Where Do We Go From Here?
In this thesis, I have explored the visual representations of black men, black women and black couples primarily in film. I wanted to answer the questions: How have loving relationships between blacks been portrayed? How have the images of black love influenced the hip-hop generation?
Black representational media readings have historically been based in the reading of stereotypes. Stereotyping defines a way of seeing a visualized “other” outside of the flow of experience; yet, when that “other” internalizes the representations of themselves, created within the context of global media conglomerates, the result is a re-appropriation of stereotype into a false sense of empowerment. “The degree to which the fantasy of film interfaces with reality in the public imagination, especially in the imagination of the younger generation for whom such image induced definitions are central to our identity, can no longer be ignored. For young Blacks grappling with questions of their own-some living close to the battlefield and others in the thick of it- popular culture, […] rather than societal institutions, have provided answers- often wrong headed ones.” (Kitwana 139). The combination of the lack of visual images showing blacks loving each other, and the profusion of the absence thereof reinforce a false ontology.
Brooklyn based writer Angela Ards’ Ms. Magazine article “Where is the (Black) Love?” tells a familiar story of the effect of racism on the behaviors men and women of this generation exhibit toward each other. In her article, she states that as young people,
We don’t want to mold our relationship to mirror traditions that don’t serve our realities. We rack our brains to name couples whose unions we admire. The lack of viable paradigms and role models humbles us. Can we be so arrogant to think that we can make love between black men and women work when, besides Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, the couples around us largely have not? (Ards)
This familiar story is mirrored in the realization that I could not think of many other media examples of committed black loving couples, either real or fictional.
In discussing black manhood, we see that black men are portrayed as sexist, sexually compulsive, nihilistic and untrustworthy. Black women are seen as supportive of patriarchal models, sexually manipulative, emasculating and untrustworthy. Young black couples are perceived as sexually transient, afraid of commitment/ marriage/ responsibility/ pain, exist in peer based support systems, and are untrustworthy.
Black men have become frustrated with trying to fulfill the white patriarchal model of manhood; their hopelessness has been translated into rage against black women, which is evidenced by the abundance of unloving imagery created in film, television and music videos. “On the manhood front, the image of the militant black prince fighting for his freedom was soon replaced by the get- over playboy image of the daddy mack, ‘the pimp.’ … While they might not possess the political and economic power of patriarchal white men, they could out do them on the sexual front. When it came to sex, they could win… Embracing sexual images that were racist/sexist and dehumanizing gave black men the license to use and abuse black women.” (Salvation 138)
The absence of the self-reflection needed to emotionally mature past these images is the fuel that feeds a capitalist patriarchy. When there is no self-reflection there is no growth. Combined with the legacy/ mythology of black male infantilism by the alleged matriarchal female, many hip-hop generationers, regardless of class, remain emotionally, socially and sexually retarded. They are stuck in puberty- the moment when sexuality is blooming and adolescent experimentation begins. When viewing images of their imagined selves black men learn, “that a real male is fearless, insensitive, egocentric, and invulnerable (all the traits powerful black men have in movies) a black man blocks out all emotions that interfere with this ‘cool’ pose” (hooks, Cool 61). Obsessesed with teenage cool, the black man- regardless of age- is represented in the media, and reflected in his subjectivity, only one evolutionary step from child.
The lack of self-reflection and self-definition is not only emblematic of black men. The female characters in the films discussed show us that women are ready to create loving relationships and have been taught under patriarchal tutelage that women must sublimate themselves to men. I agree with bell hooks in her assessment that black women overall are not feminist. “Many of us were raised in homes where black mothers excused and explained male anger, irritability and violence by calling attention to the pressures black men face in a racist society where they are collectively denied full access to economic power. They clearly believed…that racism was harder on males than females, even though many of these black women worked for low wages in circumstances where they were daily humiliated and mistreated” (Yearning 75). In addition, many of the specifics of the mainstream feminist movement did not apply to the realities of black women’s lives and white feminists were not particularly interested in exploring issues of race within their fight against gender oppression.
