Chapter 10: Chickenhead Envy
Chickenhead Envy is not a pretty thing. My first attack left me laid out -- in fetal position -- sobbing like Toni Braxton in the "Unbreak My Heart" video. One of my best friends in the world stood close by in helpless, empathetic silence. She was visibly shaken by her futile attempts to console me -- and wholly afraid of leaving me alone. The sudden banging on my front door provided a temporary distraction.
"Joan!! JOAN!!" the voice hollered. "Are you okay? Let me in!!"
Who the..? Slowly it registered through my delirium. Damn. It was Dude. The one I'd been sleeping with (but not the one I liked). The one I'd warned repeatedly that there was no reason on God's green earth ever good enough to make surprise appearances at my door. The one (if I'd been a better person at the time) I woulda cut off months before, when I first realized the imbalance in our levels of affection. But among his many nocturnal delights was an insatiable seafood jones -- we're talking won't stop eating 'til you get enough -- and unfortunately, it thwarted any attempts at altruism.
Like an angel of mercy my girl's svelte but muscular 5'11" frame staunchly barricaded the apartment door. "I must've called when whatever it is was all going down," he tried to explain. "I know she doesn't like people to just drop by, but she sounded so fucked-up."
"Yes, something's happened but you can't see her right now," my homey says kindly but with unchallengeable resolve. She knew his worries were sweet but useless. He's not the one I like (the one I wasn't sleeping with). He's not calling to say, "It was all a lie. I do not have a girl at home that's six months pregnant -- a fact I've neglected to mention for at least the last five." He's not the one who hurt me.
"Yes, she'll be alright," she assures him, while gently guiding him outside. "But she's in no condition to talk right now. To anybody."
She returns to the couch and rubs my back soothingly. Slowly, the tenderness of her caress converts my wailing to a soft, steady whimper. It doesn't, however, mask her confusion. And I am of no assistance. For the life of me, I can't tell her why her girl, someone whose response to severe emotional hurt is usually of the "Find him. Go to his home, office, gym, whatever, and scream, holler, and throw things, but whatever you do -- fight" variety is lying catatonic on the sofa, teetering dangerously close to the abyss.
Mercifully, the only soul capable of doing me any earthly good calls unexpectedly. Carefully, gently she pulls me back from the precipice.
Bethann, I sniffle. I just feel so stupid.
"Stop it now. 'Cuz feelings are what they are, and we ain't gonna judge feelings."
I can't believe I let myself be played like that.
"It doesn't mean none of that, baby. This doesn't mean he doesn't care. It just means he didn't know how to tell you."
He's a fucking dick.
"Right now. Yes. And maybe tomorrow. But after a while you're going to have to let yourself remember the magic of him. Or this will eat you up inside."
I hurt, BA.
"Of course you do, baby. And believe it or not he does too. Nobody 'cept the devil could want to know he's tearing you up this bad inside."
The wisdom in this starts me blubbering again, and this time for a really, really long time. BA just listens. She doesn't even mention what I already know. That at some point we're going to have to talk about my responsibility in all this. 'Cuz even though this fool screwed up royally, I was grown enough to know that all the "Gwanna leaves" in the world don't alter this fact: Until the day he really broke clean he was always somebody else's. She does remind me that given the circumstances there was no other way for it to end -- whether he'd been honest with me or not. The Joan she knows would never want a man who could turn his back on his pregnant babymother to go start something else. Of course this makes me feel better and then, simultaneously worse, because one of the things I love most about this man is his loyalty and sense of honor.
But mostly BethAnn waits for the epiphany, for me to realize that what I'm suffering from is not a broken heart, but a full-blown case of Chickenhead Envy. And the only cure is for me to confront the sordid, green-eyed source of my pain.
It was something I could only admit to a woman who loves me like a daughter. I really hadn't spent the last four hours crying because Dude betrayed our friendship and straight-up lied to me. I wasn't even mad that he was sleeping with his woman. I was mad and hurt that she was his woman at all.
Igniting my fury were the memories of endless conversations about his frustrations with a woman who seemed to have no greater life aspirations than being wifey. He paid her bills. Showered her with shopping sprees at Barneys. Handed over the keys to the Land Cruiser. He just wanted -- correction -- needed her to want something out of life besides him.
I remembered the pride and interest he took in my work, the way he marveled at my independence and self-sufficiency and the encouragement he provided every time I tentatively shared a new goal. But I also remembered the exasperation in his voice as he confided, "Yo, I tell her all the time, you want to go to school? I'll pay for it. You wanna start a business? I'll finance it, but all this free time on her hands leaves her with too much time to worry about my every move."
I was mad because there was a black woman out there lucky enough to find a man who offered to financially support her every dream and somehow managed not to have any. I was crying in a sense, not only for me but for all the straight-up wonderful, ambitious, struggling, and single sistas I knew -- women who had dreams and mad love to give but could barely find brothers willing to listen. Sistas who, I knew, if given the opportunity this brother was providing, would give a heartfelt thanks to the Creator -- and then show Him how high they can fly.
