MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we go behind closed doors. Now this is the part of the program where we talk about issues that people usually keep private. Today, though, we want to talk about something that kind of straddles the border between public and private. And that is the increasingly open debate about how the sexuality of girls and women is both being displayed and being discussed.
And this is probably a good place to say that you might consider this a sensitive issue because of the subject matter and the language that we plan to use. And this is on our radar in part because "Parks and Recreation" actress Rashida Jones recently got social media going with her Twitter takedown of a number of female pop stars for their hypersexual performances. On Twitter, she called on these stars to, in the words of her hashtag, quote, stop acting like whores. And that in turn set off a brouhaha over when, and indeed whether, it's ever OK to call out other women or girls for their sexuality or their perceived sexuality because of their dress or behavior. It turns out that even very young girls have been targeted by comments on the Twitter #FastTailedGirls. We wanted to talk about all this - the controversy on Twitter and beyond - so we've called Mikki Kendall. She helped start the #FastTailedGirls. Mikki, thanks so much for joining us once again.
MIKKI KENDALL: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Also with us is Prachi Gupta of Salon.com. She's written about Rashida Jones' comments and the feminist debate over so-called slut shaming. Prachi, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
PRACHI GUPTA: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: And back with us, Keli Goff, correspondent for TheRoot.com and columnist for The Daily Beast. She often writes about these issues. Keli, welcome back to you.
KELI GOFF: Good to be back.
MARTIN: So, Mikki, let me start with you because you started the #FastTailedGirls. And why did you start it, and what are some of the striking conversations that you've had through the hashtag?
KENDALL: I started the hashtag because I was one of the fast tailed girls. And it didn't really matter what we were doing - if we were hanging around boys, if we were wearing skirts, if we were just tomboys - you got a lot of that growing up.
MARTIN: What is a fast-tail girl?
KENDALL: And we've had a lot of conversations...
MARTIN: Can I start with you? What is a fast-tail girl? Maybe everybody hasn't heard that expression.
KENDALL: OK. Fast-tailed girl, at least in the African-American community, is often used to refer to a girl who is theoretically sexually promiscuous in some way or may be sexually promiscuous. Girls are called - especially like with the R. Kelly case - girls were called fast. They're supposed to fast-tailed. And what it really means is that they are asking for it. They are seeking sex in an inappropriate way.
MARTIN: And what are you trying to accomplish with the hashtag, to sort of - to blow that up or to sort of get people to stop using that expression or what?
KENDALL: I wanted to blow up the idea that - we say boys will be boys, but women, young girls and young women, are suddenly supposed to be so demure, so pure. And we send the message that boys can do whatever they want, but girls are dirty if they explore their sexuality.
MARTIN: Now, Keli...
KENDALL: And there's something really intrinsically wrong with that.
MARTIN: OK, double standard.
MARTIN: OK. Keli, now you wrote about the fact that - you know, you said that you liked what Rashida Jones had to say. And for people who aren't familiar with what she had to say - I mean, one of the things that you pointed out is that it's actually a fairly nuanced message that she is offering. You're saying - for example, she wrote, you know, she started with her Twitter comment, that got a kind of a response.
And then she offered a lengthier explanation in an op-ed in Glamour magazine. And she says that she would never point a finger at a woman for her actual sexual behavior. She thinks that all women have the right to express their desires. She argues this isn't showing female sexuality. This is showing what it looks like when women sell sex. And she argues that her problem is that this is becoming the norm. If you're not - the norm - particularly in pop culture, if you're not showing skin it's almost like you're not even allowed to be there. Keli, take it from there.
GOFF: Yeah, it sort of like, a bit, reminded me of the analogy, Michel, of all of those so-called gangster rappers who were talking about, like, living hard and shooting up people and slinging rock. And then it turned out that a lot of them went to prep schools. And that's kind of the argument I felt that she was making here, which is it's one thing if you're saying I'm a sexual being, I own being a sexual being and that's my right.
It's another when you're sort of perpetrating this farcical image to the little girls who look up to you simply to make a buck and simply because a man is essentially asking you to do that at a record label. The other thing, though, I want to say - 'cause I think it's a hugely important distinction in this whole conversation - is girls are completely off limits. A child is not someone who can ask for it, who is a sexual being, who is promoting her sexuality. There are women who can say I'm a sexual being who's promoting my sexuality, and I am trying to get attention from a man. But no 13-year-old girl does that. I just want to make sure that that was on the record - that we really are talking about two separate groups because the whole Roman Polanski thing is something I've written about a lot.
