As a damn near 40-year-old woman, I wouldn’t normally think that my comments on the romantic choices of two folks under 30 would be particularly useful. Those of us who have been through our 20s and lived to tell the tale are clear what a nightmare romance is in your first decade of adulthood; we know that there are no shortcuts to emotional maturity. But as a Hip-Hop Generation Feminist, I care about what Cardi B and Offset’s troubled romance can teach us about how patriarchy works and how women are taught to conflate expressions of power with expressions of love.
This past weekend, Cardi’s estranged husband Offset staged a romantic ambush at her Rolling Loud performance, appearing onstage mid-set with flowers that spelled out “take me back Cardi” in a ploy to win back her affections. Cardi announced earlier this month in an Instagram video that while they remain friends and business partners the couple was separating. Offset in turn has posted his own messages to social media, pleading for her to take him back. While it seems that Offset meant Cardi no physical harm during this display at her show, appearing at someone’s place of work uninvited is a serious breach of boundaries, one that frequently does put women in physical harm.
Stalking behaviors and emotional boundary–breaching have been normalized as romance and desire through popular-culture written and produced by a system controlled by men. Patriarchy works by making women think that the man who will override her will is the one who loves her most. And it works by making men mistake ego and showmanship for vulnerability and accountability. For instance, “the cue card guy” in Love Actually shows up on his best friend’s doorstep to profess his love for his best friend’s wife, and we are asked to sympathize with his plight. Love Jones, an iconic rom-com from my generation, is the story about a man who steals the address of a love interest from her check at the record store where he works as a cashier and pops up at her house to ask her out on a date. Today, he would go to jail. But men and women alike are taught to think of his actions as pursuit of a love interest, despite her almost sure discomfort with a male stranger showing up at her door. We have been conditioned to think that this aggressive approach is hopelessly romantic, vulnerable even.
I asked Shatema Threadcraft, a black feminist political theorist at Dartmouth and author of the book Intimate Justice, why Offset’s breach of Cardi’s boundaries matters. First, Threadcraft said, “though Cardi, as a rich celebrity, is not in the typical situation of a woman having a man show up to her job, we should think about her experience through the lens of women, who are often faced with terrible choices when they have to leave relationships — do they keep showing up to a job every day where they know a violent romantic partner can find them or do they leave that job and endure economic devastation as a result?”
That Offset wasn’t violent with Cardi isn’t the point. He wasn’t invited, and he wasn’t wanted, and Cardi’s choices and desires weren’t respected. “No one put any conditions on what Offset must do in order to win back Cardi’s affections,” Threadcraft said. “Instead everyone put all the conditions on her, insisting that she should take him back, despite his behavior. Male will matters more to people than feminine will. His desires in that moment mattered more while her desires were treated as just being in the way.”
Given the playbook of American romance from which Offset was taking his cues, it’s easy to see how he might think showing up on stage and begging to be taken back is an expression of both love and vulnerability. Offset may truly love Cardi, and she may decide to reunite with him. Neither of these private matters is really a public concern, despite our endless need to adjudicate the private in public. What is imperative is an insistence on a richer, deeper, and more productive emotional vocabulary so that we can come to understand that a romantic partner is not meant to be won and will power is not love.