Back in October, I interviewed Dr. Dionne Patricia Stephens, Associate Professor of Psychology at Florida International Universityâ€™s Department of Psychology. She was presenting a Culture in the City lecture with the intriguing title, â€œHip-Hop Honeys or Video Hos.â€
Needless to say, I was very interested in what she had to say. Dionne, or should I say Dr. Stephens, turned out to be a fascinating, fun interview and she made sure to let me know right off the bat: â€œI grew up with hip-hop. This is not an anti hip-hop thing.â€ Because thatâ€™s the first thing people think when you raise a legit beef with the music, the first accusation is â€œyouâ€™re a hater.â€ Like me, Dr. Stephens is a hip-hop lover. But her research on the portrayal of African American young adult womenâ€™s sexuality in music videos reveals some scary truths.
Dr. Stephenâ€™s presentation examined images of women in hip-hop, or what she calls â€œsexual scripts.â€ â€œThereâ€™s a lot of psychological research out there right now that shows these images are affecting African American female sexual behaviours, how African American men view these women, and how others view them as well. Iâ€™ve done a lot of research on this material, and the lecture looks at all these stereotypes. People say oh, itâ€™s just videos. But we know that these videos have a huge impact on behavioural outcome,â€ she explained.
Maybe that explains why teenage girls seem to think itâ€™s cool to dress and act like little hoes in training these days, and why theyâ€™ve got no respect for their elders. Seriously, you try to talk to some of these girls and they are quick to give you attitude and get in your face. Itâ€™s sad. I know I wasnâ€™t acting like that at 15. But then, I had some positive musical role models.
I grew up watching Queen Latifah talk about Ladies First and ask â€œWho you calling a bitch?â€ Salt â€˜N Pepa were talking about sex and encouraging everyone to â€œExpress Yourselfâ€ and Mc Lyte was â€œLyte as a Rock.â€ Now none of those women have had a hit song in years, although I was happy and proud to see Lyte looking gorgeous and rapping with fury at this yearâ€™s Hip-Hop Honors.
These women were all strong and confident, sexy without being slutty.
When I interviewed Dr. Stephens, I had to stop and think â€“ who are the iconic women in hip-hop right now?
Trina? Khia? Lil Kim, still?
â€œWeâ€™re in the bling bling phase where itâ€™s really about commodification. Within that, women arenâ€™t empowered. Take for example Lil Kim. People might say sheâ€™s empowered, but really sheâ€™s just recreating male fantasies by getting her nose and her boobs surgically altered. Lil Kim isnâ€™t even known so much for her songs as she is for her hypersexual persona. Itâ€™s not like she can wear sweatpants and guys will go crazy over her. A man can be sexy in sweatpants, but not a woman,â€ says Dr. Stephens.
I beg to differ on the sweatpants issue â€“ peep Ciaraâ€™s video for Promise â€“ thatâ€™s my jam! Sheâ€™s sexy in sweatpants, but still definitely catering to male fantasies. Just watch her work that mike stand.
However, the research shows that these images that have become commonplace are problematic. The same videos that all the teens are screeching for on 106 and Park are creating negative stereotypes in Latin American and African American women, especially when it comes to the relationship between skin color and beauty.
Dr. Stephens brought up some recent studies done at Emory that recently revealed that African American women who absorb these hypersexed images have higher rates of STDâ€™s, and desires to engage in negative behaviors. And judging from what I see on the tv and on the bookshelves, thanks to women like Superhead and Lil Kim, being percieved as a ho and a golddigger isnâ€™t a big deal anymore. In fact, it can lead to a lucrative career as an author, reality television star, and rapper.
Even when hip hop hoes try to redeem themselves, there are issues. Take for example, Trinaâ€™s Diamond Doll Foundation to empower young women. (Fresh went ahead and quoted some of Trina’s lyrics, to put that irony into perspective).
I brought the Diamond Doll Foundation up to Dr. Stephens and she came right back at me with a valid point. â€œI think itâ€™s great that Trina is making an effort, but what did she do to get to that point? To get there, she had to portray herself in a certain way. Thatâ€™s what the problem is. Even when these female rappers claim to be empowered, theyâ€™re not really in an empowered position.â€
In her research, Dr. Stephens has identified sexual images that the women in hip hop all conform to. These same sexual scripts and issues also are prevalent in reggae and dancehall music.
â€œFreak, gold digger, diva, dyke, sister saviour, earth mother, and baby mama. Dyke isnâ€™t used as a sexual term â€“ Iâ€™m not talking about women who love women. This is really about women who are rejecting men; thatâ€™s how itâ€™s framed. Because if you have sex with a woman and a man can enjoy it, then youâ€™re a freak. But you become a dyke if you donâ€™t fit into that. We label Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott dykes whether or not theyâ€™re having sex with women. We label them dykes because they donâ€™t fit into male-defined sexuality. These are two women who are highly empowered in hip-hop. Theyâ€™re producers, they run companies, and theyâ€™re outside of male desires.â€
And thatâ€™s something that has annoyed me in the past. I read the comments on many black gossip sites, and people get hung up on those labels. No matter how successful or talented these women might be, the conversation always comes back to their sexuality.
Despite Missyâ€™s lyrical perpetuations of a hypersexual image, (donâ€™t I look like I got Beyonce hips? Donâ€™t I look like a Halle Berry poster? It’s like she’s begging us to see her as beautiful and making light of her looks at the same time) people still say sheâ€™s a lesbian and make remarkably mean-spirited comments about her appearance.
Despite Queen Latifahâ€™s metamorphosis from African pride mother figure to glamorous A list actress and beauty icon, a character she played a decade ago continues to define her sexuality in the publicâ€™s perception.
Dr. Stephens explains: â€œWith Queen Latifah, people say oh, she was in that movie Set It Off as a lesbian. But people forget that Will Smith played a gay man in Six Degrees of Separation. Nobodyâ€™s calling him gay. Itâ€™s different for women. We have these sexual scripts that also inform behaviours.â€
So I ask you ladies, what are your feelings about hip hop today? Have you seen any contemporary female rappers who deserve to have a light shone on them? Any slept-on talents who arenâ€™t getting into regular rotation on BET because their clothes arenâ€™t revealing enough?
Iâ€™ve been looking, but I havenâ€™t found more than a handful of chicks who are worth mentioning. And Iâ€™ll be writing about them in the upcoming weeks. This is the beginning of a new little series, Hip-Hop Heroines. I’m looking for women in hip-hop and dancehall reggae who shun the stereotypes, who are worth looking up to.