Monday, 10 June 2013

Gender Politics and Hip Hop Culture in African American Cinema of the 90s



The representation of gender politics in 1990s African-American cinema has been hugely influenced by Hip Hop culture in many ways. S. Craig Watkins (1998) argues the producers of rap music have attempted to bring up to date the representations of poor, black youth and ‘filmmakers have likewise waged a similar struggle’ (Watkins, 1998, p.198). With reference to Boyz N the Hood (Singleton, 1992, USA) and male rap, and Set It Off (Grey, 1997, USA) and female and male rap, my argument is that Hip Hop has had a generally negative effect on gender politics in these films.  However I will also argue that this is a result of commercial pressures on black filmmakers and that nevertheless, some male and female rappers often influence the gender politics of these films in positive ways.

Hip Hop culture has most directly influenced the soundtrack and stars of African-American cinema in the 1990s.  Gender politics play a large part in the lyrics and construction of stars in Hip Hop music, and therefore play a large part in how they are represented in film.  Set it Off features Hip Hop star Queen Latifah, who ‘positions herself as part of a rich legacy of black women’s activism’ (Rose, 1994, p.162), as a lesbian bank robber.  She is represented as being angry with black females, particularly in the scenes where she argues with her friends over their complacency at the unfair situation they are in.  This representation of black females as active and independent, yet trapped, is influenced by Latifah’s own music.  For example her song ‘Set It Off’, for the soundtrack of the film includes lyrics like ‘nothing to lose…back to the wall…situations I been in, got me capable of sinning’.


Equally the casting of rappers Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood and Dr Dre in Set it Off show the clear influence of Hip Hop on these films’ gender politics.  Dr Dre’s character is the provider of guns which indicates his power over the community and fits with his star persona.  The women in Set It Off need his help, even Latifah, who is clearly independent and submissive to no man, must ask for his help.  Much like female rap stars, the female characters in the film require support from, and therefore are dominated by rap star Dre.  Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood clearly represents the misogyny that is obvious in much of his music, his lyrics suggesting ‘that state authority figures and black women are similarly responsible for black male disempowerment and oppression’ (Rose, 1994, p.149) and whose influence on the narrative and themes is therefore clear.  Throughout the film his character puts women down, no doubt due to the welfare mothers he encounters, represented as lazy, drug addicted, uncaring single parents that need a man in their lives. 

However Ice Cube and Hip Hop did not begin the trend of misogyny in some black music.  Ward (1998) notes that towards the end of the of the black power era, artists such as Clarence Reid who previously showed sensitivity and insight on issues of gender politics, had turned to X-rated comedy music that could be seen as ‘helping to perpetuate or legitimise destructive sexist attitudes within their communities’ (Ward, 1998, p.380).  The reason for the representation of women in Hip Hop and African-American cinema is clear from Ward’s next line, ‘What mattered was this stuff sold’ (Ward, 1998, p.380).


Also Hip Hop has had a huge influence on the narratives and themes of the ghetto action film cycle and therefore on the representation of gender politics within these narratives.  Watkins argues ‘the representation of the urban ghetto as a site of repression and entrapment’ (Watkins, 1998, p.212) is a recurring theme in these films.  In Set it Off this is applied to black females who are repressed by white men and black men and trapped by poverty.  The representation of gender politics and the influence of female rap are clear from the first scenes of the film.  Frankie is fired from her job at the bank for knowing a bank robber, indicating her repression by black men (the robber) and white men (the bank manager and detective).  The following scenes with Luther, the other women’s boss, indicate the female characters’ repression by black male employees and entrapment because Tisean is forced to work for enough money just to be able to afford a babysitter. 


On the other hand Boyz N the Hood is influenced more by male rappers, ‘a forum…that says ‘Be a father to your child’’ (Baker, 1999, p.415), in its representation of gender politics in the narrative and themes.   The character Doughboy is seen as being trapped because of a bad upbringing by a single mother.  He is taken to prison at a young age as his mother flicks her cigarette to indicate her neglect and uncaring attitude toward him.  Tre is brought up by a good strong father, however, and eventually breaks free of the hoods entrapment.  Women in the film are seen as bad mothers, either unemployed and drug addicted, or studying and employed as in the case of Tre’s mother, yet both types are unable to discipline and teach their sons to be men.  Tre moves to his father’s house, learns his responsibilities as a man and ends up at college.  Therefore Watkins (1998, p.222) argues:

Boyz reaffirms the idea that single-parent fathering leads to successful child development…while single-parent mothering…leads to unsuccessful child development. 

