A lot has been said recently, on Twitter, online and in print, about the growing sexualisation of our culture, in ways more or less insidious.
Whether it’s certain tabloids attacking said sexualisation, or certain broadsheets critiquing said tabloid attacks’ juxtaposition with salacious images of women (sometimes a tad too young?) ‘pouring their curves’ into swimwear, everyone is obsessed with sex, or obsessed with the obsession over sex.
One rather worrying trend which seems to have escaped criticism is the use of the word pimp. From 50 Cent’s boast that he’s a Motherfuckin P.I.M.P. to MTV’s Pimp my Ride (both firm favourites on my iTunes device, naturally), the phrase seems to have become accepted shorthand for achievement. But how?
According to the OED, a pimp is “a man who controls prostitutes and arranges clients for them, taking a percentage of their earnings in return”, and to pimp is “to act or work in a manner suggestive of a pimp to promote the interests of a corrupt or immoral person, esp. for material gain or advancement.”
Not really something to brag about, or to make a TV reality TV show about. But the use of the word has become normalised. Turning to a different source, we see one of the (very many) entries for pimp in Urban Dictionary is “to make better, to fix up”.
And this can’t be brushed off as simply a wilful ignorance of the origins of the term, with those using it not really considering what they’re saying. Look, for instance, at Snoop Dogg’s (sorry, Lion) pride in having spent a while as a pimp [NSFW pictures]. For him it was not for profit but as a game, the fulfilment of a childhood aspiration he equated with glamour and success; but one in which he essentially endorsed the sex trade at all levels, knowingly and willingly.
Nor is it restricted to so-called “youth” culture or musical subgenres (less sub, in the case of hip-hop). What was seen as a doleful epithet not too long ago, redolent of scorn and disgust (see Withnail’s dismissal of a rival: “I’m not going to understudy anyone, especially that little pimp!”) has become shorthand for improvement and achievement.
When car dealerships (essentially white middle-class, middle aged businessmen) are distributing news to be read by other dealers (more of the same) about how they have “pimped their part exes” for charity, it becomes quite clear that this is something that has permeated most strata, losing its negative impute to become respectable, without even a hint of irony.
One word with similarities, although also very different at so many levels, is the use of the N-word. This is has its similarities, in that it is a once negative word that has been turned around to denote something more positive, or to at least have positive aspects. However it is nowhere near the same for several reasons.
Firstly, because that word still, and rightly, has the ability to cause massive controversy when used, by someone of any race. One only has to look at the furore surrounding its use in Tarantino’s Django Unchained to see it still has the power to shock.
Secondly, because it can only be used by one section of society, and that is the people it was originally used to disenfranchise. Again, this is off topic, and the arguments over whether or not it should be used at all require a PhD length discussion to fully comprehend.
Also, the word pimp is used as an aggrandising term, not to empower the people enslaved (sex workers), but those doing the enslaving. It is not a case of the weak punching up, but of the strong punching down. And glamourising themselves by so doing.
Perhaps there is still some power in the word, although it is very much diluted. While people are happy enough to ‘pimp their rides’, or their houses, or in the words of one Swiss brand to ‘pimp their style’, I don’t think they would be happy to pimp everything.
One quick thought exercise; who would be pleased if Gok Wan decided to do another body image based show, called “Pimp my Girlfriend/ Wife/ Lover/ Daughter” (or Boyfriend/ Husband/ Son)? I can’t imagine too many happy faces on that catwalk. But that is essentially what we are doing. (The Clinton’s didn’t take too lightly to accusations of ‘pimping’, especially when it concerned daughter Chelsea.)
Essentially, it all boils down to cash. Not value, which is different (so perhaps the Gok Wan analogy is a little flawed, as he seems to concentrate on value over money). We are saying “I have tarted this up a bit, now I expect it to be more monetarily useful to me in the future.” If it’s good enough for some two bit hooker, the phrase implies, it’s good enough for my trainers, my bedroom, or my Fiesta.
It’s buying into the constructed image of the pimp as glamourous, rich and sexually successful (not difficult if you’re paying them all), something we all want to be, but wouldn’t want for our children. Ultimately though, should the question: has the word become too distanced from its origins, or not been distanced enough?