"You Told Harpo To Beat Me?": How Hip Hop Music Defines and Divides Black Women
By Jennifer McLune
Copyrighted 2008 by Jennifer McLune. All Rights Reserved. http://celiesrevenge.blogspot.com/
I must admit I picked up Karrine Steffans' first book Confessions of a Video Vixen out of curiosity and a taste for a little gossip. I only had a vague understanding of who she was and what the book would be about. I rarely read reviews and sometimes I seek the unexpected when picking up a book or selecting a film to see. I was not prepared for her voice to be so compelling, her story so tragic, and for her book to cement my already hostile feelings toward Hip Hop music's treatment of women.
So I have to wonder: Have the people who criticize Karrine Steffans' actually read her book? How anyone could know her story and not come away feeling anything but sadness for the woman and a burning hatred for the men who exploited and abused her is beyond my comprehension. Her very first experience with sex involved kidnapping, rape, and other violence when she was still a young girl. Her mother didn't even protect her but instead emotionally and physically abused her! If she has decided to market her trauma to make herself feel more than what her experience as superhead made her feel, I honestly can't blame her. I won't fault her. I refuse to mock her and use her as an example for why we Black women, in the words of Tupac Shakur, should wonder why they call us bitch!
Hoe-Bashing as Self HelpThe following lines are from the poem "Hoochie Nation," by Lelani Clarke. Clarke's poem is dedicated to the Scarlet Knights, the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team, after radio shock jock Don Imus called the members of that winning team "nappy headed hoes." It won the National Association of Black Journalists poetry contest, one of the organizations that called for the firing of Imus after he made those racist-sexist remarks. The poem references Karrine Steffans in the following passage: a self proclaimed
confessions of a video vixen
i'll pray for you sisters
cuz ms. steffans is busy
on her knees
selling pussy and fiction
sucking and fucking big dicks
a real superheadache
keeping borrowed time
on bill mahrs jock
she cashed in
on your shame
for oprah winfrey kind of fame
and no preacher would bless
her magdaleine hustle
(For the whole poem, please go to: http://www.poetrymagazine...oetry/3lelani_clark_page1. )
In these lines and throughout the poem there is a mocking and shaming tone directed at Steffans and "hoochies" in general but no real anger or criticism directed at the men who encourage and really benefit from the sexual exploitation of girls and women. "Superhead" was the pornographic term which marked and marred Steffans. This is not due to her own actions: any woman who behaves in a way that men find sexually objectionable or desirable risks a nickname that becomes their "scarlet letter." It was a stigma she could not escape.
The idea in the poem, of "praying" for her and women like her, is condescending and sexist because it puts the shame on the women not the men who brand them "hoochies" and treat them as such by sexually exploiting them. Saying "she cashed in on your shame" makes reference to Steffans exposing the famous men, many of them married, that used her sexually. So the men become the victims of their lust for her not egotistical players who used their power to attract powerless women who behaved according to their traumatic conditioning and lack of genuine self-worth. In the introduction to her book, Steffans writes:
The top reason a woman finds herself in a rap video, sprawled undressed over a luxury car while a rapper is saying lewd things about her, is a lack of self-esteem. I know it sounds like a cliché, but no one who values, loves, or knows herself would allow herself to be placed in such a degrading position.
In researching peoples reactions to her celebrity status for being a former music video dancer and groupie, Ms. Steffan's disgrace appears to be in writing a book and still not being well enough to admit that she was nothing more to these men than a "piece of ass." Some argue that she's glamorizing being a "hoochie" and is a bad example for young women. I can't imagine any literate female reading her book and seeing glamour in giving a blow-job until your nose bleeds. Steffans makes herself look bad: no matter how many books she sells or university campuses she visits her past and her rise to "fame" reflects a view of herself that many people will never reconsider. Through the sexist lens we use to judge women's truth-telling and experience she comes out looking even worse than the men. It is misogynistic to solely denounce women for holding a view of themselves that men won't release them from. It is misogynistic to focus on what's wrong with the women without leveling serious criticism at the men who create and maintain systems of abuse that exist to meet men's sexual demands, not women's.
Sisters vs. Bitches: The Ultimate Cat Fight!
It's telling that "Hoochie Nation" was dedicated to the women of Rutgers. It was a poem about bad women dedicated to good women. Throughout the controversy of the team being called "nappy-headed hoes" by Don Imus it was repeated again and again that they were good students, good athletes, and good women. Not hoes. They did not deserve to be called those names, nappy-headed or hoes. They were good girls and college students who did everything right. They were successful and classy. It was important to stress that they were virtuous to distinguish them from hoes who are the scum of the Earth.