However patriarchy is also upheld to some extent in Set it Off, influenced by female rap, whose ‘lyrics sometimes affirm patriarchal notions’ (Rose, 1994, p.148).  The character of Stony uses her boyfriend at the bank, and sells herself to patriarchal values through her new dress he buys her.  Soon after the couple become lovers.  Rose argues of female rap, ‘Women are taking advantage of the logic of heterosexual courtship in which men coax women into submission with trinkets’ (Rose, 1994).   The narrative of Set It Off ends ambiguously, on one hand Stony, who is the only one of the four women to survive, is also the only one to have a heterosexual relationship during the film.  The other three, career girl, single mother, and lesbian all die, indicating the need for heterosexual relationships in order for black women to survive.  On the other hand Stony is on her own at the end of the film showing her to be independent because of her friends’ who represent black women’s, sacrifices.


Rose (1994) also argues that much Hip Hop by both men and women show signs of mistrust of the opposite sex.  Both films can be seen as being influenced by ‘women’s raps that often display fears of loss of control and betrayal at the hands of men’ (Rose, 1994, p.171).  In Boyz N the Hood, a scene where Tre argues with his girlfriend, Brandi, about having sex clearly shows the feminist perspective.  Brandi criticises Tre for wanting sex but not marriage and tells him ‘Don’t touch me’.  However they then have sex suggesting a woman is right to share her views, but preferably not deny sex.  Similarly in Set It Off, Stony is forced into prostitution to get money from a businessman, cash she desperately needs but cannot get any other way except by succumbing to the demands of the male.

The iconography and elements of the mise-en-scene are influenced by Hip hop culture in their representation of gender politics in Boyz N the Hood, and in Set It Off where they are used to empower women to some extent and challenge typical gender roles in Hip Hop culture.  Gangster film iconography, primarily guns and cars, have always been shown in hip hop music and as a result in the ghetto film cycle too, mainly in relation to men.  However in Set It Off, it is mainly the women who have the control of guns and cars.  This shows the influence of rap as ‘black female rap videos share a visual and lyrical universe with male rapper’s work’ (Rose, 1994, p.166).  Similarly the characters in each film share a visual universe where men and women hang out on the streets in their cars, carry guns, and use drugs.


However it can also be argued that African-American cinema has had poor representations of gender politics before Hip Hop emerged.  Ward (1998) describes the blaxploitation films of the 1970s as often showing ‘images of cool black studs for whom sexual conquest of the…beauties draped around the set like so many props was a powerful means of self-affirmation’ (Ward, 1998, p.375).  This would seem to indicate not only poor representations of gender relations between blacks in African-American cinema before the arrival of Hip-Hop, but also that blaxploitation actually influenced modern Hip-Hop a great deal, as confirmed by Tupac Shakur’s mother in the documentary, ‘Baaaadasssss Cinema’.

Nevertheless, in conclusion I believe Hip Hop has influenced African-American cinema’s representation of gender politics and generally not in a good way.  However I think that this is largely due to the pressures that black rap artists and filmmakers are under to appeal to the demands of the mass audiences as Watkins (1998) suggests.  ‘Blackness has been trapped in expressions of the primitive, the physical body, violence’ (Guerrero, 1998, p.334) and this is what Hollywood and audiences want judging from the success of Boyz N the Hood and Set It Off.

Read more:
Baker, H. (1999) “You cain’t trus’it”: expert witnessing in the case of rap In: Carbado, D. (ed.) Black men on race, gender and sexuality: a critical reader. New York and London. New York University Press.
Guerrero, E. (1998) A circus of dreams and lies: the black film at middle age In: Lewis, J. (ed.) The new American cinema. Durham and London. Duke University Press.
hooks, b. (1993) The oppositional gaze: black female spectators In: Diawara, M. (ed.) Black American cinema. London. Routledge.
Rose, T. (1994) Black noise: rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Middletown, Conneticut. Wesleyan University Press.
Ward, B. (1998) Just my soul responding. London. UCL Press.
Watkins, S. (1998) Representing: Hip Hop culture and the production of black cinema. Chicago and London. University of Chicago Press.

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