Misogyny in Hip Hop
11 December 2017
Sexism is at the forefront of the
news—a President elected despite his crude comments about “grabbing” women by
the “p***y” – a senator up for re-election despite multiple allegations of
pedophilia—every day another millionaire, politician or celebrity brought down
because of disclosures of sexual harassment.
Regard for women seems to be at a low, and misogyny (“the hatred or
disdain of women,” an ideology that reduces women to objects for men’s
ownership, use or abuse) appears to be common and widespread (Adams and Fuller
2006). Such displays of misogyny may be business as usual in America, but some
have claimed they are part of the long-term fall-out of the hyper-sexism and
exaggerated violence of the crude and brutal misogynistic lyrics of hip hop. While most would agree that hip hop (or rap)
is indisputably sexist and demeaning toward women, there is insufficient evidence
that hip hop played a significant role in causing this kind of misogyny—rather,
it is more likely that hip hop served as a vehicle by which to expose existing
misogyny of a deeply sexist Patriarchy.
The methodology of exploring this issue was to
read several books and articles written about sexism and misogyny in hip hop,
listen to Rap lyrics, watch Rap videos, read interviews with artists and
critics about Rap and misogyny, and gather anecdotal evidence and opinions
about people’s reactions to misogyny in Rap.
There seems to be no real argument that Rap is
not misogynistic among scholars of hip hop.
C. DeLores Tucker, Chair of the National Political Congress of Black
Women, called the genre a “profane and obscene glorification of murder and
rape” (Waldron 1996). Tricia Rose said
that there is no debate that hip-hop promotes sexist and demeaning images of
black women and caricatures of women as “hoes” (Rose 1994, pp 1, 114). The
argument, however, goes beyond the fact that hip hop is very often misogynistic
and extends to a claim that hip hop has a powerful influence on American
culture and life and was, therefore, largely responsible for increased sexism in
America (Rhymes). “Studies suggest that
increased exposure to misogynistic messages has desensitized audiences to the
issue of intimate partner violence and fosters greater tolerance of male
aggression” (Barongan & Hall, 1996).
The Miami Herald proclaimed
that rap music helped promote urban decline by celebrating the pimping of
women, and the New York Daily News concluded
that “gangsta” rap caused a decline in American values and promoted thugs and
sluts living by “any means necessary” (Armstrong 2001). A decade ago when Don Imus (a prominent radio
host) was fired for comments referring to Black females as “nappy headed hoes”
(Rhymes 2007), many suggested that Imus learned his attitude from the Black
culture and that he was a fall guy for the intense level of debasing and
degrading attitudes toward Black women expressed in Rap music (Rhymes). However, there is strong evidence that the
misogyny displayed by Imus, the current President, and all of the other men
being exposed for their biased attitudes toward women, is the result not of
rap, but of a patriarchal sexist society.
For example, Rose does not buy the theory that
society was more civilized in the past and that hip-hop is at fault for the
decline into vulgarity against women (Rose 117). Rose called out the American mainstream image
of nonviolent masculinity that was respectful of women as a farce (Rose
118). Rather, Rose argued that America
is a Patriarchal society that people try to idealize and preserve. She says that it is this Patriarchal society
that controls and exploits women by keeping them from gaining real power in
social, economic and political arenas (Rose 118).
Similarly, Bell Hooks, a noted sociologist and
black feminist activist said that gangsta rap is a reflection of dominant values
in our culture—but that it still warrants a rigorous feminist critique of the
sexist and misogyny expressed in this music” (Rhymes). Like Rose, Hooks believes misogyny—and
“hatred of and violence against women” is “a central core of patriarchy.” Hooks was also concerned that young black
males were taking the heat for encouraging this hatred and violence while it
was the white-dominated mass media that exploited the “spectacle” of gangsta
rap in its “sensationalist drama of demonizing black youth culture”
(Hooks). Both Hooks and Rose felt the
misogyny in rap was a reflection of the sexist patriarchy that already existed
Rap music originated in Black communities,
ghettoes, as an attempt to deal with oppressive situations and as a protest akin
to the civil rights movement. Most early
rap expressed some form of commentary or political message. However, by the late 1980s, rap had morphed
into what came to be known as “gangsta rap” and was full of overt misogynistic
content and heavily centered around criminals, pimps and “hoes” (Chang). Rose reminds us that sexism was alive and
thriving at the time, and that hip hop adopted sexism, exaggerated it, and planted
black women at the center of it (Rose 3).
Rose calls gangstas, pimps and hoes the “trinity” of rap—and the role of
black women was largely as “hoes” for the pimps (Rose 4). Thus, while Rose admits that referring to
women in demeaning terms was basically always a part of hip hop. At first, the
references were not as violent and degrading as they later came to be, they
were more in the spirit of commentary or storytelling about life in the Black
communities. Over time, the references
toward women as “hoes” became almost comical stereotypes, along with gangstas
and pimps (Rose 2).