I was crying because an admittedly frightened, weak, vulnerable, but oh so real part of me wanted to yell, "TAKE CARE OF ME. PROTECT ME. BE THERE FOR ME. LOVE ME." Instead, I ended the last conversation we would have for two years by calling him everything but a child of God.
It's not fair, BethAnn. It's just not fair.
"I know, sweetheart. That's why it hurts so much. 'Cuz us smart, good-hearted, independent girls, we're the best. We're out there handling our business and conquering the world, and we manage to be there for them too. We've got their backs. We're the ones they call in the middle of the night. We're like their best friends. The only thing we ask for is for them to be their best. And then it's the weak ones who do the things we wouldn't dream of -- "
Like getting pregnant on purpose.
"Right. Threatening to kill yourself. You know, the things we would never do. And those are the girls who seem to win.
"They don't win forever. They really don't. You're young so it seems like that now. But remember, we mature faster than boys. Sometimes it takes the men we love a little longer to realize how much they love us."
I hung up the phone, hoping to God she was right.
I hear you, the non-believers, steadily testifying. Not me. Not I. There's nothing I could possibly have in common, let alone envy, about a chickenhead. And for a precious few sista-saints this might actually be true. The rest of you, my dears, are fronting. Not to worry, though. Chickenhead Envy is usually accompanied by intense denial.
To you I offer my favorite Chickenhead litmus test: a piece of entertainment industry gossip concerning a certain celebrity. Contrary to his image as a family man, rumor has it the brother's been tipping -- albeit discreetly -- on longtime wifey for years. His tipping wasn't hard to fathom -- baby must have more money than God and is 'bout as fine as Jesus. With his megafame, extramarital ass is a given on his menu in just about any country with a working TV. What would wifey's incentive be for turning a blind eye? Maybe a combination of love, being the mother of his children, and landing in the mix pre-fame and without a good pre-nup.
What I couldn't get was how he would manage to keep his shit so on the low. As the old saying goes, Hell hath no fury like a woman pissed off. In addition to wreaking a little domestic havoc and tarnishing his image, any scorned mistress of his stood to make a bundle confiding the details of her heartbreak to the media.
So needless to say, when one of my homeboys said he discovered much fewer than six degrees of separation between himself and one of Mr. Mention's alleged mistresses, I was wide open on the details. Word is, according to my boy, he goes through great pains to make silence and loyalty a helluva lot more lucrative than kissing and telling. "All I can tell you is that he treats her very, very well. The car, house, and living expenses are all taken care of -- plus an allowance in six figures a year. And Joan, are you ready for this? She's not the only one."
The next time I see Mr. Mention on TV all I can think is Damn. Another million for the ho fund. Then I find myself envisioning the lucky chicken chillin' in a new Mercedes SLK Kompressor and discover something else -- envy-green is an unattractive shade for an allegedly righteous black girl. Curious to see other sistas' reactions, I repeated this "what if" scenario.
The results of my informal poll? With the exception of one admirable saint (and she wasn't me) we all failed to take the high road. The only difference was that girlfriends who were unabashed graduates of "Pussy Ain't Free U" weren't hampered by things like moral quandaries or my womanist drivel. All they wanted to know, in the succinct words of one, was Where are the auditions? My chickenhead-hatin' homegirls, however, did a lot more qualifying.
His wife is cool about it, right? I mean she's gotta know.
I wouldn't do it if I was in love.
And my favorite,
I wouldn't do it for like $50,000 or something 'cuz you could really make that on your own -- but $300,000 -- where's a black woman gonna make that kinda money legally? It's not like you'd be selling out for a couple of pairs of Manolo Blahniks. We're talking major lifestyle change.
And moi? Let's just say thoughts of my late mortgage payment, the new paint job my co-op could definitely stand, and the still-to-be-paid-for elite degree that was supposed to give me the keys to the world, temporarily clouded my vision. I wouldn't do it forever. Three and a half years would be plenty. And I'd quit in a second if l fell in love. Then shockingly remorseless, I envisioned the all-female film and music production company I could run.
Of course, what we'd do if the reality hit might be quite different from speculation, but the reactions confirmed something I've long suspected -- given the right circumstances even righteous sistas can be tempted to get their "cluck, cluck" on.
So why in these days of considerable female advances does a bit of the chicken live on, even in the best of us? The reasons are ultimately rooted in society's good ol' sexist imbalance of power. Despite women's considerable gains in economic, social, and political terrains, the gatekeepers to power are still men. This is particularly true for black women. Feminism, degrees, hard work -- it's all good -- but when it comes to six figure and above lifestyles most of the ballers are men.