And it really enrages me that there are still people to this day who say that that girl was very, you know, sexual and promiscuous and flirtatious. No, a 13-year-old doesn't get to be that. There are 27-year-old women who can be that, but a 13-year-old girl is never that and should never be called a fast tailed girl.
MARTIN: Just for clarity, for people who don't know what you're talking about - 'cause this is before some people's time - Roman Polanski is this very, obviously, famous film director who left the country because he was about to be prosecuted for having sex with a 13-year-old girl. And what you're saying is to this day, there are people who defend him saying that, you know, she was old before her time or, you know, a woman in a girl's body. And you're saying no, no to that.
GOFF: Absolutely, no.
MARTIN: OK. So, Prachi, what about you, though? You also wrote kind of a response to Rashida Jones. You are not a fan.
GUPTA: I am a fan of Rashida Jones, but I would say that I think that female sexuality has traditionally only been seen through the male perspective and sexiness has largely been defined by men. But I think that for women to reclaim our own sexuality, we have to have a full range of choice and - without feeling shame for those choices.
And I think it goes back to - I agree with Keli and the distinction of fast tailed girls and that we're not talking about girls right now. We're talking about women. But I do think that putting a judgment on it, saying, stop acting like whores, is saying that they're - we're treating them as lesser people.
MARTIN: So you're saying...
MARTIN: Hold on, let me just get Prachi's point here. So are you arguing that there is no instance in which anybody should criticize a woman for her - the way she presents herself, there is no - that is inherently wrong, inherently misogynistic and - is that what you're saying? Is that what you're arguing?
GUPTA: I think that we can have intelligent discussion about sexuality and the way that women present themselves. But I think that the term - the specific term whore has a lot of moral judgment, and Rashida Jones' piece had a lot of moral judgment that went along with it.
MARTIN: But what I'm asking you, though, is there - are you saying that there is no instance in which moral judgment should be made? When it comes to adults - let's take kids off the table - when it comes to adults, you don't think there is any instance in which moral judgment should be made?
GUPTA: I don't think that - I think it's ultimately a woman's choice to make that decision if she really wants to, and I don't think that that should be - she should be shamed for doing that.
MARTIN: ...Keli? Keli, go ahead.
GOFF: But this is actually is why I loved Rashida's piece so much is because I thought she made a very nuanced but important point, which is that privately you have the right to be whoever you want to be, to do what you want to do. But when there are cultural, larger societal implications for what you do, that's when we get to judge it. So for me, for instance, one of the reasons I'm critical of - you know, I've written about this and I always get in trouble, of high profile celebrities who becomes basketball wives and baby mamas - is because that sends a message to a young poor girl that it's really easy to be a single mom when it's not.
And the same kind of goes for this sexuality argument, which is there's nothing wrong with if you want to, you know, get your groove on in private. But when Miley Cyrus is sending that message publicly, there are 15-year-old girls who aren't learning about contraceptive, who aren't learning about STDs. They're simply saying this is the way to get ahead, and props to Miley. And that's why I love that Rashida called out and said it is dangerous and, FYI, you know what, Michel? Some behavior should be judged.
MARTIN: Hold on.
GOFF: Shame is actually not a bad thing, you know, for certain behaviors. And so I'm kind of getting sick of the fact that we live in a society where we say there is absolutely - you want to do as many drugs as you want to do, you want to sleep with as many people unprotected as you want - no judgment. No blame. No shame. It's like, some - it's OK to shame behaviors. What I do have a problem with, though, is the double standard. If you're going to call a girl a whore, then why aren't we calling Lil' Wayne a whore? Because I never hear that, and he's like the world's biggest you-know-what.
MARTIN: I think some people do. But anyway...
KENDALL: Can I...
KENDALL: Can I just leap in here?
MARTIN: Yes, I want to get Mikki back in here. Go ahead.
KENDALL: OK, so a couple things because we seem to be conflating a lot of issues into one big muddle. First of all, when a grown woman chooses to have sex and then we say she's a whore, we are absolutely making a negative value judgment that harms women. We are absolutely harming girls for telling them that when they decide to have sex, however they decide to have sex, whether it be public or private, they're a whore.
