Moving Past Postmodern Hip-Hop Adolescence
Love and Basketball and Love Jones are culminations of all of the previous representations with the distinct voice of the hip-hop generation. They stylistically reflect the influences of music videos while addressing the biggest challenge the hip-hop generation faces– how are we supposed to behave? These films re-appropriate hip-hop’s superficially materialistic and sexual manifestations and show the ramifications those images have in our everyday existence. Gender lines are not as specifically defined in these films creating different approaches to relationships. Without the specific struggles against racism and classism, these films are also a reminder of the personal and spiritual work the black community as a whole must continue to do in their intraracial, interpersonal relations.
These characters are the beneficiaries of all of social, cultural, economic and political changes of the last thirty years. The hip-hip generation, imbued with the legacy of sexualized youth culture, sees marriage as the end to the freedoms (sexual and otherwise) they have enjoyed and seen as their right their entire lives. Marriage is a pseudo fantasy that for men marks an end of youth and for women idealizes security. It is also seen as something done by “grown ups” (an act performed by the previous generation) or whites. Sex- only relationships and strong male-female platonic friendships (most with the possibility of sex) are the dominant models for relationships. The blurring of the lines between these relationship positions reinforces the question of how the hip-hop generation is supposed to behave. No longer looking to their parents as models, the media offers behavioral cues. In these films, their portrayals begin to question what they have been taught and follow them on their explorations of how they learn to define their lives for themselves.
Love and Basketball tells the story of a young man and woman who grow up next door to each other and their love of basketball is what pulls them together and ultimately drives them apart. They grow up in an upper middle class environment in two parent homes. Throughout high school, they are best friends. Their intimacy for each other grows from their love of basketball.
Monica is a tomboy. She hides her dresses, hates having her hair combed, is obviously, as the younger of two girls, the son her father never had. She watches her mother defer her dreams and never stand up for herself and decidedly abhors anything she deems as “prissy.” Q is a talented and privileged young man who idolizes and emulates his father, an ex professional basketball player. His mother is a stay at home mom who tends to his and his father’s every need.
At the age of eleven, Q asks Monica to be “his girl” after watching her get her hair combed through the window while listening to his parents have loud passionate sex, thereby infusing Monica with sexuality. William Simon discusses the role of parental sexuality in the lives of adolescents:
“Parents, particularly the parents of the opposite sex for those experiencing themselves as moving towards heterosexuality, will obviously have many of the attributes that the adolescent is expected to recognize and respond to as being sexual. This connection becomes particularly significant when the child sees the parents as being sexually active, sometimes increasingly evident particularly to those adolescents who have witnessed parents returning the dating and mating game. The stereotypical notion of Victorian reticence and prudery clearly create a different set of conditions for managing the problems of inclusion and exclusion than would be true for most of the varieties of contemporary middle-class North American families- even where the family remains intact. (83)
The adolescence of the parental relationships in this film teaches the children dysfunctional relationship models. Q’s parents ultimately divorced because of the father’s infidelity. Q’s identity was tightly wound with that of his father, and the women he later dates are sexually feminized like his mother. When Q sees Monica the next day, she has changed from the androgynous being, (who was beating him at basketball, leading him to push her on the ground, scarring her face for life) to a cutie in dress with her hair in plaits and accepting of his advances. When her mother told her the night before that Q was riding to school with her in the morning, she told her sister to make sure her hair looked nice. She’s developing a sexuality not outside of her tomboyishness, because after they share her (their?) first kiss that morning, he demands she ride on his bike because she’s his girl and his dad drives his mother. She refuses by telling him “ I don’t have to do what you say,” a verbal argument ensues before she pushes him off his bike and they start rolling in the grass fighting. Despite her change in costume, the performance of gender equality was the same. It was not until after he called her “an ugly dog” that she made the fight physical. She had already been initiated by the letting of blood with the scar he had given her on her chin the day before. She was not going to be his victim again.
Fast forward to senior year in high school where they are both the stars of their basketball teams. Q is sexually active and Monica is pining away, loving him but able to relate to him only through basketball. The use of the ball as the link between the two identifies her not just with Q but also with both his father and hers. The inclusion of parents in this film shows the hip-hop generation’s longing for behavioral models, but finding only antiquated ones. Monica complains that her mother never attends her basketball games. The fact that she played basketball took her out of her mother’s domain. Even after Monica has played all over the world, her mother does not understand or know basketball lingo; effectively not knowing anything about her daughter. Therefore, when Monica has a problem, she asks her father. Senior year, she asks him to talk to the coach so she can stay in the game that her temper keeps getting her kicked out of. Her contention is that she’s “a ball player” and if she were a man, she would just be showing heart. Monica is one of few black female characters that address sexism. Her playing a sport makes her gender conflict keener.
