Éloïse Bouton is a French feminist activist, journalist and author, and founder of Madame Rap, the first French online media dedicated to women in rap. She reflects, among other things, on what is feminism to her, women’s messages being depoliticized, and that rap is not the most sexist music. Éloïse also gives some listening tips in regards with women rap music artists!
Éloïse, how do you define yourself?
I identify as a queer White woman. I think I see myself as an activist because I believe actions are stronger than words, so I always try to act and work on myself.
What is feminism to you?
I think being a feminist is an endless process so I guess I will be becoming one for my whole life! The first time I said to myself “I’m a feminist” was in high school. I had been listening to a lot of riot grrrl bands and female rappers since junior high and had begun to read French female authors such as Violette Leduc, Virginie Despentes and Annie Ernaux. A couple of years later, all I had taken in began to spread in my mind and I began to say that I was a feminist. Before that, I always felt concerned about social injustice, violence against women and women’s rights but didn’t call it “feminism”. I was just seeing myself as a hypersensitive teenager.
To me, feminism is the basic idea that everyone should be treated equally: women, men, trans, non-binary, racialized people, sex workers, the elderly, people with disabilities, … I see it as a part of a wider struggle against cisheteropatriarchy. My feminism is definitely intersectional, inclusive and vulnerable. It means I don’t always have an opinion about everything, I can say stupid things, but I always try to reflect on it, learn from people who actually experience oppression, and improve.
Feminism has changed my life because I believe it is like a pair of glasses and once you’ve started wearing them, you see the whole world through this lens. It can’t be undone. It also made me realize that if I didn’t fight for my rights myself, no one else would.
Also, being a feminist activist brought me a lot of exposure and problems in France. I was identified as a feminist activist while I was working as a journalist and it had a very negative impact on my professional life. Many employers turned their back on me and explained that I couldn’t be a “good” journalist while being a feminist.
What other types of social and political movements are important to you?
Every movement that stands against all kinds of oppression (racism, colonialism, capitalism, LGBT+phobia, classism, anti-speciesism, ableism, fat shaming, ageism, … ) I believe patriarchy is a kind of umbrella organisation for all other systemic forms of oppression. And fighting against patriarchy means fighting each of them.
Have your concerns about the world changed during the years? What are the major issues that our world is facing today?
Yes. As I told you, I believe my feminism is constantly evolving. I guess today one of my main concerns is how to take care of oneself while working for the collective. The concept of “care” and “self-care” has been overused with the Covid pandemic and has become a business (everything produced by the margins is picked up by the mainstream and the elite).
However, it is a major concern for activists. Especially in France, where activism is not considered as a “real” occupation. It is something you do in your spare time, but definitely not serious enough to be considered as a job and generate income. For that reason, many activists wear themselves out trying to organise actions, meetings and campaigns and suffer from activist fatigue.They’re not paid, get no recognition, throw themselves body and soul into the cause, often experience violence (cyberbullying, intimidations, absence of financial and moral support, …) and if they achieve their goal, it is often stolen by someone bigger than them: an institution, a journalist, a company, a more visible/famous/powerful organisation or activist. It is very unrewarding.
So, to me, the main concern is how do I keep taking care of myself in this hostile context. Is it really important to be visible? If so, how and when do I choose to be? Does the intensive use of social networks help or damage the cause? How not to give up on your vulnerability even though everyone celebrates empowerment, strength and power? These are the concerns I have today.
What is radical in our world today? You have been labelled as a “radical feminist”. Do you agree, are you a radical feminist?
To me, radical simply means, as Angela Davis put it, “grasping things at the root” and trying to deconstruct systems of oppression where they take seed. But today, it has taken another meaning with the ongoing war between trans feminists and TERFs [TERF is an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist — DtVF], whom I don’t relate to at all.
I guess I have been labelled as a radical feminist because I was part of a feminist movement that defined itself as radical. I don’t know how to label my feminism, I guess queer or intersectional feminism would be the most accurate. But I feel inspired by many different feminist ideologies, ranging from womanism to postcolonial and post-structural feminism.
You have said: “Masculinity must be deconstructed. There is an extremely caricatured, testosterone charged image of masculinity that can be seen in rap, but also in many things, in football and popular culture in general. This image does a lot of harm to men and women. There are many men who do not recognise themselves in these images. There are also many men who find themselves constrained and suffer from injunctions as much as women. They are under pressure to be extremely sexually powerful, earn lots of money… etc. I know many heterosexual men who don’t identify at all with these prejudices and concepts.” What are the best tools to deconstruct masculinity (and femininity)? What are your tools to do that?
Education! Always. I believe we need to understand that femininity and masculinity are not frozen, that there is a large spectrum that can define both. There are millions of ways to be “feminine” and millions of ways to be “masculine”. Humans are complex and constantly evolving throughout their life, and so is their identity. I think one of the keys is to encourage gender-neutral education and inclusive language to build a more equal society.
You have also said: “Whenever a woman’s body is at stake, reasoning is derailed. The only thing that remains is that pair of naked breasts, without discourse, because her nudity annihilates her words.” Could you please elaborate on that.
I believe women’s bodies are still at the center of all oppressions. It is such a huge power stake that society refuses women the right to have control over their own bodies. Body shaming, street harassment, rape, assisted reproductive technology, surrogacy, menstruation, endometriosis, gender transitioning, sex work, prostitution, … It is always about our bodies.
