Violence against women is not an isolated, nor a universally homogenous phenomenon. It should be seen as a pluralistic and complex form of violence that is inextricably linked to other forms of violence, as Vergès and Gago convincingly show in recent texts. This means that it is incorrect to depict gender-based marginalization, assault, and even murder as caused by the inhumane actions of some deplorable bad men (Gago 2020, 63). Instead, underlying economic and racist structures, among others, should be given due attention (Vergès 2022, 13-14; Gago 2020, 74). Vergès for instance points out that sexual harassment in the workplace is linked to racially motivated underpayment (Vergès 2022, 23), and Gago claims the increase in domestic violence is partly causes by deteriorating conditions of the traditional male breadwinner (Gago 2020, 59). As a result, it is also incorrect to talk about ‘the’ oppression and mistreatment of women. Indeed, the complex intersectionality ensures that oppression takes specific forms, whereby simplistic universalistic claims should be rejected and replaced by an approach that starts from particular situations (Gago 2020, 57).
Although both Vergès and Gago use concrete examples to support their more general theoretical claims, neither zooms in on an individual life to explore how gender-based violence can manifest itself over time. Focussing on a personal story allows the requested specificity to be met, and gives the opportunity to examine how different forms of violence interact. Music is evidently a powerful medium for telling such a personal story. Hence, a song that focuses on the story of a woman’s life ravaged by violence can plausibly contribute to Vergès’s and Gago’s texts.
‘Brenda’s got a baby’ by 2Pac (1991) is suitable for offering such a view on the overarching problem of violence against women through a personal lens. In this song, the listener is told about the story of a 12-year-old girl from an American ghetto. Central to this story is the event from which the song takes its name: a teenage pregnancy. 2Pac doesn’t present this as an isolated drama, but places it in broader contexts. He tells about the way various forms of violence have followed each other in the life of the girl. This includes her wretched home situation. Her father is a ‘junkie’, her mother is almost like a stranger to her, and both of the parents don’t care about their daughter beyond her capability to bring in money. The video accompanying the song shows that this mistreatment should not be seen as separated from the relationship she enters into with her cousin. While the parents argue, Brenda looks lovingly at her boyfriend; supposedly her refuge for safety and affection. However, this seemingly (much) older lover turns out to be a molester, who furthermore abandons her during her pregnancy. To make things worse, Brenda is barred from her parents’ house after giving birth, as she is no longer economically profitable to the family. Left alone with the baby, she decides to sell drugs, but soon turns to prostitution after being robbed. In the following confrontational words, 2Pac ends the song, the prostitution, and Brenda’s horrible life: ‘Prostitute found slain, and Brenda’s her name. She’s got a baby.’
2Pac not only cogently connects the successive forms of violence Brenda faces, but is furthermore not blind to the economic and racist structures that underpin this cycle of violence. As shown, economic precarity is assigned a major role: not only does it lead Brenda’s parents to neglect their child, but it also causes Brenda to feel compelled to sell drugs and to prostitute herself. In addition, it is clear that this is all linked to racist structures. Indeed, as shown in the music video, the ghetto in which Brenda grows up contains only black people. Significantly, white people only enter the video when Brenda’s life has already come to an end, as police officers come to autopsy the corpse. Finally, 2Pac is not only concerned with the economical marginalization of the racialized inhabitants of the segregated ghetto, as the song’s opening words demonstrate: ‘I hear Brenda’s got a baby, but Brenda’s barely got a brain. A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name.’ Educational means seem to be severely lacking as well.
Thus, with this personal story, 2Pac provides a powerful realization of the emphasis on specificity and intersectionality of violence against women that Vergès and Gago would call for some 30 years later. Nevertheless, it would be unwarranted to blindly follow 2Pac’s depiction of the situation. For example, the question could be asked if a severe lack of educational means is the proper interpretation, or that 2Pac is merely dismissing Brenda’s intelligence. Or both? Brenda’s own side of the story would be helpful, or even required. In general, this points to the fact that not only the particularity and the structural background of violence on women should be taken in account, but also that multiple perspectives are needed.
With this particularistic, structuralistic, and multi-perspectivalistic view in mind, there’s also a chance to think about appropriate kinds of action to be taken. For example, it would be would be insufficient to blame and prosecute Brenda’s parents and boyfriend. Instead, for the particular forms of violence women face, the structures that give rise to it should be laid out in a joint effort, and should subsequently be attacked. Obviously, exactly what structures are to be attacked depends on the case. For Brenda’s case, this undoubtedly means that a war should be started against the racist US ghettos as a manifestation of structural marginalization.
Gago, Veronica. 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything, translated by Liz Mason-Deese. London: Verso Books.
Vergès, Francoise. 2020. A Feminist Theory of Violence; A Decolonial Perspective, translated by Melissa Thackway. London: Pluto Press.