I have an ongoing interest in using music, particularly popular music, to examine the systems of inequality that so plague our world. For the past few days, the song “Trading Places” by Usher has been on my mind. The song, about a heterosexual male and heterosexual female “swapping roles,” so to speak presents this act as one of transformation, but in reality it is an act of inversion, relying heavily on gender stereotypes.
In this essay, I would like to examine the tendency for us to see acts of inversion as acts of transformation, and the way that we lazily rely on gender stereotypes.
Patriarchy as a system is one that hinges on male domination, and as a result it relies on a number of gender stereotypes to shore up its existence. For example, we are told that women can only do x, y, z, and that men can only do t, u v. Oftentimes, we do not even notice our complicity in the system, but Usher’s song provides an opportunity to examine some of the many stereotypes we hold about men and women.
Usher’s “Trading Places” is something of a patriarchal manifesto, but it fancies itself as transformation. But, in patriarchy, trading places is not transformation.
The song begins, “I know what you’re used to, We’re gonna do something different tonight.” The song really does believe that it is a transformation of gender stereotypes, rather than a mere inversion, but the subsequent lyrics of the song tell the true story, and reveals that places are being traded, but the mentality is one still rooted in gender stereotypes. In many relationships, particularly those that see themselves as challenging gender norms, the physicality changes, but the mentality stays the same.
Let’s examine some of the places that are traded in Usher’s world of gender stereotypes. The song continues, “You’re gonna come over and pick me up in your ride.” In the patriarchal imagination only men do the picking up on dates. Apparently, that is a man’s role, and the inversion of this is to have the woman do it. “You’re gonna open my door, and I’m gonna reach over and open yours.” Now in my mind, opening doors is a gender neutral act, but in the patriarchal imagination, one heavily populated by gender stereotypes, only the man opens doors.
In the second verse of the song, the song takes on a troubling narrative that relies all to heavily on gender stereotypes of men and sexual violence. Usher sings, “Girl, now take me home and get up in my pants. Pour me up a shot and *force* me to the bed.” Not only do these lyrics rely on dangerous gender stereotypes about men and sexuality, but they also tacitly support a culture of rape that imagines sex as an act of force, rather than an act of consent and mutuality.
As the song goes on, the gender stereotypes continue to roll off the assembly line. In the patriarchal world of gender stereotypes, men take out the trash while women wash the dishes, women iron clothes while men mess them up.
It’s fascinating, but not entirely surprising, that in the 21st century we still rely on these very primitive gender stereotypes about male and female behavior. I may be naive, but I would like to believe that opening doors, washing dishes, and picking up someone for a date are all gender neutral acts. Are these acts really the province of one gender, rather than the other?
I think it is most telling that the song repeats the refrain “I’m always on top, tonight I’m on the bottom.” I have long held the belief that viewing relationships as a top/bottom affair is a very destructive notion. In a relationship based on mutuality, there is no top/bottom or front/back, but rather two, or more, who are walking alongside each other.
I encourage those in relationships, of any sexual orientation, to look beyond gender stereotypes to a horizon that is rooted in gender transformation, rather than gender inversion. Our lives are worth more than the stereotypes we insist on defining it by. I would suggest that the answer isn’t trading places, but removing the need for their to be a “place,” to begin with.