Discussing Agency and Complicity or; It’s Not About Whose Fault It Is

I recently got into an argument with a friend of mine about Aaliyah and R. Kelly. He is thinking of writing an article about Aaliyah. So he asked me what I thought about her. My friend has the tendency to demonize men and worship women and when we discussed how much influence R. Kelly had on Aaliyah, the artist, we came to a head.


Let me explain:


Aaliyah was a strikingly original presence in black pop music. What she did was layer herself in so much mystery and intrigue that you became captivated by what she wasn’t showing you far more than what she was. From the dark sunglasses and the lock of hair that always fell directly over her right eye, to her preference for wearing baggy pants, long flowing coats and bearing only her midriff, to her tendency to never really look directly into the camera. (In fact, check the Rock The Boat video where when she does, she turns her head for a second, beckoning you into her mystery; replete with the coy, mischievious smile that was her trademark).


And her music was blues. Everything she sang had an undercurrent of sadness to it. She bent the notes to subtly evoke what was either her enormous sadness or her inate ability to relate to enormous sadness.


What my friend argued was that she wasn’t sad until after her relationship with R. Kelly ended and the sadness you hear in One In a Million, 4 Page Letter, Try Again, Come Over (her stunning unreleased song with the enormously underrated Tank) and especially, I Care 4 U and I Refuse is a result of being traumatized by her relationship with him. I didn’t necessarily disagree, but I warned him that he should inject doubt into his argument and contemplate the possibility that the love she had for R. Kelly might have felt very real to her. That it might not have been just a case of him seducing her, that it is entirely possible given patriarchal rules governing behavior that infect our society that Aaliyah might have been a willing participant in the relationship. By that I mean, “willing” in the sense that in her mind she felt that she “chose” him and was not seduced and that anything that happened she allowed to happen.


What my friend failed to recognize was that 1) I was not excusing R. Kelly’s behavior and 2) understanding complicity has nothing to do with fault. He accused me of calling Aaliyah a “machiavellian tart”. He did not understand that talking about a person’s complicity doesn’t mean that one is placing fault at their doorstep. The problem with my friend is he has a fundamental inability to remove the whole issue of “fault” from the argument. His intention in writing his essay on Aaliyah, from what I could gather from his arguments, was to paint her as a helpless victim of a sinister R. Kelly, that her image was an extension of that trauma, and that she had no real choice in becoming the beguiling, sad, mysterious creature that she became after that relationship ended.


This bothers me tremendously. As cultural critics, it is important for us to be as objective as possible and be honest about the ways in with socializing forces work. The nature of gender relations in our country are so strong that they affect the “victims” in ways that allow for them to sometimes act in complicity with their “oppressors”. This complicity allows you to understand that people don’t invite problems and oppression, but they don’t fully understand to extent to which they really are hampered in their own thoughts and actions to truly divest of systems of oppression and domination.


For example, black women act in complicity with patriarchal notions of male primacy when once they’ve achieved status, money, etc in their lives they feel “incomplete” without a good man in their life. This is domination. Black women have been raised to believe that their job in life is to find a man. Even today, with all the opportunities and successes they find, they encounter people in their lives (usually family and other men) who question, “what is wrong with ma” if she doesn’t have a man in her life. Women over 30 fret about this because oftentimes men look at them like something must be wrong if they don’t have a man “already.”


All of this is patriarchal ways of thinking.


It’s all about overvaluing the presence of men in the lives of women. That is patriarchy’s real power. It is not just about domestic violence, rape, subservience, raising children. It’s about women being raised to feel that they are not fully actualized unless they have a man in their life.


This kind of socializing factor is everywhere. Take Joan on Girlfriends, constantly obsessing about a man. Listen to Jill Scott’s The Fact Is (I Need You), where she goes on and on about all the things she can be, but oops, wait…I am nothing until I have a man. Or her song, I’m Not Afraid where she says she’s not afraid to be “your soil” or “your whore”. Because she’s deep and real we ignore the nature of what these images really mean.


This is complicity. Just because you choose patriarchy doesn’t mean it’s no longer oppression. Just because you willing relent to the belief in male primacy, doesn’t mean that you are truly subverting it. You are acting in complicity with it.


Or look at the way women are portrayed in major motion pictures. Nia Long’s character in the movie The Best Man is considered to not even need a man because she’s career driven and independent. Morris Chestnut’s character says she is “one step from a lesbian”. What this implies is that success for a woman threatens male primacy. It means that if you are gonna go off and make your own money and be all independent, what you need a man for?! Because that is the man’s job.


Similarly, Teri Joseph in the Soul Food movie and TV series was constantly painted as unlovable because she was so driven and independent. Interestingly, by the end of the series she gives up her job and her “identity” and she is “rewarded” with the ultimate prize…a man (Boris Kodjoe’s Damon).


