A 'Ho New World: Raced and Gendered Insult as Ersatz Carnival and the Corruption of Freedom of Expression Norms

55 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2007 Last revised: 17 Aug 2009


Carnivalization, a concept developed by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and later employed in broad social and cultural contexts, is the tearing down of social norms, the elimination of boundaries and the inversion of established hierarchies. It is the world turned upside down. Ersatz carnival is a pernicious, inverted form of carnival, one wherein counter discourses propounded by outsiders are appropriated by elites and frequently redeployed to silence and exclude those same outsiders. The use of the slur 'ho by gangsta' rappers in the performance of songs that articulate a vision of urban culture is an example of carnivalization. However, when words like 'ho are appropriated by mainstream elites and wielded as "jokes," as was the case in the Imus debacle, this is a form of ersatz carnival. Tolerating raced and gendered insults such as nappy headed 'ho in public discourse, whether as "authentic" carnival from the mouths of gangsta' rappers themselves or as ersatz carnival from Imus and his ilk is troubling because in either case, women remain the victims of an entrenched patriarchy. However, in this essay I argue that citing freedom of expression norms in support of the use of ersatz carnival is especially pernicious. The use of raced and gendered epithets in such contexts demeans and undermines the contestative, counter-hegemonic aspects of gangsta' rap discourses. Using the First Amendment and its values as both a sword and a shield, ersatz carnival appropriates a means of revolt, albeit a flawed and imperfect one, and redeploys it as a tool of retrenchment, thereby silencing subalternate voices.

Keywords: First Amendment, Literary Theory, Literary Criticism, Bakhtin, Popular Culture, Rap Music, Hip Hop Culture. Gender, Race, Racism, Women

Suggested Citation

Buckner Inniss, Lolita, A 'Ho New World: Raced and Gendered Insult as Ersatz Carnival and the Corruption of Freedom of Expression Norms. New York University Review of Law & Social Change, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2008, Cleveland-Marshall Legal Studies Paper No. 07-148, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1020346

Lolita Buckner Inniss (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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