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.
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.
When Ya Say Ya Love Me It Doesn’t Matter-
Goes Into My Head As Just Chitta Chatta:
The black women portrayed in this chapter’s films are perceived as sexually manipulative, emasculating and untrustworthy. Simultaneously, these same characters are often developed in a way that supports sexist patriarchal models. For better or worse, newly re-sexualized images of black women update post-reconstructionalist racial stereotypes. When given an oppositional reading, the manipulative, licentious, Jezebel and emasculating, ball-busting Sapphire are more complex than they appeared. Within the confines of the given film texts, they are predictable and stereotypical. Based on the films I critique, these women are willing but unable to reach levels of emotional equality, communicative intimacy, and reciprocal vulnerability because of the lack of care and respect given to them by black men. The men in their lives treat them as objects for their pleasure with no thought of reciprocal care and support.
In the representations in these films, black women exist only in relation to the black men in their lives or lack of men thereof. The historical representations of black female strength and independence are now charged with the sexual energy and freedom the women’s movement provided for them. It could be argued that this strength and independence was largely based on the feminist notion of women not needing a man contradicting the reality of a lot of black women’s lives. They might not need a man, but many desire male companionship, comfort and care. Because of the lack of trust and expectations between black men and women, women’s desires are often unarticulated despite their actions betrayal of them.
The women in Boomerang, Mahogany, and She’s Gotta Have It are professional and upwardly mobile. They easily fitting into the hip-hop generations’ new mystique that black women are more economically stable than black men. The real economic hardships that plague the audiences were not these women’s concerns, furthering their role model positions in a filmic fantasy world and allowing their black female audience the fulfillment of their unspoken desires. In discussing the relationship between fantasy and the cinema, Elizabeth Cowie wrote,
…reality is realistic in representation insofar as it conforms to the accepted conventions of representing. ‘Realism’ in representation can be seen both as a defense against fantasy and as a ‘hook’, involving the spectator in the fantasy structure ‘unawares’, and thus as froe-pleasure. This making real of what isn’t real reaches an extraordinary culmination in cinema,… For not only does cinema offer the specularisation of fantasy, but it offers this as a real experience, at the level of auditor and visual perceptions (366).
The women in these films represent lives with no practical everyday difficulties and as such their main concern was ultimately satisfying their own desire for male attention and affection.
It must be noted here that while films like Daughters of the Dust, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., Losing Ground, and 30 Years to Life by black female filmmakers such as Julie Dash, Leslie Harris, Kathleen Collins-Prettyman, and Vanessa Middleton are also important examples of how black women are portrayed in the context of black loving relations; I have chosen to focus upon three films that were key to mainstream cinema’s affect on the social development of women of the hip-hop generation. It is also important to note that when black women attain the opportunity to shape the portrayal of blacks in visual media, as Dash et al have, the portrayals begin to achieve the complexity and insight necessary to reach my definition of loving. Yet because these films were independently produced, they arguably have made little social impact on the relationship practices of members of the hip-hop generation because of limited mainstream distribution.
In Mahogany, Chicago aldermanic hopeful Brian Walker woos aspiring fashion designer Tracy Chambers. Their courtship is classic Hollywood romantic drama; except in classic Hollywood studio system, blacks were not allowed to play the ambitious man and the career girl roles. The chemistry between these two actors made the affections believable and textural.
Brian and Tracy are playful and affectionate– behaviors not commonly seen in films featuring blacks until that point. (They have a similar dynamic in Lady Sings the Blues.) Williams courts her. They like each other and have a good time together. They fight, laugh and love together; even moving toward reciprocal vulnerability and communicative intimacy. They do not achieve emotional equality because Brian is too resistant to Tracy’s ambitions. She finds a way to create a space for herself in Chicago to aid him in his campaign and show her designs, despite his insistence that his work was more important than hers. She is supportive of his dreams, which by films end he never attains, while in the same time span she has lived what seems like two lifetimes but is incomplete without him.
Brian and Tracy’s relationship mirror the social changes of the black community as a whole. Their love being torn apart reflects other social conflicts of the mid-late 1970’s. Each character shows a side of the black struggle for identity after the civil rights movement. Brian’s main concern is the rebuilding and empowerment of the black community. He wants to do the grassroots work necessary for self-sufficiency. Tracy wants to reap the benefits of desegregation and explore her identity by moving outside of the community to experience the different social and cultural milieu that has been made more accessible. She uses her body to get there. Like her ambitious and misguided artistic progeny of the rest of the century participating in “a wide variety of videos, photos and other aspects of creative production and marketing, women who are called “hotties” or more derogatorily “video hoes” or “skeezers” are willing participants in their own exploitation” (Rose 169).
She loves him but she wants to see life outside of the South Side of Chicago while for Brian his life is the South Side of Chicago. She supports and respects Brian’s political aspirations, while he feels she should spend more time helping him empower black people than making pretty dresses for white ladies to wear.
Jane Gaines describes the larger social struggle between Brian and Tracy as the “two struggles which structure the film: the struggle over the sexual objectification of Tracy’s body in the face of commercial exploitation, and the struggle of the black community in the face of class exploitation. But the film identifies this antagonism as the hostility between fashion and politics, embodied respectively by Tracy and Brian, and it is through them that it organizes conflict and, eventually, reconciliation” (407).
