In the same way that the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death revealed the charged and potentially racist meanings of a hoodie, the reaction to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest last week on a warning of “aggravated pimping” highlighted an Orwellian distortion of the meaning of the word “pimp.” A large swath of the public’s reaction to the news on Twitter and in online forums was a variant of “damn, most awesome charge ever!” when, of course, there’s nothing all that cool about violently exploiting women.
If you’ve heard a pop or hip-hop song in the past two decades, you know that many artists use “pimp” to signify “awesome,” “player,” “baller,” etc., and by now the word has infiltrated casual language. Back in February 2008, Slate ran “A History of Pimping,” which traces the word’s etymological roots from its origins around the 1600s to the present, when “an attractive or appealing man may be called a pimp, and … to describe something using the accolade pimping is to mark it as wonderful or exciting.”
What this flippant connotation obscures is that pimps are comparable to slave drivers. They’re not the managers in a perfect world of unionized, voluntary prostitutes; they are men (and sometimes women) who, on a daily basis, beat, drug, and rape women and girls into submission. You would want to assume that people outside of the prostitution industry who use the word pimp don’t actually condone these types of actions. But the fact that it’s arguably the highest qualifier of awesomeness among many young people today shows how an environment that glorifies violence toward women is created in very subtle ways.
To understand the role that language plays in normalizing this type of behavior, look no further than the actual pimp himself, DSK, and his text messages to fellow orgy buddies. He referred to the women at his sex parties as “equipment,” “gifts,” and “luggage.” The fact that DSK talks about these women as if they were property is outrageous—or at least, it should be—but it’s not really new or rare. In a world where consumerism is king (or pimp, you might say), some women and girls enter the market (and language) not as producers, but as objects, because they’re seen as something that can be purchased, used, and abused—or advertised, even in the back page of a leading news outlet like the Village Voice.
What does it say about our society that a word that epitomizes violent exploitation has become a slang term for “awesome,” “wonderful,” and “exciting”? Pimping may have been glamorized, but the case of DSK demonstrates that there’s a very ugly underside to the “Big Pimpin’” lifestyle, indeed.