Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cultural Musings: Leadership and Group Participation in the Digital Age

Leadership and Group Participation in the Digital Age
by Sabrina Beram

Technologies that have emerged are providing a new way for groups to form and allowing for new types of leaders to exist. The widespread availability of computers and the internet, now available to more than seventy percent of Americans, allows an individual to espouse a message to the world. Since the common person can reach a much wider audience, people who would normally not be leaders, such as those without a degree from Princeton or a wealth of money or even charisma, can inspire movements. There are groups out there waiting to be led. If an individual takes action and goes against the grain, or the established rules of society, he/she can become a leader given the willingness to embrace technologies. Those technologies, in turn, give the masses the capacity to support an individual’s idea and bolster it up through power in numbers. This is toppling existing societal architectures.

Anyone Can Be A Leader

Breaking down the support behind a strong political candidate has long been attributed to newspaper columnists or public officials involved with the campaign process who wield influence over public opinion. Now, however, individuals are exercising the same power and starting movements by taking the initiative to post on the web. This was exhibited in the senatorial election of 2006 in Virginia, during which George Allen was running for re-election. Allen was favored to not only win re-election as senator but many considered him the front runner as republican candidate for president in 2008. However, the course of events were changed by a seemingly inconsequential, certainly unknown man with the use of an ordinary camcorder and the internet.

At a campaign event at which Allen was speaking, a young Indian American, S.R. Sidarth, was filming the speech as part of his job to track the Allen campaign for his democratic opponent, Webb. Noticing Sidarth, the only non-Caucasian in attendance, Allen pointed to him and said “This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film and it's great to have you here and you show it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never come. [...] Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” (“2006”).

Macaca was soon after exposed as a racial slur meaning monkey. This offensive incident may have gone largely unnoticed in another day and age. The public did not initially discover Allen’s incriminating statements via conventional reporting and established news outlets, but through Sidarth’s youtube posting of the video which made it notorious. Sidarth took a risk by acting on the inclination that his amateur, handheld footage was as worthy of attention as stories in the media shot by professional crews and hosted by well-known newscasters. The video hit number one on YouTube charts and, due to the growing public interest shown through internet activity, it was picked up and broadcast by comedy shows and traditional media. The event in Virginia was small and not widely attended, but with the assistance of easily available technology, the world could see what had happened and those interested in protesting could (and did) rally together and effect change.

Risk-taking is essential for leaders to emerge.

The internet is a tool capable of revolutionizing existing societal structures, but in order for its
potential to be realized, brave individuals, like Sidarth, must be willing to challenge established
architectures in the first place. Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody that “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies- it happens when society adopts new behaviors” (Shirky 160). One such behavior is the willingness to take risks. According to Seth Godin, author of Tribes, fear of change is built in to organisms, because change is threatening. It is human nature to assume that the world is stable, but stability is an illusion. This is evidenced by the technological revolution itself. The United States Constitution is regarded as the supreme guidelines for how Americans lives should be governed. Since the framers of the constitution could not foresee the technology of the internet, there is now uncertainty about the meaning of some of those laws. With the arrival of computer worms which can search for a specific file on computers without the computer owner’s knowledge, there is question regarding the intention of the fourteenth amendment; does it protect against burden or suspicious-less search? (Lessig).

The rush from stability is a huge opportunity that Godin urges individuals settling for hum drum lives to take advantage of. It is much more fun to make the rules than to follow the rules, he exclaims, and people who break away from the confines of established societal structures are being rewarded today. Take, for instance, Linus Torvald’s initiative to collaboratively create an operating system. This seemed like an impossible feat according to the standards of his heyday, but Linux, the resulting product, is now responsible for running about 40 percent of the world’s servers and “has almost single-handedly kept Microsoft from dominating the server market the way it dominates the PC market” (Shirky 238).

The risk is smaller today than ever before.

When a member of society goes against the grain and does something different, they inevitably attract attention. In the past, a rabble rouser with a new idea may have been shunned by the closed- minded community to which he/she belonged, be it a company or a small town. Iconoclasts were justified in their concern that they’d be fired from a job or, in Godin’s words, “burned at the stake.” Information sharing creates shared awareness. Since the internet provides a way to share information on an international scale, new ideas are more likely than ever before to attract positive attention when seen by others who are likeminded with the idea’s initiator.

Clay Shirky observes that over the past 50 years, participation in group activities was on the decline in the U.S. due to “smaller households, delayed marriage, two-worker families, the spread of television, and suburbanization” and while “it is easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd […] it’s harder to find them” (Shirky 193). However, sites like Meetup, are supporting the formation of new groups who “have no culturally normal place and time to meet and no ready way to broadcast their interests without censure” (Shirky 198). Some of the most popular groups were not for older civic groups, but for “Witches, Pagans, Ex-Jahovah’s Witnesses, and Atheists… people who share some religious or philosophical outlook but have no support from the broader U.S. culture” (Shirky 198). Kinship among groups of minority status is “higher than average” and now, with the help of the web, the likelihood that they will find each other is much increased (Shirky 200).

An observable pattern exists in which those technologies that made it possible to communicate bi- directionally did not enable groups to form (ie. the telephone created a one-to-one person information exchange) and those that inspired the aggregation of viewers/listeners did not make it possible for that audience to communicate (watching a particular television show is an experience shared by many people who have no power to interact back with the medium or the majority of other viewers). The internet is a break from that pattern; cybercitizens can create media, broadcast it to many people, receive comments from anyone and everyone who consumes it, and carry on a discourse around the object of attention. This system of increased expressive capability, successful due to a low barrier of entry, is empowering individuals by enabling them to connect with others who share similar interests at a very small cost. Thus, it is less arduous to bypass naysayers and create a new community of believers who can pull their efforts together to nourish an unpopular, yet promising seed of inspiration.

New Tools for bringing groups together

New tools such as weblogs, e-mail, wikis, and cell phones have spawned new forms of easily sharing information and readily organizing by removing the burden that existed before the web. Before the internet, printing presses belonged to the big businesses that could afford them, and the cumbersome quality and degree of work required for an average joe to copy information and forward it more often than not prevented such behavior from occurring since “even the minimal hassle involved in sending a newspaper clipping to a group (Xeroxing the article, finding envelopes and stamps, writing addresses) widens the gap between intention and action” (Shirky 149).

Weblogs, sites in which entries are displayed in reverse chronological order, and e-mail, an electronic way to accept, store, and forward messages, allow information to be both effortlessly forwarded to a mailing list and kept in one location designated for interested parties to leave comments and connect with one another regardless of their geographical proximity or the time at which they choose to engage in the discourse. Wikis, collaborative webpages that enable anyone to contribute to or revise whatever content they want when they want, allow multiple people to work together while sidestepping prescribed procedures characteristic of real world collaborations. Due to this, a wiki serves as a platform for experimentation and can morph from a database to a coordinating resource, like wikipedia did during the London underground bombings of 2005 as people added news and a list of contact numbers for people trying to keep track of friends and family (Shirky 117). The adoption of cell phones with web access have given rise replacement of advance planning with the real time coordination of groups. Dodgeball, a social networking service designed for cell phones, hooks users up with their friends and friends of their friends (by sending a digital picture and the name of the person serving as the degree of separation), spur of the moment based on geographic location. Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect are offering a similar service in the virtual world by allowing users on the internet to connect with their friends on different websites which are not primarily social, such as those for e-commerce and news. These tools solve the coordination problem that prevented latent groups from getting together in the past (Shirky 196).

The role of the leader has changed. Leaders are necessary for the launching of a cause, but for the movement to take off, leaders must permit followers to be leaders as well.

Both Shirky and Godin recognize a need for leaders. Shirky states, “No effort at creating group value can be successful without some form of governance” (283). Shirky’s point that “many people care a little about the treatment they get from airlines or banks, but not many care enough to do anything about it on their own” supports Godin’s key argument that without leaders, internet users are unfocused crowds. An initiator is needed to turn them into tribes with the capacity to create change by working together towards a specific end. For example, without Wes Streeting setting up a place on Facebook to complain about HSBC, a bank that tried to rip off students and graduates with a underhanded change in the policy which had been essential to the recruitment of those consumers, the protest to get the bank to reverse the change would not been able to start (Shirky 180). Once Streeting created “Stop the Great HSBC Rip Off!,” “students began researching and recommending other… banks that still offered interest-free overdrafts,” a product of Streeting’s action that he did not forsee, which was possible due to the freedom afforded facebook users resulting from the flexibility of the tool Streeting chose (Shirky 180). Had Streeting selected a petition format, simple signatures would not have informed HSBC customers of better alternatives and fewer students would have threatened to move their accounts.

Godin insists that leaders in the context of the internet must not be managers. Managers lead for themselves. Leaders lead for everyone. They define a purpose or provide a platform through which interested parties can connect and encourage the members of the tribe to engage and communicate. While it is necessary for a leader to set the ball rolling by motivating through passion and connect people with the same passion, in order to keep followers engaged enough to create a movement, it is vital for a leader to get out of the way.

The founders of Wikipedia learned that in order to for their project to become successful; they needed to adapt both the platform and their manner of guiding progress to give the masses optimum freedom. Jimmy Whales and Larry Sanger took a risk and challenged the typical way reference works are made and distributed when they set out to create a collaborative encyclopedia. The most common criticism of Wikipedia over the years stemmed from the simple disbelief: ‘That can’t work’ (Shirky 115). The first two tries did fail due to the implementation of ineffective top-down strategies. Although interested experts were found to contribute to Nupedia, the precursor to Wikipedia, it did not survive because Whales and Sanger followed the established rules for publication which made for a process of creating articles that was too confining. The advisory board, editorial policy guidelines, and a process for creation, review, revision, and publication of articles bogged down progress.

Ward Cunningham, creator of the wiki observed that “most of the available tools for collaboration were concerned with complex collections of roles and requirements [and he] made a different and radical assumption: groups of people who want to collaborate also tend to trust one another. If this was true, then a small group could work on a shared writing effort without needing formal management or process” (Shirky 111). Whales and Sanger enlisted the use of user-editable websites and faced “vehement objection from their advisory board” (Shirky 112). The founders changed the name from Nupedia to and reached two thousand non-experts through the Nupedia mailing list who spread the word and helped create fifteen thousand articles within the year.

In a segment of Tribes, in which Godin defines necessary characteristics of leaders he states that it takes effort to step out of the way and not micromanage every step. This is the difference between leaders and managers. Leaders who give, he ascertains, are more productive than those who take, and a tribe can sniff out a selfish leader and will not follow. hit a second bump in the road when Sanger stepped out of his role as leader and tried to become a manager. He infuriated participants when he sent the following statement to the mailing list: “I do reserve the right to permanently delete things-particularly when they have little merit and when they are posted by people whose main motive is to evidently undermine my authority and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, damage the project” (Shikry 113). Shortly after, Sanger was laid off and Wikipedia was changed from .com to .org. This move was essential to the continued success of the project.

