Originally published in an abridged form in the Trinidad Express on February 19, 2019.
It is no secret that Trinidad is… less than welcoming to feminist rhetoric. As an ardent and outspoken feminist myself, I am for the most part happy to steups and move along, but the recent back and forth over the popular tune “Hookin Meh” has been conducted in such poor faith that I feel compelled to enter the fray. While critiques of the song have been incomplete, defenses have been equally toothless, relying on misinformation and misdirection to make arguments against issues that were never in contention. Consequently, it has been frustrating to see us collectively fail such a pointed test of our ability to critically regard the culture we produce and consume.
Make no mistake, Farmer Nappy’s song is catchy, fun and well-conceived. The melody is lilting and easy; ideal for vocalists both amateur and professional to sing along to without straining the upper limits of their ability. The tempo is perfect for a little “hold yuh and squeeze yuh” on the dance floor by couples in love. Musically, “Hookin Meh” is impeccable. It’s little wonder it has become so popular during Trinidad’s biggest musical season as it is so reminiscent of our golden age of calypso. As I write this, I am dancing along to the clever ukulele instrumentation as it plays in the background.
But the content of the song leaves much to be desired. Our unwillingness to acknowledge the ways in which the song’s narrative reinforces harmful tropes about how abuse presents itself in intimate partner relationships is troubling at best and dangerous at worst. The accompanying music video only doubles down on these concerning ideas, placing them firmly in the realm of harmless comedy, reframing a period that traditionally sees an increase in intimate partner violence as the problem of an unreasonable woman whose crime is being too dutiful a spouse.
The very premise of the song’s catchy chorus is that Nappy’s nameless spouse is to blame for his reluctance to leave, because she… treats him well and is attractive? In the video’s opening scene, Nappy receives a phone call from said spouse informing him that she has cooked dinner and needs to speak with him. His response is to joke with his male collaborators at the studio that something must be wrong not because of the hinted at conversation (a well-worn relationship trope) but because she cooked. “Something cyah be right! She cook!” he chuckles. So which is it? She’s a good woman who hooked him by cooking, or is the cooking a sign of trouble to come? And if it’s the latter, then why the later surprise that she wants him to leave?’
The video also shows Nappy engaging in routine abuser tactics to “convince” his spouse of why he shouldn’t have to leave. Between the wild gesticulating with sharp utensils in hand and his inability to respect her personal space as she stands unamused at the stove, it is easy to see how this scenario can be interpreted as intimidation in any other context. Because the song is told entirely from Nappy’s perspective, there is no way to verify if his claims that his spouse is putting him out “jus so” are an accurate assessment of the state of their relationship, or the one-sided perspective of a neglectful partner. If the relationship was so good to begin with, then why isn’t he more aware of why his partner is upset? He also pointedly mentions her spending and the care of their children, actions that could be perceived as a threat, especially given how often the care and control of minor children is used as a tactic to control abused women once they leave a relationship.
Throughout the video, Nappy’s spouse is framed as the usmiling shrew, unreasonable in her request and unmoved by his pleas. This juxtaposition allows him to frame himself as a victim of her flightiness, playing into established ideas about women’s inability to act rationally when faced with their emotions. But her only spoken lines in the video are to warn Nappy of the impending breakup, and then to actually break up with him in clear, concise terms that are in no way open to interpretation. If we take the song’s lyrics at face value, Nappy is suggesting that the only way to rid herself of him is to embody the shrew, justifying his escape at her expense. How many women have calmly and repeatedly asked the men in their lives to modify behaviour big and small, only to be labelled a “madwoman” when her temper finally get the best of her? The song suggests that this is the only avenue available to Nappy’s spouse should she want to extricate herself from him without incident.
What hasn’t been mentioned in any of the critiques is that while the lyrics are entirely about why Nappy won’t leave, no mention is ever made of why he deserves to stay. Both the lyrics and defenses of the song note that Nappy’s spouse has not given “any good reason” for the dissolution of their relationship, but this reasoning fails to acknowledge that women (and men!) do not need a “good reason” to end a relationship that no longer fulfills them. Not wanting to be coupled is reason enough to be single. In what universe is it preferable to force an unhappy partner to stay?
The general disregard for cultural critique in Trinidad and Tobago has led to the supposition that it is unnecessary and that those who engage in it simply have nothing better to do. But cultural critique is the cornerstone of healthy cultural practice, invocation of local feminist advocacy group Womantra’s “foolishness” notwithstanding. In her defense of the song and its underlying semiotic message, one Ms. Akilah Holder cited Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique of 1963 and her centrality to feminism’s second wave in defense of the song and what she sees as misapplied feminist principles. It is troubling then that someone who “studied and taught feminism in college in the US” (I did neither, so what do I know?) never seems to have gotten the memo that though it remains a landmark text, Friedan’s Mystique is largely considered racist and classist throughout, never once acknowledging that the problems of white middle class women of American suburbs could not be universally applied, and that their liberation might in fact lead to the further oppression of black and brown women. In fact, bell hooks’ seminal 1984 text From Margin To Center addresses these very issues in a manner that would be far more relevant to today’s black West Indian woman.
Very recently I had the benign privilege of vexing a significant subsection of the local journalistic establishment when I pointed out at a conference the many holes in coverage that continue to go unfilled in the local media. As a professional film and culture critic, my exasperation with the lack of local critical culture commentary is well documented, and this recent debate has reluctantly forced me to occupy the position I have come to know well: The Feminist Scold. But I am happy to continue to carry that mantle if it means illuminating the ways in which the ideas we disseminate through culture and our skyrocketing domestic violence rates are connected. We can love the things we create and push them to be better while interrogating the reasons for their wide appeal. Misogyny is not an idea that simply fell from the sky. It is embedded in everything to do, which is precisely why it is so often blind to us.