Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lil Wayne Made Me Cry!

Have you seen the video for Lil Wayne's "How to Love"? If not, check it out.

Now, I'm not going to act like Lil Wayne is a source I expected to be analyzing for commentary on motherhood, but hey, I'm just the messenger. (To be fair, I doubt Lil Wayne himself had much to do with the script of the video, but he's the public persona associated with it. I stand corrected. Don't stereotype, kids; even people who love Purple Drank can create complex commentary on social issues.)

So, the video starts in a clinic where a woman is about to get an abortion but tearfully changes her mind and runs from the room. This is followed by a series of shots of the woman's subsequent daughter. We see her (the daughter) undergo a series of trauma as the screaming infant while her mother is beaten, a sad pre-schooler visiting her mother's boyfriend (possibly her father? possibly the same man who beat her? though the "lot of crooks" lyric suggests these are different people) in prison, a pre-teen being sexually assaulted by another of her mother's men, a teenager wearing torn fishnets and making out with a man in public, a young adult with two children (one very light-skinned, one dark-skinned, suggesting different fathers), a stripper who goes home with a customer, and finally a patient in the same clinic getting positive HIV results with her mother by her side.

Then we're treated to a quick rewind through the previous scenes and we're taken back to the one of the infant crying as her mother is beaten. In this new trajectory, the pre-schooler witnesses her mother's wedding, she then becomes an attentive school girl, followed by a flirty teenager (instead of fishnets, she's wearing leopard-print tights, sneakers, and glasses; instead of making out on the steps, she's engaged in casual conversation with a guy). The would-be stripper is now in beauty school, now graduating with her mother and another woman (grandmother? the same woman who takes her mother in when she ditches the abuser?) at her side. We end back where we began: the clinic. The daughter waits anxiously with her mother for the test results. She's pregnant, an announcement they both greet with joy. The daughter then thanks her mother for teaching her how to love.

First of all, I have to give the video credit for pulling off a pretty complex narrative in a short space. Look at how much writing it took to summarize the plot. And it's done very well, with smooth transitions between time and a clear trajectory that's easy to follow both forwards, backwards, and forwards again. It's skillfully put together.

Now I'd like to look at some of the themes it's exploring:

Responsibility of Mothers
The implication is clear. The mother's choice to give her daughter life is followed by a series of choices that ultimately take it away. It's clear that we're playing with the word "choice," here. Choosing to keep a pregnancy is just one choice that affects the unborn child; there are a plethora of others, and this video makes the argument that the following ones are equally important.

What's more, the mother of the woman in the video isn't shown to be an unloving mother. She's often shown comforting her daughter. She's asleep when her daughter is molested, so she isn't a willing bystander. She's there for support when her daughter gets the HIV results. She's not some horrible person who has a child she's not taking care of; she's just a person who makes decisions that make it impossible for her to take care of her child in a positive way.
The Role of Marriage/Love
The second sequence suggests marriage as a cure-all to host of social ills: multi-father pregnancies, molestation, promiscuity, prostitution. I can see how this can be criticized, as there are many people in committed relationships who choose not to (or can't legally) marry. And, of course, there are overtones of the "black marriage crisis," which is a topic of social debate in many spheres, academic and non.

Those larger issues aside, this video is still getting at a very real message: life is a lot easier when you have the support of someone else, if you--such as it is--know "how to love." And love is not something that you can discover on your own. It doesn't matter how much you want to love properly; if you don't have someone loving properly on the other end, it doesn't happen. In this song "love" is not a one-way emotional response (like the unrequited love or immediate lust so often the subject of songs), but a mutually crafted relationship.

I don't want to start an abortion debate, but did anyone notice the nurse's cross? In the final scene (the one that ends with the announcement of a wanted pregnancy) she's prominently wearing a gold cross. In the other clinic scenes (the ones that result in an almost-abortion and an AIDS diagnosis), the nurse is either shielded from view or not wearing the cross.

Men's Roles
I can see an argument that this video puts too much blame on women as the one's perpetuating cycles of social plight. It is the mother, after all, who is thanked in the second sequence for teaching her daughter how to love, which implies that she is also the one who failed to do so in the first sequence. Even the man the mother marries in the second sequence is a mostly faceless character who is never shown interacting with the daughter. However, if we take the "love" message as being a two-way street, men (or the other partners in any relationships) have just as much responsibility for crafting healthy families. (However, the scene where the daughter happily finds out she's pregnant has no father present, so even in the positive worldview, the women are the ones dealing with children).

Also, no matter how much commentary there is that men should be equal partners in child-rearing, the reality of the situation is that women do most of it throughout the world. And there are millions of single mothers raising children, and they do--fairly or not--have the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to making decisions about the environments those children will live in, even if they don't have the bulk of the control.

Some Qualms
Some of the lyrics: "I just want you to know you deserve the best/You're beautiful"

Now, you could say that this is a reference to beauty in an abstract sense. All women are beautiful. That sort of thing, but I still think there's a message that this woman deserves better because she's beautiful. Surely women who don't meet the societal standards of beauty also deserve better.

A connected lyric: "And I want you to know you're far from the usual/far from the usual"

Again, a woman doesn't need to be unique to deserve to live free from abuse and have a loving partner.

One last thing--girls in torn fishnets can be smart, too.


  1. Lil Wayne made me cry, too. Thanks for posting this on Facebook. A great read!

  2. Fabulous analysis, thank you! I love all your positive points !

    It seems to ignore the active harm the men cause as well -- a sort of denial of agency for the men who could also make different choices. Maybe that's for a whole 'nother video...!

  3. Yeah, it's definitely problematic that women (or at least the mother, as the daughter isn't really given much agency) are shown to have a choice in how their lives go, but men seem to be automatically categorized as "good" or "bad," mostly bad. But I wonder what a montage of one of the "bad" men's lives from the video would look like?