Claiming Jezebel: Black Female Subjectivity
and Sexual Expression in Hip-Hop
Ayana Byrd is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. She is an entertainment journalist whose work has appeared in Vibe, Rolling Stone, Honey, TV Guide, and Paper magazines. She is the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
All it used to take was one "bitch" reference in a song, one gratuitous ass shake in a video and I was on a roll, criticizing the sexism of black men, denouncing the misogynistic societal structures set up by white men who supported it from their music industry corner offices, lamenting the misrepresented ways that black female bodies were on display. It didn't take much to get me back on my soapbox. But that, apparently, was a long time ago. Because today, allowed a receptive audience and the opportunity to wax passionately and even philosophically about the state of women in hip-hop-the art form that I once believed most defined me-I draw a big blank, barely able to muster up a halfhearted "You won't believe what I just heard . . ."
What happened since my rankled ire over Snoop Doggy Dogg's 1993 Doggystyle album cover of a black female behind wiggling, naked, out of a doghouse? Things haven't gotten any better. The "feminist rapper" Queen Latifah now uses the once taboo B word in her lyrics. Alongside Chaka Khan, who sings the hook for "It's All Good," the onetime "conscious" group De La Soul had a video complete with a Jacuzzi overflowing with near-naked women. Since the debut of rap videos, outfits in videos are skimpier, the sexual references lewder, and the complicity by women in their own exploitation more widespread. Yet all I generally feel is an apathy.
I can now listen to a song with the hook "Hoes/I got hoes/in different area codes" and instead of cringing at thoughts of debasement, chuckle at the artist Ludacris's witty delivery. Maybe it's that I've defined my own sexuality and know for sure what I only suspected in the past-that these men aren't talking about me. The problem is, they don't know they're not talking about me. Further, a lot of women, particularly girls and young adults, aren't sure that they don't want to be talked about in this way. These songs, and the videos that illustrate them, offer the most broadly distributed examples of seemingly independent black women that many young and sexually pubescent girls see. And unfortunately few girls transitioning into womanhood understand that the representation of female bodies in rap videos is not an empowering power-of-the-pussy but a fleeting one.
Because I grew up in the 1970s and '80s, I find it easy to list all the people who looked like me that were on television. There was Penny on Good Times, Tootie from The Facts of Life, and the occasional appearance of Charlene on Diff'rent Strokes. In the mid-eighties, there were as well the wholesome Huxtable daughters of the Cosby Show. Those of us who came of age then had a near void of images upon which to draw for representations of black women our age, negative or positive. It was a decade devoted both to saving and to condemning the "Endangered Black Male." But teen pregnancy was skyrocketing, and often the predominant young black female faces on television were in public service spots against babies having babies. Yet there were few policies or social organizations that were addressing their need to be saved or uplifted.
As the eighties progressed, things didn't get much better. In film as well as television, portrayals of black women were at either extreme of the sexual spectrum. In Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, which has been raked over the coals by feminists since its release, the lead, Nola Darling, was, among other atrocities, raped by one of her lovers (the supposed nice one) and got back together with him for a short time. On The Cosby Show, the television program that perhaps came closest to engaging and entertaining an entire generation of black kids, the female characters were completely desexed. On one episode we learn that Denise, the "wild child" of the family, was a virgin until her wedding night. Though their cousin Pam and her friend Charmaine both flirt with the idea of "giving it up" to their boyfriends, they seem less interested in actually having sex than in keeping their mates happy.
As popular culture weighed in on young black female sexuality, there were also deeply embedded societal stereotypes with which to contend. The lingering effects of the Moynihan Report, the controversial paper by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would later become a U.S. Senator, were still being felt. It asserted that black social immobility was caused by a crisis in the black family, and that Black Superwomen had emasculated black men, causing a fissure in the normal family setting.1 President Reagan had effectively constructed the idea of the Welfare Mother: a black woman who refused to get a job and be a normal contributor to society but instead sat at home all day (most likely in the projects), maybe hitting the crack pipe, having babies by a host of men, living off welfare checks that came out of the pockets of decent, hardworking (white) Americans. Outside of academic conferences, few observers pointed out that the majority of women in the country on welfare were white, and that most women stayed on public assistance for two years or less.