Guiding volunteers to work together and get something done requires a fine balance between overseeing too little and too much. In Wikipedia’s case, Sanger’s tight oversight was detrimental. This has much to do with why grassroots groups follow a leader or support his cause. People bother to get involved and “cooperate without needing financial reward” because they are “motivated by the desire to do a good thing” and “make a mark on the world” (Shirky 133). Furthermore, Shirky attests, “lack of managerial direction makes it easier for the casual contributor to add something of value; in economic terms, an open social system like Wikipedia dramatically reduces both managerial overhead and disincentives to participation (130). Conversely, Pierre Omidyar, co-founder of Ebay, initially found that additional oversight was necessary to prevent anonymous users from acting on dishonest impulses, such as online fraud, during transactions. Through code, he put in place a restraint on unsavory behavior by creating a reputation system through which users were enabled to report their level of satisfaction with one another (Shirky 284).

Both sites’ wild growth stemmed from the flexibility of role afforded contributors. Wikipedia’s users could act as readers and writers, and the freedom participants had to contribute as little or as much information as they desired to the project. This drastic step away from the established mode of creating an encyclopedia excited the masses. Since they could easily get involved, they had a vested interest in the success of the project and defended against posters of misinformation. Ebay’s users could fill the role of consumers with the capacity to buy and leave reviews of products and distributors where allowed to sell to many people at once while communicating on an individual level to answer specific questions of potential buyers. Thus, a new kind of marketplace supporting home business came into being.

Why Existing Architectures Falter.

As groups come together through the web and rebuild the existing architecture to be more personal and interactive, movements occur whereby the new ways of doing things often alter or displace the existing societal structures. The internet’s facility for “ridiculously easy group forming,” an alternative to managing large scale effort, is posing a challenge to managerial culture and specialized professions previously essential to allowing groups to “tackle tasks that are bigger, more complex, more dispersed, and of longer duration than any person could tackle alone” (Shirky 22, 16). Thus, traditional institutions (commerce, government, media, and religion) quintessential to society as we know it are being destabilized by civilian groups who utilize the principle of power in numbers to call attention to bureaucratic flaws and impact them.

The new group leverage afforded by the internet is allowing ordinary people to talk back to established institutions and change the rules. In 2006, Evan Guttman drew on the expertise of many diverse, interested parties and their public display of dissatisfaction to pressure the NYPD to shift away from their power play resistance (“we make the rules”) and respond to Guttman’s rational request to have his complaint regarding his friend’s stolen sidekick, handled not as a lost property case, in which no action would be taken, to a stolen property case, in which the thief was jailed and the property returned to its rightful owner. Similarly, in 2007, Kate Hanni used the comments section of an Austin newspaper website to galvanize the general public to back up her effort to pass an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights meant to hold airlines responsible for the treatment of their customers during delays. She “drove the creation of an organization within days that quickly went national and had an almost immediate impact, changing the legislative agenda, press coverage, and public expectations of the airline industry” (Shirky 23).

We are already beginning to see the threat of replacement that the modern group dynamic poses to comparatively less effective organizations, such as news corporations and the music industry which are “still reeling from the discovery that the [production] and distribution [of news and music]…is now [not only] something their customers can do for themselves” but something that consumers can do differently (Shirky 23). For example, a slew of bystanders with camera phones can document a newsworthy situation better than professional photographers who contend with time and geographical constraints. And once a picture hits the net in a group forum, the conversation around it can change the function of the photo from mere documentation to a method for awareness meant to galvanize viewers to help find a loved one who has gone missing, which happened several times during the tsunami (Shirky 36).

People integrate a new structure into their identity when they have had a hand in building it up from a mere idea. This is preferable to idly behaving in accordance with architectures that are run from the top-down, as most are in our society due to the organizational dilemma, which is being resolved by the web. This is in accordance with Godin’s assertion that it is much more fun to make the rules than to follow the rules and is resulting in increased use of collaborative community versus corporate systems, as evidenced by Youtube stealing television viewers. BBC reported in 2006, “Some 43% of Britons who watch video from the internet or on a mobile device at least once a week said they watched less normal TV as a result” ( Content on Youtube, Wikipedia, Yelp, Flicker and other collaborative platforms rely on the “wisdom of crowds,” a concept which purports that “distributed groups whose members aren’t connected can often generate better answers by pooling their knowledge or intuition without having to come to an agreement” (Shirky 267).

Shirky ascertains that “All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences- employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration” (107). Lawrence Lessig, in his guest speech at NYU, addressed this point when he posed the question “Is Amazon really just a commercial site? (41:12). At face value, its main purpose is to sell books and products for money, but what made Amazon a success was the value created by diverse users who wrote reviews that helped other people navigate the site by providing better insight into which products might appeal. This service distinguishes Amazon from bookstores and there is no doubt that it had much to do with the fact that, according to a 2008 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, “over the last five years, sales through bookstores rose a meager 3.6%, while sales through Amazon jumped a remarkable 104%” (Milliot). Lessig pointed out that “hybrid economies,” like this are cropping up everywhere in the digital age. The challenge is going to be for companies profiting from crowd sourcing to come to an agreement about how to retain group loyalty while simultaneously exploiting contributors. As individuals realize “These guys are going to gain all sorts of money off our collective backs. Are we going to get anything from that? Not likely” the response will become “To hell with this” (59:30). It looked as though this was going to be the case when Wikipedia contributors protested Sanger’s assumption that he had the right to manipulate user-generated content independent of user agreement, so it is more than likely to be the result when unequal financial gain is involved in virtual environments relying on equality in community contributions. A question posed at the end of Tim Westergren’s speech emphasized this point: “[Do] Pandora users have a right to access their data?” (103:00). Who owns this data? “Who’s providing value to who and how?” (104:30).

Iconoclasts who use the web to spread new ideas rely on contributions of web users in order to incite movements. As these leaders benefit from user involvement, there will be more ambiguity surrounding who exactly deserves to be credited for the success of a movement. This may not be an issue in situations where credit is not synonymous with financial reward, but as the internet increasingly becomes a space for monetary gain and a new economic architecture surfaces, this issue will begin to rise to the forefront.

Today it is much simpler to take a risk by attempting to influence the masses since all that is involved is turning on one’s computer and posting something. Because this method allows individuals to reach a wider audience than is possible organizing face to face, the likelihood that an idea will find support is greater than it has been in the past. Movements created through the internet depend on group formation and the participation of other individuals motivated by an initiator, or leader, of a cause or effort. The collaboration between diverse minds, enabled by web access, in turn helps characterize the internet a generative tool. When many people get involved, new and more efficient ways of doing things arise from the collective intelligence. These modern methods are challenging traditional strategies which have governed organizations necessary to the maintenance of human civilization up until the current era in which modern technologies are being integrated into the public conscious and taken for granted as a part of everyday life. Individuals and groups are more powerful than ever now that computers, cellphones, and cameras are regarded as cyborg-like extensions of the self. These tools, in combination with the web, enable stronger connections to be built around the world, a revolution that breeds more revolution.

Works Cited

"2006 Virginia Senate race."

Godin, Seth. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. London: Penguin Group, 2008.

Lessig, Lawrence. 1999. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Basic Books. New York.

Lessig, Lawrence. "Remix." Computers and Society Guest Speaker. New York University, New

York. 2 Jan. 2009.

Milliot, Jim. "As Amazon Soars, Bookstores Creep." Publisher's Weekly. 14 Apr. 2008. 1 Jan.

"Online video 'eroding TV viewing'" BBC News. 27 Nov. 2007. 1 Jan. 2009.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. London:

Westergren, Tim. “The Future of Music." Computers and Society Guest Speaker. New York

University, New York. 2 Jan. 2009.

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody


reviewed by Sabrina Beram

Here Comes Everybody takes the new technology of the internet and deconstructs it’s effects on social organizing in comparison with technological revolutions of the past. Shirky identifies four such revolutionizing technologies: the printing press, the telegraph and telegram, recorded sound and images, and, finally, the ability to harness broadcast or to send media out to an audience (106). An observable pattern exists in which those technologies that made it possible to communicate bi-directionally did not enable groups to form (ie. the telephone created a one-to-one person information exchange) and those that inspired the aggregation of viewers/listeners did not make it possible for that audience to communicate (watching a particular television show is an experience shared by many people who have no power to interact back with the medium or the majority of other viewers). The internet is a break from that pattern; cybercitizens can create media, broadcast it to many people, receive comments from anyone and everyone who consumes it, and carry on a discourse around the object of attention. This system of increased expressive capability, successful due to a low barrier of entry, is empowering individuals by enabling them to connect with others who share similar interests at a very small cost. This fosters what Bill O’Reilly deems an “architecture of participation” in which “the former audience…react[s] to, participate[s] in, and even alter[s] a story as it is unfolding,” ergo becoming active sources of news, skill-based teaching, and social change (7).

The internet’s facility for “ridiculously easy group forming,” an alternative to managing large scale effort, is posing a challenge to managerial culture and specialized professions previously essential to allowing groups to “tackle tasks that are bigger, more complex, more dispersed, and of longer duration than any person could tackle alone” (22, 16). Thus, traditional institutions (commerce, government, media, and religion) quintessential to society as we know it are being debased by civilian groups who utilize the principle of power in numbers to call attention to bureaucratic flaws and impact them. This new group leverage can change existing rules, as in the case of the stolen sidekick where Evan Guttman drew on the expertise of many diverse, interested parties and their public display of dissatisfaction to pressure the NYPD to shift away from their power play resistance (“we make the rules”) and respond to Guttman’s rational request to have his complaint handled not as a lost property case, in which no action would be taken, to a stolen property case, in which the thief was jailed and the property retuned to its rightful owner.

We are already beginning to see the threat of replacement that the modern group dynamic poses to comparatively less effective organizations, such as news corporations and the music industry which are “still reeling from the discovery that the [production] and distribution [of news and music]…is now [not only] something their customers can do for themselves” but something that consumers can do differently (23). For example, a slew of bystanders with camera phones can document a newsworthy situation better than professional photographers who contend with time and geographical constraints. And once a picture hits the net in a group forum, the conversation around it can change the function of the photo from mere documentation to a method for awareness meant to galvanize viewers to help find a loved one who has gone missing in a tsunami (36). Especially poignant was the trend that even in situations in which a “change that threatens the profession benefits society ..the professionals can be relied on to care more about self-defense than progress” (69). The dictatorial response of the NYPD to Guttman demonstrates this as does the case of the French Bus Company TSE which shockingly attempted to sue former passengers for carpooling (79).

