This writer had avoided wading into the hoopla about Miley Cyrus’ performance at this year’s VMAs until a great deal of it had died down. Serious or sober critique is rarely heard above the deafening din of knee-jerk reactions.
Nevertheless, the Cyrus incident does give an opportunity to deconstruct an aspect of American history and culture that persists even after the institution of slavery was eradicated. The vestiges from pre-colonial times continue into present-day America regarding the belief in the inherent immorality of Blacks. Black men, Black women generally – and hip-hop as a genre specifically – have been condemned for sexual explicitness and misogyny.
In regard to gender, there have been two pronounced, conflicting and unjust narratives concerning female sexuality in America. Although all women who have been accused of being promiscuous faced the ire and consternation of a (predominantly White) male-dominated society, there has always been this duplicitous racial application of the penalties incurred for committing perceived “moral” crimes against society.
Historically, White women, as a category, have been portrayed as examples of self-respect, self-control and modesty — even sexual purity — but Black women were often (and still are) portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. I will focus here on the various ways White female sexual promiscuity has been viewed, recognized and oft-times celebrated in today’s media and in popular culture.
The endemic raunch culture
In her book “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” New York magazine writer Ariel Levy argues that the recent trend for soft-porn styling in everything from music videos to popular TV is reducing female sexuality to its basest levels. In short: “A tawdry, tarty, cartoon-like version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular.”
Kathleen Parker, in her article “Girls Gone Ridiculous,” further elaborates this point:
The message to girls the past 20 years or so has been that they can be and do anything they please. Being a stripper or a porn star is just another option among many. In some feminist circles, porn is seen as the ultimate feminist expression — women exercising autonomy over their bodies, profiting from men’s desire, rather than merely being objectified by it. Self-exploitation has become the raised middle finger of women’s sexual freedom.
The fact that the “raised middle finger” in popular culture — rap videos aside — has predominantly been White is not discussed, debated and or even perceived as such.
The notorious sexual double standard
In contrast, the degrading images of Black women were cemented in American culture centuries previous to the first rapper uttering their first words into a microphone. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University wrote in his essay “Jezebel Stereotype,”
The English colonists accepted the Elizabethan image of “the lusty Moor,” and used this and similar stereotypes to justify enslaving blacks. In part, this was accomplished by arguing that blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and animal-like sexually. Whites used racist and sexist ideologies to argue that they alone were civilized and rational, whereas blacks, and other people of color, were barbaric and deserved to be subjugated.
The Jezebel stereotype was used during slavery as a rationalization for sexual relations between white men and black women, especially sexual unions involving slavers and slaves. The Jezebel was depicted as a black woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. She was not satisfied with black men. The slavery-era Jezebel, it was claimed, desired sexual relations with white men; therefore, white men did not have to rape black women.
James Redpath, an abolitionist no less, wrote that slave women were “gratified by the criminal advances of Saxons” … This view is contradicted by Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and former slave, who claimed that the “slave woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master” … Douglass’s account is consistent with the accounts of other former slaves. Henry Bibb’s master forced a young slave to be his son’s concubine; later, Bibb and his wife were sold to a Kentucky trader who forced Bibb’s wife into prostitution.
Popular culture’s contribution to the problem
Society, by and large, has deracialized White female sexual explicitness while at the same time strongly accentuating what is perceived as Black female promiscuity and immodesty. That message has been communicated to us time and time again on the pages of Maxim, FHM, Playboy, Penthouse and Sports Illustrated — and this list goes on. Although these mags have, in the past 10 years, featured more women of color, they are still (overwhelmingly) a celebration of White female sexual explicitness.
The ultra-celebrity accorded to White female sexual explicitness burst on the scene in the person of Marilyn Monroe. Can anyone argue that Monroe was more recognized for her acting talents than for her ‘natural assets’? Yet she is regarded as a legend.
The celebrity that has been granted to White women such as the late Anna Nicole Smith, Pamela Anderson, Carmen Elecktra, Paris Hilton and a whole host of others, is also given based upon sexual assets and not upon talent.
This theme is consistent in today’s raunch-infested society, but the raunchiness, once again, is deracialized when the practitioners are White. WWE women’s wrestling has increased in popularity in the past few years with its predominantly White roster of sex-kittens and their highly sexualized plots and subplots.
Even current and former White porn stars such as Ginger Lynn, Traci Lords and Jenna Jameson are made the topics of E! “Hollywood True Stories” exposes, thus giving them a place of prominence and legitimacy without ever linking their promiscuity to their Whiteness. In contrast, one would be hard-pressed to name as many Black women (or any other women of color) who enjoy the same level of celebrity and success, absent of talent.
Even in seemingly light-hearted popular movies we see this phenomenon played out. “Risky Business,” the 1983 film that introduced Tom Cruise to mainstream America, was about a young man who — with the help of a spunky prostitute fleeing her pimp, played by Rebecca De Mornay who — opened up a brothel in his parent’s home while they were away on vacation. “Pretty Woman,” the 1990 film that made Julia Roberts a megastar, is essentially a remake of the children’s classic “Cinderella,” except this time Cinderella is a hooker.
The Woody Allen — that alone seems to give it legitimacy — 1995 film “The Mighty Aphrodite” stars Mira Sorvino in the “acceptable” prostitute role, for which she won an Oscar. In the 2007 teen film, “The Girl Next Door,” featuring the then-rising star Elisha Cuthbert, the movie centers on the relationship between an accomplished high school senior and his 19-year-old porn-star neighbor. The descriptions of the main characters in these films — which is to say the women — used words such as “free-spirited,” “spunky,” “playful,” and “spontaneous.”
Try imagining these same films with Black female characters — could one envision the same light-hearted response by the American public-at-large? There has yet to be a critically acclaimed or commercially successful film where a central character was a Black prostitute. So even when the ‘textbook’ requirements of what constitutes promiscuity — at least were it Black women — are met, Whiteness saves the day.
These movies were huge box-office successes, and if one subscribes to the theory that the lyrics contained in some hip-hop songs desensitizes individuals to misogyny and normalizes sexism, then that same ethos would have to applied to the films that have essentially deified and normalized White female explicitness and promiscuity. So when the same messages that are being demonized in hip-hop are also found in these popular films and White-dominated music genres — but couched in the safety and familiarity of Whiteness — what society is essentially telling us is that it is better PR that hip-hop needs, not a lessening of sexist themes in their music and videos.
So it has to be understood that racism is at the heart of this current debate regarding misogyny and sexism. America claims, day in and day out, that it has no problem with sexual promiscuity. So what’s the problem with hip-hop? It’s the sheer Blackness of it.
Historically (as well as now), there has been a fear of Black (especially Black male) sexuality. This irrational and racist fear was repeatedly used in the countless lynchings of Black men in the history of this nation — which often included castration as well. Black equals dangerous; Black equals savage; Black equals barbaric; Black equals forbidden, infected and inferior. Therefore hip-hop, like Blackness, is something that society should be, must be; protected from. It is from this context that all things Black have been realized and it is from this context that White female sexual explicitness has been sanitized.
Does this writing negate the scores of women of all ethnicities who have suffered objectification, harassment and assault? No, not at all — this analysis focuses on the specific and ignored dynamic of racism when it comes to perceived, and real, female sexual explicitness.
This writer is not suggesting that any behavior by American citizens or human beings should be racialized, but it is impossible to eradicate a problem without addressing what the problem looks like and why it persists. Is it right that when different groups are deemed guilty of the same behavior, that they received disparate treatment?
In other words, why should one group receive the infamy while the other receives the notoriety?