By the early nineties there were other messages in which black women were made into villains. While the media highlighted the Tawana Brawley case, in which the fifteen-year-old black girl alleged a racist attack by white police officers but was found by a grand jury to be lying,2 they virtually ignored the 1990 case of five white student athletes who were charged with sodomy and sexual abuse for repeatedly sexually assaulting a Jamacian woman in a fraternity house at St. John's University. In the latter case, there was more than enough evidence to convict, but according to one juror, the acquittal was based on the jury's desire to save the boys' lives from "ruin." Together the cases colluded in delegitimizing claims of rape by black women. There was also Mike Tyson's 1991 conviction for raping Desiree Washington. As vehemently as the white press sought to turn Tyson into a beast, many blacks cried foul to the champ's imprisonment. "What was she doing in his room anyway?" "That bitch set him up!" "How was she laughing and smiling at the show if just the night before he had raped her?" There was often more talk about how he had been framed than about the fact that Tyson had a history of physical abuse toward women. Around the same time, Clarence Thomas's self-declared "high-tech lynching" was played out on television screens across the nation, although it was women-Anita Hill and black women in particular-who were left feeling like the ones hanging from the tree of political, if not necessarily public, opinion.
So what does any of this have to do with hip-hop? It is telling that the women-whether they're the rappers topping the charts or the dancers in the videos-formed their own identities at a time when black female sexuality in the cultural marketplace was not at all positive. The way black women experience and interpret the world has indeed been determined by our having to wage constant battles in order to determine our subjectivity-to say that we are not whores à la Desiree Washington, tricksters and liars à la Tawana Brawley, or disgruntled spinsters à la Anita Hill. In Black Looks the cultural theorist bell hooks writes, "The extent to which Black women feel devalued, objectified, dehumanized in this society determines the scope and texture of their looking relations. Those Black women whose identities were constructed in resistance, by practices that oppose the dominant order, were most inclined to develop an oppositional gaze."3 Yet those women whose identities were instead constructed in compliance with the status quo were most inclined to absorb these images and make these representations and stereotypes of heterosexual black female sexuality their own.
Today, through the music video, there are so many black female bodies on view on any given day of watching television that it is impossible to list them. In many ways that is probably the point. Through the constant barrage of hypersexualized images, the young, black female has ceased to be an anomaly in the marketplace and is now back in the slave era position of anonymous chattel. Hooks sums it up in Black Looks when she writes, "Just as nineteenth-century representations of Black female bodies were constructed to emphasize that these bodies were expendable, contemporary images (even those created in black cultural production) give a similar message."4 The hip-hop video has taken rap music to a level never imagined during its roots in the house parties of the 1970s Bronx. Early rap videos were overwhelmingly low-budget affairs. But in the late 1980s, Video Music Box-now the longest-running hip-hop video show in New York City-debuted from Miami and collided with the national explosion of that same city's 2 Live Crew, forever changing hip-hop video.
Before Luther Campbell and his 2 Live Crew, there were countless images of scantily clad women in music videos. Bands like Van Halen and Mötley Crüe had perfected the art of the gratuitous bikini shot long before rappers. The difference was that these women were white. And they were not being depicted in a genre proclaiming itself to be politically charged and revolutionary. As the rap historian Tricia Rose explains in her seminal work Black Noise, "Rap music is a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America."5 During the Reagan and Bush administrations, as prisons went up as rapidly as homelessness and drug use, and police brutality spread across the country, hip-hop became the medium for the disenfranchised citizens of the inner city to state their rage, vent their concerns, educate themselves about political issues, and fight back against government propaganda. Public Enemy, whose lyrics advised the disenfranchised to "fight the power," or spoke to controversial urban realities ("I don't wanna be called yo nigga"), were by far the most visible political rappers, but they were hardly the only ones.
By the time of the "Me So Horny"s and "Baby Got Back"s of the rap world, there were legions of hip-hop tunes that were not deep or meaningful in their lyrical content. But the accompanying videos, with images of women with DD cups washing soapy car windows with their breasts, were groundbreaking. "The visualization of music has far-reaching effects on musical culture and popular culture generally, not the least of which is the increase in visual interpretations of sexist power relationships,"6 Rose wrote. In short, it became as easy as the click of the cable remote to see images of black women as so sexually licentious, so insatiably horny that Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" looked almost tame.