Tracy leaves Chicago, goes to Rome, and becomes a supermodel named “Mahogany” by the psychotic photographer who discovers her. Brian is confronted by the world she desires and inhabits versus the Tracy he loves. Tracy now internally identifies with the egotistical objectification thusly becoming “Mahogany”. They fight in her apartment when she tells him nobody loves him because he is a loser and he tells her “success means nothing without someone you love to share it with”. This conflict corresponds with the women’s liberation movement and the common teaching that women do not need men. She eventually comes back to Chicago after becoming a huge success in Europe. He asks her if she will love, cherish, and stand by her man if she got him back to which she emphatically answers, “YES!” ending the movie with their kiss.
How is this loving? Since the movie is posited from Mahogany’s point of view, the audience sees her transformation from poor art student/ department store secretary to super model to “mega hit” designer. We witness firsthand the selling of pieces of her self associated with success in the “white world”. She sold her imagined self back into the mainstream and was rewarded for it. The adoration she receives from her fans and friends eventually “means nothing” because she does not have her black man “to share it with.” Yet, Tracy’s emotionally unequal relationship with Brian does not provide the space for her to articulate her desire to be loved for herself (whoever that is) and not simply for her accomplishments. She apparently abandons her success for a man who cannot acknowledge her beyond his own desires; and does not appreciate or respect her hard work and personal sacrifices regardless of agreeing with her goals or not. Black female personal sacrifice for black males has historically been a linchpin in the Civil Rights movements.
Brian believes personal sacrifices must be made for collective freedom. Despite her successes, he was the fulfillment of a middle class dream of creating success within the black community to create economic, social and political control. This control rests on the perpetuation of a patriarchal model. Middle class success was not only financially rewarding, but also garnered the distinction of being a credit to the race. Tracy must fit into his world because he is not interested in understanding hers. Black women are shown that their safety and survival relies on standing behind black men. Brian’s constant and unwavering loyalty to black people makes him a hero despite his inability to empathize with his female counterpart’s dreams. By offering herself sexually to a white man, after rejecting the black man who loves her– regardless of their interpersonal problems, she must be punished. The perspective outcome of this film can only be that black women’s sexuality is for black male use only regardless of the level of care, understanding and support reciprocated.
Tracy is punished for her individualistic counterrevolutionary and emasculating actions; first by a near fatal car accident at the hands of her original white savior, the fashion photographer, after his failure to perform sexually with her. She is punished a second time, for the same reason, after her second white savior finances her clothing line and expects her to sleep with him as repayment. These examples reinforce the idea that white men only want black women for sex and black women- to attain social status and financial security- are willing to give it to them, thus proving their licentiousness.
The moral of the story becomes how Tracy-cum-Mahogany demonstrates trusting whites corrupts success causing one to lose one’s self and the adoption of their standards leads to destruction. Or perhaps Mahogany/ Tracy comes to the realization that, despite the sacrifices made by those who worked to get her the freedom to even become Mahogany, in order to be in a loving relationship where emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability and communicative intimacy- sacrifice of self must be made. We do not know. All we get to see is that she misses Brian and leaves her life as a designer in Rome behind to return to him. Her personal desires and motivations other than Brian are unspoken.
He loves her, and she loves him. They are going to compromise (well — she is going to compromise) to build together on the South Side of Chicago. It is Mahogany’s sexuality and exoticism that made her a star in Rome. On the South Side, she gets to be Tracy and to be a star because her man is a star. This film supports the patriarchal black bourgeois standard of life that corresponded with traditional civil rights and Black Nationalist traditions in the midst of the black filmic sexual revolution occurring around it.
It reinterpreted the classical patriarchal models of romantic dramas of the ‘30’s and 40’s when career girls chose having husbands and families as enough to fulfill them. We do not know if she really had to give up her dream, but the movie’s ending shows that he definitely is not, and she is definitely going to be with him. Ultimately, Mahogany had to relinquish her power and status to get her man, because she had to have a man.
As the social climate changed and the idealism of the civil rights movement became the bitter reality of the Reagan years, the gulf between classes widened and many blacks were struggling to make ends meet. The new burgeoning middle class was still reaping the benefits of their material comfort and position. Young women and men were exploring the new opportunities as Tracy did, only with the egotism of the “me” generation.
As a sexually liberated woman rejecting black middle class sexual mores, Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It, is supposedly an independent, honest and self-sufficient woman who has to have “it” – it being sex. She surrounds herself with black men whose insecurities (which were not touched upon during the machismo of Blaxploitation but felt much more under Reagan’s thumb) are more readily seen. Her male entourage not only sexually fulfills her, but also each represents something different for her. There was Greer, the precocious Buppie fashion model; Mars, the comedic underemployed homeboy; and Jamie, the sensitive blue-collar stoic. They were all parts of a whole. This greedy desire to create one man out of three is the same cynical behavior hooks believes, “leads young adults to believe there is no love to be found and that relationships are needed only to the extent that they satisfy desires… Relationships are like Dixie cups. They are the same. They are disposable…Committed bonds (including marriage) cannot last when this is the prevailing logic. And friendships or loving community cannot be sustained” (All About Love 116). Greer best described her behavior when he said that Nola had created a ” 3 headed-, 6 armed-, 6 legged-, 3 penised- monster”. All of whom have more control over her body and mind than she does. Jamie kept asking her what she was looking for and she could not articulate her feelings.
