By Lee Williams, Communication Activist
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “ratchet”? Knock-off purses from the corner store, a “hot mess” in a public place, or, as society has conditioned us to describe, someone or something that can be relayed as “ghetto”? The word ratchet is loosely used in slang and internet lingo, but it’s usage is spread over a wide canvas of meanings.
For the sake of discussion, we’ll describe “ratchet” as:
Ratchet (adj.) – the umbrella term for all things associated with the language, style, and cultural practices, witnessed or otherwise, of poor people; specifically poor people of color, and more specifically poor women of color.
Ratchet Has Gone Mainstream
Pop artist Nicki Minaj
For some, Nicki Minaj introduced ratchetness to the unassuming public back in 2010, creating the “Barbie” look that is still currently popular among some pockets of young women and embedded itself in pop culture. Currently, Miley Cyrus is following her lead and bringing ratchet culture into mainstream America as though it were a fancy new handbag. The former Disney starlet has rebranded herself as a ratchet queen, and has harnessed the power of the internet, her name, and her twerking antics (for the uninitiated, “twerking” is glorified booty shaking) as a successful marketing tool. As many of you have now seen, Miley’s ratchet antics were on full display for the MTV Video Music Awards. It can be argued that, in a sense, Miley is exploiting a culture that is not her own. However, as I covered in my piece on Don Lemon’s advice to African Americans, can it be considered exploitation if people willingly subject themselves to their own depravity? Why take pride in defending ridiculousness?
Let me explain further. Websites such as Gawker have demonized Miley for utilizing a culture that isn’t her own and has considered her a part of a long running history of artists exploiting black culture. My question is, as respectable as an activity as “twerking” is, why are sites like Gawker and others defending it as a “black thing”? “Hey don’t do that, it’s a black thing! Don’t disrespect them!” By doing this, they are condoning the indecent behavior for ONE GROUP (which explains how they feel about that group). An entire subculture called “ratchet culture” wouldn’t exist to exploit if people knew how to behave decently. Ratchet culture should come with a Surgeon General warning; no one should attempt it. There are no positives in ratchet culture. Those that engage in it are only perpetuating very negative stereotypes whether they know it or not, and those that promote it can be justifiably labeled exploiters of the self-exploited… but that’s just my opinion.
Miley Cyrus as Beetlegeuse #Fail
Ratchet culture has steadily infiltrated pop culture as if it were oil flowing over silk, ruining everything in its path. It’s embrace can be seen all over the internet and television, from the scorned woman beatdowns and hair-pulling of Basketball Wives, free-for-all slugfests of Bad Girls Club, to the devil may care immaturity of the Real Housewives series. The women are loud, proud, are not afraid to fight and even to shake their tail feathers in Wal-Mart. Yay, America?
Click to view an epic Love and Basketball Fight.
Men are also ratchet. Across the internet, fight videos exist of all shapes and forms, with men beating each other (and sometimes women) with caveman style ferocity. It’s as though ratchet violence is social darwinism at work, directly in front of us, and functions as a preview into the animal kingdom of the strong versus the weak. The men even screech “WORLDSTAR!” in some of these videos to signify if a fight is worthy for an internet upload, as though it were a catcall of ape-ish hoots of dominance, or a wolf howl of primal connection. If ratchetness were alcohol, it would be the malt liquor of culture and expression.
Oversexualization, Violence, and Virality
A common, disturbing thread of ratchet culture is oversexualization of women by themselves (often through twerking videos) or extreme, petty violence by men. This activity is prevalent on the internet, which offers a landscape of anonymity and a lack of censorship, and has been the prominent breeding ground of ratchet culture. Again, websites such as WorldStarHipHop and MediaTakeOut, which both receive millions of weekly hits, churn out a plethora of fight videos between men and women of all ages, twerks of the day/week, and wayward foolishness on a daily basis. YouTube also heavily features videos of women twerking their dignity away to a hip hop soundtrack, or outlandish, cartoon violence by men (i.e. Cleveland Bus Driver Uppercuts Out of Control Girl, Atlanta Mall Cop Tasers Ghetto Mom).
The virality of these incidents and videos is another common thread. It is disturbing that they are all heavily shared on social media and within the news. In the past few years we have been introduced to Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown, the Air Jordan Duo, and hero-turned-internet-meme Charles Ramsey. The embrace of these behaviors by modern media are masquerading behind a mirage of hilarity, yet the insidious intent of these videos and the cultural following behind ratchet culture only shows that our entertainment is becoming more and more depraved.
Internet memes have also wholly embraced and crossed the fine line between self-depreciating humor. Memes that make fun of urban speech patterns and behaviors can be satirical, however some evoke racist and classist overtones and, sadly enough, are perpetuated by the very groups that they are making a mockery of. America has a shameful history of comedy at the expense of racial inequity and stereotypes, yet many seem to delight in slowly socially re-establishing it by popular culture.
In twenty years people will look back at “Niggas Be Like” and “Bitches Be Like” internet memes the same way we look back at Bugs Bunny in black face… as offensively ignorant, yet socially acceptable and universally shared by those of the time.
How Did We Get Here?
Entertainment delights in the fringe, extremist elements of society, from the super rich socialites of the Kardashians, to the upcoming Rich Kids of Instagram show, to the social irresponsible (Man Who Fathered 22 Kids Might Get A Reality Show) and the inept, lovable poor of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, we are a nation of contradictory tastes that override common sense, allowing us to live vicariously through these “stars” in a fantasy world of entertaining poverty and depravity. The more conditioned and de-synthesized people become, the more that they see this kind of “ratchet entertainment” as acceptable. In the end, the consumers control the strength of these fads, and our ultimate power in numbers can affect ad revenue if a major exodus away from ratchet culture ever happens.
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” — Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (1963)
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