Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following the Lebron James story with great interest. For those who don’t follow sports (or live under a rock), Lebron recently announced that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat, after much hype, speculation, conspiracy theories, and an hour-long ESPN special. That’s all fine and good. I’m not foolish enough to try to opine on such a still touchy subject in a public forum.
What I WILL talk about is the fact that for months, the critical backlash against Lebron has involved blatant, disrespectful, and anti-feminist slut-shaming of his mother based on rumors that she slept with Delonte West, another player on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The rumors have inspired such jabs as the shirt pictured (“You can head south but your mom is riding west”) as well as countless sites, articles, and street corner conversations claiming to verify or dispel the rumors, pondering their effects on Lebron’s game, and employing various other methods of ridiculing him for the alleged indiscretions of his mother. The rumor has grown to be so ubiquitous that when you type “Lebron” into google search, the second thing google suggests is “lebron james mom delonte west”. Dang. You don’t even need to type his last name.
So..why do I care about this gossip-fueled rumor about some basketball player and his mother, neither of whom I’ve ever met? Because the underlying cultural attitudes are dangerously anti-woman, and represent the same misogynistic attitudes about women, honor, sex, and bodily autonomy that lead to rights violations, violence, and even death for women here in the U.S. and all over the world.
The concept of female sexual behavior bringing either honor (with purity and celibacy) or shame (with sex or too much perceived sexiness) upon her family is nothing new. For one, it’s common in hip hop culture, with verses by some of the most famous rappers of all time being populated with what amounts to glorified “yo momma” jokes in lyrical form. (“mess around you’ll find my silk-boxers in your mommas hamper”, etc.) But this attitude isn’t restricted to the realm of hip hop, or the music industry, or even to the American context. And despite the seemingly innocuous nature of a “yo momma” joke, such attitudes can have very sinister consequences for women all over the world.
Perhaps less conspicuously than Lebron’ James’ mother, another woman halfway across the world was also being ridiculed and shamed for her alleged sexual relations over the past few months. Buried amidst the Lebron coverage, the New York Times reported a few weeks ago on the story of Nirupama Pathak, 22, who had recently announced she was secretly engaged to a young man from a caste lower than hers, and was found days later dead in her bedroom. The police have arrested her mother, Sudha Pathak, on suspicion of murder, while the family contends that the death was a suicide.
From the article:
“One thing is absolutely clear,” said Prashant Bhushan, a social activist and lawyer now advising Ms. Pathak’s fiancé. “Her family was trying their level best to prevent her from marrying that boy. The pressure was such that either she was driven to suicide or she was killed.”
When we do things that enable members of society to feel entitled to control the women’s bodies, women get hurt. They get hurt when their name is gleefully dragged around in the mud to shame, embarrass, and dishonor their family, and they get hurt when their families take matters into their own hands to prevent that same shame, embarrassment, and dishonor from coming to be associated with them. I’m not saying that telling a “yo momma” joke is akin to performing an honor killing. But I am saying that, in the case of those who titter at the thought of embarrassing Lebron by commenting on the sexual behavior his mother may or may not have engaged in, the underlying assumptions are the same as those of someone who chooses to undertake an honor killing- a woman’s sexual decisions are not her own to make, but rather, criteria by which to measure the “honor” of her and her family and the ability of the men in her life to maintain control over her body, her actions, and her sexual autonomy.