What I liked most about this book was the incorporation of anecdotes to demonstrate each of Shirky’s claims. The stories were succinct and well chosen. Shirky does a great job of clarifying key concepts by first, defining the concept, second, showing how the concept has played out in society prior to the invention of the internet, and third, applying that concept to the effects of the internet on society. Because Shirky drew on the history of the scribe succumbing to the influence of the printing press to demonstrate the power of technology to change existing media systems, he prepared his readers to accept his projections of the future disintegration of news corporations resulting from grassroots journalism, thus, making his assertion credible.

Shirky is incredibly skilled at raising practical questions of latent ambiguity that are becoming pressing issues as the tectonic plate shift occurs within media, my favorite topic in the book. “Who are the journalists” who should enjoy journalistic privilege when anybody can report and publish (70)? If everyone is a journalist entitled to this “safety valve for investigative reporting,” will journalistic privilege compromise the law’s ability to uncover and prosecute wrongdoing to the point that the privilege becomes counterproductive to the maintenance and protection of society (71)? Maybe in the lawmaker’s eyes, but not in those of the journalists’ who fight for the right to get information from sources that wish to remain anonymous and are unwilling to share what they know if their identity is to be publicized. If this investigative tool is extended to civilian Internet reporters, perhaps the traditional journalists will publicly disapprove of their own methods of effective journalism out of self-interest to limit the amount of people who are enabled to do their job in attempt to resist the effect of mass amateurization breaking professional categories (If I can’t have it, no one can). These tough conundrums regarding competing sovereigns and latent ambiguity were the strength of the shift in media topic, because they were thought provoking. It peaked my interest to take action to find out more about the process of how this is being handled and even get involved.

I have two main criticisms of this book. The first is that the repetition made it a laborious read. General ideas that had been solidified very early on (the cosean theory, transaction costs) were reiterated in subsequent chapters with nearly the same amount of detail. I understand that these ideas form the core of the book, but it often felt that Shirky was filling up space, wasting ink and my time by not bringing anything new to the table.

Second, the overt optimism left the book feeling a bit skewed. This book brings to mind Jonathan Zittrain’s z-theory, by which we celebrate the good and do not pay enough attention to the bad when examining the internet as a generative platform. Shirky’s accounts of influential collective action show the ability of groups to motivate change, as exhibited by the “smile mob” which used social networking as a tool for protest in October Square and the 2006 Myspace school boycott in California, but they also illustrate the power of groups to upset order. The power of the groups he cites are only going to grow stronger with each small success. The ability for the underdogs to work together to support one another is a great check on the abuse of power, but what will happen when multiple groups try to influence authorities to opposite ends? Shirky maintains that “technology doesn’t free us from social preferences or prejudices” and that “opposition can strengthen [a] group’s cohesion” (225, 210). What if groups created by large scale divisions organize against each other? When groups resisting authoritative rules become more massive than the authority in question, say the government, how will society function? Once various groups bond together online and reinforce each other’s conflicting views, might we find that a single unifying government is no longer as effective as a sub-divided, group based democracy? Will it mimic the groups within groups within a group structure of Myspace? I think that these questions are beyond the scope of the futuristic timeline in which Shirky sets his predictions. We are in the era of the initiation of lasting internet cooperatives, at the moment where technology has become boring and can be taken for granted while the network is becoming interesting because it is starting to use that technology for new purposes without being bogged down by bugs in the system.

Also, Shirky sanguinely concentrates on the internet’s encouragement of sharing, conversation, and collaboration, but neglects to explore the darker side of the internet as a medium for negative interaction within a group. He identifies love as a motivation for internet groups and points to wikipedia, but offers no equivalent for hate.

A friend of mine has a slight addiction to TMZ message boards, on which fans discuss celebrity gossip and entertainment news. The fact that users return to this site on the daily is evidence that this is a successful platform for group aggregation, but the communication largely consists of participants engaging in inane bickering as they rip each other’s opinions down with personal attacks and hurtful comments, creating a toxic, rather than harmonious environment.

Much of TMZ’s content is the product of paparazzi invading the privacy of the famous and, by giving them attention, the site praises celebrities who engage in unhealthy behaviors such as taking drugs, making obnoxious comments, suffering from body image issues, and snubbing authorities by assuming that they are above the law due to their financial status. By glamorizing such behavior, TMZ indirectly encourages it.

Speaking out in response to TMZ’s posting of a personal and unflattering recording of a heated conversation with his daughter, Alec Baldwin stated “You find out that everybody who works in tabloid media are people who are filled with self-hatred and shame, and the way they manage those feelings is they destroy the lives of other people.” I presume that many of the pedestrian consumers and producers of tabloid culture are similarly afflicted and that is reflected in their bitter group interactions. When they are not threatening physical violence or engaging in offensive name-calling, TMZ commentators are making fun of celebrities. Sure this interaction qualifies as sharing, but the content, in my opinion, is not productive use of time because it is not a healthy influence on users. It is a breeding ground for the reinforcement of insecurities.

I don’t think that such a community would exist outside of the anonymity of the internet. In the real world, when two adults meet, they don’t immediately insult each other’s tastes or open with controversial and opinionated subject matter. Such behavior would be frowned upon and reprimanded. Instead, there is a process of introduction and getting to know one another. This helps foster respectful conversation. If I know my opponent and have the opportunity to find aspects of their life and personality which align with my own interests, I am much more likely to argue a point without attacking them, and a vicious cycle of unproductive hate spewing does not emerge.

Exploring this aspect of group interaction would not have benefited Shirky’s theme that assembly and collaboration on the Internet leads to positive social change, so it is not surprising that he barely touched on it. The negative social change brought about by the ridiculously easy formation of this group as a byproduct of the internet still falls within the jurisdiction of Shirky’s book topic (how society and our lives are transformed by net-enabled social tools) so from the perspective of a reader, his report is lacking.

More time should have been spent on the propagation of rumors and the role of fear, jealousy, and hate within and as a product of group organization on the internet. Have nazi-sympathizers achieved collective action through virtual planning? Are authorities monitoring the potential of such behavior? Are impressionable teens being prepared to and resist recruitment by responsibly processing the content on sites that promote hate? Are cults on the rise? I would have also liked to have read more about how the time individuals dedicate to internet-chat reduces their opportunity to form personal connections with the people in their real-world communities. Is the education system suffering because kids are spending more time learning from internet peers as opposed to teachers? Is this alternative education necessarily a bad thing? My aunt, an art teacher who sees kids getting “dumber” each generation due to internet usage would. Virtual friends cannot provide the same emotional support as is offered by a real world person who comforts a friend in trouble with a physical hug or a place to stay. Is the increase in virtual group support as opposed to physical support contributing to depression?

I think Shirky would respond to my criticism first by maintaining that positive collaborative groups survive negative groups interactions since the pattern is that users who feel mistreated will leave a conversation or troublemakers are chastised and blocked in most online communities. Then, I think he would look at the positives by stating that message boards like TMZ’s and the social group interactions that take place on them support the right to free speech, so their existence is valuable. He would add that the member retention rate demonstrates that it feeds some desire of the members who use it as a platform for discussion, so it does enrich their lives by their standards. Shirky addresses the questionable nature of groups that bond over unhealthy behavior in his comments surrounding the pro-anorexia self help groups, when he states, “Sorting the good from the bad is challenging in part because we’re used to social disapproval making it hard for groups to form (207).” It is dangerous to condemn individuals for exploring interests considered taboo by the general public, since that stifles freedom of choice, but I think that Shirkey would have better substantiated his position that group forming on the internet will lead to positive social change if he has proposed some potential solutions for the regulation of harmful efforts. His optimism would have come off as more credible if he has tipped the scale more towards the middle, acknowledging crime as an alternative outcome of anonymous internet group forming and providing examples of how checks on these behaviors have been implemented.

I think that the power of organizing without organizations will have many affects in the future. I predict group organization online will guide the way we organize reality. More easily than ever before, the internet enables us to find others with similar interests, and those people affirm each other’s identities. This is attractive and leads to individuals investing more of their time interacting virtually, yet Shirky reminds us that the “popularity of Meetup groups suggests that meeting online isn’t enough” (198). When internet users bond online, trust is built and communities thrive. Why not use those groups as the basis for interest-themed housing communities? My second prediction is that group action on the internet will be increasingly regulated by code by changing the architecture to reduce anonymity. This will be necessary to crack down on the dangers of bringing anonymous group formation from the realm of the internet to that of reality. For example, if more strangers meet up in person, this may lead to untraceable crime. Untraceable crime will lead to more crime since there is less threat of consequence. More crime will inspire terror, and as Lessig explained in Code 2.0 with the Patriot Act example, terror gives the government license to increase control. Thirdly, I think that huge strides in intellectual development will be made at a faster speed than ever before. Pulling resources and diverse contributions together will advance the upper academic sphere. Just as free software collaboration lead to the creation of the valuable GNU/Linux Operating System, academic collaboration may lead to the concoction of better vaccines, the development of alternative energy, or the design of a high dynamic range video camera. More can get done faster with more people working together in a virtual environment that allows for flexibility in time and geography. The threshold for finding and integrating good ideas has been lowered. What affect this will have on education, law, and the market is yet to be determined.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Artist Spotlight: Christina Aguilera

CHRISTINA AGUILERA; Past, Present, and Future

by Sabrina Beram

Christina Aguilera is one of the few, if not only, modern popular musical artists who understands the importance of visual aesthetic expressed through fashion as just as vital an element in imaging as musical output. She has remade herself nearly as many times as Madonna, twisting her look in every direction, and, not surprisingly, has cited the older American music icon as an artist whose career she emulates, gushing, “I love Madonna for her strength and discipline. Her ideas are amazing, and she tries to go above and beyond in challenging herself. I love people who stand up for what they passionately believe in and don’t back down.” (3).

Christina lives by these words, pushing the limit both in her personal life and career aspirations. She exhibits Madonna’s discipline, excelling at everything from video gaming, “I’m extremely good at video games…I have all the top scores…I love absorbing information,” to re-aquiring her pre-baby body in record time through a rigorous 90 minute a day workout regime, as well as Madonna’s drive for innovation (3, 1). “I constantly change my image. I’m a very visual artist and am constantly trying something new,” the petite bombshell announced with assertion in a Billboard article titled “Better with Time.” (Better with Time).

