Written by Danielle Harvey
It is no secret that the world of hip-hop, as dazzling, freeing and creative as it can be, that it harbors a heavy dose of misogyny – the hatred, dislike or mistrust of women. From the music videos that appear to portray women purely as sex objects, the less than amorous lyrics about women or the erasure of the impact of women rappers from the genre, hip-hop has not been, and still continues to be anything but welcoming of the female species. Whether you’re in the rap game yourself, a consumer of it or even know someone who takes their favorite rap playlist to heart, you may be affected by hip-hop in more ways than one, both negatively and positively.
As a consumer, especially as a female, you may feel a mix of emotions. Listening to the typical mainstream rap song may ‘get you hype’ and at the same time, cause a bit of discomfort when you realize how the track celebrated a free and lavish lifestyle and put down women in the same breath.
To be associated with someone who soaks up bars from their favorite artist can have a negative effect on the other party. One can unintentionally internalize lyrics and, in turn, project those ideas onto others or even act on them. According to Chinwe Salisa Maponya-Cook’s 2020 thesis, “Confessions Of A Black Female Rapper: An Autoethnographic Study On Navigating Selfhood And The Music Industry”, media can determine how we construct our realities at a young age and that can follow us into adulthood.
The study also elaborates that as a woman in the rap game, you are held to standards that your male counterparts are not. You are expected to look a certain way to appease the male gaze and hip-hop then operates “as a weapon of resistance with the intention of reinforcing male power”. This is ironic as old European standards originated this ostracization of Black female bodies. White slave owners oversexualized them to the point where those bodies were only seen as such – bodies to be used for pleasure, “devoid of its physical, emotional, and psychic components”.
The genre was not always this way, though. Rap was originally an avenue for storytelling with the goal of uplifting and inspiring. So how and why did the groovy jams from the 80s like the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight take a turn for more provocative and privative storytelling? Dr. Aria S. Halliday, a Gender and Women’s and African American studies professor at the University of Kentucky, says the longer something is around, the more likely that it will develop and diversify. Dr. Halliday is fluent in this topic as her research includes but is not limited to Black Feminist Thought, Hip-Hop Feminism, Black girlhood, Literature, Visual Culture and Film and media studies.
“If you listen to early iterations of MC Lyte or Queen Latifah, anybody like that, they’re doing similar types of storytelling and conversation but much of it that became popular was about the community and police brutality and that kind of stuff. The topics have been the same, I think it’s just what the public and consumers wanna listen to and how those things have broadened a bit. Although I think there’s still a formulaic way that you can become a popular rapper in a short amount of time, based on what you talk about,” Dr. Halliday said.
The Root of the Misogyny
Why did this broadening of the variety of songs in hip-hop give way to more misogyny in the music? One word. Patriarchy. The Confessions of a Black Female Rapper also found that many of the Black men that dominate hip-hop were also finding ways to show their dominance over women. “Looking for a way to assert their masculinity in a white man’s exclusionary, racist and patriarchal world, Black men in rap took it upon themselves to display hypersexual behavior towards women.” Dr. Halliday’s expansive research on the topic also drew her to the same conclusion.
“I think that hip-hop is a production of the culture that we live in – American culture. It’s just a product of society that’s built on patriarchy and men that gain and assert power through the treatment of women and non-heterosexual men. To a certain extent, there’s the artist who makes certain music and then there’s the manager and then there’s the producers and then there’s the record company execs who make the decisions about what music should be put on the radio. They’re making decisions about what songs to play over and over and I think that in most of those areas, most of the people who are making those decisions are men who have built their careers and built their fame off of similar ideas of women and what their place is. I would say there aren’t a lot of checks and balances that would stop patriarchy from being the main mode of conversation in hip-hop,” Dr. Halliday said.
The Representation of Women
So how does this shape the female image? Dr. Halliday says that appearance is a popular theme of the representations of women in hip-hop from what type of women are desirable or what type of women are attractive. The term “slim thick”, which is an hour-glass shaped figure, was popularized by hip-hop culture and was only propelled more with rappers like Nicki Minaj flaunting this type of figure. In fact, over 28,000 butt augmentation (with fat grafting) procedures were done in 2019 alone, according to the American Society of Plastic surgeons. As a result, this body type has become the new model in Black beauty standards and has even bled over into the American beauty standards; white women and Black women alike can be found on social media either talking about or consciously displaying this shape through photos.
