In regard to gender, there has been two, pronounced, conflicting and unjust narratives concerning female sexuality in America. Although all women who were viewed or accused as loose or promiscuous faced the ire and consternation of a (predominantly white) male-dominated society, there has always been this duplicitous racial application of the penalties incurred for committing perceived “moral” crimes against society. Historically, White women, as a category, have been portrayed as examples of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but Black women were often (and still are) portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. My focus in this piece will be the various ways White female sexual promiscuity has been viewed, recognized and oft-times celebrated in today’s media and in popular culture.
In her publication, Female Chauvinist Pigs, New York magazine writer Ariel Levy argues that the recent trend for soft-porn styling in everything from music videos to popular TV is reducing female sexuality to its basest levels. In short: "A tawdry, tarty, cartoon-like version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular."
Kathleen Parker in her article, Girls Gone Ridiculous, further elaborates this point: “…the message to girls the past 20 years or so has been that they can be and do anything they please. Being a stripper or a porn star is just another option among many. In some feminist circles, porn is seen as the ultimate feminist expression — women exercising autonomy over their bodies, profiting from men's desire, rather than merely being objectified by it. Self-exploitation has become the raised middle finger of women's sexual freedom.” And that “raised middle-finger” in popular culture, rap videos aside, has largely been a white one. Society, by and large, has deracialized white female sexual explicitness while at the same time strongly accentuating what is perceived as Black female promiscuity and immodesty. That message has been communicated to us time and time again on the pages of Maxim, FHM, Playboy, Penthouse and Sports Illustrated---and this list goes on. Although these mags have, in the past 10 years, featured more women of color, they are still (overwhelmingly) a celebration of white female sexual explicitness.
The ultra-celebrity accorded to white female sexual explicitness burst on the scene in the person of Marilyn Monroe. Can anyone argue that Monroe was more recognized for her acting talents than for her “natural assets?” Yet, she is regarded as a legend. The celebrity that has been granted to white women such as Anna Nicole Smith, Pamela Anderson, Carmen Elecktra, Paris Hilton and a whole host of others, is also given based upon sexual assets and not upon talent. This theme is consistent in today’s raunch-infested society, but the raunchiness, once again, is deracialized when the practitioners are white. WWE women's wrestling has increased in popularity in the past few years with its predominantly white roster of sex-kittens and their highly sexualized plots and subplots. While, in contrast, one would be hard-pressed to name as many Black women (or any other women of color) ---absent of talent--- who enjoy the same level of celebrity and success.
Even in, seemingly light-hearted (at least that is the impression that we’ve been given), popular movies we see this phenomenon played out. In Risky Business, the film that introduced Tom Cruise to mainstream America, was about a young man (with the help of a spunky prostitute fleeing her pimp, played by Rebecca De Mornay) who opened up a brothel in his parent’s home while they were away on vacation. Pretty Woman, the film that made Julia Roberts a megastar, essentially is a remake of the children’s classic Cinderella, except this time Cinderella is a hooker. The Woody Allen (that alone gives it legitimacy) film The Mighty Aphrodite stars Mira Sorvino in the “acceptable” prostitute role (for which she won an Oscar). In the recent film, The Girl Next Door (featuring another rising star Elisha Cuthbert) the movie centers on the relationship between an accomplished high school senior and his 19 year-old porn star (Cuthbert) neighbor. In the descriptions of the main characters in these films (the women) words such as, free-spirited, spunky, playful, spontaneous were used. I tried imagining these same films with Black main characters and I could not envision the same light-hearted response by the American public-at-large. There has yet to be a critically-acclaimed or commercially successful film, where a central character was a Black prostitute. So even when the “textbook” requirements of what constitutes being promiscuous is met, her whiteness saves the day. Even at her most licentious, she is made to appear innocent, wholesome and strangely virginal.
These movies were huge box office successes, and if one subscribes to the theory that the lyrics contained in some hip-hop songs desensitizes individuals to misogyny and normalizes sexism, then that same ethos would have to applied to the films that have essentially “deified” and normalized white female explicitness and promiscuity. So when the same messages that are being demonized in hip-hop are also found in these popular films and white-dominated music genres (but couched in the safety and familiarity of whiteness), what society is essentially telling us is that it is better PR that hip-hop needs not a lessening of sexist themes in their music and videos.
So it has to be understood that racism is at the heart of this current debate regarding misogyny and sexism. America continues to prove (day in and day out) that it has absolutely no problem with sexual promiscuity. So what is their problem with hip-hop? It is the sheer “Blackness” of it. Historically (as well as now), there has been a fear of Black (especially Black male) sexuality. This irrational and racist fear was repeatedly used in the countless lynchings of Black men in the history of this nation (which often included castration as well). Black equals dangerous; Black equals savage; Black equals barbaric; Black equals forbidden, infected and inferior. It is from this context that ALL things Black has been realized and it is from this context that white female sexual explicitness has been sanitized. Therefore hip-hop, like Blackness, is something that society must be; should be; and has to be protected from.