After nudging her way into public consciousness as a preppy Mousekateer at the age of twelve, Christina used the recognition garnered from the Disney Channel stint in combination with her powerful pipes (she was selected to record “Reflection” for Mulan based on her ability to sing a high “E” in full voice, which she documented with a cheap Radio Shack recorder in her bathroom circa 1998) to obtain a contract with RCA. Her self-titled solo album Christina Aguilera released August 4, 1999. To put it lightly, Christina was less than satisfied with the experience of working with a major label under the exclusive representation of Steve Kurtz, lamenting “The first album was an uphill battle for me, and I really feel like I paid my dues on that first record. Being part of a huge pop explosion, I was very pushed by the label to be, act, dress a certain way, and it was tough” (4).

Looking back, especially in the wake of her more empowered incarnation of femininity, one can conclude that Aguilera was blatantly exploited as a tool for maintaining male domination of the media during America’s cultural pop phase. The music video for “What a Girl Wants,” in which Christina performs for what is presumably her boyfriend, demonstrates this point. The entire video is framed from his perspective, or what is deemed the ‘male gaze’ in Fashion, Clothing, and Social Revolution. The function of the cinematography reflecting such a gaze is to reduce the female—here Christina is symbolic for all females—to “being [an object] to be viewed,” thereby rendering her passive and subordinate (148). During the song’s breakdown, Christina whispers “What I want is what you got. And what you got is what I want….You knew me better than I know myself,” which reinforces the notion that men, who produce most of the media consumed by young women, know best. This validates their superior stance while insisting that their influence over the construction of feminine inferiority complex is inescapable. The garter worn on Christina’s leg, a key signifier in the video, speaks to this ideological entrapment. Christina, adorned with a tiara and fluffy crinoline skirt to emphasize her childishness follies, pulls up her skirt and flashes her garter, a wedding leg band meant to suggest her ownership by a man, to the shock of geisha-like, faceless powdered girls dancing circles around her. This is to say that it is alarming that she would share her sexuality with others besides the man to whom she belongs.

Christina’s Sketchers advertisement campaign has similar implications. As deduced from the 1930’s vehicle, the ad is set in a 1930’s/ 1940’s time period, an “era before patriarchal dominance was threatened by racial, gender, and sexual liberation movements [in which] pulp fiction novels [which] capitalized on violent masculine fantasies of heroism and highly sexualized female victims” were popular (Lemley 7). In her insightful dissertation titled “Gendered Construction of the Female Identity,” Julie L. Lemley deconstructs this product of “consolidated media [which] proceeds from a narrow ideological range which is dominated by a white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal perspective” (3).

In this advertisement, Christina poses as both a submissive woman under arrest and a dominatrix police officer. Lemley argues that these two images of a single person, “while showing both sides of her character, actually limits her within a narrow and sexualized range” (3). As the arrestee, Christina appears “weak and childlike” wearing “a studded leather belt and chains [that] identify her as youthful” ala the youth punk aesthetic, while holding a pose in which she “stands on toes which lifts her rear end upward, exposing it while turning it sideways to reveal her chest” and expressing a “look of surprise/ fear…[which has an] association with sexual vulnerability and victimization” (Lemley 6). As the aggressor, Christina touts “leather boots, knee highs, high-heels, [a] too-tight, opened, shortened shirt, [and] tight pants” which, along with “glasses pulled aside to reveal eyes” and a pose (unlike that of a male cop) consisting of a “twisted, hard ‘S’ turn at the hips,” strip her of power by sexualizing her and defining her as a seductress (Lemley 6).

To add insult to injury, Kurtz took advantage of Christina financially by over-working her while embezzling funds. She terminated their contract early and embarked on a new ‘dirrty’ phase, through which she therapeutically processed what had happened through her music and imagery. On her next studio album, “Stripped,” Christina aligned with social rejects and presented herself as a victim of aggressors, not the least of which was her father, a Sergeant in the U.S. Army whose physical abuse prompted her mother to leave for Pennsylvania with a then-seven-year-old Christina and her sister. At this tender age, Christina began pursuing a career in entertainment, performing in local talent shows and on Star Search, which spurred jealous peers to slash the family’s car tires and attempt assaults on Christina in gym class.

The images presented on the album “Stripped” were “highly suggestive of battery and violence against the subject” characterized by “blackened eyes, [being] stripped of clothing, fetal positioning, avoiding eye contact with the viewer, and/or a timid frightened look” (Lemley 9). In an analysis on the effect this may have on Christina’s young female fan base, Lemley interprets the aforementioned imagery as sending the message “no matter how powerful you are, no matter how high you go, no matter how successful you become, you will always be a sexual object. Your ability to achieve is sustained entirely by your value as a sexual object” (9).

However, this narrow view does not take the entire “Stripped” image and concept into account. In a comment on the intention behind the album, for which Aguilera co-wrote 14 songs, the newly brandished ‘Xtina’ stated, “I feel a responsibility almost to share some of the things that aren’t kind of the brighter sides of my life. If I can give [people] something that they can relate to they might not feel so alone in the circumstance” (4). This materialized in the video for “Beautiful,” which took on issues of body image and sexual identity, featuring an anorexic girl smashing a mirror, a man cross-dressing in a bra, two boys locking tongues, a skinny nerd weight lifting, and an outcast girl having her nose broken by a gang of three classmates- after which each character smiles in acceptance of their circumstances and self. The message here seems to be less one of validating the perpetrators, than one of defiance against the status quo. This is supported by the track “Oh Mother,” in which Christina “praises her mother’s bravery and courage in the face of her father’s abuse” (4). Again, the vibe is one of ‘the underdog will prevail, will survive, and will emerge stronger.’

Alongside “Beautiful,” the song and video for “Dirrty” hit the media ciruit like a shock. This was the 21-year-old’s undeniable attempt to shake off the squeaky clean image with which she had been associated since the Mickey Mouse Club. A Newsweek article, “Red Hot Blue” described the music video look as “black-market adult film” in which Christina “dressed in leather chaps, red undies, and a bikini top...writhed around in a skeezy boxing ring surrounded by signs that read, in Thai, YOUNG UNDERAGE GIRLS” (8). Christina’s sexual rebellion was encapsulated in her break from the Western standards of beauty with tattoos, piercings (including one on her genitals), black streaks tainting her blonde hair and dreadlocks, a hairstyle which originated in an early 1930’s sect of Rastafari when “the marginalized poor of Jamaica ceased to copy the hairstyle of Haile Salassie I of Ethiopia” (Wikipedia: Dreadlocks). In a Bowie-esque move, Christina put her money where her mouth was with this risky career move and literally reinvented herself into an outcast; her “scantily clad alter ego ‘Xtina’… widely derided for dressing like a streetwalker” appeared multiple times on Worst Dressed lists (9). When questioned regarding her overt sexualized image promoting the objectification of women in a Glamour Magazine interview, Aguilera employed the feminist strategy of reversal as she ‘soapboxed’ about a woman’s right to choose to wear as little or as much clothing as she sees fit, asserting, “I think women are sensual, beautiful beings, and I feel empowered when I express myself sexually” (10).

Ever bolder with each ensuing album, Christina stood her ground against the cautionary words of her label boss Clive Davis and set to work on her next album, a concept piece in the form of a “2 cd, 22 song set executive-produced and co-written by Aguilera - with the aim of paying homage to her heros while inventing something completely new” (4). Christina was forced to find a new producer when, again, she was slighted by a significant male in her life, Scott Storch, the hip-hop heavyweight from Miami who produced seven tracks for “Stripped.” Storch made several egotistical cocaine-induced demands of Christina which inspired the track F.U.S.S., or Fuck You Scott Storch, which ended bitingly with “Looks like I didn’t need you. Still got the album out” (9). Realizing the importance of finding the right person to work with, Christina explained, “I put together a CD of music I’m inspired by. I called it the “producer’s package,” and I wrote a letter to [prospective producers] saying “These are songs that I’m inspired by. Please listen to them, reference them, use bits and pieces, experiment, and enter this world with me” (3). She settled on not one, but two producers. The first disc, primarily produced by DJ Premier, “combine[d] old-song sensibilities with hip-hop elements, samples and modern technology” such as drum machines and synths, while disc two, produced by Linda Perry feature[d] all live instrumentation,” including horns and a Georgian choir, “with no samples” (4).

“Back to Basics,” as the project came to be titled, demonstrated Christina’s creative potential, and she received praise in the Rolling Stone feature “Dirty Girl Cleans Up:” “It’s impressive for Christina to see such an ambitious take all the way through. Overhauling her image, conceptualizing her album, overseeing every facet of production down to the CD booklet- it’s control freak perfectionism worthy of Madonna” (9). Billboard Magazine saw the same maturity emerging in Christina, emphasizing how “She stressed continuity that would run through all facets of the project from the songs, imaging, videos, and touring that would combine the music with visuals that were a “throwback to old Hollywood glam, that kind of old, retro, pinup style of sexuality” (4).

Again, Christina aligned herself with a marginalized demographic, although this time around, it was based in race as opposed to gender. In an interview for the L.A. publication Advocate, she shared, “I’m reading Etta James’s autobiography right now. I love her ballsy attitude. In her day, with racism going on in extreme and having to face all that, that’s very powerful to me.” The influence for the album was the vintage soul, jazz, and blues singers of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s whom Christina had grown up listening to as an escape from the domestic violence characterizing her early home environment. “There’s a lot of pain and angst in those songs,” Christina reflected, “They spoke to my life before I moved in with my grandma- my father, all the abuse I endured” (8).

Although Christina cites retro African American singers, Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker astutely observes “she establishes her affinities, but saying doesn’t make it so… there are precious few audible connections to any music pre-dating the seventies soul of Stevie Wonder.” The early 1900’s influence is more evident in the look Christina adopted while promoting the album; “I would surround myself with old imagery of [Billy Holiday, Pearl Baileys, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis]. Actors call it ‘method acting,’ It was my way of method signing” (4). Christina lugged photos of the greats to board meetings and brought them along on tour. She emphasized the importance of image and clothing and the emotional response it evokes when prompted to speak about her signature vampy red lipstick, purring “Just to get into the song… to convey that emotion and high energy, especially to belt out some notes, the red lipstick helped me get to that mind frame…The red lips are- I don’t want to call them armor but they’re the clothes of my character, and I’m in the business of entertainment. Wearing red lipstick helps get me into that world… There are so many more sides to me than my voice. I love theatrics and have a huge imagination.” (4, 10).

