Women get a raw deal—I’ve always thought so. In this patriarchal society, we are treated as lesser and when you are treated as lesser, often with it comes ‘other’. I consider myself a feminist. How can I be a woman and not be a feminist? Being a black woman and a feminist isn’t about hating men, or hating white people—it’s about equality and freedom. It always has been.
In today’s world we have the likes of Rihanna, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj and others on our television screens, perpetuating what I can only see as the sexualisation of black women. Women are viewed through the ‘male gaze’ and are seemingly promoting this hypersexualized image themselves. This creates a revolving door for the black woman. These images that are portrayed in the media perpetuates the ideology of inferiority as well as fetishism and sexist objectification from which the black woman cannot escape. The young watch these portrayals of black women and emulate them, replicating them and the cycle continues. But are there two sides to the story? One would argue, more than two, there is a myriad of perceptions surrounding this controversial issue.
Women have long been used, exploited for financial gain. This contempt for women, it can be argued stems from biblical Eve. She is blamed for being tempted by the devil, tempting man with the forbidden fruit and has been accused of being a temptress of men ever since – there is a contempt for women regardless of colour differences, but black women have had others ideals on their bodies imposed on them for centuries. Sexualisation on black women is, it can be argued, a continuation of the slavery mindset.
Sexuality was placed upon their bodies first by the slave owners, then by the colonialists and now popular media. Whereas before there was a legalised ownership of black bodies through the system of slavery, now the very notion of exploitation and ownership of these bodies is explained away.
The rape of a black female slave was not considered rape, it was considered trespass. Before the civil war, black women were forced into polygamy. Male black slaves were mated with many female slaves to increase the stock by having children. In hip hop videos, you can often see fully clothed men having scantily clad women gyrating themselves around the rapper, ‘competing’ for his attention. This reminds me of Rihanna’s Work song.
She is presented as a strong female, but her strength comes from her sexuality alone. And it is this strong scantily-dressed gyrating female that has to ‘work’ to get the love and attention of the fully clothed male lead, sending a clear message: ‘men use their brains, women use their bodies.’ When she’s with the male rapper, she is seen as subservient. A particular part that grates is when she looks down while she approaches him, as if she cannot meet his eyes;she’s not worthy, or not his equal. All the while, he is looking directly at her, as if silently giving his approval before she slowly, demurely, looks up and meets his gaze. (!) She sings of how she ‘dealt with [him] the nicest…’ meaning she was the one who performed best/ satisfied him in bed,implying that he slept with other women and they are in competition with each other for the ultimate prize(him). She continues to say ‘If I get another chance to/ I will never, no never neglect you/ I haffi work work work work work.’’ Yet again, multiple women competing for the sexual attention of one man.
Although I have heard it argued that Rihanna does the opposite. She claims her sexuality as her own, had has the strength to express herself despite criticism… I’ve heard it be described as ‘revolutionary’. Women empowering themselves to such a degree, in such a society. Her song, Pour it Up, has been defended as having no male view, and is seen as Rihanna empowering herself. Which leads to the question: Is female sexuality within the media empowerment or women being objectified?
Having viewed this video myself, I cannot see how it is empowering. What I do see is a woman making money. She has reduced herself to a product which is for sale. One can argue, not far from slavery, except she gets a share in the money. But isn’t this the music industry? Sex sells after all.
It was just in 2002 that Halle Berry won the Best Actress award at the Oscars for a leading role in the romantic film, The Monster’s Ball’. The only black female to have won such an award and there hasn’t been one since. Her iconic speech illustrated that she thought she opened the doors for other black females to follow suit, whichdidn’t happen. But, when I watch the controversial scene with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton, suddenly there is the question as to whether she got the award for her acting ability or for her role in ‘that scene’ which is pretty graphic. And what’s more is that the audience is given a voyeuristic gaze, transforming them into a Peeping Tom, watching this couple from behind doors and from under the table. Is this what females are reduced to? The media is an influencing industry, you cannot exist within it and not be used as a representation, and Halle Berry’s representation of not just black women but women overall shows that not much has changed. We are still viewed and judged as sexual objects.
But feminism is being free to do as one wishes, for women to be free to express themselves as they see fit. It can be argued that Rihanna, Halle Berry and Nicki Minaj do just that.
Nicki Minaj is a prime example of one who materializes the black body for financial gain. It is rumoured that she has had surgery to enhance her bottom as well as her breasts and has been compared to the Hottentot Venus.
Saartjie Baartman, cruelly nicknamed The Hottentot Venus, was taken from South Africa by British man Alexander Dunlop. She was placed on display as close to naked as they could get and viewed as a freak because of her large bottom and prominent breasts. She also had an elongated labia. Because of this trait, she was presented as the missing link between human and animal and was given the title The Hottentot Venus,ridiculing her. Ultimately she was exhibited.
