T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting Discusses Hip Hop’s Attitude Toward Women
T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting
T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting is Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French at Vanderbilt University. Her new book is Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women.
- Where does the title of your book come from? What does it mean to you and what does it mean to rappers?
- The title was inspired by Snoop Dogg. It captures the ethos of the new gender politics I explore in the book–which is essentially that women are disposable, exchangeable, throwaway commodities to charismatic males who bond around keeping them “down” or in their place.
- You document the pervasive misogynistic lyrics and behavior of hip hop artists. What do you think are the psychological reasons behind this?
- Hip hop is a reflection of our larger culture with respect to male-female relationships. If it (hip hop, that is) were to go the way of the dinosaur, we would still be dealing with sexism and misogyny (from Hooters restaurants to Playboy to shock jock antics like Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus). Hip hop is simply rawer in articulating men’s deeply conflicted relationships with women. At the bottom, we have to question American ideas about masculinity. What it means to be a man in American culture and how men perform this role. Today, I believe men and boys feel adrift, displaced, as they compete with “alpha” women and girls in every facet of life in ways that their fathers and grandfathers did not. Simultaneously, they are conflicted over American ideals regarding men, manhood, and a patriarchal society. The one area that men feel some dominance is in the area of sexuality and brute strength—so degrading women sexually, intimately, physically in the most misogynist and sexist ways represents a leveling out of this perceived topsy-turvy female dominated world. The sad thing is we as consumers find this multi-billion dollar generating pastime (demeaning women) entertaining. Hip hop caters to our tastes, which have become increasingly coarsened.
- Do you think the large number of fatherless families in the black community and increasingly throughout all of society is a factor in this?
- I am reluctant to attribute this trend wholly to this phenomenon especially with respect to black families as I feel we start down the slippery slope of pathology theories of the black matriarchy as well as of black families. Fatherlessness is an extremely troubling issue. The vast majority of fatherless families involve young and poor fathers and mothers (16-24). High unemployment and poverty continue to be major disincentives to marriage among this class. Even the white working class benefit from in-group job opportunities (racial nepotism) whereas black workers (young ones in particular) continue to battle discriminatory hiring and retention practices, unequal incarceration practices among young black men, etc. The cause and effect are much more complicated than hip hop and its gender chauvinism. Indeed, for the first time in our history married couples are outnumbered by those couples who merely live together. Marriage is clearly not as much a priority among Americans as it once was. There is clearly a paradigm shift in a culture where making babies and marriage are no longer tied. These trends too would contribute to fatherlessness.
- Groupies and mistreatment of women have been a part of the white rock and roll world since the 60s. What, if anything, is different about the world of hip hop?
- The difference is hip hop groupies while multiracial are overwhelming black unlike rock and roll groupies who were overwhelmingly white. But groupies function in hip hop as they did in the rock era—they are women who provide sexual services. Though there were groupies associated with the jazz, blues, funk set, these groupies were a inconspicuous lot, as the singers did not call them out negatively. Hip hop ‘disses’ and dismisses the very women they heavily depend upon to pleasure them and the women are responding in kind in various media outlets. This is another interesting aspect of the new gender politics.
- Should there be one standard for how we refer to others? Is calling a woman a “ho” or “bitch” acceptable from anybody under any circumstances? If so, how do you begin to draw the lines?
It (“ho”) is unacceptable under any circumstances. Attempts to parse this word along class lines (as Snoop did after the Imus brouhaha, and Imus’s sixty-seven year old lame reason why he thought it was acceptable to call 18, 19, 20 year old young women prostitutes) are unacceptable. But of course “Bitch” is now so commonly used on prime time television; there is even a feminist mag called Bitch. Women call themselves “bitch.” Register and context are certainly important. There are times when I know someone thinks I am a “Bitch” because I am speaking up for myself, or setting boundaries with respect to what I will or will not accept, and I think to myself, “Yeah, I am going to be that Bitch, then.” Ultimately, though I find both terms unacceptable.
- As you discuss in your book, there is a large sex trade surrounding hip hop, including strip clubs, pornography and sex tourism. How do you view the women who participate? Are they exploited or are they the ones who are empowered and taking advantage of the men?
- Women are often complicit with patriarchy and in their own exploitation. We have all been there and done that. Most women participate in the adult entertainment industry and the sex trade (in Brazil, as discussed in the book) because they need money. Though I wish women would be more socially and politically conscious about the choices they make and opportunities they take, I try not to be judgmental about those choices, as the reasons are never as clear cut as we believe them to be. Unfortunately, society reinforces our reliance on sex and beauty as our most valuable tools for trade—and for some women these tools have proven extremely profitable (for example, the publisher advance for Karrine Steffans’s hip hop groupie tell-all; or even Donald Trump’s trophy wives).
- Would it be possible for a rapper to maintain his “street cred” and be more sensitive toward women?
- Of course. Hip hop is all about the skills; how well an emcee can spit. One should be able to rap about waking up to the sun shining, and having a good day. Period. The current commercial permutation in hip hop I believe deeply impoverishes the art form aesthetically. It presents a very narrow conception of masculinity (and femininity that is explicitly tied to sexual use). I am a sex-positive feminist so I don’t have a problem with representations of sexuality that are healthy and affirming. But I find none of these representations affirming or healthy—for men or women, boys or girls.
- Can you name any rappers who are popular and talented, but have not used their art to demean women?
- Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Brother Ali, Zion I, Mr. Lif, Lupe Fiasco, and a host of other underground artists. Since we are passive consumers of hip hop most just assume that what they hear on the radio is the only hip hop available. Naturally these artists don’t move as many units as say 50 Cent, or Eminem. That says more about us as consumers than it does about the rappers.
- You are a former model. I’m interested in your thoughts on how, if at all, our ideals of feminine beauty have changed over the past generation, specifically in regard to race and ethnicity.
- The modeling industry itself still prefers blond, blue-eyed, and extremely thin women. As a culture, we continue to vaunt that ideal even as we claim we embrace multiculturalism and multiracialism. Women who stray from that ideal may conform in some respects to aspects of these ideals and are accepted as “exotic” exceptions. The truth of the matter is ideas of beauty and beauty culture are still devastatingly wedded to white supremacy culture. That women throughout Asia buy bleaching cream to whiten their skin speaks to this. That we have a nation of women and girls suffering from all sorts of eating disorders and body image issues speaks to this. While black women have attempted to launch a counter beauty culture, color issues still abound.