Pop Culture

Women of Color in Hip Hop: The Pornographic Gaze

Few empirical studies look at the lyrical content of rap music. The research that does exist reveals listening to rap music is associated with violence, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior. Margaret Hunter and Kathleen Soto open up their article “Women of Color in Hip Hop: The Pornographic Gaze” to discuss how porn and hip hop started to mesh in the late twentieth century with the acts of 2 Live Crew, Snoop Dogg, and 50 Cent to name a few.

According to Hunter and Soto, women in rap narratives play two roles: The video hoe and the loyal girlfriend. One represents male sexual pleasure while the other represents supreme female submissiveness.  Such a distinction enables men to create distance between themselves and women as well as the ensuing humiliation and degradation associated with their lyricism.

Rappers perpetuate a good-bad girl dichotomy to justify their characterization of some (particularly working class) women as hoes. Some of these women are characterized as hoodrats, indicating low social status as a poor, sexually available women. Chickenheads, however, refer to women who perform oral sex, though in modern times its used interchangeably with hoodrat. Just as women of color appeared more frequently in rap music videos, they appear more frequently in porn films as well.

The music offers both oppressive and liberatory practices. Rap music as a cultural form emerged in a specific economic, political, and social context. Specifically, capitalism, postindustrialism, post-civil rights, sexism and racism define the larger social context that shapes the genre.

Rap became mainstream when music started to shift from “message rap” like Public Enemy to “gangsta rap” like Snoop Dogg. Indeed, research indicated that mainstream rap music lacked political content and relied more on racial and gender stereotypes. Rap from the South in particular embodies the pornification of the music with strippers as the central figures.

The pornification of rap music includes visuals and lyrics that speak to porn themes while also portraying women as sex workers. Further, the pornification of rap leads to what they describe as “pornographic gender relations,” which portray interactions between men and women in limited, specific ways.

Hunter and Soto reinforce that the women of rap music are not all women but women of color. Their analysis of rap music found similar themes to those associated with the porn industry so they adopted “the pornographic gaze” as an analytical concept.  The data came from Billboard Music’s Top Rap Singles of the Year list from 2002 and 2003. The authors did a content analysis of the lyrics to uncover their representations of women. These primary themes included women as sex workers, women as submissive to hip hop gender roles, and women as partners in crime (i.e. Bonnie and Clyde).

Women as Sex Workers

These lyrics generally identified women as strippers, prostitutes, and positioned men as pimps. Nearly one third of the songs they found had such references. In this music, Black women’s bottoms get treated as a spectacle in a manner similar to the treatment of Hottentot Venus. The bottom then becomes not only a site of male sexual fantasy, but also the place that vitriol towards Black women gets directed.

In this fantasy pimps get glorified as wealthy while women sex workers get positioned as poor, struggling fools. The conflation of women as sex workers also emerges with growing depictions of violence toward women. Overall, this position attempts to normalize sex trafficking of women of color. Most commonly, the depiction of women as sex workers involves strippers. These particular lyrics come mostly commonly from southern rappers and depicts women as present for men’s sexual entertainment.:

These excerpts show the pattern that stripping and prostitution are so mainstreamed in popular culture and in rap music that rappers use these images both to discipline and to compliment. Beyond the “bitches and hoes” who are routinely described as prostitutes with all the negative cultural baggage attached, even the objects of male affection in rap songs are complimented through sex work metaphor (all the high rollin’ cats wanna pay for that ass). The “nice” girls are encouraged to act like sex workers (1 got a friend with a pole in the basement).1

The depiction of all Black women as sex workers in rap music causes concern among community about the future of gender relations in the larger Black community.

Women’s Voices and Porn Performance

41% of the songs they analyzed included a woman singing the hook or chorus of the song. The hooks often contained violent or derogatory references to women. For example, some lyrics imply that women of color enjoy violent sex and treat them as sex objects rather than romantic partners. Women rappers also borrowed imagery from mainstream pornography in their song lyrics as they emphasize performing oral sex or fulfilling men’s sexual fantasies. Much of this lyricism plays on historical characterizations of Black women as the hypersexual Jezebel.

Bonnie and Clyde: Loyalty to men at any cost

About 15% of the songs characterized women as loyal partners to men. This characterization also known as “ride or die chicks” positions women as good realtive to hoes/hoodrats and loyal through adversity including serving as a partner in crime. Though these women aren’t sexualized, this dichtomoy reinforces the pornification of rap music. Using women to sing parts of these songs helps uphold the gender ideology of the genre. Ride or die chicks get depicted as loyal sidekicks who sacrifice and even give their lives for these men. Further, this leads to a type of female rap that privileges either the sexual pleasure themes or loyalty to men themes without much nuance.

Rap Music as Modern Day Minstrelsy

The authors took an intersectional approach to their analysis in an effort to uncover gendered racism and racialized sexism. Mass commercialization has shifted lyrical content and it relies mostly on controlling images of both Black men and women, thus turning rap into a new form of minstrelsy.:

In this song, like others in this theme, a woman’s voice is u strategically to ease the representation of a “good woman/’ According to t persona in the song, a good woman would shoot, lie, and kill for her man. art imitates life or life imitates art, rap music’s call to loyalty at the exp female incarceration mirrors the fast-growing number of young black an women in prison (Davis. 2003). Vastly different from the female rappers and early 1990s whom Tricia Rose describes as an, “important and resistiv in rap and contemporary black women’s cultural production in ge (1994:182), the contemporary female rappers who sing the hook in thes perform a more passive voice that “softens the blow” of patriachal expectations.2

In addition to the gangsta and the Jezebel, rap music also invokes the “hot tamale” imagery of Latina women. Thus, rap music most often communications black and brown gender relations though consumers are largely white and middle class.

Research indicates that the sexual scripts of rap music influences adolescent sexual development, teaching young people to devalue women’s bodies and sexuality. Indeed, the pornification of rap can thus contribute to public health issues in the Black community revolving around sexually transmitted infections and sexual violence. Therefore, rap music socializes young people into sexualities that rely on unequal gender relations and sexual violence.

The authors contend that effective interventions in hip hop will require. Critical media literacy, alternative rap production, and an alternation or expansion of commerical rap music. Black and Latina feminists in particular have laid the groundwork for tackling issues in rap music.

  1. Hunter and Soto 2009:180 ↩︎
  2. Hunter and Soto 2009:184 ↩︎