Nola spouts a self-controlled dogma but behaves as a woman fully self-identifying with the role each of the men assigned to her. Like Tracy in Rome, Nola neglects the responsibility of self-definition because her self worth is based on her ability to perform sexually and be seen as a sexual object. Tracy and Nola both are reflective subjects in the eyes of those who look at them. “The mirror image can no more be assimilated than any…privileged objects, yet the subject defines itself entirely in relation to it. As a consequence of the irreducible distance which separates the subject from its ideal reflection, it entertains a profoundly ambivalent relationship to that reflection. It loves the coherent identity which the mirror provides. However, because the image remains external to it, it also hates the image” (Silverman 344).
It could be argued that Nola’s behavior, like the young women in music videos, is a “sort of exchange in which women do the pursuing can be interpreted as a mode of female empowerment. These women are choosing their sexual partners (more aggressively than most women do in regular situations) and collecting sexual experiences not unlike men do” (Rose 169-70). What Nola is really doing is trying to sexually satisfy an unknown desire due to her lack of self-reflection. Tracy was of a different generation and saw her sexuality as a patriarchal transaction for material gain while Nola’s is endemic of a generation of people defined from the outside with little interiority.
Writer/ director Spike Lee’s imitation of the dominant cinematic traditional male gaze dictates that his depiction of a sexually free woman equates her with being a freak. Nola hated the word “freak” like she hated the word “normal”. Greer tells her that she needed psychiatric help, that maybe she was a nympho. Only to have a female doctor tell her that she has a normal, healthy sex drive. The doctor tells her that total female sexuality begins with the beautiful sex organ between her ears not between her legs. Nola does not take that affirmation to a level of self-reflection, and continues to relate her own self worth only as a sexual being. Despite the use of monologue through out the film, Nola is only a mouthpiece for male desire and fantasy. The initial reading is that Nola and her partners are having a confluent love affair. “Confluent love,” Giddens writes:
…develops as an ideal in a society where almost everyone has the chance to become sexually accomplished; and it presumes the disappearance of the schism between ‘respectable’ women and those who in some way lie outside the pale of orthodox social life. Unlike romantic love, confluent love is not necessarily monogamous, in the sense of sexual exclusiveness (63).
Nola’s alleged control of her own sexual agency was a smoke screen to disguise a misogynistic sexist work pretending to be about black female sexuality. Nola’s consent to rape is not about loving. As she says, “It’s really about control. It’s my body, my mind. Who’s gonna own it? Them or me?” Unfortunately, those questions go unanswered. During Jamie’s attack on Nola he was barking the question “whose pussy is this?” to which Nola’s declared that it was his, simultaneously giving him the power and the orgasm he required. In the end, Nola became the victim of what could have been an interesting discussion on black female sexual empowerment—if she actually had any power.
Nola is “a patriarchal design: the sexually and mentally dispossessed woman whose body is a conquered terrain where men game, hunt, and create territorial boundaries through dating, marriage, and paternity. Nola’s relationship to Jamie, Mars, and Greer reflects such a patriarchal construct. Her dependence on them resembles the colonized racial object’s relationship to the sociopsychic forces that construct the colonized” (Reid 96). There is little space in these films for a woman to have control over her own body. The three men’s insistence on dominion over Nola’s body negates her personal desires. Despite the display of Nola’s sexual freedom, inevitably she is still a male creation who allows herself to be controlled by not one but three men.
Boomerang‘s female protagonists, when positioned beside Nola and Tracy, are the culmination of a group of traits common among black female portrayals; but transformed in several interesting ways. Boomerang is a film about gender role reversal. It shows how a sexually compulsive man would react if his behaviors were exacted upon him.
Jacqueline and Angela are the counterparts to Indigo and Clarke in Mo’ Betta Blues. All of the women are dealing with a “doggish” man, Marcus. Only Jacqueline is the female version of a non-committal man. Jacqueline is sexy, sexual and holds a more powerful position over Marcus, who is used to being in that position thus idealizing Jacqueline the perfect woman to him. Her perfection is rooted in his attachment to superficial attractions since he never develops relationships past their sexual level.
All of the tricks and romantic manipulations Marcus routinely uses to seduce women backfire with Jacqueline. Yet, when she reappropriates his own manipulations against him, he easily succumbs. Marcus is not used to socializing with women in this way, in any way outside of the sexual. Jacqueline turns Marcus into the “woman” in the relationship. She reduces him to the vulnerable position usually occupied by women.
