Amber Rose set the Internet on fire over the weekend when she uploaded a video of herself twerking to celebrate her husband Wiz Khalifa’s album hitting number one on the Billboard 200. The video was shared on her Instagram account, where she is seen practicing flawless butt cheek isolation and then a twerk so effortless that it defies the laws of physics. Some of us shamelessly hit “replay” up to 20 times and screamed “yassss!” But not everyone. No, there are those among us who see a woman twerking and rather than celebrating her body and agency would prefer to denigrate her and call her names. Mainly, “ho.” I have some thoughts about this.
Amber Rose and women like her disrupt everything we have been taught about the Madonna-whore dichotomy. There are two kinds of women, we are taught: women who are pure and good, wives and mothers on the pedestal of femininity; and there are the other women, the whores, the sluts, the strippers. You are either one or the other, we are taught, and we, women, grow up believing it: setting ourselves up against other women in a desperate effort to delineate between us and them, bashing other women’s sexual agency in a pathetic bargain with patriarchy with the hopes that by calling her a whore, we will remain safely in the Madonna camp. We learn, eventually (some later than others), that actually there is no protection from being called a whore in a world built on the denigration of women: you can be fat or thin, black or white, virgin or not, straight or not, wearing clothes or not, and still be called a whore. Any one of us is at risk of being labeled such at any moment: in the instant it takes for a rumor to start or a kiss to be delivered, in the three and a half minutes it takes for a song to play and our booties to shake, we can be removed from good girl to bad, never to return.
Navigating Madonna-whore territory is a one-way street, you see, and that’s where the often said “Can’t turn a ho into a housewife” comes into play: a ho, once a ho, can never be anything but. I think many people use this phrase thinking they’re communicating something about “hos'” behavior: that once married she will continue to behave as a ho, cheating on her man or whatever it is that people who use this phrase with a straight face imagine “hos” as doing. But I think it actually says something more about the trajectory of the perception of women’s sexual identities: not that she will continue to do “ho shit,” but that once seen as a ho, one will always be seen as a ho. It says something about perception, and also about reputation. Once I (whoever “I” may be) perceives a woman as unworthy of respect, then her inhumanity is permanent, a systematic erasure of worth in which one by one, woman by woman, all of us lose our humanity over time: with every rape, every short skirt, every leaked photo, every rumored blowjob, every former stripping career, with every incident where patriarchy and its many, many gazes deems us no longer worthy of respect, we are no longer worthy of having one toe in the Madonna camp. We are delegated to whore, and with every one of these things, we are stripped, demoted, erased.
And it is a demotion, a permanent one. It truly is a one-way street: once labeled “ho,” it seems, we can never come back. Ho cannot become housewife, but housewife can certainly become ho, knocked off the pedestal of approved sexual agency and expression, infants be damned, marriages be damned. We saw this recently with Beyoncé, who after the VMAs was criticized for her sometimes “provocative” dancing while Blue Ivy watched from the audience. “What is she teaching her daughter?” some asked, pearls tightly clutched. I would answer, “Agency. Independence. Talent.” But others, it would seem, say watching her mother dance and sing in front of millions — while making millions — is teaching Blue not to respect and value her body. Even when married and a mother — the supposed safeguards against being called a whore — Beyoncé’s “goodness” and motherhood are called into question. Much of this is because Beyoncé is a black woman: black motherhood is constantly under attack by racists and White Feminists alike. But the attacks on Amber Rose’s parenthood seem more of an afterthought to the attacks on her sexuality as a whole. The fact that she was once a stripper draws the misogynist gatekeepers to her like sharks to blood in water: something about the fact that she’s married with a child (Madonna characteristics) but still twerking (“whore” characteristics) sets teeth to gnashing.
One thing about Amber Rose and Wiz Khalifa is how happy they seem. He’s kissing her bald head. He’s holding her hand. He’s bouncing their beautiful, happy baby on his shoulders. Their joy must seem baffling to those bound by the virgin-whore dichotomy. “But she’s a ho,” Twitter stutters. “But she was a stripper,” I’ve seen it said on Facebook. The anger at the idea of a woman who once got naked for money being in a happy, healthy, supportive marriage is palpable. Because at the bottom of all this anger and disbelief is one thing: the belief that certain women don’t deserve to be happy. “Hos” don’t deserve happy endings, right? The one-way street of ho-dom should mean a cul-de-sac of misery, right? She shook her ass on stage and therefore she should be banished to the darkest corners of the world for eternity, husbandless, childless, alone. Right? I’ve even seen sympathy expressed for Wiz: sympathy and derision. “I can’t believe he’s letting her do that.” Letting. Or, “Wiz married a ho…poor guy thought he could turn her around.” The idea that he supports and respects what his wife does with her body — because it’s still hers, after all, marriage did not make her his property — never occurs to them. “Poor guy.” Nothing worse than being married to/dating a ho, as parts of masculinity are still tied up in penetrating virgins and not in sleeping with a woman who has already had sex. Nothing worse. Except forbeing a ho, of course, which is why the sympathy is aimed at Wiz, but the anger is reserved for Amber.
The anger at Amber Rose comes from a place of fear — all hate is fear, at its root — fear of a woman who exists outside of patriarchal parameters. How else can she be controlled? But for women, I also hear the anger coming from a place of envy. We, women, have been carrying the burden of misogyny our entire lives, toeing the line, lying about our “body count,” keeping our sexuality a secret. We’re afraid our happiness might be yanked away at any moment: that one day someone will point their finger and call us a ho and we’ll find ourselves known as the wrong kind of woman, even if we’ve played by the “rules,” kept our legs shut and our hems long. Women who are angry at Amber Rose, eager to call her a whore: are you angry because she dared to twerk on Instagram, or are you angry because she is standing with one foot firmly in the mother-wife camp, and the other in the camp that is half-naked and booty-shaking? Are you angry because she’s doing what should never be done, or are you angry because she’s doing what we should all be allowed to do but feel we cannot?
This isn’t the first time Amber has posted a twerking video. Scroll back through her Instagram and you’ll find it: Amber in a squat wearing a white dress, twerking on her wedding day. Her wedding day. Say what you want: I say it’s glorious. I say it’s glorious the same way I thought it was glorious when Beyoncé transitioned (flawlessly) from shaking her stuff at the VMAs to swaying to her song about her daughter. These women find joy in their bodies — mother, wife, lover, woman. Joy. I think when it comes down to it, it’s their joy that misogyny hates the most. The idea that the stone “ho” has been cast… and it bounced off harmlessly. The fearful word that is designed to control women’s sexuality, keep us from shaking our asses — and the world — into chaos, is slowly losing its power.
It might feel strange for those who have built their worlds on the idea of one-dimensional women without scope and depth: either virgin or whore and nothing in between. There are good mothers, and there are women who jiggle their asses. We have been told that those women are separate, confined to two bodies, never intersecting. This is a lie. Amber is mother and twerk-extraordinaire. Beyoncé is both wife and glorious wiggling goddess. I look at the future and I see a world of women who are both, either, or, and. Women of all, women of any. Women of whatever the fuck we choose, whenever the fuck we choose. Women who shake when we want to shake and the only thing the world has to say is “Yassss.”