J. Cole just dropped a video from his latest project KOD—Kevin’s Heart. In the video, comedian Kevin Hart’s role is a meta- and self-conscious reflection (of Hart playing himself, “playing himself”) that draws on the news of Hart’s personal infidelity to his wife—or “cheating scandal turned extortion plot,” as Dee Lockett puts it—going public. Don’t get me wrong, I fuck with Cole as much as the next student loan having, bad-and-boujee being, self-proclaimed intellectual. But it’s because Cole is regularly hailed for his depth of consciousness that we gotta be critical of his art when it lacks it.
From my perspective, the “Kevin’s Heart” video undeniably perpetuates patriarchy and heteronormativity. However, the video’s vices are not without virtue; it presents an opportunity for dialogue about the interplay of patriarchy, cheating, and amatonormativity, hereby referred to as “amato”—the widely shared assumption that a monogamous, romantic (and usually heterosexual) relationship (that leads to marriage) is the ideal for romantic relationships and is a universally shared goal.
Kevin’s Heart is a song about “fighting off the urge to cheat” according to the reviews published by Billboard and The Huffington Post. To stipulate, I understand cheating as a transgression against the expectation for exclusivity across some dimension of one’s romantic relationship (usually sexual or romantic).
In the visual, we learn that as a society, romantic love is important to us. Hart’s decision to cheat on his wife follows him wherever he goes; whether it’s the grocery store, dinner, or his own car, he cannot escape the judgmental gazes of others. An older woman mouths “you’re a dog” as he waits for a stoplight to change and is simultaneously fending off another woman’s advances. He is also the recipient of unsolicited advice in a public bathroom. In this way, the video explicitly demonstrates a societal concern about matters of romantic love, even when they are not our own matters—we are obsessed with love affairs and love affairs.
Paired with Cole’s lyrics, “Monkey on my back and I walk a hundred miles/ Guilt make a nigga feel fake when he smiles” and “I’m a fake nigga and its never been clearer/ Can’t see myself when I look in the mirror,” we also learn that the gazes are a metaphor for the presence of guilt that accompanies oxymoronic cheaters with a conscious—you make the decision to cheat, and that shit will follow you. I know. I’ve been that guy.
Truth is, amato assumptions shape and constrain what we take the central features of romantic love to be. For example, there is a widespread expectation for monogamy in romantic love. Expectations for exclusivity can come about in a few ways. Sometimes people considering a romantic relationship with one another explicitly co-create the boundaries for the relationship through conversation. Far more commonly, however, these boundaries are not discussed and, by default, we rely on our society’s dating norms to “fill in the blanks”. By and large, the default assumption in our society is that if you are not going about looking for love in a (serial) monogamous way that ultimately leads to marriage (and in some cases pro-creation), then you are not “doing it right”. If your relationships are temporary, non-monogamous, or resistant to the idea of marrying, they get regarded as something short of “real” or “true” love—they are second class.
How love gets masqueraded in the media bears some responsibility for this—representations of people in love are disproportionally unions of heterosexual pairs; one man and one woman. Even as representation of same-sex relationships in shows like Empire or Love and Hip-Hop have been increasing, these relationships are also disproportionately dyadic pairs. The hashtag #RelationshipGoals reminds us that social media ain’t exempt from this indictment either.
Cole’s lyrics promote amatonormativity too. We are reminded that the woman being talked about “got wife written all over” and is his “number one, [he] don’t need nothing on the side”. These lyrics reinforce the normative idea that love, when it is real love, is between two people in an exclusive monogamous relationship that typically leads to marriage—these are the relationships that are normal, first-class, and the one’s we should strive for.
The obsession with this idealization of love has costs. Most obvious is that it delegitimizes many people’s experiences by excluding counting them as loving. In other words, it affords a monopoly on love and a corresponding asymmetrical concentration of power to people who subscribe to amato—amatonormativists get the privilege of ostracizing, stigmatizing, and dismissing narratives of love that do not fit the more dominant social script such as narratives from single people or people who are non-monogamous.
