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).