The History of the Sexploitation of the Black Woman
Slave women were property; therefore, legally they could not be raped. Often slavers would offer gifts or promises of reduced labor if the slave women would consent to sexual relations. Nevertheless, as John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman states in Intimate Matters: A Sexual History of Sexuality In America, “the rape of a female slave was probably the most common form of interracial sex” during that time.The idea that Black women were naturally and unavoidably sexually immoral was reinforced by several features of the slavery institution. Slaves whether on the auction block or offered privately for sale, were often stripped naked and physically examined. In premise, this was done to ensure that they were healthy, able to reproduce, and, equally important, to look for whipping scars – the presence of which implied that the slave was rebellious. In practice, the stripping and touching of slaves had a sexually exploitative, sometimes sadistic function. Nakedness, especially among women in the 18th and 19th centuries, implied lack of civility, morality, and sexual restraint even when the nakedness was forced. Slaves, of both sexes and all ages, often wore few clothes or clothes so ragged that their legs, thighs, and chests were exposed. Conversely, Whites, especially women, wore clothing over most of their bodies. The contrast between the clothing reinforced the beliefs that White women were civilized, modest, and sexually pure, whereas Black women were crude, immodest, and sexually deviant. Black slave women were also frequently pregnant. The institution of slavery depended on Black women to supply future slaves. By every method imaginable, slave women were "encouraged" to reproduce. Deborah Gray White, in Ar'n't I a Woman?, speaks of major periodicals carrying articles detailing optimal conditions under which bonded women were known to reproduce, and the merits of a particular "breeder" were often the topic of parlor or dinner table conversations. Gray White goes on to say “the fact that something so personal and private became a matter of public discussion prompted one ex-slave to declare that ‘women wasn't nothing but cattle.’ Once reproduction became a topic of public conversation, so did the slave woman's sexual activities.”
The portrayal of Black women as sexually promiscuous began in slavery, extended through the Jim Crow period, and continues today. Although the Mammy distortion was the dominant popular cultural image of Black women from slavery to the 1950s, the depiction of Black women as sexually licentious was common in American material culture. There was practically no item that was considered out-of-bounds in depicting the Black woman as immodest and lacking in sexual restraint as ordinary articles such as ashtrays, postcards, sheet music, fishing lures, drinking glasses, featured scantily-clad Black women. For example, a metal nutcracker, from the 1930’s, depicts a topless Black woman. The nut is placed under her skirt, in her crotch, and crushed. Were sexually explicit items such as these made in the image of white women? Yes. However, they were never mainstreamed like the objects that caricatured Black women. The seamy novelty objects depicting white women were sold on the down-low, the QT and always hush-hush.
An analysis of these racist items also reveals that Black female children were sexually objectified. Black girls, with the faces of pre-teenagers, were drawn with adult sized buttocks, which were exposed. They were naked, scantily clad, or hiding seductively behind towels, blankets, trees, or other objects.
As we enter the late 60’s and early 70’s the vestiges of the old Mammy and Picaninny caricatures were replaced with the supersexualized female (as well as male) protagonists and heroines---often in the form of prostitutes or women using sex as a means to the greater end of achieving a vendetta. These films are now referred to as blaxploitation movies. These movies were supposedly steeped in the Black experience. However, many were produced and directed by Whites. Author and film historian Daniel J. Leab in his narrative, Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, wrote: "Whites packaged, financed, and sold these films, and they received the bulk of the big money." The world depicted in blaxploitation movies included corrupt police and politicians, pimps, drug dealers, violent criminals, prostitutes, and whores. In the main, these movies were low-budget, formulaic interpretations of Black life by White producers, directors, and distributors. Black actors and actresses, many unable to find work in mainstream movies, found work in blaxploitation movies. Black patrons supported these movies because they showed Blacks fighting the "White establishment," resisting the “pigs” (police), in control of their fate and sexual beings.
There are compelling parallels between this period and where we now find ourselves today in regard to sexist hip-hop. Parallels such as the erroneous perceptions that certain images were and are indeed steeped in the true Black experience; who controlled and controls the production and distribution of the “black” product; the preeminence of distorted sexual roles; and who disproportionately benefits, financially, from this destructive typecasting. It is a painful reality that the lack of real opportunities can sometimes make us co-facilitators in our own cultural demise, as we engage in endeavors that aid in the buttressing and reinforcement of pernicious and racist stereotypes.
Toni Morrison in addressing the dynamics of racial and gender internalized oppression in her novel The Bluest Eye stated that it was "as though some mysterious all-knowing master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ . . . [a]nd they (Black folk) took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it. And we as Black people (male & female), have now taken ownership, or taken it in our hands as it were, this deplorable legacy and have worn this disgraceful and destructive garment proudly; and we have indeed gone about the world with it. We in the Black community who have consumed, purchased and repeated the words and images; we, Black male and female exploiters of Black sexuality, who have participated in this dishonor are like the Laodecians who were rebuked by Christ because they were convinced that they were rich and increased with goods and had need of nothing without understanding; without realizing that they were blind, wretched, miserable and naked. And like Esau, we have gave up our God-given birthright that entitled us to something better, for a mess of pottage; for husks that satiate us for only a little while; with nothing to show for the bitter and foolish trade but pain, regret and longing.
Seeing that her womb supplied the steady flow of slaves that facilitated the accumulation of wealth for plantation owners and the various industries in this country (rice, cotton, tobacco and sugar to name a few), America was built, in large part, on the sexual exploitation of the Black woman. With the coffers of the major corporations that own the record labels and the music video networks, bursting from the profits of this new millennium’s minstrel show, it is a malicious irony of epic and tragic proportions that we have now come full circle.
What The Market Will Bear
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