During one of their love making sessions she is on top of him asking him “who’s is it?” as Jamie did Nola, only this is consensual in that Marcus does not want to have an orgasm and have this woman have such control over his sexual pleasure. Interestingly, in director Reginald Hudlin’s DVD commentary, he states that “since the whole movie turns on him being ‘pussy whipped’, we really wanted to deliver the moment where he’s broke down” and this scene, after the sex act Marcus covers himself with a sheet, is the “visual summation of the premise of the movie ‘cause it’s such a girlish action that he suddenly feels naked and violated.” Jacqueline is therefore the ultimate emasculator, even reducing him to sucking his thumb. Bram Dijkstra states “[m]edical science had shown that indiscriminate indulgence permitted women to absorb ever more of their mate’s ‘masculinity.’ Thus, from a biological point of view, women were growing stronger the more promiscuous they were, while men were growing weaker with each encounter” (Dijkstra 350-1).
Angela is the “good girl” redemptive figure in Marcus’ life. She was the friend on the sidelines that his compulsion led him to after being emasculated by Jacqueline. She was the one who could reap the benefits of his newfound sensitivity only to have him lie to and cheat on her with Jacqueline in an effort to regain his manhood. Yet, she did not just sit back and take it like Indigo – she acted. She did not allow herself to be used and acquiesce to a man-sharing situation. She him left after confronting him honestly (and slapping him).
Her self worth was more valuable than just having a man around. She expressed to him how being vulnerable leaves one open to heartbreak by selfish people. She too controlled her own situation, but the relationship still highlighted the lack of trust between men and women. When she left- she left and did not look back. She went on to try to find herself and heal and just before she became too hardened; he came back. He came back to her months later with his new sense of love and having reprioritized his life told her he knew he loved her.
Angela and Jacqueline had been friends. In all of the films mentioned, the women have none of the female bonding the men do. (All of these films are also directed by men.) Black women are only given a voice in her bed and are voluntarily isolated from any supportive feminine contact. Men do not discuss women’s intimate friendships for fear of making visible partnerships where they are not the focus, much like the dominant media’s overall treatment of black sexuality. The unbalanced ratio of black men to black women in America breeds a culture of mistrust among black women vying for the attention of a lot of sexually compulsive men. The women in these films are in social and economic situations that make it difficult to have a larger pool of eligible candidates. Yet it is the lack of sisterhood that makes their lives appear empty when there is not a man around. Given these examples, it follows that lack of trust between women leads to a lack of loving in everyday life.
Since this was a mainstream studio production, Angela and Marcus reconcile because he realized he loved her and she loved him. She expressed her fear to him and trusted that he would not disappoint her again. But the final scene is of them walking off into the sunset discussing the new relationship. She wants to retain the autonomy she developed further during their separation. There is still a lack of trust, but more of a hope for trust. Angela, like Indigo, gets her man but she has more of a sense of herself than Indigo was felt to have, but Angela’s character was more developed than Indigo’s. She is more of a person than Indigo, Clarke, Tracy or Jacqueline.
Jacqueline was what Nola’s character was supposed to be. Jacqueline is comfortable having a sexual relationship with Marcus, only unlike Nola, she really is in control of her own sexual performance. She does not want anything from him but sex, and it appears that is all he has to offer her from her point of view. She is his boss and, like him, power turns her on. The power she has over men and the power the men hold turn her on. After Marcus became “pussy whipped”, according to the director, he became unattractive to her. She was the patriarchal ideal of manhood in a woman’s body without being masculine. It was an interesting gender switch. Jacqueline emasculated and feminized him by not acquiescing to his machinations. By not falling into the role he assigned to women, when she did not behave as he expected or needed her to, he assumed the feminine role. Jacqueline did this through both the power of her sex and the power of her position. This is a change from Mahogany’s Tracy who needs to share her success with a man. “In analyzing data collected from graduates of 28 selective colleges and universities, sociologist Donna Franklin found evidence of serious trouble with marriages where the wife was the dominant wage earner. The black women surveyed were much more likely than white women to have husbands who earned less; those who had been married were also more than twice as likely to have gotten divorced” (Cose “The Black Gender Gap”). This view of financially successful black women could arguably lead tot he conclusion that they only need black men for sexual satisfaction which further deepens the schism between black men and women.
The social effects of these particular portrayals is a general disrespect for women by black men, women’s acceptance of commodifiying hyper visual sexualization as reality, and the lack of expectation of love. Mahogany, She’s Gotta Have It, and Boomerang are three popular and easily accessible films available to the young women of the hip-hop generation when they were developing a sense of their places as women in this world.
The indifference for the personal and emotional well being of the women in these films reflects the cultural acceptance of disrespect and disregard for black women. This disrespect manifests itself in physical and emotional abuse by black men toward black women. Brian, for example, was not physically abusive toward Tracy, (as Jamie was to Nola), yet his lack of support does not emotionally foster the love he expected from her. His leaving her was a punishment of her success. The appearance of black female survival, within the mores of patriarchy, feminizes black men, as shown by Marcus’ character in relation to Jacqueline. The inability to perform the much-desired male patriarchal role contributes to the lack of social power and position. This, I believe, is one of the factors that led to the explosion of sexually degrading images of black women in music videos. This lack of trust in black women’s success leads black male media producers to create images of black women that feed into the white supremacist stereotypes of black women under the auspices of “celebration” of black female sexuality. On the other hand, the new common description of women as gold diggers and the popularization of that image in songs and videos displays the schizophrenic relationship black men have with black women. While black women are complicit in still showing up for the music video casting calls to populate these images, the artists could create work that is not so unloving.