Unfortunately, power is still divided by gender. And in a world where men got the lucci and we got the coochie, the one self-inflicted Achilles' heel men have is their tendency to define power partially in terms of sexual conquest. Punanny is the one thing women control and men have an unlimited desire for. That makes it, even in these post-feminist times, one helluva negotiating tool. "Trickin'" -- specifically using sex (or the suggestion of it) to gain protection, wealth, and power -- is a feminine device probably as old as sexism itself. From chickenheads to feminists, most women possess an almost intuitive understanding of the role sex, money, and power play in our intimate relationships -- and we accommodate accordingly.
The phenomenal commercial success of rappers Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim -- the official chickenhead patron saints -- are one example. Unlike MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, or Yo Yo, Kim and Foxy are hardly examples of Afro-femme regality, refined sensuality, or womanist strength. These baby girls -- with their history-making multi-platinum debuts -- have the lyrical personas of hyper-sexed, couture-clad hoochie mamas. Once again hip-hop holds up its unwanted mirror and drives home a little-discussed truth. In these days of Cristal, Versace, and Benjamin-filled illusions, the punanny-for-sale materialism which dominates Kim's and Foxy's albums runs rampant in the black community -- and it cuts across age and class lines. The same sistas who boogied through the eighties singing "Ain't Nothing Going On but the Rent" were the ones up in arms about their daughters singing "No money, money, no licky, licky. Fuck the dicky, dicky" along with Lil' Kim. Ironic, since both sentiments reduce a brother's value to what's in his wallet.
For many women trickin' is less a matter of right or wrong, than an issue of personal taste and context. Des, for example, a receptionist in her early thirties, thinks Kim and Foxy are shamelessly "nasty little girls," but she has no problem telling the BMWs that park in her lot to "show her the money." With flawless taste and impeccable grooming, Des is not only as fine as she wants to be, she's the kind of woman whose entrance effortlessly brings the room to a pause. She prides herself on being the definitive trophy girl -- good looks, great body, and the ability to "make any man I'm with feel like it's all about him." It's a well-cultivated talent she feels her man should pay for. "I'm not greedy, but when it comes to things like clothes, or taking care of myself, I have no problems asking them for money. Let's face it -- this takes money and time. If they like the way I look, then they need to help pay for the maintenance."
What it takes her men longer to see is that Des is also smart, driven, and ambitious. Moonlighting as a stylist, she hopes to have her own business one day. But after sharing her dream with several boyfriends, she found herself hurt and disappointed. Even though "they could more than afford it" they refused to invest in her business. "What killed me is they knew I could do it," she says angrily. "Half the clients I work with now are ones I got through them. The funny thing is that when it came to buying me jewelry, furs, or paying my rent, they had no problems. But when it came to my business, it was always some tired excuse. The bottom line was, they weren't trying to do anything that would empower me and let me do for myself."
So now Des "takes no shorts." Her current boyfriend -- wealthy and married -- was told in no uncertain terms that she would only see him if he deposited several hundred dollars in the bank every first of the month. For Des, it's not about love or trickin'. She simply sees it as a way of making sure the relationship also serves her "best interests." "I'm not about to be one of these ridiculous women who sits around waiting for her married boyfriend to leave his wife, while he has his cake and eats it too. I know a married man with kids isn't capable of giving me the kind of support, time, or dedication I'd require in a full-time relationship. So in the meantime, I'm trying to build something that's going to secure my future. That money goes straight to my business."
For most of us, however, the negotiation rarely plays itself out in a strictly monetary exchange. Trickin' is often a less straightforward affair -- the more subtle, the more socially acceptable. It's the persuasive, silent "punanny strike" you go on 'til your honey comes 'round and sees things your way. "Not giving it up" until you've gotten at least one present and a few nice dinners. That amnesia-inspiring flirtation you reflexively bestow on a male traffic officer if you bust him stealing appreciative glances at your breasts. The power suit with the notably short skirt you save for meetings with those executive boys. At its essence, trickin' is a woman's ability to use her looks, femininity, and flirtation to gain advantage in an inarguably sexist world.
Its intractability, however, speaks to something far more complex than mere female strategy, greed, or sexual manipulation. Trickin's prevalence across class lines demonstrates just how deeply wedded money, sex, and power are to our notions of male and female identity.
Comedian Chris Rock once asked me to talk him through the nuances of courting a feminist woman. "Would it offend her if I paid?" My answer, I thought, was tight. Of course you should pay. I think a lot of guys don't understand what being a feminist means. Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean I'm not a woman. And sometimes women like to feel nurtured and special and feel like they're being taken care of.
Besides, it's just good home training.
"So paying is good home training?"
Definitely. If you ask a woman out you should pay. And then in a futile attempt at equanimity, I added smugly, And you know what, Chris, if I asked you out I would pay.
Then he blew up my spot. "You would pay? Now you know that's bullshit. You might act like you're going to pay. You might have your money in your pocket and reach like you were ready to pay. But the second I let you pay you would never go out with me again."
