Here’s why Cardi B is the feminist icon we’ve been waiting for

Right in time for breezy drives with windows rolled-down and house parties flush with fresh sneakers, frayed denim and tawny liquor, Cardi B splashed onto the music scene earlier this year with her debut album, “Invasion of Privacy.” Born from the brash, catchy record was a wealth of memes — it coincided with Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing, wherein privacy was the primary issue — and quippy Instagram captions. Jokes aside, the album not only topped charts, but nestled into rap fans’ morning commutes and pre-game playlists.

But more sparkling than these accomplishments is the way Cardi B has cemented her status as a modern-day feminist icon. As an Afro-Latinx woman and someone unashamed of her past occupation as a stripper, Cardi’s brand of women’s empowerment looks nothing like Simone de Beauvoir’s and Gloria Steinem’s of yesteryear.

Even before Belcalis Almanzar was crafting club-ready bangers, she was a constant advocate for women being themselves, unapologetically. One of her first videos to catch traction features a 2015 Cardi strolling coyly about a hotel hallway, with her bust glittering under fluorescent lights and her hair snatched back into Medusa-like French braids. With a bit of cheek, she announces, “It’s cold outside, but I’m still looking like a thotty because a hoe never gets cold!” Not missing a beat, she spins on the clause, allowing the camera to take in just how good she looks in her bodycon skirt and the Art Deco earrings framing her face.

In these four seconds, Cardi has already snipped the tightrope of party culture and the male gaze. Any outdated protests about what kinds of outfits are too skimpy for clubbing on a NYC autumn night or the sacrifices women should make to attract men fizzle in the face of Cardi’s confidence. This alone set the tone for Cardi’s feminist universe, where women reclaim their sexuality on their own terms. Women’s adherence to or rejection of the socially acceptable aspects of femininity are both welcome in the hallway of hoes never cold.

From Internet stardom, Cardi made the leap to the New York spin-off of  “Love and Hip-Hop” in 2015. And like any person who dots the i’s on such a contract, she did engage in the ratchetness of reality TV. One particularly meme-able moment from LHHNY’s sixth season comes in the form of Cardi declaring, “A girl have beef with me? She gon’ have beef with me… forever.” Crowned with a braided coiffure and adorned with earrings that look like scales, Cardi’s proclamation rang throughout group chats and Twitter mentions like a royal decree.

But despite her proclamation that no beef of hers is reconcilable, Cardi carved out a particularly charming character among the stylists, promoters, models and rappers’ partners that make up LHHNY’s cast. Through BET, we got to know Cardi as a woman who revels in her complexities: a glamorous, popular stripper and a girl-next-door, in the most Bronx sense.

In a positive feedback loop, her loud-mouth charisma is both fueled and amplified by her unabashed social media addiction. And as uncouth as it seemed to some, the way Cardi vocalized her desires for sex and money and authenticity made her relatable to women — even when we remain confined by social mores as to what is and isn’t acceptable to say out loud.

On the cusp of becoming a household name, as Cardi infiltrated the consciousness of moms and aunties, a critical conversation arose about just how Cardi performs her femininity. It’s valid to say the way Cardi presented herself was largely for male consumption and remains as such.

She was a stripper, after all. Instagram is an equally visual business and so is TV. The lengths she’s taken to showcase her ample cleavage and behind, to gloss her lips and paint her eyes point to a religious adherence to American beauty standards. That being said, the sandpaper texture of her self-expression is everything but lady-like.

Once that thread unravels, you realize that Cardi isn’t simply regurgitating what she’s been taught when it comes to performing femininity. There is, to use W.E.B. DuBois’ turn of phrase, a double-consciousness that Cardi B is employing. You can hear it through the zeal with which she rapped her 2017 single “Bodak Yellow.”

Explanations such as such as, “Lil bitch, you can’t fuck with me if you wanted to: / These expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes” and “I don’t dance now, I make money moves” speak to a duality. Cardi is both the hip-hopper who can speak the language of gang affiliations — “bloody” as in the Bloods — as well as the ambitious career woman who values a good pair of Christian Louboutins.

More than Bronx bravado, Cardi gives us an understanding of what it takes to survive in the capital-driven, heteropatriarchy that is America in “Bodak Yellow.” She just consolidates a whole semester’s worth of gender studies readings into a digestible, catchy 3-minute-and-43-second trap banger. Speaking to upward mobility and how it ties into her womanness, Cardi B a Marxist for the trap set.

She talks using sex to gain YSL and how success gave her the disposal income to fix her teeth. She mentions the finest cars and gourmet dinners, name-dropping Rolex and nodding to her stint on LHHNY. It’s a brilliantly feminist preface to “Invasion of Privacy:” Cardi is unforgettable, because of how hard she works in every aspect of her life and how she shines in such a hypermasculine, male-dominated niche of the music industry. It’s cliche to point to her rags to riches story: Cardi’s work ethic is personal development on steroids — her job, her looks, her status symbols, her charm.