NOTE: It is worth noting that the TV series did a very nice job, and Nicole Ari Parker’s shrewd performance over the life of the series did a very nice job, of making many of Teri’s problems very unique to her character. The show did a good job of three-dimensionalizing all the women, but the overarching messages of the show over time was that family was most important…and by family, a woman who was primarily concerned with home and children. Even when interrogating this (with Teri and especially the story arc where Maxine wants to work but ultimately realizes her place is the home) the status quo is never really disrupted and all the women eventually “learn their place.”


This is how black women are socialized in this country. All this art is considered “positive” art for the masses, these are good images we should all strive for. Black people don’t look at gender and sex and class the way we do race. Because all the characters I have discussed are middle class and making money and extolling the virtues of education and blah blah blah, we ignore the subtle ways women are undervalued, achieving middle class status at all costs is overvalued, etc.


My overarching point to my friend was that you strip Aaliyah of agency when you paint her as a helpless victim who was so demonized and terrorized by R. Kelly. You also do a disservice to R. Kelly and men when you position him as a tyrant and act as if his behavior is pathological. Even if we accept the premise that he has a psychological condition–which he most likely does–this is still not pathology. Both assumptions ignore the way in which patriarchy affects both men and women.


We live in a culture that says men are entitled to sex, we live in a culture that says that younger and younger girls are sexy. We condone hip-huggers for the pre-teen set. We dress up Britney Spears as a tart at 16 get all mad and beside ourselves and do it 5 years later with Hilary Duff at 14. What message are we really sending to young women?


The problem with R. Kelly and Aaliyah and sex and gender is a cultural one. We don’t discuss the culture of music that paints women as licentious. We don’t discuss the contradictions that exist when you tell women that being sexy comes from within when media tells them the opposite; Cosmo Girl telling girls at 13 how to get a man, what’s the best place to kiss your boyfriend, how to get a good boyfriend; media putting the bad boy image out there to tempt and titillate from Mickey Rourke and Eddie Murphy in the 80’s to Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and 50 Cent in the 90’s and 00’s.


All of this affects the way in which little girls see sex and gender. So when I asked my friend to just consider that Aaliyah might have felt she was in love with R. Kelly, that she might have been complicit in her oppression, he flipped. I don’t know if she was complicit or to what degree, but it is important to raise doubt, to question the possiblity, to seriously interrogate. He was not willing to do that.


The bottom line, people?


First, complicity is not about fault. It doesn’t mean that because the oppressed party acts in complicity that they deserved it or that it is because of their own doing that the oppression occurred. It merely acknowledges that there are accepted ways of behaving in society that place people in positions where they are oppressed or oppressors. This is how systems of domination work.


Whether it is R. Kelly or Aaliyah’s fault is not the issue. In discussing who she was, her choices need to be interrogated. Allowing feelings of “evil male” cloud what could have been her own choices is doing a disservice to Aaliyah as a thinking person. Victims don’t stumble into being vicitimized. Systems of domination are complex and sometimes we act in complicity with them, especially when we don’t understand how they work.


Again: Complicity has nothing to do with fault. It does not mean you are saying they asked for it, walked into it, it merely means that one inadvertently upholds something. Sometimes that is one’s own oppression and exploitation.


Second, painting any oppressed party or person as a victim strips them of agency. It makes for a portrait that says they could never have gotten out from under what oppressed them. It says that they were doomed and there is nothing you could have done to change things. This is categorically untrue and unfair.


In the case of Aaliyah, my friend didn’t want to discuss the possibility that the reason she and her family didn’t press charges against R. even after the marriage was annulled might have been because, presumably, her career would have been derailed or flat out ruined. Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe they wanted to press charges. Maybe it was a very difficult decision not to do so. But they didn’t do it.


It is important to understand that to raise this issue doesn’t demonize Aaliyah but shows that she (or her family) was very much aware of the consequences of her actions and that she chose what she chose for a reason. We don’t know what that reason is. But it is important as cultural critics to raise all possibilities. Her complicity in the relationship and handling how it ended may have contributed to her melancholy approach to music just as much, if not more, than the relationship itself. But we don’t really know, so we must examine all of it.


Aaliyah was a phenomenally talented and unique woman. One runs the risk of reinscribing notions of male primacy when it is said that who she presented to the public eye was all the work of a man, be it inadvertent or not. You strip her of her agency, you strip her of her artistry when you insinuate that “well she was so sad because R. Kelly ruined her life” as if that is the only thing that affected her work. It ignores the melancholy nature of her work while she was working with R. Kelly. It ignores the way in which her image matured and deepened as she grew older. It ignores the subtle nuances she added over time, loosing the glasses, pulling her hair back, letting it be curly, etc. Essentially, she is reduced to yet another woman undone by a man and her work is an extension of male influence.


This is the tragic mulatto trope at its worst and most dishonest.


Originally written on April 8, 2005

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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