Lyrics became more vulgar, more degrading, and
more violent toward women. Rap by
Eminem, Ludacris and Ja Rule depicted women as objects of violence and male
domination and condoned male exploitation; they glorified violence, rape,
torture and abuse and fostered an acceptance of sexual objectification and
degradation of women. Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP was one of the
fastest selling rap albums of all time, and nine of the 14 songs on the album
depict killing women. Hip hop sexism had
become “visible, vulgar, aggressive, and popular” (Rose 114). Lyrics described men forcing violent sexual
acts on women, hurting, raping and killing women, and women in submissive and
tortured roles, such as the following:
“My little sister’s
birthday/For a gift I had ten of my boys take her virginity.” (Bizarre);
“Bitches ain’t sh*t but hoes and tricks”
“Slut you think I won’t choke no whore/Til the
vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?” (Eminem);
Rose objects to the imagery and violence and the
portrayal of black women as sexual objects, but blames this disrespect and
degradation of women on white conservatism—and on patriarchal attitudes also in
the black community and the black churches (Rose 115). Rose traces the problem all the way back to slavery,
when white women were considered pure and pristine objects to be placed on
pedestals and admired and respected, while black female slaves were not considered
people to be protected or respected, but were often thought of as sexual and
deviant sources of physical pleasure (Rose 115).
time hip hop had become centered on “gangsta” rap, it was largely dependent on
the “pimp” image, which grew into an entire pimp culture. Along with the pimps, there were women for
the pimps to exploit—the “hoes”—and the pimps were depicted using violence,
rape, and manipulation to control their prostitutes—not protect them. Rose does not excuse the sexism in hip-hop
even if she does place the blame outside of hip hop. She recognizes that calling women “hoes” is
degrading and sexist—and that when men have a lot of sex they are pimps to be
emulated or they are seen as successful “playas” (Rose 170). Words used for the women are derogatory,
while the words used for men are more often meant to be admiring or a symbol of
power. A playa or gangsta having a lot
of sex is powerful, while a woman having a lot of sex is a prostitute being
controlled by a man. The men in rap have
power from controlling sex, from drug dealing, from gang activity—but the power
that women have seem to be only as “hoes” and even that is controlled by a
man—a pimp (Rose 175).
Rose also believes the gangsta rap put young
black men in a bad light—by suggesting that men in the ghettos of the hip-hop
culture were nothing more than gang members operating outside of the mainstream
boundaries of an acceptable American male and as representing or causing the
decline of ‘honorable’ manhood (Rose 118). However, the “honorable” manhood was
an illusion, and hip hop ultimately reflected the reality in society, albeit in
graphic and brutal terms. The fact that
hip hop and its brutal misogyny was accepted and became so popular may have
served to hold a mirror up to the misogyny that existed at the time, but that
had been either hidden, accepted or disguised in mainstream America.
Part of the reason for Rap’s popularity may be that
it ripped off the illusion that sexism was not happening. It was explicit and willing to talk about
“bitches” and “hoes” openly and defiantly and present violence and misogyny in
a matter-of-fact manner. Young people may have been seeking authenticity, and
rap appeared to be raw and authentic.
For example, Too Short’s lyrics, “You f**k with us, bitch, something
getting’ broken Your leg, arm, jaw, nose, pick a part.” Brutal as these lyrics
and imagery are, they do put the image squarely in front of the audience. In this sense, hip hop may have ultimately conferred
a benefit to women by shining a spotlight on misogyny.
If Black women had felt invisible in the past
because of segregation, during the hip-hop era, they were anything but
invisible. They were “front and center”
in the popular raps, and the fact that they were portrayed as gang members or
welfare queens, drug dealers, or hoes was still better than being invisible
(Thompson 110). There are other ways
that rap may have been beneficial. At
the time, there were few decent jobs for Black men, and pimping was a way to
give a Black male the image of swagger, smarts and initiative—all traits that
would be traditionally attractive in any career field. This was way for black men to compete with
white men, to be powerful and influential and even sought after. Rather than being portrayed as powerless or
submissive victims, black men were portrayed as strong and in control, if also
misogynistic and cruel. Black men were
still representative of the Black culture, and if they were portrayed as
powerful and influential—that would reflect on the Black community at large
also. Rather than being obscure,
invisible and irrelevant—mere gang members or criminals—the “gangsta pimp’
image was at least was not powerless—and if the Black men were seen as stronger
or more attractive, maybe some reasoned that the entirety of Black culture
would benefit. Janis Faye Hutchinson
published a study of women from a wide range of backgrounds, trying to
determine the types of men women considered to be most attractive. Her conclusions were that drug dealers were
at the top, rappers with an album were next, and then “regular” guys were at
the bottom (Quinn 137).
