Some days we may feel like giving, and some days we may feel like taking.
Hetero men and women should share in the work of being each other’s “mama” from time to time. Unlike Lopez’s suggestion, a relationship is a two way street where mutual respect and shared responsibility is an expectation from both sides. We can’t just refuse to give any of these things to our partner because we are, somehow, “too good for that”.