Media/Visual Literacy Art Education: Sexism in Hip-Hop Music Videos
Chung, Sheng Kuan, Art Education
The hip-hop music video is arguably the most influential and controversial artistic expression in American pop culture today, and thanks to global media marketing, it reaches youngsters worldwide.
Media programs like hip-hop music videos are powerful aesthetic agents that inspire teenagers; thus, they have a tremendous influence on young people's identity formation, lifestyle choices, and knowledge construction which are manifested in the ways teens dress, express themselves, behave, and interact with each other. However, because of the controversies associated with sexism, racism, homophobia, and materialism often seen in hip-hop music videos, educators seem to rarely discuss or examine them in their classroom settings. The messages in hip-hop music videos, in particular, perpetuate gender stereotypes and discrimination and attempt to normalize unequal social behavior under the label of art. Contemporary art educators advocate the importance of fostering media/visual literacy in children through critically examining discursive cultural and aesthetic sites in the popular media (Chung, 2005; Duncum, 2001; Freedman, 1994; Taylor & Ballengee-Morris, 2003). In concert with art education's goal of fostering critical media/visual literacy in future citizens, this article explores issues of sexism in hip-hop music videos and proposes ways to engage high school students in deconstructing their popular visual culture. It provides art teachers with critical tools For educating their young adults about how hip-hop culture discursively glorifies sexist portrayals in the name of art and how it presents sexism as an acceptable, normalized social practice.
The success of the media industry largely depends on sponsorship by commercial advertising and innovative, if not questionable, programs that sustain viewers' interest and curiosity. For people living in the electronic age, the media is the primary source of aesthetic experience and knowledge acquisition through which they learn about themselves and the world. It is not surprising that the issues people talk about, the things they use, or the lifestyles they choose are greatly influenced by what they see on television, the Internet, commercial billboards, and in newspapers and magazines. Media images in contemporary visual culture are colored by commercial interests and are embedded with a certain set of values, beliefs, and attitudes that influence viewers' everyday choices and decisions. For instance, a hip-hop music video, whether viewed on television or the Internet, is an artistic multimedia presentation produced not merely to intensify viewers' senses and persuade them to make purchases or consume products, but also to communicate feelings, emotions, and ideas that eventually influence their perceptions and attitudes towards others and society.
Hip-hop culture consists primarily of break-dance, graffiti, DJing1, and rapping.2 Kool Here, a Jamaican-American musician, is generally credited with originating breakbeat DJing3 and performing it for partygoers in the Bronx of New York City during the early 1970s. Several years after Kool Here's introduction, the trio group Sugar Hill Gang released its first hip-hop hit single, "Rapper's Delight," in 1979 (Wikipedia Contributors, 2005). Since then, hip-hop music has received a lot of attention and, over time, has become increasingly popular.
A television interview on CBS 60 Minutes (CBS News, 2002) featuring rap singer Jay-Z, revealed that the singer had sold over 15 million music albums, more than 80% of which were purchased by suburban teens in predominately Euro-American neighborhoods. The singer claimed that he was not just selling his music, but an entire hip-hop lifestyle being promoted through his clothing line, liquor business, and movie production. Time magazine confirmed that suburban Euro-Americans dominate 75% of rap music sales, and in 1998 rap music became America's most popular music genre (Parley, 1999).
Hip-hop culture offers youngsters everyday aesthetic sites that propel them to seek excitement, aesthetic fulfillment, and a sense of identity and belonging. It has grown to be an American mainstream art form that influences almost every segment of the globe. Not surprisingly, increasing numbers of teenagers, regardless of racial/national backgrounds, immerse themselves in hip-hop culture and copy the ways in which hip-hop characters on television act, move, dress, and talk. The influence of hip-hop on youth is especially evident in how African-American teens use hip-hop as a form of everyday cultural capital (e.g., language, gestures, fashion, and performance) to interact with each other and to authenticate a Black identity (clay, 2003). clay found that "the more popular youth were the ones that could successfully perform a hip-hop identity through the manipulation of fashion, gestures, and music" (p. 1355). Hip-hop is used by youth of color to define boundaries and status hierarchies (e.g., popularity, support, or authenticity), especially within their own ethnic peer circle.
