Introduction – It’s not neutral!
Nearly every parent has engaged in conversations with their teenager only to discover that their adolescent was all wise and all knowing. I have had several such conversations with my lovely 17-year-old daughter about rap music and the overt and cloaked messages communicated. On one occasion I recall talking with my daughter about the many messages conveyed by some rap music videos. In particular, I asked her the following question, “Doesn’t it seem odd that the male rappers are fully dressed and the women are barely dressed?” My daughter responded, “Oh Dad, you are always preaching. You’re old fashioned and reading too much into these videos!” My overlooked point was that these rap music videos are not neutral. They communicate cogently clear and subtle messages. Namely, many of the rap music videos tend to objectify or de-humanize women. Of course, my daughter’s assessment of me is all too common for parents: Dad is stupid and doesn’t know a thing.
Rap Music Videos
View many rap music videos and it is blatantly obvious that women are ‘used’ for the mere delight of the male rapper and his friends (and male viewer-ship). Put simply, it is painfully clear that women are mere sex objects; and this is predominately true of gangsta rap music videos. Consider TI King’s rap music video that dramatizes the song “Why You Wanna.” In this video TI and his boys are reclining on the beach: fully clothed. TI and his friends are scanning the beach (as predators it appears) and spot many ladies wearing bikinis while the camera focuses on and follows every move of the female’s rear anatomy. Other rap music videos features barely dressed women gyrating their back sides up against the males’ groin area while the rapper is spitting (rapping) the b-word and ‘ho’ (whore) liberally and unabashedly. Scenes like this are all so common in rap videos: fully clothed male rapper and scantily-clad women. Some of the lyrics are explicitly sexual or raw. For instance, parents should do an Internet search for the lyrics to Dem Franchize Boyz’ Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It. For many rappers—like Dem Franchize Boyz—women are only useful for performing some sexual trick or favor (e.g., oral sex).
It’s the American Way
However, we should not be surprised that these rappers denigrate women since we live in a sex-saturated culture; a culture that has reduced women to a commodity or ‘object’ for years. I echo St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper columnist Sylvester Brown’s question, “Which came first: rappers as a misogynistic influence or misogyny’s influence on rappers?” While I think any form of woman exploitation is deplorable, I think Brown’s question is a relevant and thoughtful one. I would have to say that our culture’s obsession with using women precedes the advent of rap music. Consider these few examples. In 1970 (9 years before the first rap song aired and 10 years before MTV made its official debut) boxing ring card girls donned the string bikini to announce the rounds. What’s this all about—a nearly naked female in a context where two men are beating each other to a pulp? Muscle car magazines also use women who are scantily clad. Marketers have used women and sex as ‘tools’ for years to push alcohol sales. Twenty four years ago, rock videos featured scantily clad women. For years, Sports Illustrated has published its coveted Swimsuit Issue. Lisa Bennett commenting on the 2002 issue said this, “…I almost didn’t open it because I knew exactly what would be inside. Lots of leggy, busty supermodels in beside-the-point teeny bikinis. But I am glad I did, because this year’s issue serves as a catalog of sexism, objectification…” (italics mine).
Many fashion magazines feature an overwhelmingly number of barely clothed females. Prominent on these pages is an abundance of slender well groomed legs and cleavage. Today women are barely clothed at some restaurants (I am thinking of Hooters for example). National Football League (NFL) cheerleaders are barely clothed (and it appears they are wearing less and less fabric each year). And today a woman’s sex appeal sells everything from cars to toothpaste to tans to burgers. A few years ago Hardees aired a commercial in which a very attractive white woman was riding a mechanical bull while holding a large burger. This seems innocent enough but the woman was making obvious suggestive sexual gestures while riding the bull and eating the burger. Now, I would admit that this young lady demonstrated superb hand-eye coordination but the commercial left me asking Hardees: what are you selling—the female bull rider or the burger? While we should not pardon rappers from degrading women, the painful reality is we have all seen instances of women being exploited for some type of ‘gain’ for years.
Let’s face it: rappers are unfortunately continuing a long legacy of objectifying women in America. We simply live in a time where objectifying women thrives. Why? Because we live in a postmodern era where many Americans have lost all notions of shame, discretion, decency, and guilt. Those who live and play by this postmodern worldview reject any claims to objective truth. So, in our pluralistic and relativistic culture, one should be allowed to do anything he or she darn well pleases with no fear of retribution or flack. Welcome to the time in which everyone does what is right in his own sight; welcome to the world of Judges 21:25!