He was right. I couldn't remember the last time I'd put my hand in my pocketbook even on a second or third date -- let alone a first. I wasn't brought up this way. Moms was not an advocate of trickin' in any form. The many years she was forced to postpone her dreams -- college, a career, travel -- essentially because my father refused to come home from work and help take care of small children, left too many footprints on her spirit. She got to college by working as a domestic, taking whatever could be salvaged out of $2.00 an hour after raising three kids, and stuffing her dreams into an old thermos bottle. By the time her youngest was in junior high, there was finally enough money for her tuition. My father never gave her a penny.
Her experiences informed the brief but very specific rules I was given when it came to boys and dating.
1. No accepting gifts of monetary value.
2. If he pays first, you pay second and try to go Dutch as often as possible.
3. Never, ever, ever, leave home without your feisty (Jamaican for "rude") money -- enough change for a phone call, and if not taxi fare then at least two tokens.
When asked to explain the whys of it all, my mother's only comment was "God bless the child that's got her own." So while I collected poems, love letters, and flowers, my fellow ghetto princesses stuffed their closets with designer clothes, gold chains, and expensive sneakers.
It never dawned on me that sex figured prominently into this equation until one day, while longingly admiring my friend Tai's most recent acquisitions (among them a slamming new pair of Anne Klein loafers) I ventured to ask exactly how her seventeen-year-old non-working and living in the projects behind could afford it all. She could not believe my naïveté. "Girl, my man gets it for me." Then thinking of the ass-whooping I'd be sure to get if I tried to do the same, I asked what in the world she told her mom. "My motha is the one who told me," she said. "Pussy ain't free. Don't be giving up my shit to these niggas unless they give me something."
By the time I got to college, I saw that sentiment was hardly limited to the 'hood. There were plenty of sistas whose theme song for relationships shoulda been Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done for Me Lately." Still, I never regretted my mom's advice. Thanks to her, I escaped much of the sexual pressure that plagued many of my peers. For some girls, the deciding factor for whether or not a guy deserved the boots was how much he spent on the courtship process. Unfortunately, the decisions weren't always based on the woman's desires. Very often the more money a guy spent the more he felt he was entitled sexually -- and he applied pressure accordingly. Sadly enough, many women complied -- not because they wanted to have sex but because they felt that was the price they paid for someone treating them nicely.
That sense of obligation was foreign to me. Since my mother's value system never taught me to make a connection between sex and dollars, it never occurred to me to base my decisions about sex on anything but my desires. A brother was no more likely to get laid if he spent $100 on dinner than if he spent $30 on cab fare and a movie. And no less likely if he didn't.
It wasn't until I grew older, however, and watched women repeatedly relinquish happiness to men who were controlling, disrespectful, and abusive for the sake of "maintaining a certain lifestyle," did I fully recognize my mother's sagacity. In her own silent way, she instilled the importance of financial independence, self-reliance, and determination so her only daughter would know that her heart, soul, spirit, and body were simply not for sale.
For the most part, I am my mother's child. While financial stability and a career he loves are definitely among my dating prerequisites, they matter more to me as indications of a brother's capacity for passion, commitment, and a solid work ethic than what I think his money will do for me. And when it comes to not giving me the respect I think I deserve, money is not a factor I'm ever tempted to place over love or happiness. There've been six- and seven-figure brothers who've suffered the same fate as the ones who were barely getting by. And I'm grateful to my moms for giving me that freedom.
Still, there are plenty of times when those liberated principles get conveniently played to the left. Unfortunately, my mother's well-intentioned, egalitarian approach to dating didn't translate well into the adult, post-college world. Even though the values are intact -- I still enjoy treating a brother to dinner or surprising him with a home-cooked meal -- I gave up the "Dutch" habit long ago. It was more trouble than it was worth.
To my surprise, if a brother was feeling insecure about his financial status, the offer only ended up making him feel worse. Despite my protestations that it didn't matter -- I liked when he cooked or we enjoyed a quiet day in his modest studio -- all it took was one three-day assignment with some member of the Black Boy Millionaire Club, or some investment banker I knew to glance at him the wrong way and we'd be back to the same old nonsense. I don't know why you even fucking with me. You should be with some nigga that can give you the world.
Even if the financials and confidence were clearly intact, most brothers viewed my insistence on splitting the bill as anything from unnecessary to annoying.
In my honest confusion, and my desire not to join the ranks of irate sistas who honestly feel like brothers just can't deal with independent black women I went and sought the counsel of my homeboys. Invariably they told me the same thing. Just because a man's ability to pay wasn't an issue for me it did not mean it wasn't an issue for him.
