One of the biggest sources of representation for black women to a wide swath of popular culture is through rap music videos. In rap and hip hop, an industry dominated primarily by African-Americans, women have been given a particularly misogynistic and harmful portrayal by music producers and artists ever since the beginning of the rap music industry in the 1980s (Weitzer & Kubrin, 2009). This contributes to an acutely negative image of black women as promiscuous, abrasive, argumentative, and undesirable. It is argued that hip hop culture has a tremendous amount of misogyny inherent within it; objectification of woman is typical, as is their exploitation and victimization. Others argue that this objectification is just an extension of the normal sexism that exists in everyday life, but research and criticism indicates that the representation of women in rap videos specifically hurts both black men and women alike.
A major reason why women are marginalized by a substantial margin in rap music videos is that it is primarily an extension of the normal ideas of collective cultural misogyny as a whole. When combined with the already established cultural oppression that occurs towards blacks, the oppression that happens on the part of women is exacerbated further (Adams & Fuller, 2006). This cultural attitude leads to an oversexualization of black women in rap videos and other aspects of hip hop culture. Women are routinely called derogatory names such as "bitches" and "hoes," as well as "chickenheads." This is praised by a reward system set up by black male peers to celebrate their fellow man's ability to keep their woman in place. In the microcosm of rap popular culture, the ultimate goal is to sleep with multiple women, and have complete and utter control over them, using women simply for sex. Those women who step out of line - either by refusing sex or demanding respect - are often implied to be beaten or raped for not doing what the man wants (Weitzer & Kubrin 19-20). Morgan laments the effect this has on black men and rappers, as they “remain perpetually postadolescent or die” because of the values espoused in this music (Morgan 457).
Another reason why rap videos are misogynist is that portrayals of women in rap music videos are typically relegated to dancers, and models, all held to tremendous standards of female beauty. There is an astonishing lack of variety in weight and body size among many of the women presented there; while there is the cultural notion that larger body types are slightly more acceptable in black culture than in white culture, this phenomenon is seen much more rarely than often anticipated (Emerson, 2002). Mostly, black women are portrayed as thin, light-skinned objects of male desire, often favoring anonymity in these sexual beings. As Morgan writes, “the real crime isn’t the name-calling, it’s their failure to love us – to be our brothers in the way that we commit ourselves to being their sistas” (Morgan 457). In many rap videos, the women in it are barely represented, hardly being characters as much as objects; the Bobby Brown music video for "I've Got this Feelin'" has Whitney Houston "fetishistically" seen only in terms of her body parts, never seeing her face. This places a large emphasis on the body and physical attractiveness as a barometer for sexual satisfaction and desire (Emerson, 2002).
Another powerful and regressive reason women are presented poorly in rap videos is the 'thug missus,' a strange blend of Jezebel and other stereotypes (Jackson 115). A thug miss is thought to act, behave and dress the same way as a male thug or gangsta in rap culture; in a way, this is meant to defend oneself from the rampant victimization and misogyny inherent in rap culture by appropriating the same behaviors and appearances. By acting this way, a thug miss can theoretically avoid the negative behaviors targeted toward black women by taking herself out of the equation, and hypothetically performing them herself. The notion of the thug miss is a reaction to the hypermasculine behavior of rap culture, which is a very strong influence on modern African-American society. Women rappers themselves are a rarity; they most typically exemplify the aforementioned 'thug miss' stereotype. Nonetheless, they "inhabit a complex place in male-dominated rap and a white-dominated feminist movement" (Cook & Tsou 9). They often have neither the respect of the typical rap culture, nor the acceptance of white feminists who see rap as a whole to be degrading. These female rappers (including Lil' Kim, Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill) attempt to appropriate what is normally a misogynistic, woman-hating genre of music for themselves, sending their own messages about what they want. This, however, is an extremely recent fad, and has not held the same ubiquity as the male gang-related rap market.
