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Deconstructing the Gender Binary in Contemporary Music

By Ashley Levi

Throughout history, the male race has used a myriad of mediums to place themselves in a
an superior position to women. Music today narrates the societal rhetoric where women are seen
in a subordinate light, characterized by their body’s offerings rather than their intellectual
contributions. This is emphasized by “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)”, a song by Kendrick Lamar, an
American rapper from Compton, CA. In his song, he writes of a seventeen year old girl who is
swallowed by the degrading industry of prostitution. Through the use of women’s body as a tool,
reference to authoritative figures tied with the irony of religion, and the powerful symbolism of
cars, Lamar effectively proves the struggle of women in a society where they are valued by their
ability to satisfy the needs and desires of a man.

Lamar begins his song with recognizing the ever-present objectification of women’s
bodies when writing of the young woman’s routine as a prostitute. The mere fact that many
women in society are seen giving up their dignity and bodies to men but the opposite is never
seen reveals the weak nature of men’s ability to control and suppress their desires. Consequently,
women are expected to compensate for this weakness and must repress their feelings and wants.
This strong male desire leads society to believe that all women should be valued by their
appearances and as a result, their sexual value instead of their intellect and character. Lamar
writes “Uh, and Lord knows she’s beautiful / Lord knows the usuals leaving her body
sore.” (lines 3-4) This recognition of the young woman’s appearance as the first and, deductively,
her most significant trait furthers the argument that women are not seen for who they are but
rather what they look like. This subordination of a woman’s worth is common in society to
reduce a female mere physical characteristics instead of mental or emotional ones. Through this,
men are able to turn their fear of being incomplete over to the women in their lives. Lamar
continues to develop the exploitation of the woman describing “Her anatomy is God’s temple /
and it’s quite simple, her castle is about to be destroyed.” (23-24) As Lamar describes the
woman’s body, he recognizes the significance it holds for all. A woman’s body represents the
formation and fulfillment of life, a beautiful concept that manifests itself in a delicate form,
where humans seek refuge and relief. Lamar’s reference to her body as a temple furthers this
sentiment, where many go for a similar feeling of validation and comfort even if it takes a toll on
the woman. This allusion of a woman’s sacrifice in childbirth and rearing extends to the needs of
a man, long after he is a child. Through this allusive nature, Lamar successfully communicates a
man’s need for validation and comfort in oneself at the expense of the woman. In the song, the
young prostitute must subject her comfort and self-respect to a man who is solely seeking the
juvenile attention from women through sex. This concept allows women to become a tool for
men to satisfy their want instead of forcing men to find self-fulfillment through other mediums.
This subordination of women as a whole is progressed by the industry of prostitution. As the
storyline in the song progresses, Lamar writes of the hypocritical nature of police because
although they are supposed to arrest the prostitutes, they will have sex with the women to let
them off without charge, “Said if he seen whats between her thighs he’d compromise.” (28) This
regarding situation is just one example of the way men in higher societal power subordinate
women below them. Men use their social construct of a hierarchy to especially subordinate
women who are below them in the paradigm. As a result, men are able to manipulate women by
using their power as leverage to get what they want. Not only does this exploitation intimidate a
woman, but degrades her because of its meaningless reasoning.

