The Politics of ‘Thot’-dom & ‘Heaux’-ism
An intersectional analysis of black
femme archetypes and its pop culture representations in the 21st century
by Ijeoma Opara
What does it mean to be sexually liberated as a woman (1)? From an intersectional perspective, there are layers to understanding who is allowed to be expressive, and the different reactions from society when different types of women express themselves. Intersectionality in this regard is a consideration of the cultural and social structures that affect the content of stereotypes, and not a prediction about the specific details of such stereotypes. If we are aware of the history behind cultural socializations that inform and shape sexual behaviour, what do media representations of sexual liberation in pop culture and broader society imply? Do they act as a counter-narrative or enable archaic racialised, gendered stereotypes for women? And with all this in mind, what constitutes as feminist resistance?
History of the word ‘Thot’:
This archetype is linked to Black women who are considered to have many casual sexual encounters or relationships (Glass, 2018). It is an abbreviation for the term “that hoe over there” and “thirsty hoes out there.” Thots refer to women who supposedly pretend to be valuable female commodities, rightfully earning male commitment — until the man discovers that she’s just a cheap imitation of a “good girl” who is good only for mindless sex, and not relationships or respect. Based on this definition, one could say that being a thot is the ontological expression of being a hoe.
Origins of The Madonna/Whore Complex:
Parallel to this, the ideal representation of women is rooted in purity culture, which dictates that sexual expression for a woman must be passive and/or non-existent to be deemed worthy of a man. Overarching (binary) gender stereotypes of what’s expected from women are often conflated with whiteness. Attributes of being seen as dependent, emotional and passive are associated with constructions of white femininity, as opposed to negative attributes like dirty, hostile and superstitious being associated with black and lower-class women (Ghavami and Peplau, 2012). This is important when we consider that the terms ‘thot/hoe’ and ‘whore/slut’ are informed by two different environmental factors. Thot/hoe is a specific archetype used to describe black women that has been appropriated on a larger scale due to the Black American lexicon’s influence in media and pop culture. According to Ghavami and Peplau (2012), this racialised distinction is evident in media:
“ …research on media representations documents that television shows, advertisements, and movies often depict White women in traditionally feminine ways such as attractive, friendly, and emotionally dependent (e.g., Coltrane & Messineo, 2000; Licata & Biswas, 1993). In contrast, women from other ethnic groups are often portrayed in ways that deviate from traditional stereotypes of women (Ginorio, Gutierrez, Cauce & Acosta, 1995; Root, 1995).”
Due to intersecting racial and gender identity, Black women are characterised by stigmatizing race-based sexual stereotypes (RBSS) that contribute to disproportionately high rates of adverse sexual and reproductive outcomes. This shapes black women’s behaviours, and the sexual scripts that they follow. What the study found was that due to RBSS, black women in the study adopted traditional gender stereotypes as a form of social self-preservation. They jeopardised their sexual well-being to affirm themselves in social areas that encouraged unprotected sex and relationships with men who have multiple sex partners. The social and cultural factors that influence black women’s power in maintaining and improving their sexual health are influenced by RBSS, along with how black women also view themselves. Patriarchy has historically forced women into nuclear relationships in order to have access to money, land and security — and it still holds today.
Real Hot Girl Feminism:
In rapper Meg Thee Stallion’s own words describing the meaning behind her latest single titled “Thot Sh*t”, she explained that using the term ‘thot’ is a reclamation of terms used to describe women, i.e. ‘hoe’, ‘thot’. To reclaim is to be confident, to be yourself, and to love yourself — this is in line with Meg’s alter ego Tina Snow, who is very much about being unapologetically raw in her demeanour. This reflects how black women artists use a set of characters that allows them to benefit from exercising varying levels of artistic expression through reclaimed agency, without the limitations of respectability politics. But does there need to be an ascribed end goal value in trying to understand what sexual liberation looks like for women? Even though Meg creates a persona that still appeals to the male gaze, the ability to control what is being perceived still creates an imbalance in traditional power structures, where previously men would solely control the images of women in the music industry. Meg, like many of her contemporary counterparts, are not seeking approval, and through self-validation in their choice of artistic expression, is involved in the act of “smashing the patriarchy”. By reproducing thot aesthetics, reclaimed sexual agency and lack of adherence to respectability politics creates a newer version of feminism. Although feminist scholars may question the validity of such a claim, its existence in of itself has its own school of thought, through non-academic discourse in pop culture and non-academic spaces.