In her public statements about Don Imus's remarks about her team, coach C. Vivian Stringer stressed that the women were "talented, articulate, classy, hard working, and gifted." One of the teammates, Kia Vaughn, even filed a lawsuit for slander against Imus for his comments. As her attorney Richard Ancowitz put it, "Don Imus referred to my client as an unchaste woman. That was and is a lie."
Vaughn reiterated that it was about a soiled reputation and a label she was unfairly branded with because it does not apply to her. She stated, "I've achieved a lot and unless they've given 'ho' a new definition, that's not what I am."
Her coach upheld her sentiment that the definition of a hoe does not apply to her team because, "seated before you are valedictorians of their class, future doctors, musical prodigies and, yes, even Girl Scouts."
If we really believe that Don Imus's remarks were wrong because no woman deserves to be called a hoe, then why did these women have to go to such lengths to distinguish themselves from the label? As if some women who don't do everything right actually do qualify to be called hoes? This wasn't said but it was very much implied in the way the way the women had to defend themselves. If Don Imus had called a group of Black strippers he saw on The Tyra Banks Show a bunch of "nappy headed hoes" how would they defend themselves? And would there be any public outrage?
Black women who "know better" have to be careful not to direct our anger at other women, unless they are seen as being "beneath us." Do self-righteous Black women who attack Karrine do so because she (and women "like her") really embarrass us, really "bring us down," OR are we really just joining in the chorus of hoe-bashing that Hip Hop encourages? Of course it's easier to take our frustration out on already maligned women than it is to take it out on the men who maligned them. After all, we'd rather be hoe-bashers than male-bashers right? Karrine has stated she forgives the men who pimped her, raped her, and beat her but will never forgive her mother. I would never try to tell an abuse survivor who deserves her forgiveness but it seems to me to be much easier to forgive men than women, much easier to forgive the oppressor than another oppressed person. It's what feminist Flo Kennedy called "horizontal hostility."
Shaming tactics, mocking tactics, self-righteous tactics by other females directed at women like Steffans for their own good have never felt right to me. Growing up a girl I learned early on that you just can't fuck like a boy. And if you tried to you'd be taught a lesson about your place as a girl with a bad reputation, sexual frustration and disappointment, coercion and violence. These were the sexual realities of growing up a girl but acting like a boy. And my evolution toward a radical feminist politic that rejects the sex industry as a place where women are truly liberated has never felt incompatible with believing that there's no such thing as a whore; there's only misogynistic males who fear women's power. Because I just knew that messing with boys raised on pornography and taught to view females as décor, a mommy, or a hoe was never going to offer a meaningful, healthy, or empowering sexuality to girls. But the hostility directed at bad girls, by good girls, has always felt like the deeper betrayal.
However, I want to believe our hearts are the in the right place when we ask each other to have more self-respect. At the same time, we still need to be careful not to become the "hoe bashers" the male rappers are, by portraying these women as greedy, "slutty," and stupid. They are none of these things. They are human beings who have been victimized making a living in a world where no woman would be paid to be truly liberated.
In a way that only patriarchal men can do, powerful Black male celebrities hate Karrine even as they desire her! She unmasked them as the egotistical philandering abusive bastards they are. And they fear other abused women in the Hip Hop industry will come forward and expose them for what they are: greedy, abusive misogynists so drunk off their own success that they view women as little more than accessories who exist to assist them in getting off on their own power.
But in the process of exposing this world of woman-hating, drug abuse and greed Karrine had to make herself vulnerable and reveal her own trauma at the hands of her own mother and many men throughout her life. Even as she unveiled the twisted world of Black Hollywood she never shied away from admitting her total, unhealthy admiration for celebrity status. She exposed herself as someone with self-esteem so destroyed she idolized entertainers that saw her only as a plaything to use and abuse. There was nothing prideful or glamorous about her story. Clearly bragging and boasting about your talent at giving blow-jobs is pathetic: many women and men agree on this. But when men brag and boast about their sexual conquests we are all supposed to applaud them. We demonize women; we adore men. So when a woman reveals herself in order to expose men who do we stone? Well, the woman of course! We don't go after the rapists and woman-beaters as victimizers but the raped and beaten women as victims! How is there a victim without a corresponding victimizer?