In scientific journals, she was used as evidence that black people were inferior to white people – and black women were sexualised.
Black women, because they were taken from natural environments in Africa, were considered to be closer to nature — more animalistic— whereas white women were more civilised, belonging in cities and towns. Therefore black women were/are considered more sexual, earthly, animalistic than their white counterparts.
Baartman’s genitals were of a fascination at the time. She forbode anyone to view her, but upon her death, a cast was taken of her cadaver and placed on display in a museum. Her body was submitted to an intense and highly sexual dissertation. Her brain and genitals were preserved, and the rest of her flesh boiled down. Her bones were then cased and displayed – the ultimate symbol of sexual exploitation.
This ‘forbidden fruit’ comes up again, but in the form of a black woman’s body, reiterating the idea that boundaries upon women and their privacy are not adhered to. There is the idea that men can and do what they want and that women are subjected to men’s will and dominance. It has gotten so bad in my opinion, that we are now doing it to ourselves and calling it freedom or ‘art’ It’s being packaged as a revolution because we don’t just have men doing it to us now, we do it to ourselves of our own free will.Music is a product and women’s sexuality is used to sell that product.
But can Rihanna’s Work song also have a positive spin? Can one view the lining behind the sexist storm cloud? Rihanna was accused of speaking ‘gibberish’ in this song. In fact, what she was speaking was Jamaican Creole. It has long been argued that black people indeed weren’t people. Being human means having command of a language — which demonstrated intelligent thought — Rihanna’s use of patois challenges the ideologies surrounding this language and its people.
““Work” has already gotten a lot of attention, not because it came out of the blue or the fact that it features Drake or even the fact that it was the most-heard song on the more than 1,200 radio stations on its first day, but because it is literal gibberish. I thought there must be some hidden meaning in there somewhere, so I looked it up online, and apparently it’s “a lust filled narrative of two lovers.” What I heard, however, was something completely different.”
– MishMash. ( )
So because it is not understood, it is seen as gibberish. This attitude wouldn’t be taken with other languages, there would be just a translation issue. Having said that, Work is supposedly about having to work for a paycheck, no matter what else is going on in your life, and the romance element comes second to that. That, in my opinion, doesn’t come across t seems to be all about her and the male she’s working to get attention from. However, her use of the language has brought to the fore the discussion of Jamaican and its classification as a viable language.
By association, if a people are not speaking a language, it implies that they are making unintelligible sounds. And again, we have black people as not presented as people but more like animals, harping back to the presentation of racist ideologies for which Baartman was used as evidence — not much has changed, and the change we do see is happening very slowly.
Not only has Jamaican been recognised as an official language but it is being taught at some Universities as a foreign language in America. There is controversy and discussion as to whether lessons in Jamaica should be conducted in Jamaican rather than standard English. Or whether they should be done in both, and although Rihanna’s song hasn’t generated these discussions, it has certainly brought attention to the whole subject of the authenticity of a language and what we should be teaching our young.
Regardless of the negative comments with racist undertones Rihanna received for her song lyrics, many appreciate the lyrical quality of Jamaican Creole as well as its historical roots to a people founded from many people — it makes sense that the language itself also has its foundations in other languages.
The language, which can be compared to the fluidity of French, has a lyrical quality of its own, the smoothness of words blending one into another. One can find it difficult to distinguish where one sentence finishes and another starts, never mind decode what is actually being said ,but for all the lack of understanding of the ‘other’ language, it is far from gibberish.
Using this language within her song has highlighted certain freedoms denied to a people:the basic freedom of having a language, being recognised as a human being not animal, with human rights and dignities,he right to own our female bodies, the right not to be exploited and the right to have the same opportunities as others,he right to not be treated as inferior because of our sexuality or the colour of our skin.
Although it can be argued that Rihanna is exercising her own freedoms as a woman, one can also suggest that this sexualisation of women’s bodies contributes to the wealth of a music industry run predominantly by male figures (see image above). It capitalises on the same ‘product’ that she deems as her right to freedom of expression. But it could never be seen as just her being her — there are too many impressionable young watching and emulating — and there a price to pay.
Rihanna’s music can be seen as a direct contradiction between the exploitation and sexualisation of women for monetary gain, and the message the language she uses within this song, sends out to all who are listening. The message it demands, is freedom.
Freedom and equality. Whether we classify ourselves as a feminist or not,surely that is what we all want.
Ms. Cheryl Diane Parkinson is an English teacher and a part-time PhD student. She is also a writer of YA fiction and children stories.