The point was driven home one night by this cutie in San Francisco. Despite being told each time we went out that he'd "never let a lady pay," I'd instinctively reach for my wallet. This time, however, he'd gone to great lengths to plan a particularly romantic evening and the gesture came dangerously close to ruining it. Baby read me the riot act. Why do you always do that? I already know you're an independent woman. That's why I'm here. But damn, Joan, a man needs to feel like he can do for a woman. And when you tell a brother you won't even let him pay for a meal, it's like you don't want to be vulnerable at all.
Then, responding to that silent, pouty twelve-year-old thing I do whenever I'm effectively called out, he gently took my hand. Look. I admit it. I need to feel needed. And I think you could use some taking care of. So why don't you let that superwoman shit go for a minute and let a brother do his thing?
He did have a point. The teenager my mom sought to protect by devising those rules was now a fully grown woman. Her values were already too deeply ingrained for me to really be at risk. I already knew that a man paying for dinner, a hotel, or an airline ticket did not entitle him to a piece of my ass. And truth be told, the same ultra-independent STRONG-BLACKWOMANisms that compelled me to go Dutch were also the ones that landed me in Frisco in the first place -- tired, unhappy, and sick of my life. Besides, at that very moment, staring into those big baby browns was far more important to me than my mother's advice or feminism. I conceded. I never tried to pay on one of our dates again. Eventually I gave the practice up altogether.
My mother's approach wasn't wrong, it was just short-sighted. Like so many God-blessed girl children raised to have their own, I was naively unrealistic about the effect economic and professional disparities can have on a relationship. Call it the aftereffect of growing up in a cultural amalgam of Protestant work ethic (Hard work is next to Godliness), capitalism (It's all about the Benjamins, baby), social Darwinism (Only the strongest/richest survive). American men tend to invest a great deal of their identity and self-worth in what they do, how much they make, and their ability to provide. For many, it's an intrinsic part of how they define their manhood.
For black men, racism greatly intensifies this reality. As far back as emancipation, black men assumed that the ability to acquire wealth and property would decrease the emasculating impact of racism. Even though Booker T. Washington's anti-integrationist advice to the masses to "cast down your buckets where you are" and W. E. B. Du Bois's dreams of a "Talented Tenth" -- a fully integrated black leadership elite -- were seemingly at odds, both leaders embraced the same premise: that hard, honorable work could win black folks a certain degree of legitimacy in an otherwise hostile society.
More than a century later, that sentiment is still prevalent. According to Keith T. Clinkscales, successful BMW and president and C.E.O. of Vibe, "Black men are very often characterized by the media, society, popular fiction as not being 'real men.' We're depicted as not providing for our families or doing our thing. And believe me, nobody wants to have that on them. Brothers want to handle their business. They want to prove to themselves and everyone else, that they are real men."
While he believes that it's impossible to escape racism, Clinkscales maintains that a certain degree of "professional achievement does provides black men with the state of mind necessary to combat racism more effectively.
"It's not necessarily even an issue of how much you make. Money may become a barometer of success in certain professions, like your Wall Street professions, but I think for a lot of brothers, it's more about just wanting to be good. The belief is that if you can just enjoy what you do and be really good at it, then you have a great chance at making money."
Paul Jacobs, a professional athlete and fledgling entrepreneur, echoes Clinkscales's sentiments strongly. "As a black man, professional success validates you and gives you the ability to compete, especially against the white men of the world. It's like your check."
Women, however, have a very different barometer of worth. Thanks to sexism, there is considerably less pressure on us to be financially and professionally successful. For better or worse, society still allows us to measure our overall worth in ways that have nothing to do with our careers, like being good mothers, wives, or community workers. The pressure we feel about our ability to make paper is usually more about economic survival, dreams, and ambition than maintaining our "feminine" identity.
A lot of times what black women perceive to be brothers' "inability to deal with independent women" is really their struggle with a culture that views men who are less than financially solid as something "less than men."
"You know, I hear a lot of strong, intelligent women say they intimidate brothers," says Clinkscales. "I think that they do intimidate some. But if they do, then there's a good chance that's not the guy they really need to be with. Smart, together sistas need to be with the type of man who is fearless, courageous, and wants to succeed badly enough that he'll jump into any situation."
He does caution, however, that a brother's desire for success in not necessarily indicative of his confidence level. "There are a lot of insecurities that come with trying to succeed. There's an intense amount of pressure to make it. Some brothers may seem like they have a lot of confidence, but sometimes it's just not real."
While Jacobs doesn't buy that brothers are necessarily intimidated by strong women, he does think that sistas need to be more realistic about what they're up against. "It's rare for a woman to find a guy that can deal with the completely assed out feeling that comes with being broke or just not being where you want to be. The bottom line is, as a man in this world, not having paper makes you feel weak and vulnerable. Your girl could even be Willy -- fine, paper, and status -- and not care. It still wouldn't matter. The second she takes you out in her circles and you gotta be around other niggas with jobs and Status, it's not cool anymore. The second anybody wants to know what you do, you feel like a pumpkin."