Representations of stereotyped gender roles in popular visual culture also influence the ways females see themselves (Press, 1991; Radway, 1984; Tannen, 1990). When young girls are constantly bombarded with images and messages in hip-hop music videos celebrating women willing to commit crimes for their men and be the focus of the "male gaze," they are more likely to mistake the violence and abuse committed by their men as legitimate expressions of "gangsta love" (Pough, 2004). Hikes (2004) cautioned that children do not have a full cognitive ability to "differentiate between illusion and reality and are continually exposed to a genre of 'entertainment' that serves as the predominant and prevailing expression of African American culture" (p. 4). The negative images of African-American women in hip-hop music videos have a detrimental effect on the identity formation of young girls. For example, clay (2003) indicated that young girls adopt a highly sexualized cultural capital to gain popularity in their own peer group. Additionally, the hip-hop music video sets the standard for what is considered attractive and desirable, such as lighter skin and long hair, for young girls of color.
Hip-hop music videos have inspired many teenagers to pursue a lifestyle with its own fashion, language, club scene, and social interaction. Alarmingly, most of these videos portray women as "objects of transient sexual gratification" (Teachout, 1990, p. 60), a practice that in reality promotes gender stereotypes and discrimination, while undermining a democratic society striving for gender equity.
Women as Objects of Transient Sexual Gratification
According to Anthony Kwame Harrison, a sociology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, since the early 1990s, the most popular hip-hop artists are those associated with the "gangsta" love and "bling-bling"4 style that glorifies violence and materialism, and the "big pimping" scenario that denigrates women (as cited in Roach, 2004, p. 32). The sexist lyrics, images, and scenarios in hip-hop music videos are alarming because they perpetuate gender stereotypes and discrimination. Almost every hip-hop music video seen on VH1 and MTV features scantily clad women dancing in bikinis surrounding a chauvinistic male. To attract men's attention, these women perform erotic moves as the camera zooms in closer to their hips, buttocks, and breasts. The rapper (usually male) glorifies himself as a well-off pimp and uses provocative language to express his disrespect for these female dancers. In such a hip-hop scene, the female body is the target of the male gaze, which objectifies women's bodies as sexual trophies. This depiction also suggests that women play a subordinate role by catering to the sexual needs of men to survive in a male-controlled arena.
Because hip-hop music videos portray women as sexual objects-club dancers, and prostitutes whose primary function is to entertain men-these women are subjected to disrespect and dehumanization. Such artistic expression does not simply portray women negatively; it also questions what they can meaningfully contribute to society. Audrey McCluskey, professor of African-American studies at Indiana University, noted that "Black women's bodies, historically, have been sites of sexualized commodification and spectacle for the White mind. During slavery their bodies represented production and reproduction, allowing slave owners to increase their property while satisfying their lust" (cited in Keels, 2005, p. 43). Not only does this ideology of women's bodies as sexualized commodities continue to prevail in today's most advanced societies, but hip-hop media programs purposefully construct it to authenticate hip-hop identity.
Hip-Hop Identity/Authenticity and Sexism
Hip-hop culture, on one hand, is a vibrant "artistic collage that expresses the spirit, courage, and self-determination of urban youth of color living in a challenging environment. The importance of hip-hop lies in its ability to empower youth and its integration of everyday activities into an aesthetic form that is meaningful and relevant to youth culture. On the other hand, it has emerged "from a distinct context of ghetto life that is characterized by poverty, violence, drug use, and crime" (Ryan, Calhoun, & Wentworth, 1996, p. 121). Authenticity is a key element in hip-hop's identity and increased popularity-being true to oneself and keeping it real (Armstrong, 2004). Hip-hop culture has continued to construct and maintain its identity/authenticity through the glorification of such ghetto living conditions as violence, drug abuse, poverty, and prostitution. The construction of identity/authenticity in hiphop culture, according to McLeod (1999), is "invoked around a range of topics that include hip-hop music, racial identification, the music industry, social location, individualism, and gender and sexual roles" (p. 138). Hip-hop music videos typically incorporate these topics to depict African-Americans struggling to survive in urban neighborhoods while dealing with ghetto living conditions.