The media’s constant assault on black women as hypersexual, compounded with the lack of care being offered by black men, leads many women to accept and manifest the ontology of the images presented of them. Laura Mulvey discussed women’s exhibitionist role as a “to-be-looked-at-ness” in terms of the male gaze and male desire (383). Yet when examining the racialized fetish of the black woman who is simultaneously sexualized and desexualized, that same degree of “looked-at-ness” becomes an acknowledgement of existence. When in the white American beauty/ value aesthetical hierarchy what is most valued is the antithesis of the black American cultural aesthetic of beauty, the desire to be desired- or even seen trumps the respect due her as a human being. “Clearly, negative stereotypes and myths regarding black women’s sexuality are prevalent within American culture and reflect her devalued position within it. That such falsehoods persist, that they are continuously propagated in the literature and mass media, speak directly to black women’s oppressed status in American society. It is as a result of their powerlessness that so often they are denied the freedom of self-definition, and instead must struggle constantly to ‘defy culturally imposed negative identities’ (qtd. in Brown and McNair). Black men, in hip-hop for example, reappropriate these negative identities and appear to honor them while simultaneously doling out emotionally abusive lyrics to songs or dialogue in movies (such as, worshipping shapely thighs and calling women “hos” at the same time), further deepening the distrust between black men and women.
When black women do not feel respected by the men they historically love and care for, they have no expectations of being in committed loving relationships with black men therefore they settle for non-loving sexual situations. The fear of vulnerability among the hip-hop generations women is a fear to expose themselves to men who now actively participate in a culture that has commodified hatred of black women. “Black male hip-hop artists who receive the most acclaim are busy pimping violence; peddling the racist/sexist stereotypes of the black male as primitive predator” (hooks, Cool 60). Salt, of hip-hop group Salt ’N’ Pepa, succinctly sums up the growing feeling among young black women: “I just want to depend on myself. I feel like a relationship shouldn’t be emotional dependence. I, myself, am more comfortable when I do not depend on hugs and kisses from somebody that I possibly won’t get. If I don’t get them then I’ll be disappointed. So if I get them, I’ll appreciate them” (qtd. in Rose 175).
This thesis will examine how loving black relationships are being portrayed in film, and will analyze the possible social effects of those portrayals on the marital/ committed relationship practices of the hip-hop generation . Loving relations will be defined as a sexual relationship where emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy are apparent and motivated independently of the sexual stigmas and stereotypes of, what cultural critic bell hooks commonly describes as, America’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” . Being a member of the hip-hop generation, I experience the daily assault not just on my black womanhood, but also my humanity. The images of male-female relationships that have been normalized are so pathological and hateful, creating such unloving environments, that I wanted to know where these ideas were formed. Though this thesis focuses mostly on film, the convergence of film and television (through cable, VCR’s and DVD’s) makes it necessary to mention the interrelated qualities of music videos and contemporary films. This thesis investigates how the hip-hop generation’s imaginations are fed.
This paper hypothesizes that the lack of visual representations of blacks loving each other (as opposed to simply being sexual objects), given that the media operates as powerful social educator, adds to the risk of a lack of loving in everyday life. Stories of courtship, romance and love have been storytelling fodder in some form since antiquity. The powerful yet seemingly invisible role of film and television as social educator has been greatly chronicled. Yet influence of film and television specifically on the hip-hop generation’s black sexual relationships is only recently being researched . There is still a gap in the body of research regarding black loving relations as an indicator of emotional well-being. Violence, HIV prevention and teen pregnancy are the general research catalysts to study media’s relationship to this particular age group as opposed to marriage or current interpersonal relations. This paper contributes to current studies using discursive methods regarding loving representations in order to analyze black film images. The visuals being analyzed have been chosen because of both their relevance to the body of black media images and their mainstream appeal. More obscure images, while interesting for scholarship, were omitted because of an assumptive lack of influence on the relationship practices of the hip-hop generation. I will analyze the selected films based on the romantic theme and plot in instances, as well as the driving forces of the film. The way we, the hip-hop generation, have been taught to love has such an important influence on how we will teach to love. As such, I will focus on intra-racial heterosexual, intimate/sexual romantic screen relationships, from the post-civil rights and feminist movements of the early 1970’s through the end of the century, and I will argue that they serve as a microcosm of community. I looked for some of the ways hip-hoppers have been taught to love.
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. Sexuality in relation to stereotyping blacks shall be important to this discussion.