Not to mention, we are harming actual sex workers with that language. Whoreaphobia, is a term that we are - should all be familiar with. And if we're not, we can certainly dig into that. Second of all, when we talk about what young girls are seeing in terms of celebrities, I'm sorry. I'm a parent. I have a a 14-year-old son. My 14-year-old son is being raised by me, not by a music video. So it doesn't matter what the TV is saying. It matters what you're saying at home to your children...
MARTIN: Are you sure about that?
KENDALL: ...Whether your children are poor or middle-class or whatever.
GOFF: But you're a good parent.
MARTIN: Wait. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. But if that's the case, then why are we so interested in kind of racial imagery as well? I mean, we're so interested in racial imagery and whether, you know, popular culture, you know, buffoonizes or turns everybody into, you know, kind of a coon show, I mean, if I could use that.
KENDALL: Well, with racial imagery...
MARTIN: Why - why is it OK to call out racial imagery when we think that's stereotypical and leads people to have certain impressions of people, but it's not OK to call out gender imagery, even if it's being perpetuated by people who are of that group, which is the same thing with racial imagery. Don't we say to people like - there are so many. I mean, we just - we don't like the way you're representing the people, right?
KENDALL: Well, and...
MARTIN: That's not OK?
KENDALL: ...You know, that takes us back to a question of, why are we trying to equate race and gender? We're on two separate topics that sometimes intersect but are not the same thing. So when we call out...
MARTIN: But I am asking you the question. So...
KENDALL: Yeah, I know. Yeah.
KENDALL: So what I'm saying is that when we say, well, that image is racist, and we know that racism can actually kill. We know that the racist imagery ties into hate groups and that kind of thing. That's a different conversation from saying that a woman who is having sexual behavior in public, we're not saying - unless we've suddenly decided this - that women being sexy or being sexual leads to murder. It's not the same. It's not the same equation.
MARTIN: What about the health question? The healthy question of whether there's sort of healthy behavior that you would hope people would emulate, and there's unhealthy behavior, which you wish they would not.
KENDALL: I think that that...
MARTIN: That doesn't...
KENDALL: ...That takes us into making sure we teach our kids how to have safer sex. That makes that - you know, because healthy behavior, well, sex is, you know, complicated, and sometimes it's unhealthy and sometimes it's healthy. But can we really go around policing other people's relationship choices?
MARTIN: But can we not talk about it? You're saying there is no instance in which public behavior should be called out or discussed if it speaks to gender. Is that what you're saying?
KENDALL: No. I'm saying that we just have somehow turned our focus onto women and what women are doing. We decide that everything women are doing is for the male gaze, whether it's for the male gaze or not, and instead of talking about what men are doing.
MARTIN: And, Keli, what about...
KENDALL: If we're going to talk about what people are - if we're going to talk about gender, then let's talk about it across the board. You know, we have Nelly with the credit card. And we say, oh, Nelly's so bad - wrist slap, wrist slap, wrist slap - but how dare those girls react to him that way at Spelman.
KENDALL: Not, hey, you have a problem with women.
MARTIN: Now, Keli, how about that? What about...
GOFF: Well, I totally agree. I mean, that was the point I was trying to make about Lil Wayne. And I 100 percent agree. But I don't think the answer is stop judging everyone. I think it's having a more fair and equitable judgment across the board. And that, to me, is what's missing. I mean, the fact that, like I said, Roman Polanski just won an Oscar. What was it? Three years ago he won an Oscar after raping a girl. And yet, he does not get the same critical analysis that, you know, Miley Cyrus has even gotten. I'm not even saying that to be funny.
But if you did the Google searches, you would see that Miley Cyrus got more criticism for her VMA performance than Roman Polanski has gotten in the last few years for raping a girl. That is problematic. It is unfair. It is not right. To me, that doesn't say we stop talking about Miley Cyrus. It says to me, we have to have a bigger, larger, fairer conversation across the board about what these people and images are doing. I mean, Mikki's a great parent. She's an involved parent. My concern is for the kids who don't have that and are being raised by the Miley Cyrus's of the world
MARTIN: Prachi, what about that?
GUPTA: I mean, I think I pretty much agree with what Keli's saying. But I do think that those are two separate conversations. One, it is revealing that, for example, we can have a Robin Thicke song where his lyrics are strongly suggesting date rape be just as popular a news story as Miley Cyrus flashing her tongue and gyrating her hips. But I...