Through an analysis of hip-hop magazines, online forums, song lyrics, and interviews with hip-hop related personnel (fans, artists, and record producers), McLeod (1999) outlined six semantic dimensions of meaning essential to the hip-hop community in constructing its identity/authenticity. Within these semantic dimensions are six binaries (see Table 1) that differentiate the "real" hip-hop from its imitators. These semantic dimensions of meaning illustrate what hip-hop insiders draw upon in establishing identity and maintaining authenticity.
The explicit use of misogynie rhetoric and sexist imagery is deemed essential to the construction of identity/authenticity in hiphop culture. In the gender-sexual dimension, McLeod uses hard and soft to distinguish proper gender roles in hip-hop; soft represents feminine characteristics, while hard symbolizes masculine attributes. The world of hip-hop itself is a male-dominated arena where homophobia and genderphobia are tolerated and even purposefully constructed. A real man in hip-hop, for instance, is not a "pussy" or "faggot." Indeed, rappers use derogatory words like these to disassociate themselves from effeminate characteristics and boost their masculinity and hip-hop authenticity. Controversial rapper Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers) constructs his hip-hop masculinity and legitimizes his hiphop authenticity by demeaning women. For an artistic practice to glorify sexism or use sexist material to construct and authenticate its identity is problematic. This is where art education is of value in helping students develop critical media/visual literacy by deconstructing the sexist texts prevalent in hip-hop music videos.
Implications for Art Education
The media can enlighten the public on critical real-world issues, or it can perpetuate social stereotypes and discrimination. Contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and the Guerrilla Girls5 appropriate media images to challenge such stereotypes and discrimination as racism and sexism. Kruger and the Guerrilla Girls especially have raised issues of sexism in their poster-like artwork, through which they educate the public about unequal social practices based on gender. To reach a larger audience, these artists adopted advertising techniques and displayed their art on street billboards and city buses. Although using art as a political instrument for social reform has existed for centuries, contemporary activist artists seem to be even more driven to produce visual parodies for revealing and changing unjust social behavior.
In line with the movement within art education to foster critical media/visual literacy, Freedman (1994) maintained that "a socially reconstructed art education could enrich student understanding through the inclusion of teaching about the immense power of visual culture" (p. 165). Because hip-hop is part of American teenagers' visual culture, examining hip-hop music videos is a powerful way not only to foster critical faculty and aesthetic sensitivity, but also to facilitate an understanding of how such an aesthetic genre perpetuates sexist ideologies.6 Two pedagogical approaches to the deconstruction of sexism in hip-hop music videos are proposed here: Gender as Performance and Feminist Rap. These two approaches, along with the issues discussed above, are appropriate for guiding high school adolescents in examining content, expression, and context within hip-hop music videos that depict gender unequally. Each of these approaches requires the viewing and discussion of hip-hop music videos, which can be easily obtained from popular music video Websites such as Yahoo! Music Videos and MTV, or television channels VH1 and MTV.7 Class discussion can produce the most fruitful results while scenes (segments) of hip-hop music videos are being shown.
Gender as Performance. Judith Butler's (1990) theory of gender as performance serves as a pragmatic approach to deconstructing hip-hop's sexist portrayals. Contrary to society's conventional views of gender roles, Butler argued that the biological gender binary (masculine/feminine) reinforces the differences and inequality of the sexes in society. According to Butler, gender is not a biological condition but rather an enactment or performance (expressed, for instance, in language, clothing, movements, or actions). In other words, it is a socially constructed fluid variable associated with how people behave in certain situations:
When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one. (Butler, 1990, p. 6)
A music video includes a multitude of texts such as visual signs and linguistic plays of meaning and sound, which are intrinsic ideological sites open to further analysis and interpretation. Examining these visual and linguistic sites allows teens to deconstruct the prevailing notion of "women as sexualized commodities" as rendered in the hip-hop music genre.
By applying Butler's view of gender as performance to the examination of hip-hop music videos, teachers can help students to identify specific gender stereotypes or sexist behaviors and attitudes manifested in hip-hop performances and to further articulate the explicit and implicit messages being conveyed through identified gendered performances. When gender is perceived as performance, scenes of a video can be dismantled and analyzed in terms of the cultural capital (e.g., clothing, posture/gestures, facial expressions, speech patterns, or persona) that hip-hop performers adopt to enact their gender rolesin other words, what and how a video's incorporated visual and linguistic sites contribute to the impression of unjust gender roles. The following questions (in no particular order) can serve to guide high school students in analyzing a typical sexist video scene and interpret its meanings with respect to attitudes, values, self-image, and social expectations:
* What is the purpose of this scene?