Sexuality, particularly after the dissolution of the Hayes Code , is a major part of American film’s visual and thematic landscape. Black sexuality is peculiar because of its schizophrenic political and social history in reality and in the American imagination. D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation not only seared the American imagination with the use of innovative and groundbreaking film techniques (such as the introduction of the long narrative, the close-up, and the wide angle shot ); but also promulgated a set of Americanized racist stereotypes to a global audience, stereotypes which are still actively perpetuated and must be considered when discussing blacks in film. Descriptions of the stereotypical mammy and exotic primitive characters for black women and the brute Negro (who evolved into the thug) for black men are the most sexually charged of these still perpetuated visual images . Historically most stereotypical black portrayals evolved from literature to the stage to film and television screen. I am interested in exploring new images created by a people thinking of themselves in new ways.
Currently, loving relationships in the black community are fractured. According to M. Belinda Tucker and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan:
Between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of Black women who had married by age 24 decreased by half from 56% to 23%; while the proportion who had ever married declined from 83% to 63% …. Although there was a similar decline in early marriage in the general population (from 64% to 37%), the proportion of women in the general population who had ever married stayed the same (77%). Over the same period, Black divorce rates, as well as that of U.S. women as a whole, nearly quadrupled. However, since divorce was much higher among Blacks even in 1970, the 1990 differential is quite striking—358 divorces per 1000 women among Blacks, compared to 166 among women overall. African American women are also less likely than other groups of women to remarry after divorce or widowhood. The explosion in divorce rates is one factor in the greatly changed living arrangements of children. In 1970, just under one-third of Black children were being raised in single parent homes. By 1990, that figure had increased to 55% (compared to 25% in the general population) (“Understanding Marital Decline”).
As a result of economic, social, and political disenfranchisement, the images seen of blacks loving each other do not inspire romantic expectations and can subsequently lead to a lack of love in everyday life. I will present some examples of how fictional media images both emulate and propagate the lack of positive loving images of blacks.
Defining Black Loving Relations for the Hip-Hop Generation
I have defined loving relations as: a sexual relationship where emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy are apparent and motivated independently of the sexual stigmas and stereotypes of America’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.
Three separate ideas have informed this definition. I looked to bell hooks, first and foremost, for insight into blacks in media but also for insight into loving relationships in the black community. She also provided strong theoretical critiques from a cultural studies and feminist perspective. In hooks’ book Salvation the statement “If love is not present in our imaginations, it will not be there in our lives,” gave a title to this thesis and led me to further want to look into the question of filmic representation within, “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (53). “When it comes to issues of love, the mass media basically represent black people as unloving. We may be portrayed as funny, angry, sexy, dashing, beautiful, sassy and fierce but we are rarely represented as loving” (51). She goes on to mention the failure for blacks in positions of power to create “new images of blackness” that do not depend on the caring for whites – and caring for each other. This view includes the historic and economic realities of black representation in film: Black economic power and authorship means nothing if the product created only perpetuates oppressive racial stereotypes for the turning of a profit.
Secondly, Cornell West’s Race Matters provided insight into the distortion of black sexuality in the American (specifically) and colonial (generally) imagination as a method of control and propaganda of oppressed people. Sexuality is not something commonly discussed among blacks and in its most recent commodification –again- provides an easy visual. Cornel West states:
Black sexuality is a taboo subject in America principally because it is a form of black power which whites have little control- yet its visible manifestations evoke the most visceral of white responses, be it one of seductive obsession or downright disgust. On the one hand, black sexuality among blacks simply does not include whites, nor does it make them a central point of reference. It proceeds as if whites do not exist, as if whites are invisible and simply don’t matter. This form of black sexuality puts black agency center stage with no white presence at all. (125)
The current creation of images of black people in intimate sexual situations perpetuates standard racist stereotypes under the auspices of black agency. Although black sexuality has more visual accessibility due to music videos, music video production is still produced and controlled by mainstream capitalist interests. Those interests maintain the black body’s position as the same marketable commodity that has defined it since the first arrival of black Africans on these shores.
I looked finally to Anthony Giddens’ The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies for insight into the changing nature of intimacy in modern society. Giddens examines “the potentialities of the ‘pure relationship’, a relationship of sexual and emotional equality, which is explosive in its connotations for pre-existing forms of gender power” (2). The construction of gender is challenged by egalitarian sexual relations which redefine gender roles. I wanted to see how this dynamic of “pure relationship” transferred to the black community. Images of intra-racial, romantic, heterosexual relationships which move toward “pure relationships” are rare. It is easier to show sexuality — it is tactile and more visually dynamic; and showing blacks in sexual situations is part of racism’s current subtle double entendre.
The Hip-Hop Generation
The generation of adults now 20-35 is the one most heavily influenced by hip-hop culture . Hip-hop began in the late 1970’s as a burgeoning musical art form and evolved into a “fad” that has lasted almost thirty years. The beneficiaries of the progress made during the Civil Rights Movement’s progress helped propel this grassroots urban music form into a now multi-million dollar industry. In his book The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, Bakari Kitwana defines this demographic as:
…hip-hop generationers — those young African Americans born between 1965 and 1984 who came of age in the eighties and nineties and who share a specific set of values and attitudes. At the core are our thoughts about family, relationships, child rearing, career, racial identity, race relations, and politics. Collectively, these views make up a complex worldview that has not been concretely defined.” (4)
The lives of hip-hop generationers (particularly those born between 1965- 1975) are not specifically marred by the same degree of racism the previous generations experienced. There are no social and legal Jim Crow laws, yet the racism they experience has more to do with class and its subtler social injustices and humiliations. At the same time, technological advances have created a mediated world driven by a global capitalism. “We live in an age where corporate mergers, particularly in media and entertainment, have redefined public space, the viewing public is constantly bombarded by visual images that have become central to the identity of an entire generation” (Kitwana 9).