Just as Christina looked to pinup artist Alberto Vargas was inspiration for her video, “Candyman,” she is purportedly looking to another graphic artist, Andy Warhol, to inform the look to accompany her forthcoming album Light and Darkness. Light and Darkness will undoubtedly bring about another radical image reincarnation, as suggested by the titillating sneak previews from the commemorative exclusive Target-release “Keeps Getting Better: A Decade of Hits” which includes “ new remixed versions of “Genie in a Bottle” and “Beautiful,” titled “Genie 2.0” and “You Are What You Are (Beautiful), respectively, plus the new songs “Keeps Getting Better” and “Dynamite” [alongside staples].” After taking listeners back in time, it seem only appropriate that the Mickey Mousekateer- turned sexpot shift gears and race towards the future. Christina’s audio team- including Sia, Le Tigre, and Ladytron- is poised to support her fresh vision: “I wanted to go in a completely opposite direction- a very futuristic, robot sounds and computer- sounding vocals. I’m experimenting with my voice in ways I’ve never done before, almost like a technical, computer-generated sound, which is different for me because I’m the type of vocalist that just belts” (2). Christina is already expressing her embrace of technology in her latest video “Keeps Getting Better,” in which the ipod touch makes an cameo, an animated robot jolts to the electronic beat, and Christina meshes with the digital world, appearing as a digital vixen laser projection- only one of the custom comic bookesque versions of herself that she conjures on pixelized flatscreens as a hoodied computer hacker-like mastermind dressed like you and me. Living the new image, Christina premiered the Peter-Berg directed video on October 27, 2008 on iLike, the music social networking site’s Facebook application, “making Aguilera the first major artist to use iLike for a video premiere” (2).

Christina Aguilera is an independent thinker and talented musician. She is a marker of our time, reflecting societal cultural and political trends. Her themes about feminine pride echo key moments in the Third Wave feminism movement of the 1990s such as the Anita Hill testimonial against sexual harasser Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the passing of the Violence Against Women Act, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rise to prominence in politics, and the popular phrase “You Go Girl.” She remains just as relevant in the 21st century contributing to and incorporating the mass acceptance of gay rights, multiculturalism and the election of America’s first black president, and the lightning speed growth of the Internet into her work. Christina is constantly trailblazing, walking herself down the marriage aisle, fearlessly confronting taboo subject matter, and always keeping an eye to the future. A true role model, the substance she brings to the music community is a refreshing necessity in light of most talentless, shallow, pretty, and vacant pop queens of today.

(1) Christina Without All the Drama

By: Laurie Sandell

July 1, 2008

Glamour Magazine

(2) Better with Time

By: Mariel Conception

November 25, 2008

Billboard 120 (no. 45)

Copyright 2001, VNU Business Publications, USA

(3) Christina Up Close

By: Dennis Hensley and Jill Greenberg

September 12, 2006

Advocate (Los Angeles, Calif)

Pages: 43-4, 46, 49

(4) Old School

By: Melina Newman, Ellen Von Unwerth, David Greenwald

July 29, 2006

Billboard 118 (no. 30)

Pages: 24-6

Copyright 2001, VNU Business Publications, USA

(5) Pop Rocks

By: Marion Fasel

December 2008

In Style 15 (no. 13)

Pages: 150-2, 154

(6) Sex Symbols: Pop Music

By: Sasha Frere-Jones

September 4, 2006

The New Yorker (Vol 82/ Iss 27)

Page: 137

Conde Nast Publications Inc.

(7) Better with Time

By: Mariel Conception

November 25, 2008

Billboard 120 (no. 45)

Copyright 2001, VNU Business Publications, USA

(8) Red Hot Blue

By: Lorraine Ali

July 31, 2006

Newsweek 148 (no. 5)

Pages: 50-2

(9) Dirty Girl Cleans Up

By: Austin Scaggs

August 24, 2006

Rolling Stone (Iss. 1007)

Pages: 49-52

(10) Christina: An Initmate Talk About a Past That Still Hurts

By: Laurie Sandell

December 1, 2006

Glamour Magazine

(11) Gendered Construction of the Female Identity

By: Julie L. Lemley


Journal of Undergraduate Research, MSU-Mankato (vol. 5)

Pages: 1-14

Cultural Consideration: Exploitation of Women in Hip Hop

by Sabrina Beram

Professor: Bill Adler 
(the original Director of Publicity at Def Jam from 1984 to 1990)


There are several theories about the origin of the misogyny which has surfaced in the hip hop culture. One is that it arose from behavioral codes and mores passed down from slavery. In an insightful essay “The Exploitation of Women in Hip-hop Culture,” the author, known only as Ayanna, recognizes that when at a hip hop event, she and her friends “normally expect [to] be disrespected verbally and physically,” and she looks to African American history for an explanation of why this treatment of women is so readily accepted in the black community. Ayanna asserts that unhealthy hip hop values stem from the collective consciousness of African American youth due to “mainstream American ideas that have now been…embedded into the psyches of American people of color over time. The stereotype of black women as “promiscuous and oversexed [which] has shaped some black women’s sexual morality” emerged from practices in slavery when black women were often “forced to have sex to pay for food, the safety of her children, or to be treated less harshly on a day to day basis. They were "paying" with their bodies as a survival strategy” (Ayanna). Since black women continue to “have less access to power, material wealth, and protection,” they continue to “[use] sex (in prostitution and various other domains) as the "bartering chip" to gain access,” as they have done in the past (Ayanna). After slavery, in an attempt to “take on ascribed white gender roles [, s]ome black men wanted black women to have a subordinate role in the home while some women wanted men to be the sole economic providers…[and] these same obsessions are demonstrated in hip-hop culture” (Ayanna). Sure enough, in a study conducted by Faye Hutchinson of the University of Houston about black male/female relationships of the hip-hop generation, many black men in the hip-hop culture that were interviewed valued economic resources and used these resources as a way to manipulate and control women, keeping them submissive in exchange for material wealth and power, while some women bartered with their bodies, using sexual power to profit financially from men fulfilling the role of breadwinner.

The fact that many women who come into contact with rappers do display what is commonly referred to as whorish behavior also contributes to sexist vibes in their music. The aforementioned historical explanation brings light to the reason why women support the misogynistic environment, buying cds with sexist lyrics and volunteering to strip down for music videos. It is undeniable that “rappers meet women daily who reaffirm their depiction of [black women] on vinyl (Morgan 122). Backstage, the road and the hood are populated with women who would do anything to be with a rapper sexually for an hour if not for a night” and “hundreds of bikini-donned women show up for the music video shoots as unpaid participants…. [i]n order to gain access to [material] things and to get the love and attention from men” by catering to demeaning images of what men think they should be (Morgan 122, Ayanna). Many rappers probably feel similarly to Wendy Day, the head of the Rap Coalition, a woman who has had the opportunity to see the life male hip hop artists lead first hand. “The image of women in rap has always bothered me,” she said, “but on the other hand, when I’ve gone out with rappers it is downright ugly to see how women throw themselves at fame” (Y. Jones V1). Thus, it may be that the scantily clad, sex-hungry women who appear in hip hop videos and rhymes are truly accurate portrayals of the kind of women rappers most encounter.

Male insecurities pertaining to their relationship with the opposite sex also influence the gravitation towards anti-female lyrics. Revenge songs by female rappers “tended to be a celebration of female sexuality as a weapon or tool” and suggested “women are unable to gain control any other way” but their willingness “to manipulate [men’s] desires for [their] purposes” (Goodall 88). Men often express their apprehension over this vulnerability in their raps. Hip Hop feminist Joan Morgan also points out that the anger towards women is justifiable for those artists “who couldn’t get the time of day from these women before a few dollars and a record deal” (156). Morgan also cites men’s degradation of women is a result of their pains in dealing with an inferior social image in comparison to Caucasians. She asserts that the disrespect for women stems from the fact that “for all the machismo and testosterone in the music, it’s frighteningly clear that many brothers see themselves as powerless when it comes to facing the evils of the larger society [such as racism]…’the bitch hoe bullshit’ isn’t personal, but part of the illness” (155). Men are subjugating black women in attempt to heighten their own status, selfishly and rashly sacrificing the integrity of their female counterparts in attempt to salvage their own. This is evident in lyrics such as those by the Ying Yang Twins, in their hit “Wait,” which portray women as nothing more than available bodies existing to reaffirm that black men have something valuable to give: “Switch positions and ready to get down to business/ So you can see what you’ve been missin’/ You might had some but you never had none like this” (V. Jones D1).

Yet another view is that the misogyny expressed in hip hop is just an expression of American ideals, not specific to the black community. Hip hop is reflective of society at large, and according to Mark Anthony Neal, a prominent African American studies writer, “[i]n many ways the images and lyrics used to objectify women of color in hip-hop videos serve as metaphors for the ways that American society actually treats those women” (“Hip Hop’s”). Gwendolyn Pough, the author of Check It While I Wreck: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere notes, "rappers become grunt workers for the patriarchy: They sow the field of misogyny for the patriarchy and provide the labor necessary to keep it in operation, much as Black men and women provided the free and exploited labor that built the United States" (“Hip Hop’s”). Neal asks us to “remember, the black men on the screen are ‘performing’ -- performing their notions of how American masculinity embodies power through force, violence and exploitation,” such as that prevalent in the White House and the Pentagon (“Hip Hop’s”).

It’s interesting that women were not always portrayed in hip hop as sexual objects or sources of frustration. In the 1980’s and early 90’s, rap was more concerned with “police brutality and the limited horizons for young blacks living in the inner city” and this is what the likes of NWA, Ice T, and Public Enemy rhymed about (V. Jones D1). Where hip hop artists were once rebelling against the white power structure, now they answer to predominantly white music industry executives with the power to shape rap’s content. MC Lyte suggested that the adjustment in women’s images around 1992 coincided with hip hop’s acceptance in the mainstream, proclaiming, “There’s some law… They say after 500,000 [CDs], you're selling to a whole different realm. Now you are selling records to young white boys. I think once the corporations understood that, that was their time to come in and take control of it. Once the control was taken away, then came all of the nonsense" (V. Jones D1). Moya Bailey, a student at and feminist activist a Spelman College, a black women’s school, asserts, “There aren't really pictures of [black women] in school textbooks or things that counter the images that are seen in music videos… I think it's deliberate. The media does an excellent job of keeping those more positive images about us away from people” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Tricia Rose, author of a book on black women’s sexuality called “Longing to Tell,” also implies that white supremacist conspiracy may be at the core of women’s portrayal, claiming, “Hypersexual deviance…is tied to the logic that cuts welfare policies for black women, right? The idea that they’re promiscuous, they’re irresponsible or they’re emasculating all those kinds of representations that impact policies” (V. Jones D1). However, The notion that the sexism exhibited in hip hop is an American, as opposed to an African American (or specifically anti-African American) ideal is supported by the fact that “hip-hop is hardly the first, or only, form of contemporary music to portray women in an unflattering light. In the 1970s, and even more so in the 1980s, it was the spandex-clad, heavy metal crowd whose lyrics, videos, and album covers portrayed women as sexual objects” (Weisstuch). And if misogyny wasn’t already ingrained in the white community, the mass amounts of albums purchased by white youngsters are sure to plant it there.