Complicating these feelings of insecurity are male competition and ego. What Jacobs affectionately calls "the whole rooster thing....In a room full of roosters, the strongest rooster wins. And if your shit is not right you are definitely gonna have to watch other roosters with paper and status try to get at your girl. They're sending her bouquets of flowers and you can't even give her a rose."
Still, Jacobs maintains it's not all about the men. He attributes a lot of brothers' inability to flow under those circumstances to what he perceives to be most women's materialism. From his experience, a sista's claim to be satisfied with "a quality guy with good morals, upbringing, and potential" is usually "bullshit."
"When most women say they recognize a brother's potential, it's really just a smoke screen. Because if the potential doesn't rise as fast as they think it should, they keep right on moving. For a woman to be loyal even when it seems like it's the darkest hour -- when it's like Goddamn, another peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- is very, very rare.
"The bottom line is this: Women like to be taken out. They like to be with men who have status in their social circles. And they want to be with a guy with some money and at least a little bit of power."
Sad but true. As liberated women we may revel in our ability to pay our own way but we're not likely to fall for the men who let us. The one boyfriend I had who actually took the "feminist" approach of splitting all our dating expenses -- everything from the movies to vacations -- squarely down the middle, couldn't win for trying. Since he made almost three times my salary, my "feminist" mind had trouble processing his actions as anything but cheap. Hypocritical as it was, the sight of him calculating the bill had the undesirable effect of waterhosing my libido.
Let's face it, money and the ability to spend it freely is one of society's strongest assertions of power -- and power is a very sexy thing. There's an undeniable, take-charge sex appeal that a man has when he's trickin' loot. Whether it's game or not, when a man picks up the tab he gives the impression of being able to "handle his" -- himself, his affairs, and his woman.
"Sometimes, it's not a power or an ego thing," says Jacobs -- who, for the record, always pays. More often than not, he explains, a brother's ability to trick loot on a woman he likes simply makes him feel like a good guy. "It's one of the ways we're taught to be a gentleman. You pay -- even if you know she can pay for herself. It's like walking on the outside of the street, you know that nothing's probably gonna happen but you do it anyway. Or opening the door even though you know she can open it herself. It's just the gentlemanly, chivalrous thing to do."
Men have long figured out what us liberated supasistas have been loath to admit: Men are not the only ones with a vested interest in sexism. When it comes to equality, most of us are only willing to go but so far. Equal pay for equal work, yes. Equal access and opportunity, certainly. But complete and total equality? Not hardly. Because while we recognize sexism's evils, we also fully enjoy its privileges -- not least among them chivalry.
Gender-biased it may be, but in a society of ever-shifting gender roles, temporarily indulging the men lucci/women coochie division of power offers a soothing semblance of order. Not to wax nostalgic for the "good old days" but those much-needed feminist advances also left our generation disconcertingly bewildered about what our "roles" are as men and women -- and how they relate to each other. As a result, women's struggle for political, economic, and social equality has always been infinitely clearer than the internal battle we wage trying to honor both our independence and our femininity. Dating is one of the few areas in my life that I get to completely indulge the latter. For a few hours I don't want equality. I want the door held open, the chair pulled out, and I don't want to think about money at all. I want nothing more than the ultra-femme responsibility of juggling hairstylist and mani/pedi appointments, being a great conversationalist, and looking like a dime.
Ironically this is probably more symptomatic of feminism than an abandonment of it. As much as I enjoy the challenge of kicking ass at work, paying the bills, staying fit, staying sane, and leaping tall buildings in a single bound, letting a man spend a little dough expresses the "feminine" desire to let somebody else take care of me for a change.
Just call it the "chicken" in me.
Until the day we find ourselves in the throes of a feminist revolution, trickin' isn't likely to go away. Whatever our disdain for chickenheads may be, it's obvious that trickin' is too intricately woven into our culture's social fabric to simply tell baby girls to "Just Say No." We live in a world where strippers out-earn women with college degrees and antiquated alimony and child-support laws guarantee some women higher standards of living than most 9 to 5's ever could. Chickens rely on punanny for the same reasons drug dealers don't struggle through four years of college: In a world of limited resources, trickin' is a viable means of elevating one's game.
Truth be told, there are a few things we could learn from our chickenhead sistren. When it comes to maximizing the resources the good Lord gave 'em, girlfriends are nice with theirs. Chickens always look good. They don't drop their drawers unless there's something valuable to garner out of the exchange. And they recognize the intrinsic value in occasionally allowing a man "to just be a man." Basically, chickenheads accept that in a male-dominated society obsessed with both beauty and sex, there is something to be said for women effectively working their erotic power.
Rapper/actress Queen Latifah would tend to agree. Despite a great deal of public pressure she refused "to chastise Kim and Foxy" for their sexually explicit lyrics. "A lot of [women] were really on that bandwagon," she said, "but I think we need to get over ourselves. Queen down, we've all got our share of shit in the closet, so why act holier than thou? Somebody is finally saying it in plain English: If you cum then I'm gonna cum. If he's gonna get what he wants then I'm gonna get what I want. And these are not unlike things I say myself.