At one of the two games her mother attends, her mother scolds her from the sidelines for not behaving like a lady. The visual separation of Monica from what is traditionally “women’s work” is the division of labor in the household. While she is talking to her father, her mother and feminized sister are setting the table. It is here that she tells her mother that she is a lesbian, “well that’s what you think ‘cause I would rather wear a jersey than an apron.” It is also here that her father tells her that since she has not been recruited, that she might want to look at different roads. She’s upset by his lack of faith and her mother’s comment that she has more going for her in the off- handed compliment of her being smart and “[she] would be pretty if [she] did something to [her] hair”.
Later she goes to the Spring Dance that her college-aged sister not only gets her a date for but also her sister dolls her up. Naomi Wolf discusses the image of the “doll” as “[o]n TV, female sexuality was about these dolls who were obsessed with getting dates with men. It was not a mature sexuality…There was no power in their sexuality…Being doll-like was part of how you reeled in a man. But what you did with him after you reeled him in- I had no clue” (Wolf 17). Neither did Monica. Her mother’s advice was to “enjoy being beautiful”, but to what end. At the dance, she is visibly uncomfortable in her skintight dress and heels. Unlike the young women in music videos who fit Wolf’s “doll” image, Monica is attempting to define herself through her own actions and not through anyone else’s acceptance. She is redefining standard gender stereotypes without being all feminist about it. Monica is simply working on being comfortable in her own skin.
When she gets home and talks about her date to Q on their mutual rooftop, she tells him that she went parking with her date, and while he was kissing on her and touching her, she could not remember how many offensive boards she got in the finals. That is her version of sex. She has attached it to the power she feels on the court. Her performance is not in the doll-like prissiness of sexuality but in the intimacy, it gives her with the one man who understands her love for basketball. That night she and Q physically make love. Director Gina Bythewood does not portray her body as the “docile body” as described by Foucault, traditionally associated with female sexuality, and it is at this moment that the narratives surrounding the black female body collide. According to Peterson, “to the dominant culture the black body was often both invisible and hypervisible… or… the black female body could be perceived as simultaneously feminine and masculine” (xi).
Yet, her sexuality through the rest of the film is focused on Quincy- the masculine. When he is not around, she is not sexual. Q on the other hand uses their emotional and sexual intimacy as his power over her. When he needs her and she is not available to him because of her basketball schedule, he starts “dating” another girl. Monica, despite her love for Q, when faced with his ultimatum, chooses basketball over him, and he leaves her. She ultimately conforms, in a way, to a model of male domination. “Females who wanted black male partners felt they had to conform to sexist expectations. Tragically, where much attention had been given to these conflicts, all the attention was now focused on black male satisfaction.” (hooks, Salvation 166) Quincy’s emotional denial through his sexual infidelity further demonstrates the behaviors that sustain the lack of trust between black women and men.
When Monica loses Quincy, she loses her love for basketball, despite her playing in the European League. Like Tracy in Mahogany, success means nothing because she does not have anyone to share it with. She comes back to the states (five years later) to find Quincy, now potentially unable to play basketball himself, engaged to an archetypical female. She gives up basketball and takes a job at her father’s bank.
On her mother’s advice, Monica challenges Q to a final basketball game for his heart. She has no female peers, despite all of her years on female basketball teams. She has only bonded emotionally with Q. He is her only friend. Therefore, when she looks to matters that require a “feminine touch” the only person she has to turn to is the mother she has fought so hard not to become. She acquiesces to her prescribed gender role and is rewarded by marrying Q, having a baby and playing with the WNBA. Only when she gives up her youthful insistence of gender ambivalence can she achieve marital attainment. Like Bleek, Q had to lose his ability to pursue his passion for basketball to be able to finally settle down.
Love Jones is a standard Hollywood romantic comedy set on Chicago’s segregated Southside. It weaves through the lives of a group of middle class college educated black friends, focusing on the romance of Darius and Nina. Darius, a writer, pursues Nina, a photographer, who plays (not so) hard to get. They have a casual sexual affair—“ just kickin’ it”, begin to “catch feelings” for each other, and use half-truths and other manipulative tactics to discover the other’s feelings. They break up, get back together, break up, and ultimately get back together.
Where do they learn the social workings of their sexuality? In discussing adolescent sexuality, which all of the behavior in this film points to, William Simon’s comments,
… the collapsing into a brief period — some might say too brief — of the time between the initial sense of oneself as a sexually significant person and the point at which regular socio sexual involvement occurs…. Most adolescents, then, find themselves within richly sexualized subcultures where there are modes of acting in sexually significant ways that are not necessarily genital in uses of language and costume, as well as pluralized definitions of relationships in which they are expected to be sexually involved. There is probably more social support for adolescent sexual activity by peers and others than has been known previously in modern Western experience. (81)
The peer relationship is paramount in their dealings with each other and their advising support systems. Yet when the married person, the group’s older statesman of sorts says, “falling in love is the easy part, but could somebody please tell me what to do to stay there?”, how does anyone learn anything?