* What pictorial elements/design techniques are used to get our attention?
* What is the scene trying to tell us? (viewpoint, belief, or value)
* Is the scene portraying a stereotype? Which stereotype?
* How do we know the portrayal is a stereotype?
* Is there a sexist expression in this scene, and how do we know?
* What responses is the scene meant to elicit from the viewer?
* How are the female dancers portrayed?
* Are there other implicit messages in this scene?
* What assumptions do you make from watching the scene?
* What does the scene teach young women in society and the general public?
* Can you think of any ways to challenge sexist portrayals?
* What other sexist presentations do you frequently see in the media?
Feminist Rap. Another way to approach this interrogative strategy towards illuminating hip-hop's sexism is to have students compare and contrast the typical sexist hiphop music video with those performed by feminist rappers such as Queen Latifah, Sister Souljah, The Real Roxanne, M.C. Lyte, and Salt-N-Pepa.8 Although not all are consistent with feminist ideology, the music videos performed by these female rappers can be used to rebut the exploitative characterizations of female bodies in hip-hop. Hip-hop culture normalizes sexism as acceptable social behavior, delivering a message to youth that women have to engage in highly sexualized performances resembling those in hip-hop music videos if they are to be socially accepted or popular in a male-dominated society. Hikes (2004) cautioned that this is the case "particularly for young Black girls whose self-worth and self-esteem are frequently being shaped by these unrealistic and harmful images of Black womanhood" (p. 66). Feminist rap music videos offer an alternative venue to challenging and resisting the glorification of sexist portrayal in the typical hip-hop video. According to Roberts (1994), feminist rap:
focuses on promoting women's importance, that demands equal treatment for women, and that demonstrates the need for women to support each other.... In its serious exploration and glorification of African American women's history, "Ladies First" [video by Queen Latifah] seizes a televisual moment and breaks the continuity of sexism and racism that dominates the music video flow. (p. 245)
For example, through the lyrics and images in her music video series, Latifah calls for respect and self-love among African-American women, promotes the importance of womanhood, and demands equal treatment for all. Another music video titled Shake Your Thang by Salt-N-Pepa appropriates the hyper-masculinist rhetoric about female sexuality to resist the expression of the female body as object of transient sexual gratification. Instead, the group reclaims the right of women to take control of their own bodies and sexuality.
Feminist hip-hop music videos like those performed by Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa offer adolescent viewers an opportunity to confront the stereotypical images of African-American women portrayed in the dominant hip-hop music arena. Unlike mainstream rappers, African-American feminist rappers approach Afrocentricity as a source of power to assert their cultural identity and promote the autonomy and strength of African-American women. An African style of clothing in feminist music videos, according to Roberts (1994), can "assert an eroticism that resists the nakedness and exposure of Western styles for women" (p. 247). Feminist rap videos show scenes of resistance to sexist hip-hop images and depict women as strong individuals who live with full purpose and meaning. The method of comparison and contrast should enable students to recognize how the hip-hop genre can be empowering without degrading women.
An essential component of media literacy art education is studio production. Creative expression allows students to process what they have learned and apply it to or translate it into an aesthetic creation that manifests their understanding of media constructs and the issues explored. After examining and discussing hip-hop music videos, high school students can produce their own music videos together in groups. An increasing number of art educators incorporate digital movie/video making into their art programs (Chung, 2007). A video can be easily created on the computer with a simple digital camera/camcorder and movie-making software such as iMovie(TM) or Windows* Movie Maker.9 In making a music video collaboratively, group members are expected to work as a team performing the creative multi-tasks of scripting, filming, imaging, rapping (by a student if possible), and editing. Groups should be reminded to consider or brainstorm how their music videos may empower others without exploiting women's bodies.