A final possible source of the sexism in hip hop music and videos is the nature of the rap industry. It’s vital not to overlook the fact that rappers are engaging in a business, competing in an industry which revolves around money. “We live in a society where sex sells, and rappers are no different from other musicians. Sex sells and these artists know that,” stated Wendy Day, who runs an advocacy group that tries to educate rappers about the hip hop business (Y. Jones V1). She has met a slew of big time controversial emcees including Nelly and Lil’ John and verifies that their public persona is a far jump from their private personality as exhibited by Day’s testimonial, “[W]hen I have met them, they have had nothing but the utmost respect for me or their wives, mothers, and daughters” (Y. Jones V1). Dawton Thomas, who is responsible in part for some of the risqué photos of women that have shown up in King Magazine disclosed, “In the hip-hop industry, we get so competitive and do what will win and what will sell and go to any ends to make that happen. You get so caught up in competing that you may drop your guard and do something crazy. For example, if Smooth or Maxim has a hot girl that we featured or wanted to and they get her in a swimsuit, I think I want to show her topless in a thong. Or they photographed her with body paint, I have to put a vanilla wafer over her chest…. Eventually you'll have a butt-naked woman just standing there” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).


The most significant result of the diffusion of hip hop is that this and following generations of hip hop consumers have internalized the images and the behavior exhibited in videos which have become adopted and accepted.
It is a widespread belief that mainstream hip hop may influence young people who have no sexist tendencies to adopt misogynistic behaviors due to the understanding that it is acceptable and as a means to associate with the popularity of hip hop lifestyle flaunted in contemporary advertisements, films, and videogames. There have been several shocking accounts of people expressing this belief. At a discussion about the effect of rap on impressionable spectators held at Fashion Institute of Technology, an overwhelmed schoolteacher in the audience shot back at Remy, a female artist responsible for the song Lean Back which alludes to oral sex, “If you don’t believe hip hop is affecting young people, join me in the schools where junior high girls are (performing fellatio) in the hallways” (Dawson). The generation gap was apparent from a different crowd response as voiced by younger people who “repeatedly claimed that hip hop’s depiction of women accurately reflects the behavior of some females” while “older folks [insisted] rap’s content negatively affects the behavior of both young men and women” and may have contributed to the formation of the view held by members of the younger generation in the crowd (Dawson).

The view of the elders is shared by Zenobia L. Hikes, who in a piece for Black Issues In Higher Education wrote, “The ultimate tragedy … is that young children who do not have the cognitive ability to differentiate between illusion and reality are continually exposed to a genre of "entertainment" that serves as the predominant and prevailing expression of African American culture (4). For non-Black children, it creates gross misrepresentations of the Black experience. But its impact is exceedingly worse for Black children, particularly for young Black girls whose self-worth and self-esteem are frequently being shaped by these unrealistic and harmful images of Black womanhood” (2). In alignment with this concern, when Vibe contributed to the acceptance of the objectification of women by handing out an award to the sexiest video vixen, reader Djenaba Kelly reamed the publication out in a letter asking, “How can a young lady learn to respect and honor herself when all the messages thrown at her by [the] media tell her that she must become an inanimate sexual object in order to get any recognition?”(V. Jones D1). A study done by which found that “young women ages 16 to 20 who watch hip-hop videos are 60 percent more likely to be sexually active, contract an STD or abuse alcohol and drugs than those who don’t watch such videos” definitely presents the case that many young women use video vixens who receive adulation from males for engaging in these behaviors as role models and view the hip hop video environment as the only arena through which they can receive love and attention (Vaughn).

Hikes continues “The prognosis is not much better for young Black boys constantly exposed to the glorification of the "thug life" and its perpetual cycle of violence. Generations of African American boys now need to be reprogrammed, coaxed into an attitudinal shift that socializes them to think differently about their life choices, to view women - their mothers, sisters, daughters - as having far more value than a mere "dime-a-dozen," and to recognize that the vulgarity of excess, the insidiousness of crime, and the irresponsibility of promiscuous behavior will, assuredly, not put them on the path toward success” (4). This eloquently phrased academic take on the effects of hip hop entertainment is verified by Wilder Lee, a Melrose High School English teacher, who concludes from his observations of students emulating the rap lifestyle in reality everyday that “a generation of kids are internalizing a message that computes a woman’s assets in terms of body parts…They don’t separate fact from fantasy... When I ask kids what they want to do when they grow up, rapper is at the top of the list” (Y. Jones V1).

There is evidence that “if a man labels a women with any of these names [used to degrade women in hip hop], he may feel justified in committing physical or psychological acts against her” like those showcased in music videos where rappers, imitating pimps, promote violence against women for disobeying (Ayanna). A disturbing parallel was drawn by Kayce T. Ataiyero in her 2006 Chicago Tribune article “Exploitation keeps time with rhymes.” She opens by describing a new Amp’d Mobile Commercial in which a white man on a public bus commands “an ample-bottomed black ‘shake your junk’ [and] on cue, she jumps up, grabs the bus pole and pops her booty up and down to the beat. The tag line for the commercial…says ‘Have the power to entertain yourself”. Then, Ataiyero cites a Villiage voice article that stated 70 percent of hip hop sales are made to whites and demonstrates that “young white men and women …appropriate the images from rap videos in the name of being cool” by recalling a “straight-thuggin;” costume party thrown last November by white students at the University of Chicago.

Immediately, she poses the question, “Did a similar spirit of imitation prompt the Duke lacrosse players to hire two black strippers to dance for them [one of which accused some white athletes on the team of raping her in the heavily media-covered scandal]?. The Amp’d Mobile Commercial, the music videos, and the hip hop lyrics contribute to black women “being stereotyped as hypersexual toys of wealthy white males…[images] that date to the days of slavery” and now has planted the idea “Why shouldn’t America feel it has the power to use black women to entertain itself?” in the minds of both white and black men in positions of power (Ataiyero).

Worldwide these stereotypes of black women are disseminated. Since white women are more diversely represented in the media, they have the opportunity to be portrayed as having many different images and viewers are less likely to pin them down to one representation. Moya Bailey points out, “With White people, you have a wider range of depictions. You might have Roseanne, which represents a low-income White family, but then you also have Frasier and Friends, which represent wealthier White people; so there's a range.” Conversely, as Michaela Angela Davis, an editor at Essence expresses, "If [white women are] not cool with Britney, they can go to someone else. What's happened in hip-hop is we [black people] don't have all those choices anymore" (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Stereotypes of black women don’t only inform how African Americans come to view themselves, it also impacts how people of other ethnicities come to view them. "While there's sexism out there in society," says Cathy J. Cohen, director of the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, "we have to be especially concerned with media images [of black women] because, in fact, that's how most people understand and interact with black communities. We live in a segregated society. People generally don't interact. They may work with someone of a different race, but they don't socialize or go to church with people of a different race. So the way you get introduced to other racial groups is often through the media" (V. Jones D1). This is true not only in America, but on a global scale due to the dissemination of hip hop music world wide, as evidenced by reports such as that received by Davis in which a writer for the magazine Honey wrote about her experience as an exchange student in Spain where… she was "solicited for sex just because she's a black American" (V. Jones D1). This is not an isolated case.

The black community is torn – women need to distance themselves from hip hop’s abusive relationship at the risk of being unsupportive of their men, but the disunity exists because women used to feel complimentary to their brothers, whereas now they feel like they have been labeled the enemy. Joan Morgan wrote, “Nobody even talked about sexism in hip hop back in those days [of early rap]…Nobody cared…Perhaps it was because we were being acknowledged as a complimentary part of the whole” (Morgan 122). Today, however, women feel that they have been sold out. Morgan states, “We have come to a point in our history …when black on black love- a love that’s survived slavery, lynching, segregation, poverty, and racism- is in serious danger… In the last thirty years, the number of black two parent households has decreased from 70 to 35 percent. The leading cause of death among black men ages 15-24 is homicide. The majority of them will die at the hands of other black men…women are the unsung victims of black on black crime” (122). “Many men… who battle racism and oppression themselves everyday have been conditioned by society not to trust or love, and if they do not love themselves, it is difficult for them to love women or anyone else in a healthy manner” (Ayanna). The greatest remedy for this is distance, but if black women are to dissociate from their men, it may cause African American communities to crumble.


Professionals in the hip hop industry who play either a direct or indirect part in promulgating sexist images of women take one of three paths. The first is the righteous one which requires them to sacrifice job opportunities.

Joc Mac, a popular party DJ and producer in Kansas City states “The path [of the music content] should have been steered in a different direction a long time ago. Now it's about the money, and sex sells. It's just not my bag… I don't need to hear some of that stuff. It just makes me uncomfortable… I choose to not play that music. I feel like I need a shower after some of those records….The awkward position for me is which venues are going to be risk-takers and allow me to play a different form of hip-hop. I might be less popular now, but at least I have my integrity” (Osterheldt). Fatima Robinson, video director and choreographer, grieves, “As a music-video director, I have problems all the time getting work, because I refuse to write the treatments that record companies want -- hot girls, cars, palm trees and so on. At some point you have to give in and do something, and try and do it in a stylized way, so it doesn't depict us as even crazier than what's out there. After getting the songs and listening to them over and over and over, I just say, ‘No, thank you’" (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).

The second route is one accompanied by a feuding consciousness. In radio, Julee Jonez, a radio personality and co-host of "The Breakfast Jam" on KPRS-FM in Kansas City, is on the fence., announcing, "We are put in a hard spot because we don't directly choose the music…But we have to guard ourselves and use the most-clean versions possible. But we do receive backlash. If we pull every Lil Jon and Ying Yang Twins song off the air, the numbers will suffer” (Osterheldt). Danyel Smith, author, and a former editor-in-chief of Vibe, maintains, “When I put women on the cover, it was always my goal to make it interesting. With women the easy thing is to put someone in a sexual pose or in an outfit that shows off her body. I would have to do what I had to do sometimes and find my balance somewhere else….. I used to watch with a business mind-set. How much money did they take to make this? Who is the director? Is it going to help sell the album? Now I think, Do I like this? Is it fun for me? When I watch it, my reaction to the video depends on how I'm feeling about myself. If I'm having an insecure day, I'll probably feel angry at this narrow idea of women that is being shown over and over on the screen” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Jay "Icepick" Jackson, senior vice-president of A&R, Ruff Ryders Records states, “I have a 7-year-old daughter, and she can't listen to my music. She can't listen to it in the car, not in the room, and she can't watch videos” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Similarly, Kim Oserio, Source magazine editor in chief ascertains that as a mother of a 3-year old daughter, she “tries "very hard not be bothered by some of the images…on the cover of the publication she runs.” “I just really try to be neutral for the benefit of the magazine and the business,” she says (Murray).