Sadly, I remember something my former secretary said to me about some Hispanic men’s assessment of white American women. She had spent time in Mexico on a mission’s trip and she said that many Hispanic men consider white women to be ‘easy.’ This should not come as a surprise considering the way our media portrays white women on TV, the movie screen, and in magazines. Two examples will suffice. Have you seen the posters at video rental stores advertising the movie, Failure to Launch? The movie stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey. Did you notice how the creators of the poster accentuated or embellished Parker’s backside? Is this necessary? A second example can be found at your local grocer. As you pay for your groceries, just gaze at the magazine racks. Many of these magazines portray white women as mere sex objects; as ‘bait’ for buying the magazine.
Tragically, the image of black women has also suffered irreparable damage due to rap music videos. Consider these words from Kimberly Allers, writing for Essence Magazine, “…Lil Jon and Nelly, hang their careers on lyrics that often demean women and videos that border on pornography—with half-naked sisters who gyrate, pop it and generally drop it like it’s hot. Together they [rappers and record-label executives] are fashioning a legacy that does immeasurable damage to the global perception of Black women because these images are broadcast worldwide. Welcome to the new hustle.”
Some African American women have publicly voiced their displeasure with rappers who exploit women. Oprah has publicly said she will not invite rappers who degrade women on to her show. And rappers such as Ice Cube, 50 Cent, and Ludacris have in turn criticized Oprah for not being black enough. (Being accused of being less black because one does not follow the ‘African American cultural norms’ is another story.) Diane Weathers writes, “I’m mad at an industry that shamelessly peddles music videos with images of us as gangsters, players or pimps surrounded by half-naked women eager to please.” Quite frankly, I am surprised that more African-American women have not publicly voiced their disdain over the rap culture’s obsession with objectifying women.
Laden with Contradictions
There are a plethora of contractions with rappers who degrade women and women who like their lyrics. First, the late gangsta rapper icon Tupac and today’s Kanye West have rapped lovingly and respectfully about their mothers. Consider these tender and admirable lyrics from Kanye West’s song “Hey Mama” (from his CD, Late Registration):
I wanna tell the whole world about a friend of mine
This little light of mine and I’m finna let it shine
I’m finna take yall back to them better times
I’m finna talk about my mama if yall don’t mind
I was three years old, when you and I moved to the Chi
Late December, harsh winter gave me a cold
You fixed me up something that was good for my soul
Famous homemade chicken soup, can I have another bowl?
You work late nights just to keep on the lights
Mommy got me training wheels so I could keep on my bike
And you would give anything in this world
Kanye serenades and honors his mother who was a struggling single mother in Chicago yet on the same CD degrades women. Second, young African American women scream themselves into a tizzy in the presence of rap artists. They are enamored with the celebrity status of male rap artists yet they see images of black women being exploited on their TV screens. What gives here? Has the brain checked out because the rap artist is a celebrity? This apparent brain disengagement is not unique to black women, however. Consider this comment by Brian McManus who caught his own mother singing these lyrics to 50 Cent’s rap song “P.I.M.P”:
I spit a little G, man, and my game got her
Hour later had that ass up in the Ramada and
My pimp hand’s strong
McManus’ utter surprise is captured in this statement, “Grown white women rapping along to women being beaten and pimped?” Don’t rappers see the blaring contradiction here? Why are black women and white women buying rap music and singing along with rappers who are obviously degrading them? Is this what Walt Mueller, President of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU), refers to as ‘mindless consumption’?
As discerning Christians, how should we respond to this perennial issue of women being objectified or used? Let me suggest five ideas.
First, we need to say and acknowledge that some women are physically attractive. We should admire and celebrate their beauty. Amen! On the other hand, we should also teach our girls that beauty is not to be flaunted or idolized; rather, beauty is to be appreciated and regarded as a gift from the Lord—the giver of all good gifts.