Although, Dr. Halliday notes that there are some positive representations too.
“Hip-hop has also provided space for people to tell their experiences wherever they are but also for people who are not musically inclined. I feel like somebody is able to tell their stories back to them. I know people who identify with Rah Digga, for example, because Rah Digga is speaking to their particular experience or people like Megan Thee Stallion because she presents a particular style of female agency and sexuality that they want to support or how they live their lives, or they know people like that. I think hip-hop provides both negative and positive reinforcement of the way that the culture at large shows women,” Dr. Halliday said.
The state of hip-hop today is rampant with women rappers like Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Mulatto, Doja Cat and Rico Nasty and many more who are reclaiming their bodies and also using their sexuality to their advantage to fight against a sexist culture or simply just express themselves, a stark difference from the few women rappers who were at the top in the 90s such as Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. But is this expression of sexuality truly empowerment or does this just continue to trap women as being viewed as a sexual object and/or hypersexual, as many men of hip-hop make them out to be? Dr. Halliday is quite familiar with the topic of the line between self-liberation and self-respect. As a North Carolina native, she grew up being taught the traditional Southern standards about how women should govern and “respect” themselves and realizes the negative impact of those teachings. In opposition, she says that the freedom to express one’s self is empowerment.
“I think as cognizant people in the world, we have to allow for there to be a diversity of experience. I think, especially for young Black girls, like how I grew up, you don’t get lessons about what is available to you or what your boundaries should be. You know, you’re told like, keep your legs closed and that’s it. And it’s like, ‘okay, but what happens if I decide to open my legs?’ Right? Do I get to say that I like this or I don’t like this? Do I get to say ‘you need to come correct’ or ‘I’ll accept X, Y, or Z’? And I think that Black women rappers, contemporarily, provide some of those lessons. If your mom is not gonna tell you, who’s going to tell you,” Dr. Halliday said.
“We always have multiple ways to say, ‘this is what I want’ or” ‘this is what I require’. “This is how I wanna live my life.” At the same time, I think the histories of the way that Black women actually have been treated can never be ignored. That’s the world that we live in. That’s the world that we create against and [live] alongside. I don’t think that means that it makes what we see now, any less empowering because the ideologies or beliefs that undergird the disrespect of women and Black women in particular, are the same ones that are circulating today. It’s the same conversations. It’s the same “she ain’t worthy because she’s dark skin”. It’s the same arguments, but at the end of the day, I think women through representation, through conversations, through storytelling, we have the, I don’t want to say power, but we at least have the information to say, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but like, nah’. We have these examples,” Dr. Halliday said.
A Turning Point in Consciousness
The turning point for how women are being viewed in hip-hop culture and society largely stems from the rise of social media and the spread of academia, Dr. Halliday says. The professor notes that more people have a college education now more than ever, and social media has given people a platform to discuss important topics, exchange ideas and even raise awareness on prominent issues.
“Up until very recently, I would say probably five years ago there wasn’t any kind of a public outcry about women being disrespected. And this is like culturally, not just [in] hip-hop… there are certain songs that you would listen to from five years ago that people don’t really have a response to. If you try to release [that music] now, I think there would be an uproar about it in various ways. There are more conversations happening in classrooms and in community spaces where people are like ‘women don’t deserve this kind of disrespect’, or ‘we could actually change it’. There’s not an assumption that it’s just normal. I think that we’ve seen a kind of shift in people wanting a different experience in terms of what they listen to, where they go, and how people respond to them. And so I think it’s just a natural kind of cultural shift,” Dr. Halliday said.
The Future of the Female Image and Women in Hip-Hop
As for what the future holds for the world of hip-hop, Dr. Halliday says that it appears that the future is female.
“I think that culturally, we want people to be simple. We want to say that it’s either this or that. You’re either worthy of respect or you’re not. Either sexual or you’re not. Ultimately as people,
we are complex and complicated and that means we have to allow people to be complicated,” Dr. Halliday said.
“Right now it’s really popular and record execs are seeing women sell music. Cardi B’s success, for example, in the past two or three years, I think shows that people are interested in listening to women rappers regardless of what they say… I think as we continue to grow in our kind of consciousness as a consumer public, in terms of understanding different people on where their lives are and what their experiences are, our music will continue to change, which is what we want.”