Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 | 7 minutes (1,984 words)
The album art for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer” has her riding a bottle of Hennessy like a bronco, with Nicki Minaj strapped in behind her. Both rappers have their arms up, their boobs out, their hair down. The flames around them are redundant. Before it was a song, Hot Girl Summer was a meme, with the 24-year-old freestyle genius dropping the mixtape Fever a month ahead of the summer solstice. That art is even better, a throwback to the flyest of fly blaxploitation: “She’s thee hot girl and she’s bringing thee heat” (more redundant flames surround her). Named Stallion for her statuesque beauty and with fans known as Hotties, Megan rebranded the aestival months as Hot Girl Summer. In the August issue of Paper magazine, she calls it a movement. The rapper told The Root that being a hot girl is not about being a certain type of sexy — it’s about “women, and men, just being unapologetically them.” But there are clear parameters here, which encompass a look — 5’11’’, hourglass — and a personality: “You definitely have to be a person that could be like the life of the party, and, you know, just a bad bitch.” Hot Girl Summer isn’t Taraji P. Henson in spectacles quietly doing actual rocket science, it’s Halle Berry in an orange bikini popping up out of the surf as Bond gawks. While Hot Girl Summer rejects the idea that a woman, notably a black woman, has to be answerable to anyone — a poignant reminder in a climate of rampant misogyny — the movement still implies a sexy young object of someone else’s desire.
“Even in your new bitch, I can see a lot of me,” Minaj guest raps on the track. Her presence alone complicates Hot Girl Summer. She may be riding Megan’s bikini strings in that single, but Minaj came first. She has the same talent, the same raunch, the same bod. What she doesn’t have is the likability. If Megan flows, Minaj clips. Her fame is pock-marked with feuds — the kind that boost male rappers’ cred, but weigh down women’s. Women are supposed to be cordial, right? And they really shouldn’t be complaining about pickle juice. As Minaj herself put it: “When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss.” Though people tried to pit them against each other, Megan refused to fight with Minaj, embracing her instead, even dressing like her for the “Hot Girl Summer” video. She acted according to the strictures of femininity, its sweetness, its cooperation, its hotness, you could say. Because in the context of Hot Girl Summer, hotness designates all things feminine, which is to say the qualities traditionally coded masculine — confidence, independence, industriousness — but also the qualities — beauty, likeability, domesticity — traditionally coded feminine. To be hot you have to balance both, and Minaj does not. Megan does. So do Miley Cyrus and Megan Rapinoe and a number of other famous women (Chloe x Halle, Jada Pinkett Smith) who have adopted the phrase. These women fight gender norms, but they owe their victory in part to embodying them: Hot Girl Summer is hot women who subvert the hotness that allows them to do just that.
In the 1960s, Carolee “body beautiful” Schneemann originated modern nude performance art. In a 2013 interview for Salon, she told me she needed to be hot for it to succeed. In one of her most famous works, Interior Scroll (1975), she pulls a stream of text from her vagina, parodying the critiques she had received as a woman creating self-reflexive art. Schneemann told me her body “was able to confuse the issues because it worked as a double agent: It was conventionally attractive, it could receive attention, and then, what it was doing in terms of my own creative imaging was subverting expectations.” Things haven’t changed much. Just two years ago, Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman jumped off of Hilary Clinton’s reputation for being “shrill,” a year earlier Lindy West used the same slur for the title of her memoir. Petersen’s book focuses on women who did not fit the patriarchal archetype of female desirability (Serena Williams, Melissa McCarthy) and women who did but deigned to either grow older or get pregnant (Madonna, Kim Kardashian): “The difference between cute, acceptable unruliness and unruliness that results in ire is often as simple as the color of a woman’s skin, whom she prefers to sleep with, and her proximity to traditional femininity.”
Her omnipresence announces that a black woman can have all the power, including the power to reclaim the tropes — sexual aggression, for one — that have been used against her for so long.
Megan Thee Stallion’s own unruliness boils down to fucking around as much as men, while snatching some of the power back for female rappers that male MCs have hoarded for so long. “Got a whole lot of options ‘cause you know a bitch poppin’,” she goes. “I’m a hot girl, so you know ain’t shit stoppin’.” Not only is Megan the hottest MC around right now — she is the first female rapper signed to 300 Entertainment — but with Hot Girl Summer she defines the culture with a mere three words that are now so ubiquitous she has even filed to trademark them. It isn’t just that she can freestyle the pants off any dude, that if twerking were an Olympic sport she’d be Simone Biles, but that her omnipresence announces that a black woman can have all the power, including the power to reclaim the tropes — sexual aggression, for one — that have been used against her for so long. Not to mention the power to defuse them, as Megan does with the old cliché that women in hip-hop have to face off to make their mark. Of course, some “dusty-ass fuccbois” couldn’t resist trying to take ownership of another woman’s work. But Hot Boy Summer was as flaccid as the big brands (Wendy’s, Maybelline, Forever 21) trying to co-opt Hot Girl Summer for themselves, stripping the statement of its original force. “They talking about they wins and they doing grimy stuff,” Megan said of the Hot Boys. “I’m like, ‘No baby, that’s not how you get points.’”
