In 1987, Eddie Murphy released his movie, Raw. It was simply the stand-up routine from his most recent tour, but Murphy was at the top of his game in the world: he had become the most successful black entertainer of all time (a title which he still holds to this day.) Although I personally prefer not to see a person as a reflection of the color of his skin, I concede that as an influence of society it has substantial bearing. Eddie Murphy could well be seen as the king of the urban people, or perhaps, more aptly, the tenured jester, secure enough in his position to say it like it is and call out our behaviors for all their absurdities, hypocrisies, and contradictions: our prejudices. It is not a fluke Murphy has the power of our attention, he earned it through command of his talent and genius. He brilliantly conveys profound reflections of society and astute perceptions of relationship dynamics while making us laugh at ourselves. We know he speaks the truth. And no one is safe of his pantomime of stereotypes, he hits every demographic equally, including himself, though with varying degrees of intense potency.
On the surface, the writings of Raw may not feel like an aggressive catharsis, but it is my sense that the underlining motive and drive for Murphy himself is the release of anger and pain from a recently felt heartbreak. The choice of opening the movie with the song, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, reveals his mindset. It is as though he is using the routine to say to the unknown woman, ‘I offered you everything, I would have rolled over and been your puppy dog if you had treated me right.” He, then, shows us his humble roots with a look into his childhood. He tells us where he came from is as though he is saying, “I am one of you so listen to me.”
The opening sequence sets the stage for his influence to persuade us. He is a god, surrounded by a protective entourage. He makes his entrance as a silhouette revealed into a form exuding sexual prowess. He knows it and uses it; he has our attention: women want him and men want to be him.
Right away he reveals his heart by paying respect to the man who made it possible for him to be where he is today – Richard Pryor. Murphy tells us he is human and didn’t come out of a void. He had a role model, just as he has become ours. So there it is: Murphy is real, not raw, and, then, he tells us what is really on his mind: he almost got married; almost being the operative word.
To give the context for Murphy’s rational to marry in the first place, it is necessary to recall what was happening in America at the time. In the late eighties, two pertinent themes in particular give rise to his tirade and what he claims is his fear. The first is the advent of AIDS into mainstream media awareness. For the two decades prior, popular attitudes toward sex had been opening up. Birth control released women from fear of unwanted pregnancy and drugs like cocaine and poppers created an environment of free-for-all promiscuity. Up until Rock Hudson died from AIDS in 1985, the topic was behind the scenes, among homosexuals, intravenous drug users, and from blood transfusions. Even though he was gay, Hudson’s death brought AIDS to the front cover of People magazine. And Murphy took note. It was time to stop partying and settle down with one woman. “I am a realist,” Murphy states emphatically.
The second major movement was women entering the white collar business world of men; they had been, until then, kept out of the professional world en masse. Now women were educated, ambitious, and successful. In conjunction with this shift, women who had experienced the poor end of the stick after a divorce were turning it about and making sure they were taken care of. Too often they had been left with nothing and no real means to give themselves what they had had financially while married. Herein lies the key to the demise of Murphy’s best laid plans of marriage and monogamy.
And so it begins, Murphy has moved through some good routines imitating Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson and an assortment of gay men, making sure we know the man standing before us knows his art while he makes his way to the crux of the matter. “I almost got married last year,” he tells us, and turns to face us with the truth about AIDS as a reality: casual sex is “a game of Russian Roulette.” It becomes about the simple task of finding the ‘right’ woman, someone to take him out of the game. He tells us straight up that she has to be intelligent, which is important enough to him to say twice, as well as pleasing to the eye. Then tells us his nightmare, Johnny Carson’s face on the cover of a magazine with the headline: “Half.” Murphy wants his prenuptial protection from gold diggers; he is afraid of the vindictive nature of women. And rightly so, so we laugh. We see ourselves in his portrayal. We know the perils of love, money and sex mixing, whatever level and dynamic it plays out on.
He beseeches women to be fair, to not be greedy. There is an underlying sense of anger in his tone toward this theme. It is as if his woman refused to sign on the dotted line and it hit him so hard in his heart that he is telling us he offered her the world and it wasn’t enough. His choice of opening song tells us all he wanted was sex, just treat him right. And, Murphy is reeling from the rejection. Murphy knows where women’s attitude is coming from and he is well aware who he is as he tells us, “I’m a target.” His safety net from random death is gone and his success may well be what stands in the way of marriage; he is afraid of divorce. And one could easily deduce that he is not happy about it.
Murphy then brings it “to the ‘hood.” He starts to talk to how women play with men and how easy men are to play with. He starts to talk about women joining in chorus with Janet Jackson’s battle anthem: “What have you done for me lately?” He goes on to call out the games women play. The picture he depicts of women’s motives and behavior is skewed, twisted up, and not flattering. For all his re-enactments of gays, Italians, celebrities, and the common man, his portrayal of women is the most harsh. It is as though he is angry women have ‘the power of the pussy.’ Murphy is relentless in his characterization of the insidious and manipulative nature of women. “Let’s just call it a Pussy Trap,” he says, and warns men not to get caught in it. He reminds men that they can take back control; that women love sex and use it to get what they want. Men can do the same. He tells men as soon as they “make a women come real hard,” the power has flipped. Once they have that, men are free to do what they want: to treat women badly, to be cold and distant, to have other women, basically, to pay women back for all the games they’ve played; all they have to do is say “I’m sorry.” Murphy sets up the new battle of the sexes, but with a warning, treat her right or “she will go out and fuck another man.” He defines the terms for what to look for in a mate: “Find someone just as fucked up as you are and settle down.”
Twenty three years later I ask myself what has been the social influence of this film on a generation of urban men and women and their struggle to relate to each other. What has the effect been on those who considered him an authority? Have these become our new heuristics? The idea that women are bitches out to get what they can from men? That “all men fuck other women,” that they are “low in nature,” and “have to do it, it is a man’s thing.”
I see this paradigm played out today. I see it in the paradigm of being ‘single’ as defined by men: no ring, no commitment. I see it in jaded women who seek revenge for perceived wrong-doings, cathartic in their frustration with aggression. I see it in women who take a defensive stance, possibly out of necessity, to take care of themselves, and to not let anyone run them over. I see it in jaded men, understandably wary of women as women can become a bit crazy. If what Murphy said is true, men resent women who withhold sex, and “he don’t like you anymore, but he still wants to fuck you,” it is no wonder there is anger. For how do we know what is real, or is it all a game? It looks to me like the stereotypes Murphy insightfully offered as a warning became, in fact, a model of behavior, rather than as a mirror of change. Perhaps because he made it funny, we didn’t see it happening. It was all a joke.
What else does Murphy tell us? Its a dangerous world out there for sex. To be careful. He brought the taboo subject of AIDS to the people. Unfortunately, he only preached monogamy and not putting on a condom. Had he done so, maybe more would have listened. For as we know, if it was cool for him, it must be cool for us. Even if we get what he’s saying all backwards and wrong.
I know the influence of Raw for myself. I didn’t want to be the bitch he portrayed. I didn’t want to play games. I struggled with the concept men were “out to get as much pussy as possible.” But, for me, it never felt right to use sex as a weapon or tears as a means of manipulation. (I’m too much of a romantic for that.) I felt Murphy’s pain and agreed with the idea, at least, of a prenuptial. I listened to when he said, “a man’s ego is easy to cater to.” To this day, I adhere to this script given to me by the man who became my ideal for a man, a man who wants to fuck, not make love, for better or for worse. And, yes, I made a note to myself to not be shy, and to eat a steak at dinner.
From the archives: Essay by Elizabeth Pilar