Another reason rap videos are bad for both men and women is that black men are also hurt by rap music videos in their own way. By witnessing representations of black men as role models, who beat up women and have sex with them whenever they please, regardless of consent, it sends two very negative images. First, it sends the message to young black boys that this is an appropriate way to treat women. Secondly, it teaches young black women that it is appropriate to be treated that way. It arms both sides with tremendously destructive expectations of what their role in society is meant to be. Furthermore, outside rap culture, the rest of society is seen to view blacks in this light as well, preventing them from being fully accepted in the way that they should. This type of attitude promotes apathy and callousness on the part of both sexes regarding their situation; according to rap music videos and their cultural producers, living in the ghetto is all one has to look forward to. Therefore, gang life and rampant objectification is necessary, and the only way to get any sort of affection from a man is to make yourself sexually available at his whim. The hip hop culture, put simply, robs women of their agency and their self-reliance (Emerson, 2002).
It can be argued that this kind of sexism is pervasive everywhere in popular culture, particularly in popular media – women both black and white are oppressed and marginalized, placed in unrealistic expectations. Furthermore, much of this work is done with the consent of the women involved in these rap videos, making it very much their choice to be represented this way. White women have also been historically objectified, as we live in a hugely patriarchal society that favors men over women much of the time when creating and maintaining culture (Dyson 22). However, rap culture is unique in that it is by far the primary outlet for a historically marginalized race of people, and black women, as Morgan states, have it especially tough by being part of two marginalized groups at once: “Black folks have finally gotten to the point where we recognize that we sometimes engage in oppressive behaviors that white folks have little to do with” (Morgan 459).
In order to solve this problem, the main issue that has to be dealt with is the appropriation of negative images of African-American female sexuality by the producers of black culture - in the 20th century, the most prominent Black Cultural Producers are rap and hip hop music producers. As previously mentioned, the problem with these two sets of cultural producers is that they project an image of black culture (and black femininity) that is simply unacceptable and not conducive to real progress. In the case of rap culture, producers further the images of slutty women in clubs with large asses, used only for sex objects, as the norm among the African-American community. Not only does this create a mistaken perception for whites and others unfamiliar with African-American culture that this is normal and acceptable, it by extension becomes the norm when young black men appropriate and emulate what they see in their demographically-targeted media. Women must also stand up for themselves and not allow the proliferation of these images just for the sake of male attention: “many of the ways in which our men exploit our images and sexuality in hip-hop is done with our permission and cooperation” (Morgan 459).
In conclusion, women in rap music videos are largely objectified, which is harmful to both black men and women alike, and is a uniquely African-American phenomenon. In order to solve it, the female gaze directed toward black women must be lessened and fetishized to a smaller degree, in favor of black figures who confidently display their sexuality on their own terms. The new representation of the black woman would be self-possessed, even-handed, and assertive in creating the environment suitable for their own sex life. Nuance is desperately needed in modern popular culture when viewing the lens of black femininity; returning the erotic gaze back toward men, and claiming the black female body for one's own would be substantial steps toward creating that nuance (Emerson, 2002). These steps, including a better understanding of feminist roles in black culture, should help alleviate these negative cultural values being imposed upon impressionable black youth looking for a semblance of agency and belonging in a world that does not favor them.
Adams, Terri M. and Douglas B. Fuller. "The Words Have Changed but the Ideology Remains the Same: Misogynistic Lyrics in Rap Music". Journal of Black Studies, vol. 36, no. 6, pp. 938-957. 2006. Print.
Cook, Susan C., & Tsou, Judy S. Cecilia reclaimed: feminist perspectives on gender and music. University of Illinois Press, 1994. Print.
Dyson, Michael Eric (2007). Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip-Hop. New York: Basic
Emerson, Rana A. "Where My Girls At?" Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos." Gender & Society, vol. 16, 2002, p. 115. Print.
Jackson, Ronald L. Scripting the black masculine body: identity, discourse and racial politics in popular media. SUNY Press, 2006. Print.
Morgan, Joan. “from Fly-Girls to Bitches and Hos”. Pp. 455-460.
Weitzer, Ronald and Charis E. Kubrin. "Misogyny in Rap Music: A Content Analysis of Prevalence and Meanings". Men and Masculinities, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 3-29. 2009. Print.