Second, it is imperative that Christian women model modesty before their daughters in particular and young women in general. Paul encourages ladies to dress modestly in 1 Tim 2:8-10. The Greek word (aidos) for modesty “…indicates a sense of shame, a shrinking from trespassing the boundaries of propriety…” So, by modest, Paul means that women dress tastefully and not provocatively. Therefore, fashions that are immoral or indecent should be avoided. But like Peter (see 1 Peter 3:1ff), Paul reminds us that our focus should not be on one’s outside adorning but rather the adorning of the heart or cultivating one’s spiritual beauty (the matters of the heart). In other words, God finds virtues such as patience, honesty, faithfulness, self-control, and kindness as ‘sexy.’
As believers we need to commend and celebrate modesty and not treat those who dress modestly as geeks or freaks. However, a woman “…must not look decidedly old-fashioned, awkward, or queer. It must be ever be borne in mind that a proud heart is sometimes concealed behind a mask of pretended modesty. That too is sin. Extremes must be carefully avoided.” While I say this, I also know that finding clothes that are modest will be a bit difficult for our daughters. However, God has gifted us all with creativity!
Third, pastors and teachers need to help our church communities recover a biblical view of sexuality. The common view of sexuality preached by our culture is expressed in this interview with Christina Aquilera (CA) in the magazine Seventeen:
17: How have you changed since “Dirrty”?
CA: When you’re 21, you just want to go out and have a good time. You want to explore new things. I have expressed myself-and always will express myself-sexually through my art in some way or another. I think it’s important as a female to feel empowered in your sexuality and to embrace it, rather than try to live out society’s ideal of what a woman should think about her sexuality-and conform to those ideals.
Women need to teach their daughters that they are not required to express their sexuality by wearing tight, short; cleavage baring clothing. A man or woman’s sexuality is to be enjoyed and shared graciously in the confines of a monogamous heterosexual marriage between husband and wife; one’s sexuality is not something to be paraded. We need to teach our young girls that their inestimable worth and identity is rooted in being in Christ and being made in God’s image.
Fourth, Christian men can counter rappers’ treatment of women by treating all women as human beings made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28). That is, as Christian men we must treat all women not as ‘things that satisfy our needs’ but rather we are called to treat them with the utmost dignity and respect. In this way we let our light shine brightly (Matthew 5: 13-16).
Fifth, as Christians, we must be courageous to speak the truth in love about the negative lyrics that depict women as men’s ‘play toys.’ This means perhaps writing letters seasoned with salt to the editorial staff of magazines and newspapers, and to TV programming executives that promote the de-humanization of women. This also means educating our kids not to consume music and their music videos mindlessly but rather to mindfully critique them.
One final word to parents.
Most evangelical Christians will acknowledge that God is all powerful and God loves our kids far more perfectly than we (parents) ever can. All this to say that we need not fear our kids listening to rap music or looking at rap music videos. Some parents think that banning their kids from listening to rap music or from looking at rap music videos is somehow protecting them from getting stained by our ‘Babylonian culture.’ Is this really possible? If we make a big ado about listening to rap music or looking at rap music videos, it seems to me that this will only stoke the curiosity of our kids to do it behind our backs. Furthermore, rap music is so influential in our culture, it is nearly impossible to ‘protect’ our kids from the exposure to rap music. I hear rap music at the St. Louis Cardinals ball park; in elevators; in clothing stores; and at my daughter’s high school father-daughter dance and athletic events. Other parents think that listening to rap music will not undo years of biblical instruction. Think about your adolescent period. When you listened to less than parent-approved-music, did your Christian value system collapse? Let me suggest that whether you listen to rap music or look at rap music videos with your kids, this is not a time to overreact. This musical art form yet provides us parents an excellent opportunity to engage with our kids and to hone their discernment skills (despite their opinions about us).
Copyright © 2008 Luke Bobo
SourceSylvester Brown, Jr, "Women, too, exploit mass media’s obsession with sex," STLtoday.com, p. 1.
Lisa Bennett, "Feminist Media Round-Up: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," www.now.org.
Kimberly Allers, "The New Hustle," Essence, August 1, 2005, p. 149.
Diane Weathers, "The Message in Our Music," Essence, June 2004, p. 24.
Brian McManus, Review of G Unit Beg For Mercy, Riverfront Times, February 18-24, 2004.
William Hendriksen, 1-II Timothy-Titus New Testament Commentary, p. 106.
Interview by Degen Pener, Seventeen, September 2006, p. 179.