Is the reason women aren't supposed to identify as victims because it implies there is or was a perpetrator of violence against her? To speak out as a victim would implicate males, and hoe-bashing is so much sexier, so much more in vogue, than male-bashing. Because any criticism of men, especially men in a community already under siege like ours can be easily dismissed when the issue is always seen as race, not gender. Because all the women are white, and all the Blacks are men. And this harsh truth continues to cripple how we imagine ourselves free.
An abused woman who decides to pay her rent by writing a book that tells the truth about her life and the men who harmed her is seen as both shameless and shameful, and must be dissed! She's an opportunistic hoe, a scorned woman, a mother who should just take care of her son! Details get lost, or are left out, to keep the misogynistic storyline uncomplicated by reality. At seventeen she had a son with Hip Hop pioneer, batterer and rapist Kool G Rap because she thought it would stop, him from hitting her, but her hopes vanished as he continued to abuse her even while the baby was in her arms!
So we hate on Karrine Steffens not only because she's "a self-proclaimed video ho," but also because she's trying to make her fame and fortune off a shameful nickname men branded onto her life. She publicized the men who branded her "to get the last laugh." But any woman similarly stigmatized will be endlessly mocked. The sad truth is there is no way for a woman branded as she has been to get in the last laugh. And because it is too difficult to accept that any Black woman is one street harasser or abusive boyfriend away from being called the names Karrine has been called, because she reminds us of the hate Black men feel for all of us, we hate on her in part by distancing ourselves from her.
How truly sick and disempowered does a woman have to be to market her own history of rape and abuse--which is what being a superhead really means? What does all of this say about the options for women trying to empower themselves in the Hip Hop industry? It means the industry is based solely on women as orifices, "tits and ass."
You've sucked dick until your nose bled and now you have to wear the name of the men who orally raped you? And yes, I called it rape! I refuse to blame her or blame anyone who does what she does--or more accurately had done to them what she had done to her, which was oral rape! A woman, a human being, with her history of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, especially if it started as a child, is not responsible for what they become when what they become is so determined for them by pimps eager to take advantage of them. Her extremely traumatized self was vulnerable to being turned into "a sex object" by men who prey on such girls and women. They are not responsible for what they allow others to do to them even if they offer their consent.
A woman consenting to be exploited and abused doesn't make what men do to her anything other than exploitation and abuse. The fact that many victims of sexual abuse survive and even thrive doesn't mean predatory and exploitive men don't try and get what they can from them, personally and professionally. Some of girls are bound to grow up to become a superhead in a capitalist system run by men who want sex from women any way they can force women and girls to perform it. And no, I'm not an expert on mental health, I'm just a radical feminist. And yes, I blame the patriarchy!
Steffans doesn't want to be a victim because victims aren't sexy. So you'll see her scantily clad, with blond weave, giving the public a peek at her new breast implants on her latest book cover for The Vixen Diaries. But around her neck she's wrapped a phone cord yanking it to one side as if strangling herself because this hustle is killing her!
Black "Feminist" Pimps Up, Hustling Hoochies Down
I don't think she's hurting anyone but herself in using her groupie past to become a star. If she's "sick" then why stone her? Is it "for her own good?" Should she be punished as a means of controlling other women? The poem continues, "no preacher would bless her Magdalene hustle."
First of all, Mary Magdalene-as-prostitute is a misogynist Christian myth, a blatantly incorrect reading of the New Testament. But regardless of that misread, as a "fallen woman" should Karrine seek forgiveness for her wanton ways from followers of a patriarchal religion that stigmatizes women in so many ways? She's vilified for being "a hustler"? Wow! Okay, so whereas Jay-Z and 50 Cent become Gods for boasting about hustling and killing people, a woman who markets " her shame" as "a self proclaimed video ho" only gets ridicule, not sympathy (or social status, as the men do). Obviously in Hip Hop, what's good for the goose is not good for the gander! Selling drugs, killing people, and pimping are all acceptable to celebrate as factors in achieving your fame--if you have a penis, that is. Being beaten, raped, "dancing like a hoochie," and giving a series of blow-jobs damns you, if you are a woman! Gotcha! (How much more glaring can a double standard be?!)
