Azealia Banks and the Other “F” Word in 2013

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“Faggot means coward, liar, backstabber, energy stealer, blood sucker.” So quoth Azealia Banks on her Twitter this morning, returning to the issue that’s rather overshadowed her music of late: her penchant for fighting with snarky “celebrity blogger” and cultural irrelevance Perez Hilton, and for doing so by throwing around the word “faggot” as liberally as possible. Banks and Hilton were going at it again last night, arguing about… well, something or other, an argument that ended with Banks calling Hilton, yes, an “evil faggot.” So far, so predictable, tiresome, and generally unimpressive.

By this morning Banks was in a more reflective mood, asking her followers what the word “faggot” meant to them, and arguing that “it’s really time for a cultural shift. All these leftover old world social themes we’re all still trying to hold on to are BOOORRIIING.” For all that the whole Banks vs. Hilton spectacle is a depressing sideshow, this is probably a discussion worth having: has the word “faggot” changed its meaning? Has it lost its homophobic undertones, or have they at least been diluted over the years?

This is an argument that has been trotted out more and more often in the last few years, most memorably by Tyler, the Creator — that the word “faggot” is no longer inherently homophobic, and that anyway, it’s just a word, and that if it offends you, well, that’s your problem. So, OK, yes, words certainly evolve over time, their meanings changing with usage and context — otherwise we’d all be sitting here wondering why on earth Banks was calling Hilton a bundle of sticks. Banks’ argument appears to be that the word has lost its homophobic connotations and/or to some extent been reclaimed by the gay community: “Perez tries to get every gay person all riled up when the only faggot I see …….. is him.”

No one’s denying that the word does get used in the LGBT community — a community of which the queer-identified Banks presumably considers herself a part — and gets used in a positive, or at least ironic, manner. Last time the Banks/Hilton feud blew up, for instance, at least one blogger drew attention to the apparent irony of Jake Shears condemning Banks’ use of “faggot” when he’d used that very word in one of his own songs: “Sure, the context is different, but he’s still choosing to propagate the ugly and hurtful word himself (even if it’s under the guise of ‘reclaiming’ the word).”

Ah, but context is everything, isn’t it? Let’s look at how Shears used the word, in the song “Step Aside The Man”: “I’m free as hell/ To be a cornpone faggot/ Dressing really really well/ In my big black boots/ And my denim Daisy Dukes/ I got my bleached blond hair/ And my leather underwear.” This isn’t exactly a portrait of a word that’s lost its gay connotations. But it may well be that to a younger generation of LGBT people, the word has lost some of its negative connotations — Shears is certainly celebrating gay stereotypes, rather than bashing them, with that particular lyric.

But either way, let’s be honest: in the culture at large, the word means exactly what it’s meant for the last 100 years or so. It hasn’t magically become a term on a par with “dickhead” or “fool” or whatever else. It’s a word that continues to connote effeminacy, weakness, slyness, unmanliness, and all the other stereotypes that have been thrown at gay men since time immemorial. Yes, it can certainly be used in a positive sense as a way of reclaiming and celebrating these stereotypes (as is argued here, for instance.) But conversely, used in a pejorative sense, the word uses those stereotypes as insults and slurs. In this respect, it’s like a more intensified version of the word “gay” — it’s not necessarily inherently homophobic (although certainly always more fraught with judgment than the latter), but used as an insult, it totally is.

This is a key point. People like to argue these days that the word doesn’t literally mean “gay” any more — see here, for instance, wherein comedic also-ran Joe Rogan argues, “It’s about a guy wimping out, being a douchebag… it has nothing to do with your sexual orientation.” But hey, listen to that language: wimping out. Being a douchebag. Where do those stereotypes come from? The fact that to a younger generation of schoolyard bullies, “faggot” may not directly mean “homosexual” doesn’t make a blind bit of difference in the long run: the fact that it may or may not have lost its literal connotation of gayness doesn’t mean it’s lost its inherent homophobia, because it’s still using gay stereotypes as sticks with which to beat people.

In this respect, it’s the same as a slur so potentially hurtful and inflammatory that polite society tends to refer to it only as “the N-word,” a parallel that Banks herself drew with another tweet this morning: “Why,” she asked, “has society accepted ‘nigger’ As a colloquialism … But will not accept ‘faggot’?” Well, for a start, her premise is kinda flawed — the former word (or, more likely, its subtly different counterpart, “nigga”) isn’t accepted by “society” as a whole, and nor should it be. It’s accepted by some subsets of the black community, but again, this is a matter of context — your correspondent, as a white man, wouldn’t dream of using the word in casual conversation. Similarly, “faggot” might get accepted by the gay community, but that’s entirely up to them. And Azealia Banks is a bisexual woman, not a gay man.

Banks’ conflation of race with sexuality here is interesting, mind — not long after her first run-in with Hilton, a blog called Crunk Feminist Collective ran an article by Edward Ndopu, arguing that “the Azealia Banks/Perez Hilton debacle has absolutely nothing to do with right and everything to do with white gay cis male privilege.” Ndopu argued that “the Banks/Hilton feud had absolutely nothing to do with sexual identity (read: homophobia), but rather, gender power dynamics (read: femmephobia).”

But why must it be one or the other? It has to do with both, and the fact that Hilton has built a career out of being a bullying narcissist doesn’t mean that Banks gets a free pass here. The thing about her use of the word in these interminable spats with Hilton is that they’re ultimately arguing that he has no right to an opinion because he’s an effeminate, bitchy gay man. She’d be better served by pointing out something that really is a universal truth: he has no right to an opinion because he’s a narcissistic, busybody pillock who should keep his nose out of other people’s business. Who he does or doesn’t sleep with has nothing to do with it.

By the end of the morning, Banks seemed to have realized she was reaching a dead end with this topic, retreating into the time-honored First Amendment argument: “You give me free speech and then tell me what I can and cannot say???” But no one is denying Banks the right to shoot her mouth off until the cows come home. The quid pro quo of free speech is that other people are entirely free to call you out on the things you say. Her last tweet on the subject was perhaps even more revealing: “We are all entitled to our own truths :)”.

But we’re not, are we? Azealia Banks doesn’t get to unilaterally decide that the word “faggot” is no longer offensive. Not while the number of hate crimes against LGBT people is still rising year on year. Not while kids get called “faggots” for being small or weak or bad at sports — or, yes, for being gay. Not while some of those kids kill themselves. We may be making strides against homophobia, but we don’t live in a world free of it, any more than we live in one free of racism or any of the other petty hatreds in which humanity seems to specialize. If Azealia Banks really wants to use her free speech in a positive way, we suggest she does so by not throwing fuel on a fire that never really stopped burning.