Throughout the song, Lamar references powerful and authoritative figures to establish the
male race’s power over women in today’s society. In the first line of every stanza, Lamar repeats
the lyrics, “And Lord knows she’s beautiful” to highlight the over-bearing power of man in
society. Through referencing God, Lamar acknowledges the fact that although awful, the
exploitation of women is recognized and revealed. Because of God’s all knowing nature, Lamar
is able to draw a parallel with society in which they understand and see the inequality but, unlike
God, fail to remedy the issues. Although comforting, God’s presence also establishes yet another
hierarchy where humans are below the all knowing, and in the societal structure of humans,
women are at the bottom. Lamar continues the use of authoritative figures when he writes that
the young prostitute should, “Just give all to her daddy, but she don’t know her father, that’s
ironic.” (14) This reference to the dark history that many women struggle with in sexual
industries while in a low socio-economic status, further reinforces the manipulation of women
into inferior positions. The young woman has grown up without a father figure in her life, and
she must now answer to a man whose only interest in her is the revenue she brings — this
dangerous path leads to a questioning of self worth and competence. The intense affects of being
neglected as a child only worsen the woman’s situation as she feels unwanted by men
emotionally but is quite literally chased for her genitalia. This pining for fulfillment in others is a
common thread in most women, as they are raised to make others happy, even if it means they
must surrender their comfort and dignity. This reference to a “daddy” creates an air of irony and
struggle because of the value placed on her physical qualities. Lamar continues to use dominant
figures while writing of the “… sergeant let her slide.” (27) Through the use of the word
“sergeant”, Lamar establishes an air of dominance in the encounter between the young woman
and a police officer. In the situation, the sergeant has a clear stance of superiority in our societal
and governmental structure, in a profession usually reserved for men. The use of this position
allows for the male to be in a superior position where the woman must listen and obey as his
subordinate. This use of authoritative male figures imposing their opinions and desires upon
women successfully illustrates the inferior position women have in society.

Lamar furthers the emphasis on the subordination of women through the employment of
powerful symbolism surrounding cars. Firstly, in the chorus, Lamar writes of the “Fancy girls, on
Long Beach Boulevard / Flagging down all of these flashy cars.” (1-2) The societal position of
an expensive and notable car is one of rank and prestige — it becomes a status symbol. In the
song, as the women are trying to attract the men in the expensive cars, they immediately are put
in an inferior position because they are chasing something of higher rank in the societal construct
that has been created. As these lines are repeated throughout the song, the idea of a hierarchy
with women at the mercy of men becomes reality because they have to subject themselves to the
power of a man to be able to survive. This is furthered by the idea that when “The seven cars
start honking, she start running” (10), the woman puts aside everything to be at the mercy of a
man. Of course, the young woman has no emotional desire to satisfy the needs of the men
honking at her as if she were insignificant but she must exploit herself to make a living. The
significance of the car honking at her treats her as if she a young child or a person at which
someone else expels their anger. Woman are oftentimes used as a “punching bag” in society
where their husbands, fathers, and many male figures in their lives take out frustration and anger
upon the women, for no reason other than in vain. Moreover the irony of the cars is ever present
in the text because of the association with cars of running away and freedom. It is clear that the
young woman in the song and women in society struggle to escape male oppression, and striving
to break boundaries and stereotypes only worsens male dominance because he feels threatened.
Lamar furthers the idea of an oppressed female race through the symbolism of cars when writing,
“See a block away from Lueders Park, I seen the El Camino parked.” (15) This line furthers the
idea that women are subordinated by men through the significance of the El Camino. An El
Camino is a muscle car, representing male masculinity and yet another status symbol that puts
men above women. This symbolism also extends to represent a phallic symbol, where men try to
compensate for traits they are lacking and that make them feel as if they are losing grip with their
masculinity. Essentially, men try to better their position in the social hierarchy by buying into
“masculine” products to make up for their physical insecurities. Lamar establishes parallel
structure with the line above when writing, “It was a block away from Lueders Park, I seen a
squad car parked.” (33) Not only does the police officer’s car represent the male compensation
for insecurities, but also furthers the idea that many males uses car to establish their societal
standings. Although the squad car isn’t expensive or flashy, it represents power and order in
society, a symbol that is used to enumerate the oppression of women. Men seek to have
trademark objects of power and authority like cars to establish dominance over women.

Through his powerful lyrics in “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” Kendrick Lamar is able to
highlight the battle women have to fight to escape male oppression. Through the use of women’s
body as a sexual object, reference to authoritative figures and positions, and the powerful
masculinity tied to cars, Lamar uses his text to show a cry of help from a woman trapped in the
world of male dominance. Moreover, Lamar shows how other societal institutions such as the
socio-economic hierarchy and religion aid the male role in subordinating women.

Works Cited

Lamar, Kendrick. “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain).” Section.80, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2011