When a woman uses nudity as a political or artistic tool, she is perceived as a lunatic or a whore. It can’t be because she has something to say. People affirm the idea that women should stay quiet or that it is dangerous for them to rebel and fight for their ideas. Their message is depoliticized and they are reduced to their emotions and their supposed lack of self-control.
You are a founder of Madame Rap. What were your reasons for establishing Madame Rap?
First of all, I wanted to show that there were women in the rap music industry, unlike the impression given by all the masculine, very misogynistic and virile clichés related to rap music. There are a lot of female rappers out there, even though they’re not promoted by the media, record labels and festivals.
Also, I was tired of hearing that being a feminist and listening to rap music wasn’t compatible. I wanted to show that it was a stigma and that it wasn’t more contradictory than anything else in society.
Finally, as a freelance journalist, every time I came up with an idea for an article about women and rap music, I was often told that I was of no interest to anyone, that it would only concern a very specific audience. I created a space where those voices and those artists could be recognized and exist.
So, at the end of August 2015, I decided to launch Madame Rap, the first media dedicated to women and LGBTQIA+ in hip hop. Today, Madame Rap is also an NGO that aims to highlight female and LGBTQIA+ artists in hip hop, show that rap is not the most sexist music and fight against sexism and LGBT+phobia through events (concerts, open-mics, …), writing and awareness workshops, panel discussions and conferences.
Angela Last and Kirsten Barrett have said: “Hip-hop feminism has been met with several criticisms. Reyhan Şahin diagnoses some feminist hip-hop with a lack of anti-capitalist critique, especially since capitalism is connected to gendered and racist oppression. Other authors have found that hip-hop is often portrayed as a male domain to which feminism is brought, rather than hip-hop being taken as a neutral form of expression that can be performed by any gender. The greatest tension with regard to hip-hop feminism, however, revolves around hip-hop as a scapegoat for society’s problems (Rose, 2008, Şahin, 2019). Here, hip-hop feminists have to navigate the desire to defend hip hop from accusations of sexism, homophobia, capitalist sympathy etc, versus the desire to hold hip hop artists to account for instances of internalised oppression.” How would you elaborate on that?
I believe we can’t demand that female rappers be irreproachable. People always ask rap to be conscious, political or to denounce social injustice. But can’t we just let rappers sometimes be entertaining, without a message or whatever they wish? These criticisms are never made toward other music genres or art forms.
It is hard to be a woman in a male-dominated and patriarchal world. Everything is a struggle. To me, saying that some female rappers lack anti-capitalist critique is a class bias. Not that all female rappers come from the lower classes, but just being part of hip hop makes them part of a culture that is highly disregarded and disqualified by the dominating culture.
If we talk about sexism and homophobia in rap, then we should talk about sexism and homophobia in pop, rock, metal, electronic in classical music, but also in politics, business, sports, and so on. Many artists in popular music have sexist or homophobic lyrics or videos. But because rap is originally made by racialized artists, who come from poor neighborhoods, they are easier to blame.
Hip-hop as a youth movement is spread throughout the world based on its four elements: breakdancing, graffiti, rapping and DJing. What are the elements of feminist hip-hop and rap?
I don’t know if there is a feminist hip hop or rap. There are feminist rappers and feminist people listening to rap. So I guess the elements of hip hop are the same for everyone, the only difference is how women take them on.
To me, it is all about being inclusive, intersectional, and supporting the idea that “there is no hierarchy of oppressions”, like Audre Lorde said. I believe hip hop is one of the most inclusive cultures I’ve ever known and yet, no one ever talks about it.
What feminists, creative activists, feminist rappers etc would you say have influenced you the most, and why?
There are a lot! Monique Wittig, Virginie Despentes, Violette Leduc and Annie Ernaux. Also, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Kate Chopin, Frida Kahlo, Kathleen Hanna, Amanda Palmer, Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Björk, …
When I started listening to Lil’ Kim, in the mid 90s, no one ever told us what a clitoris was. Thanks to her, I discovered I had a clitoris! I also learned about street harassment thanks to Queen Latifah.
Violette Leduc was the first “feminist” author I read while I was in high school, and she really blew my mind. I like her organic writing, the way she places the body at the center of all emotions and thoughts.
I guess the works of all these women focus on women’s bodies somehow and show how it can be a feminist tool but also a violent territory and a power stake.
What feminist hip-hop and/or rap music artists would you recommend to someone who has never listened to the genre?
All of the above! Just to add a few more contemporary female rappers: Dope Saint Jude (South Africa), Toya Delazy (South Africa/UK), Lava La Rue (UK), Shaybo (UK), Countess Malaise (Iceland), Big Klit (US), Snow Tha Product (US), Dee MC (India), Yayoi Daimon (Japan), Ramengvrl (Indonesia), OMB Bloodbath (US), Tribade (Spain), Kelow LaTesha (US), Silvana Imam (Sweden), Palas (Germany), Oprah (Ivory Coast). And many many more!
Website (Madame Rap): http://madamerap.com/en/homepage/
Instagram (Madame Rap): https://www.instagram.com/madamerap/
Soundcloud (Madame Rap): https://soundcloud.com/madamerap
YouTube (Madame Rap): https://www.youtube.com/c/MadameRap