Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Does Popular Culture's Sex Really Empower Us?

As I listen to all this cyber chatter, I feel like we are talking about the wrong things. For me, the issue is the responsibility of women, and men, in the wielding of their sexuality. Sex is power, especially in America. If women are so empowered as a result of our sexuality, then we must also be responsible with that power. But exploring this question gets into all sorts of sticky situations, like issues of morality, dignity, and the recently demonized concept of respectability. The conversation slips into the problematic nature of trying to gain the respect of white folks instead of the important issue of, whether we are demonstrating respect for ourselves? Mama wasn’t worried about white folks when she taught us to carry ourselves with dignity, and grandma definitely wasn’t checking for what white folks were thinking when she modeled behavior that taught us to value ourselves, within and without.

In today’s climate of “anything goes,” to lift an objection to the gratuitous parade of writhing flesh in popular culture, in the interest of morality and respectability, is to be a hater. It is to demonstrate a lack of sophistication, or not being “with it.” In this world in order to be appropriate and polite, one must never pass judgment on his or her neighbor. Accountability is a bad word. When I consider this ethic of mandatory obliviousness I can’t help but wonder what sort of effect this has on the community.  How do the young and vulnerable fare while we pump our fist's cause, "We woke up like dis!" I hear a lot about female empowerment, but when I consider the entertainers who have become role models in light Black Feminist Joan Morgan words that feminism “is not about doing what the boys can do,” whether that be earning money or making their own rules, but about “women having more opportunities and a greater depth of choices,” I can’t say what we are seeing and hearing is the progress it is being labeled. When I look at the various images and the words that are being pumped into the hearts and minds of our young women, I become increasingly concerned.  What exactly are we molding them to be, and what sorts of expectations are we creating for them in the world? And what sorts of opportunities do those expectations lead to? 

Some will say, these images are the result of hard work and strong businesswomen, and they would be right. But how many young women are emulating the business grind of the Rhi Rhis, Nickis and Beys of the world, and how many of them are performing their hyper-sexuality? And since when did hyper-sexuality become the virtue that trumps all in the black community?

There are some really amazing things that happen when black bodies become so accessible in pop culture. They shift the paradigm so that black women are considered and named in conversations about beauty. However, if we take a closer look, the girls on top in the hip-hop/ R&B game continue to be super light, super weaved and super skinny (with fatties daddy can’t keep his eyes off of).  Is this black beauty being celebrated or the white beauty aesthetic jazzed up with a badonkadonk? It’s as if only that aspect of a black woman is worthy of primetime attention. By no means am I saying that black women in the limelight are only their sexualities. They are more indeed. But what I am saying is that the prevalent images, language and personas are so heavily dependent on hyper-sexualized notions of womanhood, that women are being forced into a new box where the expectation and demand to be sexual has become a prison of its own.

When I compare the expectations of the men of my mother’s generation, as opposed to those women of my generation have to navigate, I wonder if women will be able to keep up. The new sexual expectations are a result of both technology and lyrics like “I just want to be the kinda girl you like.” Well the girls they like are the ones that say yes to men's desires, even the one’s outside of the bedroom. They like the one’s who won’t stand up, won't give 'em lip and won't say, you are not going to engage in misogynistic rhetoric on my album, or in my video. They like the one’s who will just look pretty and sexy and say, “Everything is great. You make me feel fine.” I don’t know about you, but I would prefer to feel heard. bell hooks deals with this kind of facile empowerment in her essay “Selling Hot Pussy.” In it she contends that the expression of sexuality is not liberative if it is solely intended to please another person. Yes, you may experience the kind of empowerment that comes along with being desired, and Lord knows black women could use some of that kind of attention and affirmation. But at the end of the day empowerment has to be based upon more than just how the rest of the world reacts to you, or in this day and age, your body.

So I leave you with the same questions I have been mulling over in my mind for the past few days: Are we as women in a better place collectively, as a result of these performances? What does the accessibility of such sexuality liberate us to do? Who is our sexuality for? Do we have any responsibility in how we wield it? And finally does the community grow or suffer as a result?

Let me let the girls speak for themselves...

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