How is it that in the age of "post-modern, sex-positive Hip Hop feminism" we can on the one hand argue that women are empowered by prostitution, stripping, and being porn stars, and then vilify Karrine Steffens for exposing her history of being abused and the men who abused her? Maybe because the only way to sell empowerment through sex is to never admit that you're a victim, and to pretend you were put on this Earth to be what exploitive men want women to be. Like Lil'Kim. Chop up your face and body to look like a "Black Pamela Anderson" and you earn your stardom because you don't admit that you do it out of self-hate but instead claim you have a genuine desire to be the "Baddest Bitch." And keep your mouth shut about the men like Biggie Smalls who've pimped and beat your ass because they are our heroes (Hollywood Movie pending…). Hell, even his mother thinks he should have blown your brains out! Hip Hop, Black Hollywood--whatever you want to call it--is a "dysfunctional family" and I refuse to sit by and let folks beat up on a sick woman like Steffans for doing exactly what men are applauded for doing! Karrine's only crime: calling abuse 'abuse' and naming names. Those acts apparently justify men hating her, and while they're at it, women will too!
Discussion on gender in Hip Hop remains one that is the least threatening to its overthrow as an industry and culture that exploits women. So it allows Black male intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson to have a platform to co-opt Black feminist thought and reduce it to being about loving but not listening to Black women because the love comes with the condition that we praise him and are grateful that he bothers to consider us at all. Celebrating our behinds and defending our pimps then condescending to their Black female critics in every sexist way imaginable all becomes possible under the banner of Black male "feminism" peddled by Dyson and his crew. All in a day's hustle! Meanwhile, Hip Hop feminists can proudly proclaim that equality does nothing for them erotically; only sexual objectification and male chauvinism gets their "panties wet." Seeking applause for broadcasting one's internalized misogyny whether you be male or female is the new hustle seeking to co-opt feminist liberation. That's the real hustle that should be mocked and stoned: peddling a progressive politic that is, at its core, "guilt-free and sexy" without any cost or consequence to men and the women who are comfortable pimping Black feminism, but not holding themselves accountable for perpetuating misogyny.
Bitches Get What They Deserve
When asked his take on the Don Imus controversy, Snoop Dogg said in defense of Hip Hop, "It's a completely different scenario. Rappers are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing shit, that's trying to get a nigga for his money. These are two separate things."
Snoop Dogg stressed that rappers are not "old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on Black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them motherfuckers say we in the same league as him." Although he called what Snoop Dogg said ignorant and misogynistic, Black pro- feminist scholar Marc Anthony Neal defended Snoop Dogg in his piece "What's the Real Reason for the Sudden Attack on Hip Hop," by stating "At least he was being honest." Of course he couldn't bring himself to call Snoop's characterization of poor Black women elitist. A gangster rapper acting elitist?! That would fly in the face of Snoop's and Hip Hop's much needed image: processors of infallible "street cred." Never mind that there are tons of examples of Hip Hop music bashing poor people. However, as long as the targets are primarily poor women, it's all good!
Like Crystal Gail Magnum, the alleged victim in the "Duke Lacrosse Rape Case" Karrine Steffans is not what Marc Anthony Neal describes in his analysis "(White) Male Privilege Black Respectability, and Black Women's Bodies" as a "respectable victim" to the Black community: a female who is morally superior with a reputation untarnished by unwed motherhood or involvement in the sex industry. In order to speak out on her abuse, Steffans had to come clean about her own life and none of it was savory. She had to reveal her consent to and even her admiration for the men who raped, pimped, and beat her and this left her even more vulnerable to judgment and disrespect. However, in his brushing off of Snoop's statement regarding Imus, Neal fails to mention how Hip Hop's sister/bitch dichotomy also reinforces the notion of the "respectable victim:" it justifies the name-calling, exploitation and the harmful treatment of poor Black women through lyrics claiming they are deserving of disrespect because they are less than the "sisters making something of themselves" like the athletes at Rutgers.The song "Pigeons" by the Sporty Thieves was made in response to the song "Scrubs" by TLC. It offers some of the most vicious anti-poor Black female lyrics: I hate pigeons
dirty braid pigeons
section 8 pigeons
if you got more than one baby father...ohhh yess girl wez talkin to you
if you strip all week to go clubbin……ohhh yess girl wez talkin to you
buy a dress to front and take it back to the store…..ohhh yess girl
wez talkin to you
Male rappers always get props for "keeping it real." No matter how sexist, homophobic, classist, or racist the artists are, their oppressive and bigoted music is listened to and applauded even by men who should know better. They just can't lose. Women, on the other hand, are viewed with contempt when they speak the truth unless that truth comes across as sexy, non-threatening, and reinforces male privilege and gender roles.