The image of women as objects of transient sexual gratification permeates most hip-hop music videos seen on network/cable television programs and the Internet, and in fashion magazines, advertisements, and video games. Because of its high exposure and popularity, hip-hop has transformed itself into the American cultural/artistic mainstream. It would hardly be surprising if foreign viewers misperceived hip-hop sexist depictions as an American ideal or value. The glorification of sexism is especially powerful when delivered through a multimedia aesthetic presentation like a hip-hop music video.
In a society where women have long been perpetuated as sexual symbols, the youth generation may not consider the sexism in hip-hop culture disturbing. On the contrary, many young girls are not just willing participants in these music videos; they are proud of being desired by men and of publicly showing off their bodies and expressing their sexuality. This further highlights the importance of art education for fostering critical media/visual literacy in young viewers to help them recognize what hip-hop's sexism presents to a democratic society that strives for gender equality. Media/visual literacy art education should be concerned about how this type of sexist portrayal affects the collective social values and social equality of all members of a society.
The exploration of hip-hop music videos in the art classroom offers teenagers a relevant and critical lesson in examining their own aesthetic sites and developing critical knowledge about these sites' discursive, if not sexist, practices. Through class dialogue and creative expression, art teachers can help students critically view what they experience every day in the media; understand how gender stereotypes and discrimination are perpetuated in this very visual culture; and develop critical knowledge to make informed decisions as media/aesthetic consumers. A change in hip-hop sexist culture and society as a whole is possible when people are educated in how such dehumanized representations undermine the foundation of a democratic, equal society.
Not surprisingly, increasing numbers of teenagers, regardless of racial/national backgrounds, immerse themselves in hip-hep culture and copy the ways in which hip-hop characters on television act, move, dress, and talk.
The importance of hip-hop lies in its ability to empower youth and its integration of everyday activities into an aesthetic form that is meaningful and relevant to youth culture.
Through class dialogue and creative expression, art teachers can help students critically view what they experience every day in the media; understand how gender stereotypes and discrimination are perpetuated in this very visual culture; and develop critical knowledge to make informed decisions as media/aesthetic consumers.
1 A disc jockey (also called DJ) is an individual who selects, mixes, and plays prerecorded music. DJing is the act of playing and mixing sound recordings for an intended audience.
2 According to Parley (1999), rap is a form of rhythmic speaking, while hip-hop comprises a mixture of excerpts from prerecorded songs. These two terms are thus not completely interchangeable.
3 A break is an interlude during a song, being a "break" from the main segments of the song.
4 Bling-bling was coined by New Orleans rap group Cash Money Millionaires in the late 1990s and is used to describe showy styles of jewelry.
5 A group of female artists founded the Guerrilla Girls in 1985. These artists wear gorilla masks in public to conceal their identities and raise issues such as racism and sexism. More information about the Guerrilla Girls is available at http://www. guerrillagirls.com/
6 Teachers are advised that when teaching any controversial issue such as this one, it is important to keep school principals and parents informed of the media content used in the classroom and the learning goals that the teacher is attempting to accomplish.
7 The hip-hop music videos shown at Yahoo! Music Videos (http://launch.yahoo.com/musicvideos) and MTV (http://www.mtv.com/music/videoM/music/video/) and most television channels are predominantly sexualized. Teachers should locate or record age-appropriate videos for classroom exploration.
8 The music videos of these female artists can be accessed at the MTV website and Yahoo! Music Videos (see previous footnote for Web addresses). These sites archive thousands of music videos and can be searched for and played on demand. Other, similar hip-hop videos may be used if they feature the meaningfulness of woman's lives instead of their highly sexualized bodies.
9 Video/movie making as a studio project in school art programs is becoming increasingly viable since a growing number of secondary schools are equipped with computers. My article, "Art Education Technology: Digital Storytelling" (Art Education, March 2007), details the resources for and processes of making a digital video in the art room, from exploring topics, scripting, storyboarding, preparing imagery, and editing by computer, to establishing criteria for evaluating digital videos.
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Sheng Kuan Chung is Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director of Art Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Houston, Texas. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Media/Visual Literacy Art Education: Sexism in Hip-Hop Music Videos. Contributors: Chung, Sheng Kuan - Author. Magazine title: Art Education. Volume: 60. Issue: 3 Publication date: May 2007. Page number: 33+. © National Art Education Association Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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