MARTIN: But that was a news story. I mean, that was discussed. That was very much discussed. It was certainly discussed on, you know, Keli's site, on The Daily Beast, and one of the outlets that she writes for. A number of places - there was a lot of discussion on social media about that. And that was part of their argument - part of their argument in defending it. Part of Robin Thicke's argument in defending it, the song and also the video that went with it - is that women should be able to express their sexuality. These are adults. They're doing this freely. What's your problem? So what's your take on that?
GUPTA: Well, I think, ultimately, I mean, he was the one singing the song, and his lyrics were very suggestive of date rape. There weren't women in his song saying that. I think that...
MARTIN: But, I mean, I guess what I'm saying, in terms of double standard, so you're saying that you don't think women should ever be discussed - their sexual kind of expressions should not be judged, but men's sexual expression should be. I mean, let's just - you see what I'm saying? Is that what you're saying?
GUPTA: No, that's not what I'm saying. I do think that women's sexuality should be discussed and talked about. I don't think, though, that women should be shamed. I do think that there are double standards when we talk about male sexuality and female sexuality. For example, when we talk about the pornification of pop stars, as Rashida Jones mentioned, in society, male porn stars are considered gods among men. Female porn stars are still shamed. That goes along with that. There's still a stigma. There's still a stigma for women watching porn, for example.
MARTIN: Wait, wait, Prachi. Excuse me. This is one of those issues where the facts, I think, do matter, which is that female porn starts earn a very great deal more than male porn stars do. I mean, this is something that Susan Faludi, you know, conclusively demonstrated in her reporting on this matter. So, I mean, is that really true? I mean, can you even name a male porn star? Can you name one? I mean...
GUPTA: Yeah, I mean, James Deen...
MARTIN: OK, well. All right.
GUPTA: ...Is a pretty famous one.
MARTIN: Well, thank you, but - thank you for that for kind of clarification. OK, we only have about two minutes left, and I'd sort of love to hear from each of you. And, Mikki, where would you like to take this conversation? You kind of - you started this thing with - or you didn't start it...
KENDALL: I want this conversation...
MARTIN: ...Let's say the history started it, but where do you want to take it?
KENDALL: I want to take this conversation to a place where healthy sexual expression includes not shaming adult women for their choices or making them responsible for children that have nothing to do with it.
MARTIN: Keli, where do you want to take this conversation?
GOFF: Shame is an important and powerful tool in society. And I actually don't have a problem with it. What I do have a problem with it is that we're not using it on the right people most of the time. Why the hell is R. Kelly - excuse my language - still a major star? For anyone who saw the videotape of what he did - and I have to throw in an allegedly to keep from getting sued - to those little girls.
KENDALL: I can say without an allegedly, R. Kelly hit on me when I was 14 years old, so.
GOFF: Oh, OK, great. So no more allegedly then, so - but on that.
MARTIN: OK, Prachi, where would you like to take this conversation?
GUPTA: I would like to move the conversation to a place where we don't have to frame or prove that women are not inherently sex objects, that women can express themselves without having to start with that assumption to prove or disprove.
MARTIN: Keli, you know, what would it look like if the conversation were to be as evenhanded as you would like it to be? What would there be a #FastTailedBoys?
GOFF: First of all, half of our members of Congress would not be in office if we treated sexuality as fairly and equal handed - evenhandedly in terms of gender because what male-elected officials and people in the public eye get away with, the women never do, Michel, could fill volumes of books.
MARTIN: Mikki, what about you? What would it look like? Should there be a #FastTailedBoys, too? Or what would it look like if the world started moving in the direction you'd like it to be in? What would it look like?
KENDALL: We don't call boys fast-tailed. It would be a #BoysWillBeBoys calling out the things we teach young men about how to treat women.
MARTIN: Now, Prachi, what about you 'cause you straddle that line between activist and journalist yourself? So what do you think it would look like to advance the conversation in the direction you'd prefer?
GUPTA: I agree. I think making conscious decisions about the words that we choose, the connotations that they have and how we talk about women and their sexuality and being more aware about the double standard that exists. I think, ultimately, it would be great to get to a place where, you know, a female pop star is doing something sexually provocative and it's not a shock to us. It's not shocking. It's not something that we have to talk about because when a man does that it's, you know, it's commonplace. We accept it. It's the norm.
MARTIN: Prachi Gupta is assistant news editor for Salon.com. Keli Goff is a correspondent TheRoot.com and a columnist for The Daily Beast. They were both with us from New York. Mikki Kendall is a pop-culture critic. She was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you all so much for speaking with us, a spirited conversation. We appreciate it.
KENDALL: Thanks, Michel.
GUPTA: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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