Women are told we are what we wear, we are how we behave (especially when coerced or forced by men to behave that way), and we are what we are called by men who disrespect us. We get what we deserve which is what men decide we deserve based on their contempt for us. In his song "Sisters and Bitches," Jay-Z raps "Bitch! Sisters get respect, bitches get what they deserve." What women deserve according to Snoop Dogg is to be on a leash or hit upside the head. Nelly, on the other hand, believes women deserve to have a credit card swiped through their asses. And of course Ludacris knows what them girls like and that's for him to be pimping them all over the world! So now that we've established the range of what women deserve based on their actions (choreographed by men), their sexual karma or natures, or their lack of self-respect cultivated in a misogynistic society, we are left with this question: What exactly do men deserve?
In Hip Hop culture it basically boils down to dudes bragging and boasting about their big dicks (Snoop), money (50 Cent), and power (Jay-Z). These men and other Hip Hop artists promote an entire culture in which men complain that women are bitches, hoes, and gold diggers precisely because they only want men for their money, big dicks, and power; the spurious attributes which give men status take away women's status. Boasting about having a big dick is cool. A woman desiring to have intimate contact with one is not or she's a hoe and a freak.
Unfortunately, as has been noted, women are not immune to adopting and reflecting this same anti-woman value system. Even women who proclaim to care about ending the degradation of their sisters, believe if you dress and act like a hoe you will be--and often should be--treated like a hoe.
So when men rap about their big dicks, their money, and their power, they deserve to be respected and worshipped for possessing the very things they attack women for going after. Gotcha! Why does possession of those very attributes bring men status and simultaneously take it away from women? Because men are the possessors, that's why. The "suckers" who don't have what men claim to have are socially, literally "fucked."
I have been told the song "Sisters and Bitches" by Jay-Z which includes these profoundly original representations of women (please note the sarcasm) adequately explains why some women deserve respect and others don't:Sisters work hard, bitches work your nerves
Sisters hold you down, bitches hold you up
Sisters help you progress, bitches will slow you up
Sisters cook up a meal, play their role with the kids
Bitches in street with their nose in your biz
Sisters tell the truth, bitches tell lies
Sisters drive cars, bitches wanna ride
Tupac's song "Wonder Why they Call You Bitch" is another gem of male supremacist logic in expressing the sister/bitch dichotomy essential to Hip Hop's gender troubles. He raps, "And all the other people on my block hate your guts. Then you wonda why they stare and call you slut." While Jay Z hollers "I LOVE MY SISTERS, I DON'T LOVE NO BITCH,"
Tupac, being the prodigal son of Hip Hop and all, takes a firm but gentler "pimp hand" to schooling the "bitches." He raps "I love you like a sista but you need to switch and that's why they called U bitch, I betcha." Tupac truly believes he's doing women a service by letting us in on why men hate us. His misogyny cloaked as concern enables us to reform into true upstanding ladies worthy of men's respect if we take his advice.
"Sisters and Bitches" and "Wonder Why They Call You Bitch" are songs by two Hip Hop legends. Both are touted by Hip Hop's supposedly "thinking people" as anthems for justifying what makes a woman deserving of being respected or dised. Tupac raps, "I'm hearin' rumors so you need to switch and niggas wouldn't call you bitch, I betcha." So when men give a female "a rep" it's her job to prove them wrong or she's permanently a slut and a bitch. Makes misogynistic sense to me! Tupac continues, "You leave your kids with your mama cuz your headin' for the club in a skin tight miniskirt lookin' for some love." So the dude who whips his dick out on the dance floor at the club isn't a pervert: he is responding appropriately to your slutty attire. The women at Rutgers are good, they are in college. They dress like athletes, not hoes. They are worthy of our defense. Many in the public were angered not because Black women are called hoes, but because those (mostly) Black women got lumped together with Black women who are strippers, "video vixens", and with women who go to clubs dressed like hoes.
The dude who grabs my ass while he's passing by on a bike or the dude who calls me a bitch because I wont give him my attention as I make my way from point A to point B on a city street, or the dude who tries to sneak up behind me in the parking lot at night because I was stupid enough to walk to my car with my headphones still on: these men are just practicing tough love on Black women who know better than to see and treat Black women as a group worthy of unconditional respect. We are all negatively impacted by Black men's misogyny. Racist misogyny is designed to divide us internally and to divide us against each other, perpetuating their hate when they're not around to do it. "Divide and conquer": that's been the strategy in the U.S. ever since white men owned field slaves and house slaves. Except now Black men practice it all by themselves knowing full well it does nothing but prop them up at our expense. That's quite a step forward, huh?
