On a recent episode of the breakout Fox series “Empire,” hip-hop scion Hakeem Lyon is not handling his business. He’s so jealous over his girlfriend’s cheating ways that he can’t focus on his music, and patriarch Lucious Lyon, actor Terrence Howard, berates him.
“Can you afford to waste any precious time,” Lucious asks incredulously, “especially over a ‘thot’?”
Social media was all over the moment.
“Did Terrence Howard say ‘thot’ on TV?! I’m out,” someone tweeted.
“Can they stop saying ‘thot’? It makes my skin crawl,” wrote someone else.
“Tomorrow morning Vogue will declare 2015 as the year of the THOT. Thanks,” another posted.
Consensus: “Empire” was “teaching America the lingo.”
I was already hip to the reference, but just barely.
In January, I’d had an exchange with a friend where I’d used “thot” in the subject line of an e-mail, as in: “What is your thot about history?”
“You probably shouldn’t be spelling ‘thought’ like that,” came the reply. “People might get the wrong idea.”
I thought he was saying people might think I couldn’t spell.
Then he sent me a link to an article on thefeministwire.com, and I realized he was saying that thot was part of roiling debate about the complicated topography of black women’s sexual agency and a proxy for related discussions about aspirational class status, side-chicking and other outskirts of heteronormativity.
And here I’d just been looking to shorten my keystrokes.
Originally standing for “that ho over there,” the word gained widespread traction last year but dates to 2012. It has been in a dozen or more rap songs, including Chevralet’s “The Thot Song,” Moon’s “Thot 101” and Chief Keef’s “She a Thot.” It’s slut-shaming, with added derision for being working class. In Internet pictures and memes, a thot gets ignored if she tries to speak to you in public (outside a sexual encounter), and smacked if she tries to kiss you.
“Let me be clear, I hate the word,” says Treva Lindsey, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University. “It’s deeply, deeply misogynistic,” labeling women for sexual behaviors outside marriage that men routinely engage in. It derides women for prosaic choices in what they wear, where they shop — for looking as if they’re trying to transcend their working- or middle-class status. As the Game puts it in “T.H.O.T.”: “She a Coach bag b---- but she follow Chanel.”
On some level, it’s remarkable how a word moves “from a black community in Chicago and now you’re hearing about it on one of the most-watched television shows in the nation,” Lindsey says. Its use is almost a case study of the power and reach of black vernacular culture, arguably the primary driver of American popular culture.
As Beat poet Jack Kerouac waxed in his seminal memoir, “On the Road,” I walked “the Denver colored section wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”
But it also points to a darker aspect of black creativity when it comes to pop culture — it’s catchy, it’s rhythmic, it’s elastic enough to fit in small conversational spaces, it’s funny.
It also often comes at the expense of black women. It heralds from the same tradition as the jokes that say your momma’s so fat or your momma’s so ugly, Lindsey points out.
You can definitely play with it with jokes — like here’s a thot — Lindsey says. “At the same time, it moves through the culture without substantive critiques by a lot of folks.”
Like men, who presumably have mamas, and wives and little baby sisters whom they wouldn’t want called thots. And women, who gleefully, unreflectively celebrate the wordplay without bothering about the corrosive ways these images damage women in society, and how that might play out politically. Or on the streets, and in clubs, and in dorm rooms.
The celebration of brilliance with black women as the butt of the joke is what author and cultural critic Joan Morgan, known as the mother of hip-hop feminism, referred to in her groundbreaking 2000 book, “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost”:
“Racism and the will to survive it creates a sense of intra-racial loyalty that makes it impossible for black women to turn our backs on black men — even in their ugliest and most sexist of moments. I needed a feminism that would allow us to continue loving ourselves and the brothers who hurt us without letting race loyalty buy us early tombstones.”
Of course, I wasn’t trying to get into all that when I typed a loaded word into the subject line of an e-mail.
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.