I’ve always had trouble conjuring up the childlike excitement that is supposed to characterize spring weekend. Perhaps this is why, as Kendrick Lamar’s “Pussy and Patrón” echoed across the main green, I was thinking about, not pussy or Patrón, but Louis Althusser’s theory of interpellation.
To be “interpellated” is to assume the identity that someone else, or society at large, assigns you. According to Althusser, this can take the form of a police officer yelling, “Hey, you!” and the addressee assuming the role of a trespasser. According to Judith Butler, it can take the form of a doctor’s announcement of “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” During Spring Weekend 2013, it took the form of Kendrick Lamar prompting his audience to repeat, “pussy and Patrón make you feel alright.”
I’ve noticed artists in concert do this a lot: repeat the refrain several times and then become silent, cuing the audience to shout it in their place (often leading to awkwardness when the audience doesn’t actually know the lyrics). By doing so, they ask audience members to step into their position. They write the script, and we recite it.
Because normal people (as opposed to incessantly critical people like me) aren’t there to theorize on the power dynamics imbricated in the hip-hop performance, they will shout along with the artist. Men and women alike participate, even when male artists spew misogynistic lyrics. This practice gives the performer the power to literally put words in our mouths — even words that are used against us.
This may seem insignificant — nobody actually means it when they sing along to songs, some might argue. But regardless of whether or not we mean it, we are engaging in a form of role-playing. Repetition is a performance that allows us to assume another’s perspective. In fact, certain schools of acting advocate exercises in which two actors sit in front of each other, repeating the same phrase back and forth, leading them to empathize and experience the meanings of the words. When women repeat male-centered lyrics, they are doing what everyone in our society is interpellated to do: to take the “male” perspective.
Last weekend, our campus was interpellated into the perspective of someone who enjoys “pussy” as a pastime. Let’s unpack this message, shall we? In the line “pussy and Patrón make you feel alright,” Lamar verbally detaches the pussy from the rest of the body, neglecting the fact that it belongs to a person. He makes it a means for a man’s pleasure, put on the same level as an alcoholic beverage.
Even worse, during the 2010 Spring Weekend, Wale announced: “Pretty girls, clap your hands like this! Ugly girls, stay quiet!” This time, the artist was generous enough to let girls choose what group they were interpellated into: we got to be “pretty girls” or “ugly girls.” Snoop Dogg similarly gave us the option of being “good girls,” “bad girls,” or “good girls who want to go bad.” How thoughtful of them. Except that these alternatives all exist in relation to how a man evaluates us and how we fit into his fantasies.
This unbalanced perspective-taking has large-scale consequences. It contributes to a culture in which “human” is synonymous with “man” and news stories abound with men who don’t treat women as humans; a culture in which lesbianism is fetishized while gay male sexuality is considered disgusting because women are constructed as sex objects; a culture in which female masculinity is more acceptable than male femininity and little girls consume stories with male protagonists more so than vice versa. In short, a culture in which everyone, male or female, is encouraged to take the “male” perspective. Laura Mulvey went as far as to say that a woman learns to enjoy male-centered media through a “transition out of her own sex into another.” After repeated exposure to media with these effects, it becomes natural for both women and men to take — and value — the “male” perspective that we are interpellated into time and time again.
Through interpellation, “ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects,” Althusser writes (and excessively punctuates). Every individual is influenced by interpellatory speech, whether we realize it or not, but we have some control over what we allow to interpellate us. This is why I refuse to respond as a pretty girl, an ugly girl, a good girl, a bad girl, or even a dude who seeks out body parts presumably attached to girls. Unless, by “pussy,” Lamar means his cat — in which case, that’s awesome, and I take it all back.