Counterarguments would state that although the archetype of a thot has been reclaimed to mean something different, the term is still influenced by the male gaze and patriarchal expectations of femme performativity placed on women. By wanting to be commercially successful, but without being too radical in practice, representation acts as a tool for liberation without doing anything radical in nature. And this is not unique to Meg the Stallion, and nor should the burden of this question be placed on one black artist. The appropriation of black femme archetypes has long worked its way into mainstream media and culture and is not only used to counter respectability politics but used as a social currency. Because of this, the reliance on the image of sexually empowered black women in mainstream culture and media falls within a larger conversation of this being a function within the market economy. So, despite the black femme archetype being the opposite of respectability politics, as a social currency it fuels the maintained standards and norms perpetuated in mass media and the industry at large. In other words, the performance of these archetypes, despite the historical context of its dysfunction, now acts as a contemporary function of expression. Through neoliberal capitalism one can commodify experiences as a product, and now everyone can have a Hot Girl Summer if they want to. Of course, this is layered when one considers that despite being the cultural blueprint for such trends, black women still face economic disparities in acknowledgement compared to their industry counterparts and will work twice as hard to earn the same level of recognition. Beyoncé’s critically acclaimed 2016 album Lemonade was widely recognised as a cultural shift, and despite this, lost the Grammy Award of Album Of The Year to Adele, who herself acknowledged Lemonade deserved the win more.
Despite femininity for black women being perceived as non-normative and masculine compared to other groups of women, the thot/hoe archetype has heavily influenced contemporary pop culture standards of beauty, popular vernacular and lifestyles. The ability to act outside of non-normative feminine ideals creates a space where black women create their own forms of sexual expression; whether this is an act of resistance or not is subjective, as black bodies have the right to seek empowerment through their own interpretation. In contrast to this, white women can navigate different spaces of expression in order to fulfil their own gendered desires to fit in, because they encompass the historical (and contemporary) ideals of femininity. This is because they can still be seen as the epitome of femininity while being able to appropriate or literally think they are black women and get away with it (shoutout to Rachel Dolezal). This is done without needing to self-reflect on the consequences, because appropriation of such archetypes allows them to benefit in ways that black and NBPOC (non-black people of colour) women would not be able to, despite being the source of the original archetypes being copied (2). This is because being a thot versus embodying aspects of the thot archetype for personal gain mean different things. Intersectional feminism informs us of how women experience oppression differently and encourages us to remain aware of the additional labour black women experience when attempting to challenge patriarchal standards in society. Resisting over-lapping racialised and gendered norms is a task that requires us all to be cognizant of the ways in which desirability politics, dated feminine ideals and stereotypes inform not only our current understanding and expression of sexuality, but the way society labels and deems certain groups more worthy of humanity than others.
So whether or not twerking is meant to be empowering, an attempt to dismantle capitalism or as a form of social currency for my individual upliftment is not my concern. I’m just here to shake my ass and live life, dammit.
- The use and spelling of the word ‘woman’ is used to represent those beyond the cis-gendered definition, and includes transgendered, non-binary people that identify as woman and/or femme.
- White people within the LGBTQIA community have also been criticized for adopting black caricatures in order to have successful careers, but that is another article for another day.
Bond, K.T., Leblanc, N.M., Williams, P., Gabriel, C.-A. & Amutah-Onukagha, N.N. 2021. Race- Based Sexual Stereotypes, Gendered Racism, and Sexual Decision Making Among Young Black Cisgender Women. Health education & behavior. 48(3): 295–305.