The final path is taken by professionals who engage in in misogynistic behaviors themselves. For example, There have been allegations of “racial insensitivity, glorification of violence, and allegations of widespread sexism by major media outlets such as the longstanding hip-hop magazine The Source, a NYC institution that nonetheless influence[s] public perception of hip-hop culture nationwide” (Arnold). Source co-owners Dave Mays and Raymond "Benzino" Scott have been accused of “blatant gender discrimination and harassment” with reports that Benzino has “regularly stalked and harassed female employees, calling one woman up to fifty times a day[,] publicly referr[ed] to his own partner Mays as a "bitch" and "stupid motherfucker" [,] refused to hire qualified female applicants for open staff positions, complained of "too much estrogen" during a fashion department meeting, and demanded closed-door sessions with no female staffers present to select models for fashion shoots…, overlooked a male employee's statutory rape charge, and killed an investigative piece into the Kobe Bryant case” (Arnold). It’s both alarming and telling that this “anti-woman climate” is present at a magazine that “at one time was considered the bible of hip hop” and probably played a part in propagating some sexist behaviors (Arnold).

The second group coping with co-existing in such an atmosphere consists of female performers who define themselves within the male expectations. Toure, pop culture correspondent for CNN and author, put it succinctly, “Female rappers are either boy toys (Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown) or tomboys (MC Lyte, the Lady of Rage), both of which are personalities constructed around a masculine norm rather than a female norm” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Pioneering female rappers fall into the latter category. Acknowledging in their raps that they engaged in sex meant that these women risked being labeled a ho, indicating that they were naïve or irresponsible, which in turn would result in them suffering degradation exercised by men in attempt to hurt their chances of rising in the field. Consequently and understandably, these females hid their sexuality by “[wearing] baggy clothes, [writing] asexual lyrics, and [focusing] on addressing legitimacy and virtuosity as an MC” (Goodall 85). MC Lyte deferred to male counterparts as exemplified on her first album cover on which she “posed to the left of and slightly behind her producer, the King of Chill, while her disc jockey, K-Rock reaches an outstretched hand toward a ‘traditional’ female, complete with long straight hair, tight mini skirt, and red spiked heels- a woman whose face, significantly, runs off the page” (Goodall 86) Queen Latifah acknowledged her female identity claiming her “existence as a strong, confident politically-aware black woman” but left “issues of sexuality out of her music and persona entirely” in the beginning of her career. (Goodall 87). And Salt n’ Pepa brought female sexuality to the forefront of feminist hip hop discourse, but “still [fell] shy of expressing a woman’s desire for sexual fulfillment on her own accord,” instead discussing “fending off sexually aggressive men [and dwelling] on the negative consequences of sexual activity” such as STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and categorization as a sordid whore, undeserving of respect (Goodall 87).

These ladies’ early concession to the sexist notion of success sent the message that a masculine image is synonymous with success, and reinforced the masculine grasp on the rap industry (Goodall 92). Until TLC, a group that asserted “black women’s economic (Depend on Myself), psychological (Shack that Monkey), emotional (Baby-Baby-Baby), and sexual (Ain’t Too Proud to Beg) independence and their ability to dictate and take responsibility for the terms, the processes, and the outcome of their own experiences,” women emcee’s lyrics promoted a fear of sex and hindered women’s involvement in healthy sexual behavior (Goodall 86). All of the emcees mentioned above proved themselves with their talent, helped dispel misperceptions that women couldn’t rap with their success, and, in effect, made it easier for women to enter the industry and be taken seriously while not having to compromise their sexuality as much as their predecessors (Goodall 92). Still, contemporary rappers like Rah Digga, the only female in Busta Rhyme’s Flip Mode Squad, face challenges in the chauvinistic industry which still tries to dictate their image. Digga admitted that “her raspy deep voice and facial expressions were considered ‘too hard core’ by producers and record executives. She said they preferred a softer, more sexualized style in female performers” (Thompson).

The second category of hip hop female were those to engaged in the field in order to exploit the existing sexist notions to their benefit. Some women emcees dressed to look sexy by male standards. This was done because they could acquire an instant audience, but it came at the expense of being reduced to a sex object and not being taken seriously for their craft (Goodall 87). Numerous female MCs and video models in the business claim they are not offended and make a living off of the images hip hop promotes of black women. An article titled “Some Women Rappers Say Negative Portrayals Just Part of Business” states, “these days, a considerable number [of women] are using the same lewd terms to describe women and sex…And it’s making them successful… ‘Ben-da, bend that thang over. Yeaaahhh! Ben-da, bend that thang over’ goes the chorus of the…hip hop single “Vibrate,” [which enabled] rapper and mother Rasheeda [who] for the past 11 years…has been trying to make it in the music business…now [to have] a singles deal on the same label as R&B giant Usher and contemporary pop icon Britney Spears” (Murray). 

White Chocolate, the model who had a credit card swiped through her ass crack by Nelly is one of many with the opinion, “If anything, hip hop has been very, very good to this woman right here,” a statement based on her huge house and slick sports car (Murray). “No one is exploiting me. No one is making me do anything I don’t want to do,” she contends (Murray). Shawna, the sole female rapper on Ludacris’ label, Disturbing the Peace, agrees as she references her single “Shake That (Expletive)”, stating “I’m in control of what I say and do… "And these men don't hold a gun to these women's heads and say, 'Take off all your clothes basically, and dance this way (in videos).' They get in these long lines at the model calls dressed that way” (Murray).

While many women in the videos are proud of their bodies and feel honored to represent, other artists like Melyssa Ford, a former video model and cohost of BET Style acknowledges that she “decided to exploit [herself]” but feels justified since it was a way to “help pay [her] tuition [not as] a way to meet rappers” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82). Others such as Karrine Steffans, author of “Confessions of a Video Vixen,” admits that she got in over her head and outright warns about the effects of working on videos, reflecting, “I wish the industry would provide some sort of counseling. I wish someone would have told me what was going to happen or called me to see how I was doing. No one wonders how you are feeling or who you are" (Osterheldt). Her recollection of the video-making experience is one characterized much more by coercion than collaboration. “You are performing a service to help this man sell records…They give you the clothes to wear, tell you where to stand and how to move. If a man tells you to shake it like a salt shaker and you do it, (people reprimand you) and call you a ho,” she clarifies candidly (Osterheldt).

Finally, male rappers tend to defend their misogynistic lyrics and videos as innocent entertainment. Nelly, for instance, claims, “Part of the reason rap artists come under fire more than any other group is because people don't respect what we do as art. When actress Halle Berry appears in Monster's Ball, people separate the character from the real person, and she wins an Oscar! A rapper couldn't use a line describing what she did in the movie, let alone film it in a video, without getting heat for it. So I accept my role and my freedom as an artist, I respect women and I'm not a misogynist. I'm an artist. Hip-hop videos are art and entertainment. Videos tell stories; some are violent, some are sexy, some are fun, some are serious. As for how women are shown in the videos, I don't have a problem with it because it is entertainment, whether it's Dilemma or Tip Drill, Mos Def or Terror Squad” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).


Many members of the hip cop community continue to consume the music and images for the entertainment value. Although they find the lyrics offensive, many men and women continue to buy hip hop music for several reasons. One is that the instrumental flow of the music is fun to dance and listen to, since “the thinking is, if it has a good beat and you can dance to it, then why not?” (Osterheldt). Another element is the sex appeal as blatantly referenced in hip hop feminist, Joan Morgan's rhetorical question: "How come no one ever admits that part of the reason women love hip-hip -- as sexist as it is -- is 'cuz all that in-yo'-face testosterone makes our nipples hard?" (Neal “Critical Noir”).

Many women, however, feel hurt and confused by the manner in which the are represented. A common response is for them to feel black male’s failure to love them. In her essay “Fly Girls, Bitches, and Hoes: Notes of a Hip Hop Feminist,” Joan Morgan desperately pleads “why [do] you find it necessary to hurt even those who look like you?” and explains her tendency to search for an answer in hateful rap lyrics through her statement, “my decision to expose myself to the sexism of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg, or Notorious B.I.G is really my plea to my brothers to tell me who they are. I need to know why they are so angry at me” (26). Recalling her response to their words Morgan gushes, “As black women, we are hurt when we hear brothers calling us bitches and hoes [but] the real crime isn’t the name calling[; it’s] their failure to love us, to be our brothers in the way that we commit ourselves to being their sistas” (154).

Confusion also exists regarding identity for women who are self-sufficient and independent but who also love the hip hop they were raised on. In the Essence article, Ayana Byrd and Akiba Solomon articulated this feeling of identity anxiety when they wrote, “We are mothers, sisters, daughters and lovers of hip-hop. We've emulated the sexy confidence of Salt-N-Pepa and the toughness of MC Lyte. We've wept over Tupac Shakur's visceral poetry and marveled at the lyrical dexterity of Notorious B.I.G. When Nas said, "The World Is Yours," we believed him. And today we stand at the forefront of popular culture: independent, talented and comfortable with the skin we're in. We are really feeling ourselves… [Yet] when we search for ourselves in music lyrics, mixtapes and DVDs and on the pages of hip-hop magazines, we only seem to find our bare breasts and butts” (82). The lyrics by D12, "All the independent women in the house, show us your **** and shut your ***********'mouths," which convey an attitude typical in gangster rap, are just one example of from where the bewilderment expressed by Byrd and Solomon stems (Ramirez and Goodin and Lytton).

A growing amount of the hip hop audience is outright appalled at the portrayal of women and some listeners, of both genders, refuse to listen to the rude lyrics. Aaron Wedgeworth, a hip-hop dancer and junior at Paseo High School in Kansas City, Mo., asserts, "The lyrics make the artists look unprofessional, and it seems like they are lowering themselves…I live hip-hop. But you do have to work harder to find music that isn't negative, violent and sexist,” and Meigan Yarbrough, a senior St. Teresa's Academy in Kansas City opts for conscious rap and claims, “[If] the message is degrading….I won't dance to it, and I just won't listen to it” (Osterheldt). Many others agree with the notion, “I long for the days when the music was about lifting up the race, not your skirt…[when] socially responsible lyrics [like those of Common, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def that] touch on the problems and solutions in our community were the rule, not the exception (Atayero).