"Who am I to tell Kim to put some clothes on?" she continued. "Or to say that she needs to stop talking about money and jewels? I understand that she wants that. I want those things too. We just go about getting it in different ways.
"Kim sees her power in a different way than I see my power," she reasons. "And she may feel that she's working her power to the best of her ability -- instead of letting somebody else pimp that power.
"And let's face it, men have been pimping pussy power for a very, very, long time.
"The bottom line," she concludes, "is that pussy is a powerful thing. And I've come to recognize that some women can use it to gain things for themselves because they see it as their greatest strength."
Not all women are as comfortable with erotic power as Queen Latifah. There are sistas like Danni, who find the idea of women exploiting the competitive edge society grants attractive people complicit and offensive. "It's not fair," says the thirty-something film production coordinator, who, by the way, got her share of good looks and somebody else's. "When it comes to work, I don't think looks should have any relevance. I've been in situations where I was one of two women up for a position and I was chosen -- knowing that the other person may be slightly more qualified. It bothers me that I got the job because some man decided I was better for him to look at every day."
Still, she admits it never bothered her "enough to not take the job." Her friend Shawn, a self-described feminist with absolutely no chickenhead envy (in addition to being the breadwinner, her husband does all the cooking and supports her fledgling film career) thinks Danni should cut herself some slack. She points out an interesting double standard: Smart, personable, attractive men rely on their combined attributes all the time to advance themselves socially and professionally -- and call it charm. Women who do the same, however, are accused by others of "selling out." The fear is that playing these games place all but the most attractive women at a disadvantage.
But women who feel this way about erotic power have it terribly misconstrued. "Erotic power isn't based solely on looks," explains Shawn. "Ultimately, it's about understanding the power of the feminine and your power as a woman. There are women who are not what you would consider conventionally attractive who are very good at working their feminine power. And I think it's time feminism let women know that using that power is okay -- instead of demeaning or ridiculing them."
Liz, a southern belle and a bit of a feminist femme fatale, is also down with erotic power. Being fully in command of one's womanly charms, she maintains, is a powerful tool when it comes to battling sexism. She calls it working the "militant feminine." "Oh, if you're a guy and you're putting me in a sexist situation, I'm sorry for you," warns the thirty-something costume designer. "Because I love that power.
"I'm strong enough and old enough to see that when it comes to getting what I want from men I don't have to be right all the time," she explains. "I'd really rather win.
"Some of the most successful women in life know that the more attention you give men, the farther you're going to get. He could be wrong or talking about something really stupid but they know how to make their point in a way that doesn't put it up all in his face." Doing this doesn't make her feel angry or compromised at all. "I'm such a strong, militantly feminine person," she says proudly, "that I'm into it."
Liz and Shawn are poignant examples of how women today differ from their foremothers. In the past, feminists were understandably loath to condone utilizing erotic power as a means of battling sexism. Many remembered all too vividly a time when erotic power was all women had -- and it was rarely enough to circumvent abuse and exploitation.
But while women today still experience sexism, we do so in markedly different ways. Many of us are empowered enough to combine our erotic power with resources that were unimaginable to our mothers -- money, education, talent, drive, ambition, confidence, and the freedom to just "go for ours."
We have the luxury of choosing both our battles and our artillery. We know that sometimes winning requires utilizing whatever confrontational measures are necessary. We're not afraid of lawsuits, boycotts, organized protests, or giving a deserving offender a good cussing out. But we also recognize that there are times when winning requires a lighter touch. And sometimes a short skirt and a bat of the eyes is not only easier but infinitely more effective.
But before we go casting our liberated principles to the wind and get our "cluck, cluck" on, remember that chickenheads rarely win. When it comes to the division of power, men get a much better deal. With any skill, their power (money) increases exponentially over time. Thanks to deeply embedded prejudices regarding women and aging, ours (coochie and beauty) diminishes drastically with age. More often than not a pretty, young chicken who tricked her way through her twenties may find herself out of the game by thirty. "Successful" chickens are usually a mere fraction of those who ass out trying.
For sistas especially, relying on punanny power to secure one's future is a crapshoot, at best. Given the harsh economic realities of black folks' lives, chickens are up against phenomenal odds. Despite the fairy-tale appeal of Cinderella stories, black Prince Charmings -- specifically, brothers making enough paper to set their women comfortably in the lap of luxury -- are exceedingly rare. Girlfriends pursuing that prince at the exclusion of all others would be wise to broaden their horizons. As of 1992, the number of blacks (male and female) making $50,000 or more was a pathetic 1 percent of the African-American population. More often than not, married couples who reached the nirvana of black middle-classdom were only able to do so by combining their incomes. Even with the burgeoning of the black middle class and the entertainment industry's highly publicized black millionaires, there simply aren't enough rappers, ball players, doctors, lawyers, or even gainfully employed brothers to satisfy the enormous demand.