Some white girls tried to score their own points. Miley Cyrus recently filmed herself twerking — if that’s what you can call it — to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Simon Says,” dropping her ass down when she should have just been sitting on it. What landed her under the #hotgirlsummer hashtag may have had more to do with her lips — the same day it was announced that she had split from husband Liam Hemsworth, photos surfaced of her kissing Kaitlynn Carter, who had herself just split from her husband, Brody Jenner. The pair was on a group holiday in Lake Como, but the way it played you would have thought they were the only women left in a post-apocalyptic world, rising, lips locked, from the ashes of heterosexual domesticity. Cyrus was held up as a symbol of the rejection of a woman’s expected trajectory in favor of the fluid sexuality that had always seemed to fit her better. In the past, she admitted that she didn’t go for “the stereotypical wife role,” so seeing her kiss Carter was like witnessing her shrug off the yoke of convention before our very eyes. All that being said, these were two hot famous white women, who, despite gesturing toward queerness and the notion that no woman has to end up with a man, publicly claimed they were just friends, further lubing up the idea that two women together only really exist to serve a male fantasy.
The female fantasy was pretty much covered by Megan Rapinoe anyway. It seemed like the entirety of womankind was lusting after the cocaptain of the United States women’s national soccer team this summer ahead of their win at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. That whip of white hair, those doe eyes, that body — she was like a Nordic ice queen, and even better, one who stands for equal rights on and off the field. When she glibbed, “I’m not going to the fucking White House,” it was like she was speaking from our very souls. And then she scored on France, ran to the corner of the field and stood with arms wide open, chest out, a self-confident smile on her face; it was all we could do not to run into them. We’re used to men performing with this kind of swagger, not women. Rapinoe told The Wall Street Journal it “just felt right in this moment, to have me and the person I am and the things that I stand for with a big shit-eating grin on my face.” Then she took off her clothes. After the team’s world cup win, images from the May swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated went viral, showing Rapinoe, the first openly gay woman to appear in the spread, in barely there bathing suits, alternately winking at us and flipping the bird. What better way to tempt the world (SI is a men’s mag, remember) into agreeing that not only can a gay woman be as good as a man, but that she also deserves to be recognized for it.
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For Rapinoe to exist, it’s likely that Brandi Chastain had to come first, but she wasn’t celebrated the same way. Twenty years ago, after scoring the winning penalty-shootout goal in the 1999 World Cup final, Chastain, without thinking, ripped off her top, like so many guys before her, spun it around and then dropped to her knees, triumphing in her sports bra. The photograph of that moment has since become iconic, but at the time Chastain was accused of selling out, whether it was in terms of objectifying herself or stealth advertising her sponsor’s underwear. She was forced to tearfully deny at a press conference that Nike had asked her to undress. But that didn’t stop Andrea Peyser from writing in The New York Post, “Perhaps we’ve held our female athletes to a standard that’s too high. Just because a woman can run, jump, kick or strip with excellence, it doesn’t stand to reason that she is, by definition, a suitable role model for all girls, everywhere.” (This despite Charles Barkley six years earlier appearing in a Nike ad announcing, “I am not a role model.”) Imagine writing that now about Rapinoe? But then, this is 2019, an era in which fluid sexuality, fluid gender, and equality are the topics du jour, an era in which an ultra-gorgeous lesbian can act as a spoonful of sugar to make the work of actual activism go down.
“I would welcome the opportunity to be unapologetically me without thinking about hotness at all and while being an adult woman.” My editor wrote that rap. It was her response to this column. I could almost hear her exhaling with exhaustion when she sent it to me. It makes me think of the #MeToo naming debacle. The way Tarana Burke had coined the phrase in 2006 and loudly fought for civil rights and gender equity while the wider culture just kind of kept being racist and sexist. And then a famous white woman, Alyssa Milano, every teen boy’s fantasy in the ’80s, started using it and suddenly it was a movement. Doing away with gender norms should not require the expression of those norms in their fullest form. It’s not the worst to be in a world in which the response to toxic masculinity is to listen to a hot rapper empowering women to be unapologetically themselves. Or a hot singer empowering women not to take “I do” for an answer, or a hot athlete empowering women to stand arms open for equal rights. But the world might be that much better had we chosen to listen the first time around, when the summer was not so hot it could burn.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.