Beyond her first big, charting single, Cardi continued to deliver as a feminist icon. She confirmed her relationship with Offset, a member of the rap trio Migos. On display then was another layer of Belcalis Almanzar: lovestruck and giddy. Offset’s on-stage proposal to Cardi didn’t just cement late 2017 as cuffing season, but it ushered in a rose-tinted era of hood fairytales, such as Gucci Mane and Keyshia Ka’oir.

Remarkably, Cardi’s vulnerability as a woman didn’t diminish her street credibility as rapper. In fact, it paved the way for collaborations such as “Motorsport” with Nicki Minaj. It also laid the foundation for empowering moments, such as when Cardi dismissed pregnancy rumors by requesting that the media let her “fat in peace” [sic] — right in line with Cardi’s body positivity regarding her teeth and later, her belly hair.

Open-heartedness was in full swing in “Be Careful” and “Thru Your Phone,” where she addressed heartbreak and the nature of monogamy in the wake of Offset infidelity rumors.

She revisited body positivity in Chance the Rapper collaboration “Best Life,” where the two banter about self-confidence and self-reliance. Cardi’s Afro-Latinx roots are apparent in the salsa-tinged bop about her expensive tastes, “I Like It,” featuring reggaeton stars Bad Bunny and J Balvin. But it was also apparent Cardi hadn’t lost her tough-girl edge.

Album opener “Get Up 10” has gained attention as a feminine homage to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” with its somber piano that flips to an eardrum-rattling manifesto. On the other hand, “Drip” is all Cardi: “Is she a stripper, a rapper or a singer?” she asks before proclaiming, “I’m busting bucks in a Bentley Bentayga / Ride through your hood like, ‘Bitch, I’m the mayor!’”

Beyond being the girl-(from-the-hood)-next-door with a soft side and a taste for transparency, Cardi is solidly a third-wave feminist with her work. If first-wave feminists championed women’s suffrage and second-wave feminists charged from the kitchen to the boardroom, third-wavers came along to talk frankly about women reclaiming their sexuality and rape culture.

Cardi is already living the second-wave dream of having it all as a quickly charting rapper and an expecting mother. “Why can’t I do both?” Cardi asked during her Hot97 interview. Moving into third-wave ideologies, Cardi became the first rapper to publicly join the #MeToo conversation and tie the hashtag into the victim-blaming and slut-shaming that pervades the hip-hop community.

Likewise, the sex positivity of “Invasion of Privacy” reigns supreme in the album’s strongest tracks: “Bickenhead” and “I Do” with R+B songstress SZA.

Cardi’s “Bickenhead” is both so pleasing and so effective, specifically because it’s performed by a woman. “Pop that pussy like poppin’ pussy is goin’ out of style / Pop that pussy while you work, pop that pussy up at church / Pop that pussy on the pole, pop that pussy on the stove,” Cardi advises. “Make that pussy slip and slide like you from the 305 / Put your tongue out in the mirror, pop that pussy while you drive.”

Because of the concept of the male gaze and women acting with men only in mind, those imperative lyrics would have had a different meaning behind them if they had been performed by a man. Instead of a man’s commands to be a sexual object, Cardi’s lyrics empower women to be the sexual subject, if they please. Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you: dance with reckless abandon. Everywhere.

Cardi manages to do this feminist work without sounding like she’s on a soapbox. Instead, she’s simply that woman who dared to forego a cardigan in New York City’s autumn, twirling freely in a hotel hallway.

Meanwhile, the icy “I Do” is the women’s ultimate guide to staying unbothered in the heteropatriarchy. It’s also pure gold for one-liners.

Early on, Cardi quips, “Pussy so good I say my own name during sex.” This already oozes confidence and self-love. Then, playing agony aunt, Cardi B says, “Leave his texts on read, leave his balls on blue / Put it on airplane mode so none of those calls come through.” If you’re faced with the double-edged millennial sword of undefined relationship and don’t know how to cut the cord with a petulant lover? Cardi’s got it covered.

And there’s a sonnet that would make Petrarch swoon: “Broke hoes do what they can. / Good girls do what they told. / Bad bitches do what they want: / That’s why a bitch is so cold. / I’m a gangsta in a dress; / I’m a bully in the bed. / Only time that I’m a lady’s when / I lay these hoes to rest.” Point-for-point, Cardi disregards society’s mold of the ideal woman and raps with an executioner’s finality — the same way she did, three years ago, when she decided that any woman unfortunate enough to have beef with Cardi B was forever doomed.

So if you’re nestled on a couch or stand-offishly nursing a rum + coke on a rooftop this summer, wondering “Why?” as you watch women rush to the center of the party when Cardi B flits onto the speakers: now you know. You’d be hard-pressed to elicit the same reaction by taking the DJ’s mic or unplugging a friend’s aux cord to play your Maya Angelou audiobook. Looking at the bits and pieces of Cardi B — from the once-crooked teeth, sculpted braids and Fashion Nova ensembles to her brass-knuckle verses and bubbly personality— there’s so much more to that loud-mouthed Instagram thot from the Bronx. And maybe there isn’t, and that’s perfectly OK, too.

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