Darius is a standard twenty-something male losing the women that he loves by “trying to be a player”. Although he is the economic, cultural, and educational antithesis of the nihilistic young men in Menace II Society and Baby Boy, his sexual behaviors are exactly the same. His behavior is endemic of many young middle class black men who are in short supply among their female counterparts. His “music video” mentality of spreading himself around to avoid getting “caught up” ultimately backfires. This environment breeds the lack of trust that ultimately destroys their relationship.
Although Nina’s sexuality is more developed than Monica’s, her behavior is not. We meet her reminiscing about love lost as she is packing up her life to start anew. When her best friend, Josie, asks when Nina is going to return her former fiancé’s ring she says, “I would if I knew where the hell he was. Or maybe I’ll just keep it as a reminder to never make the same mistake twice…[Josie: get engaged?]… No, falling in love. Because that shit is played out like an eight track”. Nina does not trust that she will be able to become vulnerable again because of the betrayal of her ex-fiancé; and like Angela in Boomerang, she is.
She then goes to a poetry reading where Darius creates a provocative poem for her on stage where he invokes African and African American literary and spiritual images along side of:
Hey girl- can I be your slave…who am I? It is not important. But they call me Brother To The Night and right now I’m the blues in your left thigh trying to become the funk in your right. Who am I? I’ll be whoever you say. But right now I’m a sight raped Hun blindly pursuing you as my prey. And I just want to give you injections of sublime erections and get you to dance to my rhythm…. Come on slim. Fuck your man, I ain’t worried about him….Cause rather than deal with the fallacy of this dry assed reality I’d rather dance and romance your sweet ass in a wet dream.
That poem sums up the course of their relationship in this film. Who is he? Does he even know? How will she know who he is? Dealing with the “fallacy of this dry assed reality” is called living life. It is not realistic or practical to believe he can live in the fantasy of a wet dream. It is an imaginary existence reinforced by the constant perpetuation of youthful sexual freedom. The superficiality of their ensuing relationship is reminiscent of teenagers who have sex and do not know how to communicate their feelings for each other because they do not understand them. They just know they do not want their feelings hurt and will do anything to not experience rejection.
Immediately after that performance, Josie reminds Nina about love being played out and Nina responds with a guilty look. As if she is thinking about love with a man she does not know. Who is talking about love? Physical attraction is not love or anything close to it. He just did an inappropriate sexual poem about a woman he had just met at the bar. Afterwards she tells him that he probably would not know anything about love, in front of his three male (and one female) friends who begin a teasing ritual about what they would do to her if it were them.
Darius then uses his female friend to get Nina’s information and shows up at her house after she had told him she was not interested. She acquiesces to a date, which after much back and forth and “I can’t go out on a first date like that,” she sleeps with him. He awakens the next morning and makes breakfast, signifying that he, like Marcus, is “pussy whipped”. Darius’s married friend Savon appropriately states, “when a man gets a hard- on, ya know where the blood come from, right? … His head and his feet. So A. he’s stupid and B. he can’t run.” Is that what a relationship is? Is that what adult sexual expression is? Stupid men who cannot move their feet? Nina, like Nola in She’s Gotta Have It, is just as trapped in her role of a sexual being as Darius is.
Rose identifies a certain amount of resentment and hostility by black men towards black women based on women’s ability to control sexual situations using rejection and manipulations of desire. She states, in discussing hip-hop lyrics, that black men have an “…intense desire for and profound mistrust of women. The capacity of a woman to use her sexuality to manipulate his desire for her purposes is an important facet of the sexual politics of the male raps about women” (173). Black male masculinity, though evolving, is still equated with his sexuality; only it is how the sexuality is viewed and used that changes its perception.
The childishness displayed on all fronts can not help but lead one to believe that the collapse of time Simon discusses, has stagnated their emotional growth and relegated the idea of love to be forever synonymous with sex and sexual desire/ longing. Fear of being “whipped” and losing their male power is unfortunately the same fear bonding these young men to their behaviors, regardless of how destructive they are in their lives.
Nina and Darius’ reconciliation occurred when they had a “perfect date”, this time at Nina’s invitation, which did not involve “bumpin’ and grindin’”. That night Nina denied Darius sex claiming to want to “save something for later” to which he replied “Baby, you ain’t gotta save mine for later, I’d rather have it right now anyway”. She then asks him to unzip her dress, she seductively walks up the stairs, aware of his gaze and picks out a sexy negligee to sleep in. The night ends with them dancing over a montage of her adopting his habit of smoking and various “intimate and romantic” scenarios with them as a couple, with his friends. We never see Josie again.