Youth oriented means more television oriented. Movies are seen on television. Television remediates film, using Bolter and Gruskin’s adaptation of the word as “the way in which one medium is seen by our culture as reforming or improving upon another” (59). Coming of age with the VCR and the expansion of cable, watching films on television is normalized . It can be argued that this generation makes no real distinction between film and television. “Today, more and more Black youth are turning to rap music, music videos, designer clothing, popular Black films, and television programs for values and identity” (Kitwana 9). The batch of children born after 1965 entered a world their parents generation had created, and were learning themselves, leaving their children to either follow their parents’ baby boomer models of mating and courtship or learn it from the new media teacher- television.
Film as Social Teacher
The films discussed in this thesis present various ways that the media could be viewed as undermining black loving relations by creating black unloving images — as well as images that can be read as loving. I believe it is not just that the same images have been recycled in newer clothes, but that the social contexts show men and women moving in such opposite directions that the space where they could express themselves lovingly is destroyed as well. In the chapter discussing relationships, the films chosen are an attempt to show sexual relationships that have shades of emotional equality, reciprocal vulnerability, and communicative intimacy.
I argue there are four interrelated points that describe how black unloving images are portrayed. The first is the distortion of black sexuality into a commodifiable transaction (such as that between pimps and whores; or masters and slaves) further legitimizing colonial mythologies. When the human body is reduced to the basics of its physical existence absent any interiority, the humanity of that body is more easily devalued. “White supremacist ideology is based first and foremost on the degradation of black bodies in order to control them. One of the best ways to instill fear in people is to terrorize them. Yet this fear is best sustained by convincing them that their bodies are ugly, their intellect is inherently underdeveloped, and their culture less civilized, their future warrants less concern than that of other peoples” (West 122-3).
Secondly, nihilism is felt throughout the black community but is acted out specifically by black males. Nihilism is defined as the “entire rejection of established beliefs, as in religion, morals, government, and laws,” and philosophically as, “the denial of all existence; rejection of objective reality or of the possibility of an objective basis for morality”. (“nihilism” def. 1 and 2) West furthers this definition of nihilism specifically in reference to the black community as “[…] the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world” (23).
The third point is abject materialism – as counter stance to abject poverty and as sign of middle class success. Contemporary black rappers’ celebration of possessing and obtaining material objects by any means necessary feeds not only their music video personas/performances but also informs the narrative of many films created for black audiences. Black women are often reduced to a series of body parts and are treated as objects that are easily replaced if male desire is unmet. On the other hand, black women use this as a way to gain some value from sexual transactions that they have no expectation of leading to committed relationships.
All of this contextualizes the fourth and final point: the lack of trust between black men and women. Based on history, observed behaviors and the reinforcement by the media, there is no space allotted black women and men to find a way to learn to trust each other. From music, to books, and largely the visual media of television and film, black women and men are constantly bombarded with reasons why they should not trust each other.
The chapters of this thesis are organized by the depictions of images from the point of view of black men; black women, and films that present their narrative from the dual sides, i.e. the “relationship”. In Chapter I, “Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile” : Black Manhood, black men are represented as sexually compulsive, sexist, nihilistic thugs regardless of class. Sexuality and its performance has become the core of identity formation for the hip-hop generation. In Chapter II, “When Ya Say Ya Love Me It Doesn’t Matter- Goes Into My Head As Just Chitta Chatta” : Black Womanhood, black women are represented as sexually manipulative, emasculating and untrustworthy. Simultaneously, these same female characters are often developed in a way that supports sexist patriarchal models. In Chapter III, “Hopeless: Moving Past Postmodern Hip-Hop Adolescence”, the relationships in these films re-appropriate hip-hop’s superficial materialism and sexual manifestations. These images give examples of how the hip-hop generation is attempting to learn how to behave. The idea is to draw a line through the visuals created, discussing manhood and womanhood, and the interactions that should lead to family. In the Conclusion: “Where Do We Go From Here?”, the discussion of contemporary romantic images fuses music videos with film, highlighting the complex relationship hip-hop generationers were having with media representations of themselves.
i have an entire thesis i need to have published and out there…
why not put it here. duh!! and i have to look at my friend’s pictures and write stories from them. since i’m languishing in office hell, i’m trying to do something that doesn’t involve eating. i’m bored gordeless and don’t really understand how people do this. there is no sense of connection internally for me. i’m counting time when i have nothing else to do and this is an acceptable behavior because there’s going to be times that there’s nothing to do. it’s inherent to the job. interesting. i learn so much about myself when i’ve been somewhere sitting for more than 5 days. when i’m not busy, i just want out. i can’t imagine how the sitting and collecting money helps anyone and why would they want you to do it. just to be a body here? that sounds silly. worker bees must be more productive when they aren’t miserable. and this place reeks of misery. sure it’s one of the hippest trips in america… but my sweet lord.