In the early days of the booty video, the depiction of women in the music was overwhelmingly cut-and-dried. With a few notable exceptions, they were portrayed as gold-digging vixens. Hip-hop music extended the idea with videos that showed women dressed in G-strings, bikinis, and stripper outfits, oftentimes in situations that had nothing to do with the beach or a strip club. It was a time when many feminists and other interested onlookers noted that, as misconstrued and narrow as the representation of black women in rap music was, it would most likely be balanced once more women became viable, popular rappers. The idea was that, given the space to define themselves, female rappers would construct an image of black womanhood which encompassed a more realistic scope of sexuality, not to mention give voice to the day-to-day struggles of women living in the urban arenas that were typically the focus of hip-hop music.
The meteoric rise of Lil' Kim's career was the likely starting point for the muddying of the waters that has taken place for me and many others who once felt that there were only two sides in the sexual war of hip-hop. She is arguably the female rapper closest to achieving iconic status. And although she has attracted many fans based on interest in her music, Kim's real infamy stems from the public way she has lived her life. Nothing has been deemed too private for the diminutive rapper from Brooklyn. She's admitted that she never had her dad's acceptance and that as a teen she used sex and her body to survive. After the Notorious B.I.G., the man who had been her mentor as well as her married lover, died, she told People magazine how she kissed his urn each morning. On her sophomore album, Notorious KIM, she revealed how she aborted a pregnancy from her rap Svengali. We have watched Kim publicly wrestle with weight, undergo two breast enlargements, a nose job, blond hair, and blue contact lenses.
In 1995 Kim and her then-friend Foxy Brown opened the door for the public's acceptance of sexual female rappers. Before them, those relatively few women who were sexually brazen in hip-hop were often dismissed by cultural critics and feminists as willing participants in their own dehumanization. Groups like Hoes with Attitudes and Bytches Wit Problems could stand against any male gangsta rapper when it came to sexually explicit lyrics.) Instead, there was a perceived transgressiveness in Kim's and Foxy's acts of asserting desire and sexual wants in a culture where female sexuality is not typically linked with the pursuit of pleasure.
Yet while these two performers challenged notions of what it meant to be a woman in hip-hop, it could be argued that they were simultaneously supporting an image of black female sexuality that the white patriarchy had been trying to sell us since slavery. During the whole of the nineteenth century, for example, depictions of black female bodies were often sexualized in ways that white women's never were.7 The black female was a licentious counterpart to the white woman's virtue, in fact making that virtue possible. The supposed sexuality of black women was the thing that white women could set themselves against. One of the most emblematic (and bizarre) representations of black female sexuality was the Hottentot Venus, whose "grossly overdeveloped labia," "enlarged clitoris," and large buttocks were seen as evidence of the "primitive sexuality of African women."8 Like the African Hottentot, the black female body not only had a divergent sexual physiology made up of more pronounced sexual organs but a divergent sexual psychology that dictated uncontrollable "primitive" sexual desire. Although the Hottentot Venus was a medical myth, it was presented to the public as pure fact. Such fictions, whether they pertain to the hypersexual Hottentot or her diametrical opposite, the sexless archmother mammy, are all too powerful images. Contemporary black women are forced to negotiate the traces left by these contaminated constructions of black female sexuality.
1. Officially titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" and writeen in 1965.
2. In 1987 Tawana Brawley was found in upstate New York covered with racial slurs and charcoal. She alleged that a gang of six white police officers has "abducted and held her for four days in the woods, raping her repeatedly, writing KKK and NIGGER on her belly, smearing her with dog feces and leaving her in a plastic garbage bad outside an apartment complex where her family had once lived," but a grand jury found her story to lack credibility. See http://www.time.com/tim/magazine/1998/dom/980727/file.stories_sacred_lies18.html.
3. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation
(Boston: South End Press, 1992), 127.
4. Ibid., 64.
5. Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
(Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 2.
6. Ibid., 9.
7. The sterotypical depiction of the black female body as licentious during the nineteenth century was one of teo primary stereotypes.
8. Jan Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 181.
Excerpted from The Fire This Time by Edited by Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin. Copyright © 2004 by Edited by Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.