Rose also tried to make distinctions
among some of the the reaction to the hip hop’s sexualization of women. While admitting that many hip-hop lyrics and
videos portrayed disrespect, contempt and objectification of women, she did not
feel the appropriate answer was to rid women of the sexuality that was at the
root of their objectification. Rose felt
that just because women may act sexual or crude did not necessarily equate to disrespect
(Rose 119). She feared that the message
would become that respect is a reward for women who are not sexual, who are modest
in their clothing, who do not emphasize their physical attributes and who do
not frequent certain locations or engage in certain behavior (Rose 119-121). She also wanted to avoid any confusion that
misogyny and sexism were results of sexuality, vulgar language, or explicit sex
talk and that it was important to realize that sexism lived outside of
sexuality and outside of hip hop.
Rose was also interested in women’s freedom to
be sexual, and she did not want sexuality portrayed as shameful and wrong because
that would deprive women of their own sexual freedom and independence and power
(Rose 122). Behavior considered
inappropriate by some may be sexually empowering for women and an affirmation
of their autonomy (Rose 123). Rose felt
misogyny should be opposed without sacrificing women’s sexual freedom (Rose
167). However, Rose disapproves of female rappers who present the same picture
of male dominated sex as the male rappers present—this implies the women
approve of this situation and can encourage young girls to embrace and emulate
this model of sexuality.
Some have considered women’s role in Rap to both
degrading but also empowering at the same time (Henry, Jackson, West,
2010). Similarly, in a research article
by Balaji, the researcher built on the idea that “Black women can use their
sexuality as a tool of resistance against attempts at objectification and commodification”
(Balaji 2010). An article written by
Stephanie Petsche that appeared on the website, “Real Clear” in 2014, notes
that the misogynistic depictions of women in the early commercialized hip hop
music prompted female artists to use their own ways to recreate their image in
the hip ho community—they used their “sexual lasciviousness and their strength”
as women to fight and satirize the stereotypes that men portray (Petsche). And, in a “Rap Music and Street
Consciousness,” by Cheryl Keyes, female rappers (including TLC, Salt-N-Pepa,
Queen Latifa, and MC Lyte) used their intellect and sexuality to parody the
misogynistic depictions men created to present a representation of black
women’s issues concerning relationships, sexuality and a working-class point of
view—and thereby managed to also advance gender equality in hiphop and rap
culture (Keyes). Kobin and Tyson, believe
that female rappers are seen as empowered when using strong language such as
the “b word” because they make it their own and it signals strong black women
who can take care of themselves (Kobin and Tyson).
Another issue with women rappers is that putting
women in an empowering role often leads to putting men in a subordinate
role. For example, Salt N’ Pepa raps
about a woman not needing a man to provide material goods. While this is empowering for women, it is
also a statement about the failure and weakness in a man’s inability to provide
material goods. This could be seen as a
reference to the black male’s lack of opportunities and economic success in the
black community at the time, and consequently in their lack of masculinity and desirability (Rose 151).
Some female rappers reacted with their own aggression toward those who
would exploit them, or by acknowledging that they were being “played” by pimps,
but by admitting they were “gold digging money hungry hoes,” they portrayed
themselves as the ones playing the men (Quinn 135).
Beatrice Koehler-Derrick, in her essay, “Girls
are Especially Vulnerable to Hip-Hop’s Hypersexual Message,” may have hit on
another reason Black women were not always protesting the sexuality portrayed
in hip hop. She writes that, rather than
criticize sexy women in revealing clothing and stilettos, many women may feel a
freedom just watching—while secretly accepting that they would also want to be
free and sexy and desirable—rather than forever concerned with being “conscious
minded” (Thompson 67).
Rather than focus on how rap affected American
culture, perhaps the question should be how did American culture affect
rap. Rhymes feels gangsta and hardcore
rap is the product of a society that objectified and demeaned women and
commercialized sex (Rhymes).
In summary, while many blame hip hop for either
creating or glorifying misogyny, others are convinced that American society
always contained subtle messages about female inferiority and submissiveness
and sexism—and that hip hop just put that openly on the table and exaggerated
it for good effect. Maybe rap exposed
what was going on behind the doors and in the minds of most males—by being
willing to admit what was going on in the minds of some black males. Hip Hop held misogyny up to the spotlight and
made sure everyone knew exactly what was going on. Hip hop did not sugarcoat it, disguise it,
deny it, or romanticize it—in fact, it is portrayed in the basest and harshest
terms possible. At least there is no
confusion, no continuing pretense that it does not exist. Hip hop exposed sexual
exploitation and abuse and, in so doing, perhaps provided the focus that had
not been forthcoming—perhaps even prompted the movement of awareness and
protest -–and reaction and correction.
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