Besides, landing the prince doesn't necessarily make a sista empowered. Nicky, a twenty-seven-year-old doctor once dated an NBA Willy and describes it as one of "the most depressing periods" of her life. Attractive, funny, confident, and intelligent enough to graduate top of her class at Yale medical school, Nicky still found that the infinite number of beautiful women that checked for her man -- "everything from that fine-ass R&B singer to the jiggy entertainment lawyer to the hoochie go-go bitch dancing in some cage" played havoc with her self-esteem.
"I never thought I could be that girl but all of a sudden I found myself obsessing about everything. Every day it was like, 'Am I thin enough? Are my titties too small? Is my ass too big? Is my hair too short? Am I too light? Am I light enough?' It was ridiculous. It's a competition you can't possibly win."
Finally, for the sake of her sanity, she decided to cut him loose. "I realized that he just wasn't making me feel secure enough about the relationship to not worry about other women. And if you gotta rely on pretty to keep a man, forget it. No matter how pretty you are there's always going to be someone prettier. No matter how good you can get your freak on, there's always some girl out there who can freak it better."
Nicky's observations drive home the ultimate truth about erotic power. Without financial independence, education, ambition, intelligence, spirituality, and love, punanny alone isn't all that powerful. The reality is that it's easily replaceable, inexhaustible in supply, and quite frankly, common as shit. Women who value their erotic power over everything else stand to do some serious damage to their self-esteem.
Ultimately, the illusion that chickenheads win is fueled by a lack of understanding of how sexism works. Sexism is one instance where it's virtually impossible to dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. No matter how well women think they've mastered the game, they're still playing by somebody else's rules. And when it comes to women and sex, the old double standards are still very much in effect.
Chris Lighty, Violator Records president and chickenhead fave, is straight-up about it. "It's sexist and it's male chauvinist, but there are a lot of beautiful, nice women who'll end up missing out, just because they've been with too many of us." (Too many by the way, according to Chris, is any number greater than two.) When I point out the hypocrisy in this, that a number of brothers in the Black Boy Millionaire Club sleep with everything in sight, he doesn't even bother denying it. "We all like the jiggy freaks and we wanna sleep with her and her friends -- maybe even at the same time -- but that's just sex," he emphasizes. "That's not the girl we marry. None of us wants to be sitting at dinner with Michael Jordan, Puffy, Shaquille O'Neal, and the new hot rapper and know they've been with your girl."
His answer brings back BethAnn's parting words to me that fateful day she talked me through my Chickenhead Envy. They don't win forever. It just takes the men we love a little longer to realize how much they love us.
Curious, I ask Lighty if he thinks this is true. "You're asking me if chickenheads win?" He laughs good and hard at the question. "No, of course they don't. If they win it's only for a minute. Chickenheads are like a temporary ego boost. We know it doesn't take much to get a chicken. All you need is a good watch and a little bit of cash. And for a man, there's no real victory in that."
I also ask Puff Daddy, aka Sean Combs. Essentially he says the same thing. When it comes to wifey, it seems, chickens will not do at all. Even though the multi-millionaire mogul/pop star can more than provide, he's not checking for providing chickens with a life of leisure. "Don't get me wrong," he explains, "I want to provide for my woman, but at the same I want a woman that's ambitious. A motivator, one that's going to make the team stronger.
"I want us to be partners blowing up together," he continues. "And I want her to get her ass out of bed before twelve in the afternoon because I work until five in the morning. I should not wake up and see my woman in bed sleeping. Write a screenplay. Build a school in Africa. Do something. I don't want a woman who would have me be up all night busting my ass and not even want to cook me breakfast 'cuz she's waiting for the maid."
What about the big-ass-big-titties-and-jiggy-good looks?
"Yeah, I'm looking for fly and beautiful," he sighs. "But it's not just about that look good shit. Really. That wears thin no matter what. You can find something wrong with the prettiest girl after you've been looking at her for a couple of months. I want a woman that's strong."
Clinkscales can't even believe I'm asking the question. "Men who are successful in life," he offers quietly, "appreciate intelligent and thoughtful women -- I think much more than women know. When we're looking for the long term, those are the qualities we want. Not chickenheads.
"Now I admit that a lot of this understanding for men comes with age," he concedes, "but all that aesthetic stuff goes away really quickly. As you get older, what's beautiful to you really transforms. Aesthetic beauty is one thing, but I can't even tell you how beautiful a woman is who has a soothing, calm personality in a world that's otherwise hectic and completely ridiculous.
"And she gets more beautiful as things go on."
P.S. Ms. Chicken. Eat your heart out.
Copyright © 1999 by Joan Morgan