Feminist Musings, Slay Queenism and the Politics of Black Women’s Agency

A group of people has emerged as a hot topic in contemporary media discourse in South Africa in recent years: slay queens. Slay queens, according to the number one pub quiz aficionado Wikipedia, is the following:

The term ‘slay queen’ was initially a term of positive empowerment used amongst women and queer communities – a person was ‘slaying’ (someone doing an amazing job or that they ‘killed it’, whether in life or performance), whilst being a ‘queen’ (referred to someone who looks good, someone who exudes excellence). The term slay queen came up in that people would question how these young women obtained their high-maintenance luxury lifestyle without having a blesser. Over time and through inter-cultural exchanges from the Global North to the Global South, the term has become a notorious archetype in the broader African context, where ‘slay queen’ no longer refers to its original definition, but is used to negatively describe the behaviours, attitudes and looks of certain black women. Therefore, what I’m hoping to do in my research is unpack what is unseen, the covert factors influenced by historical narratives that impact how we see black women in South Africa today. And so, my research is looking at:

  • What is the definition of a Slay Queen in post-Apartheid South Africa?
  • What contestations are there surrounding black femme archetypes and subjectivities in the South African context?
  • What forms the basis of slay queens’ existence within postfeminist discourse in the South African context?

The theory that will tie my analysis together, is postfeminist theory. Postfeminism is the idea that since we have made socio-economic strides in gender equality, women’s empowerment is found through achieving some or all of the following: a good job, dressing well, a successful career, good looks, and/or a family. These factors would fall under what are called neoliberal markers of success. Another colloquial term for postfeminism is ‘girl boss feminism’, which focuses on the achievements of individual women in their careers and lives, not necessarily on collective empowerment.

Lebogang Masango, a South African anthropologist, published critical work in this area of study called ‘The Soft Life: Love, Choice and Modern Dating”, which uses a qualitative approach to study the dating lives of black women in South Africa. 

Additionally, a plethora of novel research has been done on the experiences of slay queens in the South African context. Lebogang Maphelela (2019)’s masters looked at how young black women studying at the University of Johannesburg were using their Instagram accounts to mobilise their social and economic capital by creating an audience and building a network.  Zawu (2020)’s thesis further studied the rise and normalisation of the blessee/blesser relationship in South Africa. So, it’s safe to say that there is growing literature on the topic, with space to explore it from new angles, including my own that specifically wants to look at slay queens through the lens of postfeminist theory.

As mentioned in my first blog, the political is personal, and the personal is political. Studying gender within my work has been something that has made the most sense to me as a self-defined feminist. When I tell people I’m studying slay queens, there is a range of reactions from different people. I’m in the second year of my research, so much still needs to be done before the thesis is completed. After getting my proposal approved, I am now in the process of obtaining ethical clearance, along with designing what my data collection will look like. Because this is a new area of exploration from a South African perspective, I hope to contribute to the growing literature on understanding black postfeminist ideals through a gendered lens in South Africa, Africa and within the diaspora.

Polysomnography: A word long enough to put you to sleep!

So, how did you sleep?

I ask with a greater level of intrigue than simply for the commitment of connecting with you. I ask, because I care. I ask because I am a scientist.

A hundred or so years ago, what we knew about sleep was that we sleep to alleviate sleepiness. Considering that humans spend nearly a third of our lives in the sleeping state, it should come as no surprise that I (and many sleep researchers before me) remain unsatisfied with that deduction. The velocity of sleep research had been exponentiated by Hans Berger’s measurements of the brain’s electrical activity, depicted as waveforms, which he called an electroencephalogram.

Since the tool of electroencephalography (or, EEG) came to the slumber party in the 1920’s, sleep scientists began inquiring into the effects of sleep deprivation on the body, the role of sleep on cognitive power and, remarkably, observing that different stages of sleep occur in cycles through the night. All this is possible with the understanding of the brain as a battery – a component in a circuit that has a finite capacity for work with the inevitable outcome of needing a recharge.

When you are in a state of wakeful awareness, following demands of “to-do” lists and preparing for meetings, your brain may be functioning at maximum capacity. Daydreaming on a walk through a park during lunchtime requires the brain to be far less acutely involved in paying attention. As you read, meditate, or begin drifting off to dreamland, the output of your brain slows down sequentially and allows the initiation of sleep.

A person’s sleep and wakefulness is partially at the mercy of the usual “sleep-hygiene” factors:

  • timing and amount of caffeine intake
  • the stimulation of light exposure and humidity of the sleep environment
  • stressful events in one’s day
  • the body’s apparent chronobiology
  • what was eaten before bed…

The phenomenon of sleep is as unique to your body and lifestyle as the print on your fingertips!

Yet, there are numerous internal decision-makers for adequate or disturbed sleep – some of which the sleeper may not even be aware of.

I work as a collaborator with a team of remarkable clinicians at Ezintsha, a research centre located adjacent to Wits Health Sciences campus, for patients with illnesses like TB or HIV that drive major public health issues in South Africa. The HIV epidemic is currently rather well managed by the early-stage intervention and widespread distribution of antiretroviral therapies across South Africa. This follows nearly three decades of devastation. However, with the prolonged life expectancy and improved quality of life available to people living with HIV, epidemiologists observed the inflation of other devastating epidemics like hypertension, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart attacks.

Cardiometabolic risk indicators like high blood pressure, sugar intolerance and cholesterol imbalances are on the rise, and researchers in HIV-related trials begin to engage with a new class of reported symptoms: those of obstructive sleep apnoea. Obstructive sleep apnoea describes the short-lived but repeated pauses in breathing during sleep, often indicated by snoring. This is frightening to both the patient and housemates who have heard the gasping snores that accompany the breathless event but fear not! Obstructive sleep apnoea is treatable.

So, why is this story important?

Sleep apnoea remains underdiagnosed in the general South African population, despite as many as 30% of people being at risk for this sleep-related breathing disorder. Its side effects include daytime sleepiness, chronic inflammation, reduced motivation, brain fog, changes in mood and of course a further rise in those nasty cardiometabolic risk factors. Cardiometabolic diseases are responsible for one out of every five deaths in South Africa. This is a public health crisis, which we can aim to mitigate with routine diagnostics for obstructive sleep apnoea.

Without the foundation of an EEG, an even more comprehensive sleep measurement tool would never have been possible. Cue, polysomnography! Polysomnography measures brainwaves in various sleep stages, but the addition of other physiological measurements like heart rate, chest and belly movement, blood oxygen levels and air moving through the nose opens the door to diagnosing obstructive sleep apnoea through overnight sleep observation – which is exactly what I do! Polysomnography tells the story of how we sleep – I am simply the reader.