The contemporary version involves Black men giving us the mistreatment we deserve because we are hoes until proven innocent. We are bitches until proven virtuous. Without impeccable "pedigrees" we are assumed to be the most "degradation-worthy" women. (And as Imus demonstrated, not even the most "upstanding" Black women are immune to the same derisive name-calling.) Tupac continues, "Keep your mind on your money, enroll in school. And as the years pass by you can show them fools." Yeah, and I suppose the solution to warding off this tough love by Black men is for me to wear my Master's degree taped to my ass so there's never any doubt that I'm a sister about something, not just some nappy head hoe unworthy of respect!
Imagine if Justin Timberlake's new song was called "Wonder Why They Call You Nigger" or Eminem came out with a song called "Black Men and Niggers." And it went something like:Black men are articulate, niggers just sound ig'nant
Black men have wives, niggers have baby mamas
Black men go to the Ivy League, niggers just go to jail
Black men wave the flag, niggers wave their gun
Black men have a shot at anything, niggers just get shot
Black men are loved in Iowa, niggers are hated everywhere
Black men can become the President, niggers can just dream on!
I wonder if it would be a hit on the charts? I wonder who would direct the video? More seriously though, I wonder if we'd ever make the much needed connection between how white folks stereotype Black people and the way Black men demonize Black women? I'm almost certain this will go over most Black men's heads. Of course you can't compare racism to sexism! Black men are having way too much fun to give up their toys--those toys being Black women!
It amazes me how much sympathy and celebration we have for men who "have had it rough" and use that as an excuse to be abusive towards women. These men actually profit from exploiting women in their career as entertainers, yet we have no room to understand how sexually assaulted girls then grow up to become "hoes." Black men who become rappers with a history of violence, hustling, or low self-esteem are understood and even applauded for becoming self-proclaimed gangsters and pimps. We excuse them because of their history. Let's not forget the award-winning hook, "it's hard out here for a pimp!" For men it's: What do we expect? Women didn't like him until he got rich, that's why he calls them gold diggers! What do we expect? He had to hustle growing up that's why all he sings about is bling and paper! What do we expect? He grew up without his father and had an overbearing mother--no wonder he resents strong women! What do we expect? All the women around him were acting like hoes; that's why he's a player!
Well, what do we expect from Karrine? All the men around her were shoving their dicks in her face! I don't blame her, but I do wish she had taken a couple bites!
So I'll verbally bash the men who use sexually abuse and physically bash vulnerable women! Karrine was abused and drugged out when she did those things! After a history of sexual and physical abuse, drug use, and a systematically crushed self-esteem, superhead was born. I can't imagine how any human being could come out from under such deeply personal violations and not be thoroughly traumatized.
The Sisterhood of the "Look at Her Pants?!"
So what came first: the hoe or the abuse? If we love ourselves and respect ourselves will that shield us from abuse? Maybe. But I know it's hard out there for a sister and on my best days I've had men cut me down just for ignoring their unwelcomed advances. On my best days I still have to be subjected to pornographic images of Black women at the grocery checkout counter. Every where I turn I must dodge images, ideas and treatment reinforcing unhealthy and disempowering options for women: we are only here to look pretty, to be somebody's mother or somebody's hoe. We are allowed to super-maternal, super-sexual, or super-artificial. Even without childhood sexual abuse, poverty, or encountering a pimp as a precursor to becoming one of "those" women, should we really expect all women to act like the women of the Rutgers basketball team? With such unrelenting messages about women's place in this culture, is it reasonable, let alone fair or just, to believe no woman among us will act according to men's standards of who we should be, for them, when they have economic and other advantages over us?
Darlene Aiken posted the following to the Facebook message board for the group "100,000,000 Strong Against the Degradation of African American Women:"
Women need to know that we can help further the success of this cause by watching the manner in which we dress [my emphasis] and pay particular care to the references we make to ourselves. Self-esteem is about having self-respect first. That does not mean that our dress and behavior gives anyone a ticket to mistreat women, but by virtue of loving ourselves first [my emphasis] we, without words, will force people to do one of two things, love us or leave us.
This all sounds very appealing, logical, and innocent enough and I don't doubt her sincerity and thoughtfulness in posting this. But is it really asking too much of men not to take advantage of our conditioning or lack of self-respect? Or is the degradation of African American women primarily our own fault? Is self-esteem even possible in a society that treats you like shit? At what point in time did the feminist cause shift to fundamentally gaining self-respect, and away from holding men directly accountable for how they brand and treat us? We are now living in a time when too many women call themselves and one another 'bitch' but that doesn't make it okay for Black men to use the term against me or any other woman. Just like our throwing around the word 'nigger' as Black folks does not justify it being used as a slur by whites.
