While getting a lift from a friend recently, we listened to one of his favourite and timeless CDs: Snoop Dogg’s 1994 album. As a teenager he listened to the CD clandestinely, warding off any interference from his parents because of the expletives in many of the songs. He asked me if I listened to Snoop Dogg and apart from radio, I didn’t particularly think of myself as a fan of Snoop, so we listened to some tracks while navigating Friday traffic. I was struck by how the words “bitches and ho’s” were part of the lyrics in every song.
I was also reminded of Friday evenings as a kid when a music show, Studio Mix, introduced South Africa to commercial American Hip Hop in the early 1990s. Many of the music videos always had scantily clad women surrounded by fully clothed men in a pool party scene. The lyrics never mattered because I was still learning how to speak English so we would make up our own lyrics while imbibing images of young women gyrating to the wonderful jams. As a teenager I noticed a similar trend in South African music videos where images of young women gyrating on our screens became the norm. While I was in high school there was a rumour that one of the girls who had matriculated from our school was a part-time “video girl” as she was seen gyrating on TV, scantily clad in a music video. The thought of being a video girl didn’t bother me at the time but I did wonder how Lihle told her mom she was a “video girl” and whether her mom would approve of such a profession or pastime.
While listening to Snoop Dogg in the friend’s car I began to wonder about “bitches and ho’s” (which refers to women, whether they are “video girls” or not) and the negative stereotypes it perpetuates about men and women. There’s also a distinction within the hip hop industry where artists like Common and Lauryn Hill are commercial but they don’t make use of gyrating women in their videos and the lyrics are less offensive. The hip hop industry is fraught because it highlights the gender complexities— misogyny— in an interesting way. I’ve listened to one of Chris Rock’s stand up gigs where he makes a jibe at the gender question in the hip hop industry. He points out that people don’t mind listening to hip hop even when the lyrics are offensive and he makes reference to women dancing in a club to a song with offensive lyrics while saying “he (the rapper) ain’t talking about me”. The image of black women in hip hop videos and the use of women’s bodies in the music industry have been under attack from many feminist writers and when the words hip hop and women are put in one sentence, a writer knows that they have entered the territory of being the “fun police”.
The danger with being the “fun police” is that while trying to have a normal day where music doesn’t have to be about sexism, it can easily end up being about sexism. Melissa Harris-Perry’s new book Sister-Citizen: Shame, stereotypes and Black women in America has given me a new language of explaining the dangers of negative stereotypes, particularly about black women. Her book is about the experience of being a black woman in America and how women navigate a world where the images of black women are overwhelmingly negative and disparaging. Using cognitive psychology research, she talks of black women being in a crooked room when they are confronted with the stereotypes of themselves in their daily lives. She writes:
“When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. It may be surprising that some gyrate half naked in degrading hip hop videos that reinforce the image of black women’s lewdness”.
Unbeknownst to my friend, I felt like I was in a crooked room while listening to Snoop Dogg. I’m removed from the music industry but I am uncomfortable about the negative stereotypes about women in pop culture. We often think that sexism is about the big issues like rape and violence against women but our everyday experiences don’t count. So the nonsense on TV or radio shouldn’t count because we’re just laughing at ourselves right?