The most direct strategy for changing the current misogynistic face of hip hop is to start with the consumer taking a stand by not buying the product, protesting, or voicing complaints. This tactic is working to enact change at The Source Magazine. Hip hop feminist Joan Morgan along with activists Elizabeth Mendez Berry and Jeff drafted a petition denouncing ignorance exhibited at the magazine and holding influential advocates of the magazine, such as Reverend Al Sharpton, accountable by association, putting them on the spot to incite chastisement of the magazine in order to cover their own reputations. The petition garnered “more than 1,300 signatures in a mere four days” and the magazine appears to have taken a significant credibility hit with “rumors [escalating] that the mag's circulation is down, while the ad count has dropped a precipitous 10 percent in the past twelve months” (Arnold). An interview of young hip hop consumers found that, “All the young people [they] spoke to at first said they would still buy the records. But after thinking about what their money was funding, some changed their minds” and urged that “Not buying gives a message to the industry that just might be powerful enough to make things change” (Ramirez and Goodin and Lytton). In the past few years, students have been a great force in voicing the disapproval of the distasteful portrayal of women in hip hop, targeting the infuriating video for “Tip Drill” in which Nelly, with friends, throws money at women’s crotches and slides a credit card between one woman’s buttocks. Students at Howard protested in front of Viacom in the middle of December 2004, students at Spelman College protested against Nelly performing on campus for their bone marrow drive also in 2004, and in 2005 Arkansas State University banned Nelly from making an appearance (Y. Jones V1).

More widespread debate and spreading awareness about the misrepresentation of women in hip hop is the best way to garner support for a revolution in rap. One means of conversation about the misogyny issues in hip hop is the internet. According to a writer for Express, “ it's apparent that the recent trend of blog- and petition-filled attacks on hip-hop's gender and race offenders has been strikingly effective on a grassroots level, filling in the accountability gap left by commercial media outlets, and showing a willingness to go after the culture's sacred cows and mainstream Goliaths alike….proving once again that the court of public opinion must be respected” (Arnold). Also, hip hop artists, executives, and listeners are being brought together for discussion by Michaela Angela Davis, co-founder of Essence magazine's “Take Back The Music Campaign,” an attempt to spread a more balance view of black women via conferences, such as that held at the University of Chicago in 2005 which attracted 1,000 attendees from around the world. She notes the importance of the fact that "There are more black women entering college than you see on stripper poles,” and intends to make sure that this fact is widely recognized (Jameson 1). Many organizations, such as the National Hip Hop Association, “a New York-based promoter of hip-hop as a socially legitimate means of self expression and way to educate youth,” are encouraging dialogue in the classroom and National Hip Hop association took the bull by the horns, hosting a convention in New York City which was attended by over 300 teachers (Thompson).

Use of the hip hop medium to express a need for change and as a forum to discuss the problems plaguing the black community is a popular solution as well. Efforts like that of H-Town in 1997 with their project “Ladies Groove” is a prime example of the way in which African music can be used as a healing medium. The R&B trio stated that the album “attests to their maturity and triumph over mistakes we’ve made back in the days…and hopefully we can inspire other men to change their views and respect and uplift their women” (Moorer 23). The jams featured served as a plea for men to be loyal in marriage and, with lyrics “[giving] props to women who’ve evolved into basketball players, CEO’s of companies, and politicians,” it also acted as “a cue for women who’ve lost sight of self-respect, urging them to love themselves” (Moorer 23). Rochell D. Hart in 2002 stood out in support of enacting change with her C.D. P.I.M.P., which stands for ‘poetic intellectual making progress.’ With rhymes like “My inner spirit called out and demanded I be more than the images I too often see/ because I don’t want to be another booty-bouncin’, loud talkin’ ghetto-unfabulous girl,” her songs call for a “’reborn black woman’…free from both the constraints of history and the current MTV hip hop attitude toward black women as easy ho’s or shallow materialistic bitches” (66). It is the opinion of hip hop scholar, Mark Anthony Neal that “Hip-hop has provided a forum for black youth to discuss issues of economics, politics, gender and sexuality. More often or not black youth have done so to the deaf ears of black politicians and Civil Rights leaders… I don't think [the medium has] yet met its potential as a truly engaged space for political or economic change” (Forman).

Evening out the representation of men and women in the hip hop and showing more of a variety of black women is a sure way to dissolve the hoochie image. Source magazine editor-in-chief Kim Osorio acknowledges that women have come a long way. “[W]omen have a lot more control these days than people think, or see," she says. "There are enough women in the game right now that dictate a lot of the stuff that's going on. On the record label side, in the media, even as video directors” (Murray). Many of these women are helping to take a stand. Medusa, a performer is acting on her observation that “To me, there're a lot of female emcees that get knocked down. They don't have that support like male emcees to get back up," said Medusa. "I want to pass the torch to other sisters like me who are in their late 20s and early 30s. I want to help these sisters hone their crafts and get into the music industry like we used to do back in the day” (Shivers B6). On the literary front, The Poetess, a distinguished hip hop journalist is writing to promote ways “ women can … improve their presence in hip hop” (Shivers B6). She believes that getting women to believe in themselves and the power they already have within is key. In the film world, Lisa France has given a voice to “young women who want to be heard and are afraid they may not be” as she brings the struggles of Cynthia Gimenez, an aspiring rapper, to the screen (Thompson). Also, UCLA student Rachel Raimist directed a documentary titled “Nobody Knows My Name” which “was a concept that grew out of hip hop not recognizing the force and impact females have made here,” the filmmaker said (Shivers B6). Mark Anthony Neal agrees, “a genre that been dominated by men, women do have an impact on hip-hop as video directors, set designers, stylist, A&R execs, etc., but we still see only the basic stereotypes of women when hip-hop hits the screen or the airwaves. Thus most audiences haven't heard women like Bahamadia or Jean Grae (pound for pound, one of the best in the game now) and those who have heard artists like Lil Kim choose—or are forced—to downplay their artistic skills in favor of marketing their sexuality” (Forman). Hopefully this is about to change.


One huge obstacle is that women feel that for taking a stand, they will be criticized for not standing behind their black men- they must choose to support their race or gender. History appears to be repeating itself as the lack of activity on women’s parts to attack the issue in the past few years can be attributed to the same sentiment expressed “in the 1960’s when black women were reluctant to join the feminist movement, there’s a lack of desire to demonize black men.” Women who take a stand against successful black entrepreneurial rappers are faced with the criticism, “Are you not supporting the progress of the black community?” (V. Jones D1). Even at Spelman College, the students who attempted to discuss the way women were portrayed in Nelly’s video for “Tip Drill,” felt that their “questions were recast as vociferous attacks that allowed people to feel sorry for Nelly as a supposedly helpless bystander caught in the misdirected rage of black women,” and, ironically, some of their greatest condemnation spewed from the mouth of a former civil rights leader (Bailey).

Another point of contention is that artists fear career suicide if they stand up to powerful executives. Cheryl "Salt" James from Salt-N-Pepa understands that intimidation, exclaiming, “(Hip-hop godfather) Russell Simmons is powerful. P. Diddy? Powerful. People treat them like gods or something. . . . And no one wants to speak against these powerful forces for fear that they may be shut up. Shut down. Or shut out” (Murray). Plus, as Mark Anthony Neal points out, “By asking hip-hop to reform, we are essentially demanding hip-hop's primary consumer base to consume music that is anti-sexist, anti-misogynistic and possibly feminist. And in what context have young white men (or black men for that matter) ever been interested in consuming large amounts of black feminist thought?” (Neal “Hip Hop’s”). Not only would hip hop have to find a new audience, but the genre as one of the few places for black males to verbally work through their masculine complexes, voice their opinions, and be heard would be a devastating loss.

Additionally, socioeconomic conventions promote self-defeatism for a large percentage of the hip hop audience. Women speaking up is regarded an entitlement for middle and upper class women, but a waste of time for lower classes. As signified in the TLC song His Story,“[t]he attitude ‘we can’t get justified until we speak up’ is a typically middle class view, held by women who have been socialized to believe that their voices will (indeed that they even should) be heard. For poor and working class women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, the prevailing belief is not that verbalizing the experience… will end it ; rather (as always) “they’re gonna believe/ his story over mine.” Thus “his story will be his story and/ my story is a waste of time” (Goodall 91) Indeed, it may be the people of lower class origin who are in need of demystification about black women the most. These are the children in the ‘hood who are affected by hip hop’s images because they “don’t got parents who are going to tell them right from wrong. Some parents are working three jobs,” as Vibe writer Kevin Powell pointed out when BET professionals, who run many “hoochie aesthetic” videos, put the responsibility to shelter kids from disturbing images on parental intervention (19). Karrine Stephans even attributes the lack of parental involvement directly to the fact that women identify with hip hop images, stating, “As a society, we are well aware of what happens with young boys and girls without fathers. Women are looking for an authoritative figure; they are looking for a voice. They don't have it at home or in the community, so they instantly turn to the most prominent male voice, and it's hip-hop” (Osterheldt). Consequently, as Carolyn West, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, University of Washington, Tacoma laments, “My fear is that girls don't even see their own victimization anymore. They say, "I'm a bitch, I'm a ho, I'm a tip drill’” (Belair and Byrd and Solomon 82).

Artist’s refusal to acknowledge to impact of their actions or take responsibility is another reason why the transformation in hip hop’s portrayal of women may be stunted, or never realized. The women who pose in videos insist that they only represent themselves, and while they feel autonomous in this decision, it is important for them to understand the impact of their actions. They need to realize that they participating in the misrepresentation of all black women. Artists must also own up. Many of them shirk their responsibility, insisting that the women who undress in their videos would have been doing so anyway. Ultimately, however, these artists are accountable for the images that appear in connection with their artistic view. Finally, lyricists who promote the promiscuous connotation of black women and may indirectly influence such behaviors to occur with listeners should try to balance out their message and make sure that if this is “entertainment,” their audience fully comprehends it as such.

Finally, a major barrier to those trying to enact change lies with the American press, which shows opposition to touching on the problems in society as a whole. In their attempts to use the national attention for the Nelly protest to spark a public critique of how women are portrayed in the broader context or society, Moya recalls that she and her classmates at Spelman “in every interview… stated that this is systemic, a part of the larger racist, capitalist, patriarchal society we call America. But once you start talking about interlocking systems of oppression, the press stops recording” (Bailey). The FCC even labeled lyrics in the song "Your Revolution by Sarah Jones which " takes shots at the sexist lyrics of artists like Biggie ("Big Poppa"), LL ("Doin' It"), and Shaggy ("Boombastic") as “vulgar” in what Mark Anthony Neal calls “an ironic twist that perfectly captures the struggles of those who try to hold hip-hop accountable (1) Also, hip-hop journalist, historian and DJ Davey D, cautions, “It's the music and program directors along with record label executives who control the airwaves… if people don't start to examine how songs get on radio and television and start talking to decision-makers," Davey D says, talking about changing the situation "is a meaningless conversation” (Osterheldt).

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