How does loving yourself force people to love you or leave you alone? We're never left alone. One of the messages and functions of a misogynist society with its ubiquitous hyper-sexualization of women of all colors, is that no matter how great we feel about ourselves, we can be reduced to being seen or treated as a 'hoe.' And the point here is that women inside and outside systems of prostitution deserve to be treated with respect, always. The climate we live in is one that tells us again and again our value as women is first and foremost about being 'sexy,' as corporate pornographers and other racist misogynists define that term.
That's why even our first Black First Lady is subjected to media comments about her "style," and her "booty". The matter of her husband's style and booty, by comparison, gets relatively no press. Because, her primary value, as First Lady, is in being attractive; his value is in being powerful-with his attractive, polite wife and mother of his children by his side. The headlines about how Michele's style and body type will affect women in America only reinforces sexist gender roles and the notion that a woman's place is in being Wife, Mother and Eye Candy. Barak is just allowed to be president, seen primarily in relation to his work, his accomplishments, not his spouse or his body. Is it any wonder that when faced with these messages about value and appearance women take it to the extreme and do what men call "peddle our worth?" Especially when men will pay us-or our pimps-more to be degradingly sexually available to them than to do anything else?! And when even "conservative" long-running Jet Magazine can still get away with continuing its "Beauty of the Week" photo spread of a woman in a bikini between apparently serious news stories for no other reason but to provide Eye Candy for its heterosexual male readership, then I think women are getting the message loud and clear about what we're here for! So no, I don't think our wayward sisters are making a leap about a female's value being her booty when even the new First Lady gets subjected to it by Black men and women who should know better!
As for the women in the videos, I'm not saying all of them were abused as children but all of them, just like the rest of us, grew up conditioned to believe that a woman's worth is in her face and body not her mind, spirit, or strength. So how can we blame them for doing what they've been taught to do ever since we had (white) Barbies shoved in our hands as little girls? I'm also not saying what these women do is liberation in any feminist sense; it's just the opposite. It's not a form of empowerment that I strive for or want for other black women. But I refuse to mock them or blame them or distinguish myself from them.
We are all victims but those of us who have managed, so far, to steer clear of such objectifying, degrading work, shouldn't act like we've never been where they've been and can't also end up on our knees. We're no better or smarter than they are. We just might be a tad stronger-willed, or had something or someone that got us through the call to be turned out by a pimp or video director.
Men's value of women is made explicitly clear in the life of Karrine: there was nothing she got from a man that didn't require her to barter with her body. She clearly states that when she refused to sell her sexuality she starved or had to live out of her car. Does that say something about her? Or does that say more about dudes being unable too see and treat (and employ) women as whole persons without using and abusing us sexually? Compassion and understanding towards other women, even the ones who "makes us look bad" is the only way to hold our real enemies accountable and the enemies are those men who create and profit from this Hip Hop mess.
The bottom line is that I don't believe that any of this is our fault: It's not because of how we dress or behave. No woman, no matter how she "carries herself" or what she does sexually with any amount of men deserves to be called a hoe. No woman. Heterosexual men are not called hoes for being promiscuous. Heterosexual men are not called "loose." Such terms always carry a racist and sexist stigma. Until we've got equally hateful and stigmatizing names for the men who talk trash about her, cat call her, and use her sexually, then I say leave the sister alone! Yes, there are risky behaviors and foolish choices we all make regardless of gender. The difference is the punishment for our risky behavior and foolish choices is often verbal and emotional abuse, physical assault and rape, or death. Men muttering "bitch" or "hoe," is what some men and women consider to be "lucky" for women. Men never have to worry about being physically violated and killed by women for being seen as "down and out."
Men's violence against women is never our fault, although everything from the Bible to media tells us otherwise. There is nothing we have done to deserve our degradation. Nothing! So there is nothing we can do in isolation to stop it! What we can do is stop making excuses for men, stop blaming and shaming women, and stop buying into media, institutions, and ideas that support our degradation when we claim to know better! But changing our dress? Changing our behavior? Ladies… we are fine just as we are! Imagine that? Imagine that we really all are okay: that it's not our fault, but theirs, for treating us the way they do? Imagine for a minute that's it not about us but them! Imagine for a moment that instead of questioning ourselves and putting down other Black women we demanded unconditional respect and equality from Black men, not only because we're their sisters but because we are also like them: human.