A less obvious but equally important cost is that it constrains representation of what meaningful and loving romantic relationships can be. This can create (sometimes insurmountable) social pressure for people to perform and present their love lives amatonormatively by any means necessary. As a result, a culture of concealment, dishonesty, and manipulation is inculcated.
Sadly, in this culture shaming tends to be one sided, typically excusing men from shame when engaging in shameful behavior. Because patriarchy begets male privilege, men benefit from asymmetrical power dynamics that are sustained by the subjugation of women; male privilege—social and political advantages available to men simply because they are men—is among these benefits.
This privilege is on display as the video attempts to humanize cheating as a means for us to sympathize with Hart. In the bathroom scene, another man tells Kevin that “Nobody’s perfect, and you’re only human. Learn from it man, learn from it.” Hart’s transgression against his relationship is acknowledged as an imperfection that he should “learn from”. A deeply mistaken implication is that faithfulness to a monogamous commitment is a mark of perfection or meeting the ideal. Kevin’s guilt is presumably absolved in this scene as it is shortly followed by comic relief. I can only wonder whether one would extend this same sympathy to a woman? Would Cole himself?
Patriarchy, when combined with amato, disincentivizes men from communicating their desires about extrarelational involvement in an open and honest way. Peep the lyrics. “Love wouldn’t lie like I lie and its wild,” Cole spits, “Wanna have my cake and another cake too/ Even if the baker don’t bake like you/ Even when the flavor don’t taste don’t taste like you/.” The desire for an extrarelational partner (“and another cake too”) is concealed by lies. Importantly, the desire is unrelated to what his current partner does or doesn’t provide—she is not insufficient; she is enough. In real life, when men find themselves in Cole’s shoes we often fail to disclose these desires as well. In a society where amato relationships are valued, prioritized, and legally protected (via the institution of marriage), there are overwhelming social and political incentives to conform to the amato script. Peep the patriarchy, too; the notion of one’s partner as “my cake” expresses a sense of possession and ownership. Not so ironically, this lyric follows very shortly after the reduction of women to their sexual performance—“When I’m in your town press pound hit me up/ Only if you’re down and you slurp good D up/ If the work good I’ll be back for the re-up/ Hate when I creep and my phone wake me up/ Fake like I’m sleep knowing Damn well I be up/”. The “other cake” is only valuable insofar as she can sexually satisfy man—again reducing women’s purpose to man’s pleasure. Communicating desires for additional partners, then, constitutes a grave risk of loss—of a relationship and a person—for those who believe themselves entitled to possession. As a result these pressures frequently take the form of manipulation and lying; especially lying about what one’s desires for additional sexual or romantic partners actually are.
My point is not that men should be excused for their infidelity because patriarchy and amato combine to create a system that disincetivizes truth telling. These pressures don’t make anybody cheat and we should be held accountable for lying and manipulation. But shedding light on these social forces does make me wonder how an alteration of our social script for meaningful and loving romantic relationships might deflate amato pressure and, thereby “the urge to cheat.” For example, in a society that values and legally protects a variety of romantic relationships, some including more than one partner, we might see more frequent and more favorable representations of non-monogamous relationships across mass media platforms. Given how media works to shape our default expectations, increased exposure can work to dismantle amato assumptions and pressure to conform to amato by destigmatizing non-monogamy and signaling its socially acceptability. Perhaps then we could get closer to chucking the duce’s to a culture of concealment, dishonesty, and manipulation around romantic relationships and say hello to one that ushers in disclosure, intimacy, and judgment-free love.
Cole’s message to viewers at the end of the video is, quite literally, written in the sky. He cautions viewers “Choose Wisely”. Although the message is more likely aimed at individuals (that identify as male and heterosexual), perhaps we can reinterpret the choice as a collective one. Drawing on inspiration from fellow philosopher of love Carrie Jenkins, I ask, what do we want our social script for romantic love to be? Choose wisely.