In Rap Sh!t, insurance creator Issa Rae’s new HBO Max show, everyone is watching each other. Shawna (Aida Osman), a hotel receptionist holding onto old dreams of breaking into the rap scene, watches videos of her old collaborators on her laptop at work. She decides to start a group with her former friend Mia (KaMillion), who spends her time watching businessmen hide their hard-ons while she dances for them on camera. Shawna’s boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell) ends up watching one of Mia’s scantily clad stripping vids after his roommates recognize her as OnlyFans’ Ghetto Dominatrix.
Watching a show where the characters are watching videos, FaceTiming each other, or recording footage is both less meta and more fun than it initially sounds. Voyeurism is crucial to the storytelling; Rap Sh!t is about two ambitious women unsatisfied with where they’re at in their careers and relationships, banding together in the hopes that someone will discover them and make them into the superstars they know they can be. And that means they’ve got to get people to look at them.
Sex, sexuality, identity, fuckability, confidence, exploitation: These are concepts that are all about TV and pop culture. But right out the gate, Rap Sh!t dares to unpack them. In one of its first episodes, the show does something rare: It gives two women the floor for a frank, nuanced conversation about who gets to decide who’s fuckable, what it means to feel fuckable, and, more, whose gaze that fuckability is coming from. (New record for the number of times that word has appeared in one sentence at The Daily Beast.)
When it comes to humanizing characters who are women of color—and breaking into the music industry at that—Rap Sh!t is as revolutionary as it is cathartic so far. In just a handful of scenes, the series is changing how female sexuality is depicted and talked about on TV.
Episode 2, “Something for the Girls,” introduces Mia’s Ghetto Dominatrix persona with a clip of her shaking her ass at the camera, wearing nothing but a vinyl harness and thong. Cliff tells Shawna on FaceTime that she’s in business with someone who “does porn”—which goes against the kind of music she wants to make, he reminds her. “You can either keep working hard to make the music you believe in, or give in to this industry bullshit.”
By which he means: looking sexy for other people’s sake, not your own. For a woman in hip-hop, that can be part of the game. Although, really, it’s part of the game of living for any woman: We are objects to be consumed, just by merely existing. Through her OnlyFans, Mia’s just monetizing the views her body is getting for free otherwise. Even Cliff’s roommates openly gawk at Shawna’s “double-Ds” when they watch her livestream.
The double-edged sword of attention often pivots around the male gaze, which Shawna herself calls out when arguing with Mia later on about what their shared vision should be. “My art is not for the male gaze,” Shawna says. Mia, however, wants them to have fun and look sexy while doing it. What’s so wrong with having people look at you?
Here’s what’s wrong with it, according to Shawna: “Get my body done, make a song about it, and boom. People start caring about my music.” Mia sees Nicki Minaj as a “talented, fly bitch,” and Shawna doesn’t disagree! But a female rapper, she explains, is only as successful as she is fuckable.
Two attractive women arguing about the politics of attractive women in music is as fascinating as it is somewhat frustrating. Shawna doesn’t have to dress like the Ghetto Dominatrix for people to find her attractive; case in point, Cliff’s horndog roommates. But it does explain why her wardrobe throughout the show is pulled-back hair, oversized sweatshirts, and button-down Oxford shirts. She wears masks when she posts performance videos of her own, because she knows that her corporeal form is innately distracting to a carnal society.
There’s a lot here I can’t relate to, as an awkward beanpole with no musical talent to speak of and an average of one human interaction a day. But Shawna’s need to control her own image, and its perception, resonates: The bodies of women, especially Black women, are always up for grabs, no matter what we do or who we’re with.
But Mia has a point too: “So you telling me there’s no possible way that women could be having a good time and winning?” Of course that’s not true, but Shawna has bought into consumerism’s black-and-white ideas about sexuality. It’s controlling her, Mia says, and holding her back from realizing her true potential. It’s got her wearing a hoodie in this Miami, Florida-ass heat!
Trying to wrestle control away from those in power can sometimes involve submitting to it. Acknowledging that tension can be freeing; it can let you look your anxiety in the eye and say, “Screw it.” That is why the way the episode ends is so dang special: Cliff gets a FaceTime call from Shawna late at night. Last time this happened, he tried to get them to have some virtual sex; she wasn’t in the mood, which, mood. But this time, when Cliff picks up the call, Shawna’s not even on screen. Is she not even feeling up to showing her face at all?
And then: Shawna appears, in what is TV’s most “Feeling Myself”-by-Nicki-Minaj-featuring-Beyoncé moment of the year. She’s wearing one of her masks, but she’s completely naked. She asks Cliff if he wants to watch her dance. You can guess what he says. And dance she does, no hoodie, no ponytail, no nothing. It’s hot not because this is a sexy woman shaking her nekkid booty; it’s hot because it’s clear that Shawna is doing this primarily for herself.
When she gets on her back and starts touching herself, it’s not in the hopes that Cliff gets off. It’s all for Shawna herself. Liberated from her fears of what the industry might do to her artistic aspirations, she can let her guard down and allow herself to experience the pleasure that the body provides—for its owner, first and foremost.
Yeah, Cliff likes watching her, and Rap Sh!t shows him on split screen to make sure we know it. But we’re not meant to look at anyone but Shawna, and that includes Shawna herself. She’s allowing herself to be consumed on her own terms, for her own enjoyment, and for her own empowerment. With that, it’s time to get to work on conquering the rap game.