Putting myself out there--yet again--because that's what women have to do to tell the truth about men: I remember years ago in high school being drunk and leaving a party with a guy I thought I could trust who had offered to make sure I got home okay. Of course even in my drunkenness I could tell that he was feeling me up when he should have just been holding me up. I was too scared and vulnerable to resist as he touched me in ways he had no right to…or did he? My choice to get drunk was a stupid one so maybe I didn't deserve to be treated with respect. After all, "stupid bitches get treated like hoes?" I think that just might be Lil'Waynes next hit! Maybe it was asking too much of a guy not to take advantage of a drunk girl. Maybe it was asking too much of a guy to treat me how he'd want to be treated if he was also vulnerable. It wouldn't be asking too much if I lived in a different world, in one where I was considered human, equal and as worthy as he was. Then I could fuck up and still feel safe and respected with a little help from my brothers. Keep dreaming…...
I remember once telling a girlfriend, regarding how men treat us, "It's like you're a bitch if you don't, and a hoe if you do!" You just can't win! It's not set up for us to win. It's set up for us to fail. Men benefit from portraying us as bitches and hoes just as much as they do from calling us sisters. Their male privilege to define conquers all women.
"What About Our Daughters" is a blog set up to challenge the funding of the media war against Black women and girls. Its homepage offers several t-shirts for sale. One in particular makes this divide-and-conquer sentiment so clear with a two-line slogan. The first line reads Black Unity and underneath it is this: Calling me "sister" does not make it so. STOP defending the privilege to call me a "HO"! These ladies are so right on! So when Jay-Z screeches on his track "Sisters & Bitches", "I love my sisters, I don't love no bitch," we holla back, "Jay you ain't no brother of mine until you stop calling ANY female out of her name!"
Men's sexual desires and practices require us to be forever blaming ourselves, forever questioning our behavior, forever carrying the blame and shame that belongs solely to them! In this world, they can just cut us down and not be seen as responsible, let alone accountable. Atop the gender hierarchy, men determine who deserves respect and who doesn't. And when any individual woman is disrespected, all of us pay the price.
Men's sexual desires and practices require us to be forever blaming our selves, forever questioning our behavior, forever carrying the blame and shame that belongs solely to them! In this world, they can just cut us down and not be seen as responsible, let alone accountable. Atop the gender hierarchy, men determine who deserves respect and who doesn't. And when any individual woman is disrespected, all of us pay the price.
When I wrote my first piece on Hip Hop, "Celie's Revenge: Hip Hop Betrays Black Women," I received tons of letters. Most of them were encouraging and their authors offered solidarity with my analysis but still critiqued my refusal in the piece to "hold women accountable" for how they allow themselves to be used in the industry. However, my intention was exactly that: to go after the men who benefit collectively and individually from sexually exploiting women in the music industry and in our community through Hip Hop culture. There is enough woman-blaming. I wasn't going to contribute to it. There is no doubt that women are complicit in their own oppression but so are Black folk. There is no doubt that racist patriarchy couldn't continue unless many women supported it but the same goes for white supremacy. But to think that it's women, especially Black women, who keep racist patriarchy going strong is to pretend men of all colors are socially impotent. In fact, men collectively hold the power to stop racist sexism dead in its tracks.
The unrelenting way this culture both costumes and consumes girls and women leaves many of us with few options that bring or instill dignity and respect for all women. We are taught to hate ourselves unless we appear sexy to a man. It also conditions everyone to despise the women who dress "that way." This can't be blamed on us. Black women don't control the fashion and music industry nor e do we benefit from its trends. Yet within the discourse on Hip Hop's denigration of women, there is too much talk about what women wear or how they behave. There needs to be more talk about the dollars being thrown at them by men and the sexually violent lyrics used by men to shame them.
"Hoe bashing" has become a type of self help born out of the cause to end the degradation of women in Hip Hop. The movement to end Hip Hop's war on black women has been reduced to instructing us that as women that "we're not what we're called but rather what we answer to." We are told to disparage and dis-identify with the women who name themselves what misogynist men call us. From the perspective of this sort of sexism, if we are hurt by the names and treatment it's our own fault for either behaving like hoes or responding negatively (humanely) to being called a hoe.
Unanswered questions linger, attempting to air the on-going neglect and abuse: in our culture, where are the men offering us genuinely healthy and empowering choices in careers and relationships? When will men make each other take full responsibility for the effects of what they do to us? And finally, who is teaching girls and young women, inside and outside systems of sexual degradation, the true meaning of liberation?
Jennifer McLune is a Radical Black Feminist freelance writer, activist and librarian who lives to stop the machine of white supremacy and the madness of hip hop male chauvinism. You can write her at [email protected]References
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