Young black women, trying to define their roles within the media’s assault have molded their behavior to how they are seen by men. They have adopted the complementary performance to the men’s pimp thug by becoming his moll. In “an already entrenched understanding of women’s bodies as objects of consumption,” the hip-hop generation’s women continue the support of black male sexism with their acceptance of this role (Rose 168). Despite the new dominant mythology that black women are moving up the economic ladder, black female sexuality is still seen as commodity that black women are willing to sell to the highest bidder.
According to black people’s imagery in film, and subsequently in music videos, there is no sexual fantasy a man (black or white) can have that a black woman will not fulfill. Music video and film reciprocally influence one another creatively reinforcing both visual and social cues. Music videos, again, borrow films visual power while entering the private sphere of the home. This constant reiteration of dehumanizing images within the home can arguably be more influential than those created in film. I am not arguing that music videos have no redeeming socializing value, only the proliferation of such a small set of images (mostly the body parts of a shaking young woman draping herself over a rapper or singer) so wholly monolithic and constant when set to music can be a powerful influence on an individual’s behavior. It is the reinforcement of the one image that is disturbing. Despite there being others in the world of music videos, the rewards go to those who best promote empty selfish values and who have the most anti-loving images as their advertisement. Increasingly these images are feeding the reality of women’s sexual definitions. “When any black female acts out in a manner that is in keeping with negative stereotypes, there is more room for her in the existing social structure […]. No doubt this is why so many young black women feel that the only options they have are to claim the roles of bitch and ho” (hooks, Salvation 106).
In a recent Village Voice article titled “The Height of Disrespect” Thulani Davis discusses how a study of young black adolescents have adapted patriarchal sexist dogmas. Young women admit to having sex with multiple partners as a way to overcompensate their increased lack of feelings of power or value. “Since many do not expect exclusive relationships with partners, and sex is spoken of as a transactional relationship rather than an emotional one, keeping a partner by way of sex or pregnancy seems a viable strategy, at least temporarily”. Using strategy and manipulation to “bag” a man who is only interested in sex increases feelings of mistrust between black men and women. Subsequently, their feeling of devaluation leads to dangerous sexual behavior, “‘Young people today are facing a …whole set of images of themselves—hypersexual, sexually irresponsible, not concerned with ongoing intimate relationships. [They] can’t help but be influenced by those images.’ When several young women were talking about their reluctance to use condoms, one said that no one on TV or in films is ever shown using them” (Davis).
Like the visual relationships discussed earlier, the space black couples inhabit is practically a war zone. The images perpetuated in hip-hop music and videos expose, “…the extent to which patriarchal black males, like the males in general, see sexuality as a war zone where they must assert dominance” (Cool 73). It is in this space that the future of the black family is being created. In many black homes, it is the women who provide material support for black men, women, and children while some men take these loving actions for granted as well as the women not being thanked or supported emotionally, psychically, or spiritually. “When it comes to issues of love, the mass media basically represent black people as unloving. We maybe portrayed as funny, angry, sexy, dashing, beautiful, sassy and fierce but we are rarely represented as loving” (hooks, Salvation 51). Yet if the women do not trust the men and vice versa where do the children learn to love and trust? The media?
Media literacy is our hope. One of the goals in being a media literate society is to understand the role media play on personal behaviors. “Because the Europeans did not have enough manpower to control the vast territories and populations they were taking over in Africa and Asia, they began to use the media as a form of mind control, colonizing people around the world, just as they also colonized information about the world. Today the mass media includes every visual object that influences the mind—billboard advertisements, commercials and more, but especially movies and television” (Clarke). In order for the media to not be considered “mind control” those immersed in and connected by the media must have an understanding of how it not only reflects society but has the power to shape it from the inside.
In John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk, historian John Henrik Clarke stated that the family is the nucleus of civilization and if the black family is in trouble, then the black community is in trouble. There will be no black family without “loving relations” in some form. What I found was a battleground of hurt feelings, hopelessness, sexual pathology, and scarred people, afraid of each other; afraid of media reflected images of themselves.