A 'Ho' By Any Other Color: The History and Economics of Black Female Sexual Exploitation
Don Imus in his "apology" went on to say that the term "ho" didn't originate in the white community, but rather in the Black community. As the term "ho" is a variation of the word "whore" (a word not foreign to the American lexicon and indeed has been used with great frequency in the white community), that assertion does not hold water. So once again, what is endemic in American society is viewed as a specific "Black" identifier or just a "Black thing." That would be the equivalent of saying that the first person to call the television a TV undeniably invented it or the individual who first referred to the automobile as a car, now holds the patent to the creation. However, let it be understood, this truth does not excuse or exonerate sexist hip-hop from its shameful contribution to the debasement of women.
In regard to gender, there have 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. I would like to focus on 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. Even current and former white porn stars such as Ginger Lynn, Traci Lords and Jenna Jameson are made the topics of E! Hollywood True Stories exposes, thus giving them a place of prominence and legitimacy and without ever linking their promiscuity to her whiteness. 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. 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. Therefore hip-hop, like Blackness, is something that society should be, must be, protected from. It is from this context that ALL things Black have been realized and it is from this context that white female sexual explicitness has been sanitized.
The History of the "Sexploitation" of the Black Woman
The degrading images of Black women were cemented in American culture centuries previous to the first rapper uttering their first words into a microphone. The English colonists accepted the Elizabethan image of "the lusty Moor," (Moor being Elizabethan for Black) and used this and similar stereotypes to justify enslaving Blacks. In part, this was accomplished by arguing that Blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and with a bestial sexuality. The hypersexualized stereotype of Black women was used during slavery as a rationalization for sexual relations between White men and Black women, especially sexual unions involving masters and slaves. The Black woman was depicted as a woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. She was not satisfied with Black men. It was claimed that the female slave desired sexual relations with White men; therefore, White men did not have to rape Black women. James Redpath, who was of all things an abolitionist, wrote that slave women were "gratified by the criminal advances of Saxons." This view is contradicted by Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and former slave, who claimed that the "slave woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master." Douglass's account is consistent with the accounts of other former slaves. In Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Bibb tells of how his master forced a young slave to be his son's concubine; later, Bibb and his wife were sold to a Kentucky trader who forced Bibb's wife into prostitution.
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 state 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 belief 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 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 tempt us to be co-facilitators in our own cultural demise, as we engage in endeavors that aid in the buttressing and reinforcement of pernicious and racist stereotypes.
One of our strengths as Black people (contrary to popular opinion) is our ability to engage in deep and insightful self-critique -- and in that spirit we must take responsibility for our role in this. 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
It is a multibillion-dollar industry, accounting for one of every five records sold in America. Eighty percent of buyers are white. The music that now generates over $10 billion per year (according to Forbes magazine) was initially ignored by corporate America. Now corporations use the phrases, the images, and the sounds of hip-hop to sell everything from McDonald's dollar menus to Cadillacs.
Although the faces of hip-hop are predominantly Black and the Black community birthed the music, who are the real power-players at Universal Music and Viacom that are pushing the green or red button on what gets produced and promoted in hip-hop? Dr. Jared Ball in his composition, "Hip-Hop, Mass Media & 21st Century Colonization," states: "Given the societal need and function of mass media and popular culture, all that is popular is fraudulent. Popularity is in almost every case an intentionally constructed fabrication of what it claims to represent. Too few who comment on the lamentable condition of today's popular hip-hop seem to grasp this, the political nature of the nation's media system, nor the political function that system serves. Hip-hop is often taken out of the existing context of political struggle, repression, or the primacy of a domestic/neo-colonialism in the service of which mass media play a (the?) leading role. Media, often incorrectly defined by their technologies, are the primary conduits of ideology or worldview and must be seen as such. Therefore, their highly consolidated ownership and content management structure (corporate interlocking boards of directors, advertisers, stockholders, etc.) cannot be understood absent their ability to disseminate a consciousness they themselves sanction and mass produce. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrable than in hip-hop."
Entertainment has always been a sponsor/market-driven entity. This is important to remember as a multitude begins to mourn Don Imus as the latest "sacrifice" on the altar of the god called political correctness, their outrage is suspect at best and hypocritical at worst. To say that a campaign of this sort has never been lodged against a rap artist deemed guilty of derogatory attitudes towards Black women is not supported by history or the facts. In 2002 Pepsi-Cola pulled a national, 30-second commercial featuring multiplatinum rapper Ludacris from the air after Fox News Channel's host Bill O'Reilly called for a boycott of the company. O'Reilly characterized Pepsi as "immoral" for using the rapper, whom he described as a rap thug. O'Reilly, on his program, read several of the rapper's lyrics, which he said emphasized a lifestyle that included getting intoxicated, selling drugs, fighting people, and degrading women -- by the way, in all my research, not once did I discover that Ludacris was ever sued for sexual harassment or charged with sexual misconduct. The same cannot be said of Mr. O'Reilly and yet he still holds a position as a moral authority with millions of Americans.
Pepsi-Cola released a statement explaining its decision to pull the ad, "We have a responsibility to listen to our consumers and customers, and we've heard from a number of people that were uncomfortable with our association with this artist. We've decided to discontinue our ad campaign with this artist and we're sorry that we've offended anyone."
Let's fast-forward two years to 2004 when Whoopi Goldberg's sexual puns on President Bush's name at a John Kerry fundraiser got her fired as spokeswoman for Slim-Fast weight-loss products. The West Palm Beach, Fla.-based maker of diet aids pulled the ad campaign featuring Goldberg stating that it regretted that Goldberg's remarks "offended some of their consumers." Contrast the rapidity of Pepsi and Slim Fast in dispatching Ludacris and Whoopi, with the decades-long, accommodating, look-the-other-way attitude of sponsors and networks when it comes to individuals such as Imus.
Armstrong Williams on the MSNBC news program Hardball (4/11/07), said that Don Imus should not be fired and "the marketplace should make that decision." And alas, the marketplace did make that decision when the sponsors pulled out en masse. If that is the criterion that we are to use, then what do we do when hip-hop's/rap's vast popularity is determined by that same marketplace -- and as was stated previously, that purchasing marketplace is 80% white and the company executives making the final decision as to what gets made and what gets played are predominantly white.
If corporations want to push anti-woman and sexist music this year, millions of dollars will be pumped into the budget of whatever rapper is ignorant enough to write the lyrics. Sure the artists can choose to make something different. They just won't have the backing that others do who agree to play the game. So, by all means hold hip-hop (and ALL artists of ALL genres) who are guilty of producing the misogynistic and sexist messages in their lyrics and videos morally and politically accountable. However, although they may be guilty of providing the supply, it is the American culture that created the demand.