Pop Culture

Viewing Videos: Class Differences, Black Women, and Interpretations of Black Femininity

Adia Harvey Wingfield and Melinda Mills expand on the concept of controlling images in their study about Black women and rap music videos. Controlling images in rap music reflect attitudes toward Black women in larger culture that perceive them as hypersexual golddiggers. While Black women rappers often offer empowerment and solidarity, men reproduce images of them as sexual objects.

In 2007 they chose six focus groups with Black Americans to watch four rap music videos popular on BET and MTV. Most of the Black Americans interviewed were middle class college or graduate students living in the Southeastern U.S, but one group included high school juniors from working class and poor neighborhoods.

Wingfield and Mills use intersectionality to frame their study because it explores how race,gender, class, and other social factors interlock to affect people’s lived experiences. Controlling images as a concept emerges out of intersectionality to conceptualize social representations of Black women.

While the sample size was a total of 27, the focus groups yielded substantial insights. The authors highlighted that the size of the focus groups “enhanced the dialogue and conversational tone of the process, allowing participants to share more.”1 Ultimately, respondents felt the videos depicted false images of Black women and perpetuated negative stereotypes.

Black women typically reject images of beauty that uphold White women, but rap music videos do influence how young Black women perceive and talk about sexual relationships. Therefore, they end up upholding racialized, patriarchal ideas about sexual behavior.

Debating Realism

Middle class Black women are more susceptible to mainstream attitudes about women’s sexuality than working class or poor Black women and often adapt a politics of respectability:

…wherein they enforce traditional ideals about appropriate gendered behavior among themselves and working class black women as a way of offsetting pervasive cultural stereotypes about black female sexuality.2

Wingfield and Mills find class shapes how Black women interpret images about their sexuality in rap music videos.

Middle Class Respondents

The members of the focus groups generally felt the depictions didn’t portray Black women truthfully and oversexualized them. Depictions portrayed Black women as objects. Videos generally position Black women as a sex freaks or objects for consumption. These expectations followed these women into dance clubs where they were expected to twerk or overseas where they were expected to look like Beyoncé.

One respondent likened the expectation that an attractive Black woman be a “dime piece” highlighted the commodification of their bodies. Hip hop values men for their money and women for their bodies. Further, Black women felt that they had the unique positionality to critique the representation of women like themselves in these music videos.

Middle class resepondents, however, used their class privilege to arrive at these conclusions. The themes that middle class women identified in Black music videos revolved around class. They felt women in rap music videos lacked “class” due to their willingness to dance suggestively and portray Black women falsely. They also critiqued Black women pop stars for choosing to be sexy, stating that they too lacked class for dressing and dancing more provocatively.

They associated sexual assertiveness in rap music videos with strippers in attempt to mark boundaries between themeselves and dancers. In this way, mention of “class” implied status, morals, and values about Black womanhood and sexuality. Often, rap music videos actually depicted Black women in scenes of material opulence, thus distinguishing class from material possessions to a type of identity.

These attitudes reflect Black middle class women’s politics of respectability. Indeed from this positionality they asserted their class privilege by claiming to be the bearers of “real” Black womanhood.

Working Class Respondents

Working class and poor Black Americans felt the representations actually gave Black women sexual agency, as some respondents had actually danced in music videos themselves. They felt that these women were workers and having fun.

Some of the women felt that the term video vixen was degrading because dance was about self-expression and didn’t necessarily have to be something bad. They didn’t perceive the images as unreal, but rather a way of earning income.

Videos instead were a means to economic stability and didn’t assign the meaning of being low class to dancers like middle class women did. Instead, they saw a potential site of agency for Black women with few options to earn income.

Viewing videos as an economic opportunity did not preclude seeing the gender relations in them as problematic. Respondents with working class backgrounds generally felt the videos accurately depicted how men and women interact. Women felt that when they went “on the block,” Men sexually harassed them and treated them like sex objects.

Ultimately, these findings showed that middle class Black women in particular use controlling images to distinguish themselves from other types of women. Therefore, the intraracial dynamics of Blackness involves class politics.

  1. Wingfield and Mills 2012:354 ↩︎
  2. Wingfield and Mills 2012: 352 ↩︎