Even after Darius and Nina reconcile, their lack of communication and the emotional blackmail they exact on each other, shows that romance leads to sex, not a mutually loving relationship. Nina is once again dumped and once again longing. She moves to New York, comes back to Chicago to do a shoot and, seeing his book published and dedicated to her, finally decides to perform a poem on stage:
“I was hoping a certain someone would be here tonight, but I don’t see him, so I guess I’m gonna get it out anyway. Funny what you can do in a room full of people that you can’t even seem to do in front of one person…It is the color of light, the shape of sound high in the evergreens… I am tasting the wilderness of lakes, rivers and streams caught in an angle of song…. I am dancing a bright beam of light. I am remembering love.”
Darius catches her outside (soaking wet in a rain shower- he’s dry as a bone) and tells her “I want us to be together… for as long as we can be…this here right now is all that matters to me. I love you. And that’s urgent as a muthafucka” This harkens back to slave days when the slave master could permanently end the time spent with loved ones at any moment. The urgency to love was hard and fast. Though the possibility that love might at any moment be stolen from them is still a reality for black men in America, the perpetuation of that kind of speed, on top of the speeding up of sexualities in a postmodern arena, leaves little time for the kind of honest self reflection needed in a mutually loving relationship. It leaves no room for the “care of self” Foucault discusses.
Comparatively, Love and Basketball fares better in it is depiction of romantic love in the hopefulness that in Q holding the baby while Monica plays ball, he may have abandoned his patriarchal notions of family. However, the audience will never know. Though it still has the Pollyanna happily-ever-after ending, showing the contexts in which these young people interact reflects their familial socializations giving them more depth than their Love Jones counterparts. Yet the sexualized roles of the female leads still fit into traditional Hollywood madonna and whore scenarios. Monica’s alleged (the filmmaker chose not to show her with any other men) sexual mummification denies her the growth beyond her childhood relationship. Nina’s sleeping with her fiancé, a man who left her allegedly without a trace, while still “kickin’ it” with Darius and getting upset because she saw him with someone else, is infantile.
These films attempt but fail to do what bell hooks suggests of black filmmakers (women specifically) and take us outside “conventional racist and sexist stereotyping” (hooks, Reel to Real 212). Instead their imitative qualities of standard practices lead black female viewers to use an adjusted oppositional gaze. There is a level of recognition and identification, yet upon closer readings, and outside the readers’ own romantic paradigms, the immaturity of the relationships is heartbreaking. Particularly, since the filmic fantasy of finding love is so seductive.
In a demographic marriage is being postponed further and further (if ever), and the ratio of black men of similar class, emotional and educational levels not being equal , simply seeing young black people attempting love is refreshingly dangerous trap for young women bombarded with a steady stream of hip-hop cultures abusive images. The relief of seeing people on the big screen “representing” lives more closely related to middle class blacks experience could arguably increase identification with the fantasy. “[Claude Steele] argues that ‘devaluation grows out of our images of society and the way those images catalogue people. The catalogue need not be taught. It is implied by all we see around us: the kinds of people revered in advertising … and movies (black women are rarely seen as romantic partners, for example)…” (Harris 183). These films images of romantic relationships do make visible experiences not commonly seen between blacks while, I argue, reinforcing their verisimilitude, “the norms of motivation for ‘believable’ behavior, the requirements for effects to be shown to have causes and hence the demand for certain forms of narrative conventions” (Cowie 368).
I suggest that the social effects of such portrayals on the hip-hop generation have been multifold. First, was an increased lack of trust between black men and women. If a relationship is simply sexual then there is no emotional bonding. When images of sexual abandon and freedom, independent of any emotional connection, are perpetuated; blacks not participating in romantic relationships become normalized. If the emotional connection that leads to an emotionally equal relationship is absent then it not only leaves no room for vulnerabilities to exist, but also creates a space for disrespect to abound. Such is the space dominated by hip-hop videos.
Secondly, the lack of emotional bonding also reflects the significant decrease in black marriage. Marriage is viewed as an alternative relationship in black communities. When the marriages in these films are dysfunctional or unseen, where can we look for models to learn the skills necessary to sustain a committed monogamous relationship? When only older adults or whites are seen getting married, it moves outside of the hip-hop generation’s perception of attainable goals. Our expectations or even desire to marry is a fantasy we cannot afford to have because as a generation so thoroughly and constantly disappointed by our models of marriage and each other; the idea of creating that bond is scary and unfathomable.
Thirdly, friendships become a familial substitute, which increases the space for men and women to discuss everything together without the responsibilities of a romantic relationship. It creates a space for emotional bonding but does not foster the skills necessary to create lasting emotional communicatively intimate bonds within sexual relationships.