In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles produced, directed, edited, and starred in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which has now been dubbed the first “blaxploitaion” film. The films of the decade that followed used the commercial success of this film showing a Black man against the system and diluted the revolutionary-ness of the image to cater to white mass-market sensibilities. It’s this marketing and the re-appropriation of the caricature to a commercially viable creation that concerns me. As long as rappers can espouse “thug life” as cool and make lots of money from it- for themselves and more for their white owned record companies- this stereotype retains it’s power to terrorize white America while creating dangerous situations for Black men at large. The phenomenon of racial profiling is hinged on this caricature.
In Sweetback the movie’s stars were the Black community. In later movies, such as New Jack City (directed by Melvin’s son Mario Van Pebbles) the idea of community is used only to create a market for its own destruction. I use New Jack City as an example because it shows the generation of children born in the blaxploitation era and raised in the Reaganomics era of excess. Given the rise of drugs and violence in everyday urban life and the image of whites living “Dynasty” lives on TV, these children (now teenagers and adults) see money as the great equalizer. But the pursuit of material comforts demand an individualist capitalist modus operandi that is destroying the Black community and making Black men moving targets while commodifying Black women. In New Jack City, while they gave away turkeys to the community at Thanksgiving the “Cash Money Brothers” were in the process of turning a low-income apartment building into an all-inclusive crack haven. Therefore their seemingly generous gesture was really just a marketing scheme to win the trust of the community they were about to decimate and murder for profit.
Now with the popularity of everything hip-hop, what began as protest and revolution in lyrical and musical style, the line between commercialism and revolution has been smashed. Hip hop/ rap is used to sell everything from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Chevy cars. Hip-hop as a culture has, beginning in the mid ‘90’s become about “money, hoes, and clothes- all a nigga knows” (Notorious B.I.G. “Juicy”). The line between fiction and reality in hip-hop has blurred and the drug dealers become rappers Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Doggy Dog, Fat Joe, Jay-Z, Master P. are just a few of the more popular (and lucrative) examples. The violence needed to become a successful drug dealer bled into the reality of being successful rappers. Even rappers who had more middle class upbringings, like Tupac, fed into the brute stereotype because it sold albums. The “badass” moved from being an agent for revolution to a puppet for capitalism. Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac paid for their roles with their young lives.
The flip side of this image is the searing of it in the minds of white America. The brute image was created to instill fear of free Blacks into the minds of the post Civil War white consciousness, particularly white women. The conglomeration of the sexually indiscriminate and uncontrollable Black buck with the violent animalistic Black brute is what can be seen today most in media images. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was the visual marriage of the two images locking the Black man’s sexuality with violence leaving the brute image as a predominate staple of American popular culture.
In the 1991“Law and Order” episode, Subterranean Homeboy Blues, the perception of the threat of rape, whether real or imagined, got a man killed. The perception of violence got Amadou Diallo massacred. Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly looking (sometimes the story is whistling) at a white woman in Mississippi in the 1950’s. Not to mention this, or this. It’s a commonly held perception that Black men are dangerous and they are being sold as such. From the Supreme Court to Brentwood, even outside of the hip-hop community Black men are dangerous.
But are they? I think so. I think so not because of the threat of physical violence but as a Black woman who is acutely aware of the psychic violence that is currently breaking down the Black community and communal ties. I’m aware of being called a bitch or a ho or being perceived as a gold digger or being bought for the price of a dinner. The media doesn’t tell me that’s how I’m treated, experience does. The rapper Nas released a song “You Owe Me”; he tells a young lady that she owes him her body because he’s bought her things. Female rappers aren’t blameless either; they perpetuate the wonton sexuality slave masters used as an excuse for their rapes of female slaves. It’s costing all of us our lives.
Sweetback was necessary viewing for the Black Panther Party because a Black character standing up for himself and rebuking a comfortable life as a nonentity was unprecedented. He used his sex to get himself out of trouble and even his sexual encounters were communal activities. He moved from being controlled by it to controlling it and using it as power. There are still flaws in that schematic, but he’s not a victim. Nino Brown killed his “brother” G-Money in New Jack City over what came down to his capitalistic individualism at the expense of the Cash Money Brothers (his created community), but still in the midst of that, a woman he “took” from G-Money. The notion of being “your brother’s keeper” keeps literally getting shot to bits and forget about being “your sister’s keeper”. There is no responsibility taken by these men (and women) for their actions.
Yes- as an artist one should have the right to express themselves however they see fit. But it’s the proliferation of this one image for more than a century that is obviously gotten into our psyches as well. The saddest part is that as evidenced in the Fat Joe and R. Kelly video “We Thuggin’’” simply being Black and Latino means thug… because they’re singing, dancing, talking about what they have and ogling women. That’s not thuggin’ not by Nino Brown’s standards. The contemporary rappers with their “ghetto fabulous thug” mentality now equate sex with money with power and it’s destroying the community- by my estimation. (In addition to imperialist white supremacist hetero-patriarchy, naturally.)