Written by McKenzie Gaudette
Gender bias in the corporate music industry remains a prevalent issue affecting female artists and audiences alike through sexualized images, degrading lyricism, and stereotypical normative behaviors. Since rap and hip hop genres are predominately male oriented in terms of the ratio of male to female artists, it has been an uphill battle for women rappers and hip hop artists to make a name for themselves throughout the past few decades. Talented trailblazers like Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah from the 90s have paved the way for recent breakthrough artists like Nicki Minaj, Kehlani, and Tink. However, a closer look demonstrates that the music industry is more interested in selling a woman’s body for profit rather than advance her musical ability as a rap and hip hop artist.
In order to understand why these women are now hypersexualized more than ever, it’s imperative to look at the political and economic underpinnings of the rap and hip hop genres. As with most mainstream music, the target audience for rap and hip hop focuses on what appeals to men. This is due to the fact that this genre was mainly marketed by and through male artists. Monica Lynch, the president of Tommy Boy Records, a hip hop record label that was founded in 1981, states that, “when you look at rap as a subset of the hip-hop culture at large, you see that a vast majority of the DJ’s were male, a vast majority of the graffiti artists were guys, the vast majority of the breakdance crews were men, and the vast majority of the rappers were male. So it was just an extension of the origins of hip-hop culture being a predominantly male culture” (BillyJam, 2009). The music industry is dominated mainly by three major companies including Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group. These three companies owned about 90% of the trending music market released in 2012 (Hubbell, 2014). In the rap industry, major record labels like Cash Money, Def Jam, Aftermath, Roc-A-Fella, GOOD Music, TDE and Bad Boy are all under Universal Music Group, controlling not only what is to be released, but which artists are producing these tracks.
What’s more, the ability for growth and creativity is subjected to commercialism. Large transnational music corporations are focused on what will sell to the target audience, and in most cases, this includes materialism, misogyny, and masculinity (Hubbell, 2014). Due to concentrated media ownership, competition is eliminated, thus creating a larger profit to the few labels that dominate music markets. “The greatest corporate profits accrue when a company can dominate its competition- or ultimately become a monopoly with no competition… Beyond making desirable products, a firm may strive to win the hearts and minds of consumers by developing a distinct image” (Campbell, R., Jensen, J., Gomery, D., Fabos, B., & Frechette, J., 2014, p. 179). Music corporations create this desired and distinct imagery through the hypersexualized nature of women in the music industry. “Particularly problematic for some is that the controlling interests, dominated by white men, are strikingly homogeneous. The danger is that white men have no stake in hip-hop evolving culturally, only in it evolving economically. A look at history tells us that this fear is rational; artists are unique, but to find one who isn’t reinforcing negative racial or socioeconomic stereotypes in order to fit the current template of how a rapper should act is harder than it should be” (Hubbell 2014).
Lyrically and visually, male rappers are expected to focus on a few aspects: the ability to show off their wealth and power with their multiple cars, houses, and jewels along with the materialization of owning masses of beautiful women. However, the expectations for female rappers have evolved substantially throughout the years. When artists like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte first emerged onto the rap and hip hop scene in the 90s, they had to prove that they could be just as tough, just as assertive, and rap just as hard if not harder than the other dominant male artists in their genre. In hopes of breaking the barriers, females had to dress, personify and speak as if they were “one of the boys.” They wore the baggy clothes, embodied aggressive demeanors and spoke with uncensored vulgarity. During this time, female rappers wanted to make a name for themselves, and they did so by mirroring what successful male artists were already doing. In the 90’s, the imagery shift occurred when pop stars like Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera emerged. These artists found that they were able to sell their music with their voices and bodies, which captivated a larger audience. The competition for women in the rap and hip hop industry then shifted towards beating out females in other genres versus competing against the men in theirs. This type of hyper-sexualized imagery has been incorporated in more contemporary music videos, like Nicki Minaj’s infamous Anaconda video that has over 600,000,000 views to date on YouTube. The video features multiple women dancing sexually with limited clothing on, leaving little to the imagination.
One of the primary reasons why women in the music industry are so heavily dependent on their hypersexualized image is due to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated media ownership. “In the years that followed the Telecommunications Act and into the present, a very particular, homogenized brand of women has painted our airwaves. Though the “appearance of porn symbols in music videos is consistent with a larger movement that began in the late ’90s” (Perry, 2003, p. 137), we have underestimated the ways in which this movement occurred after media companies were permitted to own more and more media outlets” (Levande, 2008). Rap and hip hop music videos are the epitome of pornographic culture being mixed in with pop culture. “We see these repetitive patterns because fewer and fewer media conglomerates own more and more of the public’s media outlets. Therefore, programming is given the power to dictate culture, not reflect it” (Levande, 2008).
In music videos, the status of a male rapper is exemplified by the amount of cars he drives, the size of his house/houses, and the amount of beautiful half naked girls he has flaunting for his attention. Buxom women in skimpy outfits are part of the male rapper’s materialistic rewards alongside money and fame. There also seems to be an abundance of music videos where the females are damsels in distress, a patriarchal pre-requisite for a man to come save them. In Drake’s Hold On We’re Going Home video, his girlfriend is dressed in lingerie waiting for him to get home. Cut to the next scene where she is viciously kidnapped by men that drag her out of her home. Drake receives a phone call from the kidnappers stating “he took what’s mine so I took what’s his,” referring to his girlfriend who is surrounded by what looks like a mob. This video not only supports the damsel in distress theory, but also holds that women are sexual objects that men possess, as Drake’s girlfriend is dressed in lingerie while awaiting his rescue. The camera angle is also indicative of a gendered message broadcast to the audience. “Both the placement of the camera and the video within a video are significant. They symbolize consent to both the male gaze and surveillance. The camera’s increasing presence in music videos reinforces the breakdown of privacy and the lack of boundaries in actual life” (Levande, 2008).
In Lil Wayne’s Make It Rain, the music video uses a low angle shot of him throwing his money down to the floor to signify his power and wealth. In contrast, another scene depicts half naked women who are being referred to as “hoes” throughout the song as they dance in nothing but bikinis and heels. These sexualized images enable the audience to connect with the “fantasies” of what becoming a successful rap star looks like. “Women in hip-hop, specifically, have battled against their marginalization since the genre’s inception. However, their inclusion in this male-dominated music culture has drastically shifted in the mainstream reception of hip-hop from their identities as emcees and deejays, who could hold their own against their male counterparts, to their relegation to hyper-sexualized roles as music video dancers, models, and groupies” (Hobsen, 2008). These hypersexualized music videos also have a significant impact on how young girls view and criticize themselves as they grow up. In order to receive and keep the attention of a man, they learn that their physical appearance will always matter. “Today beauty and sexuality are the new, more pervasive standard by which women-and increasingly in men- are judged within media representations and culture at large” (Frechette in Campbell et al., 2014. p. 242). We not only see this type of downgrading behavior visually, but also lyrically in rap and hip hop tracks produced by male artists.
Lyricism also plays a major role in how women are viewed as sexualized objects throughout the music industry. Male artists in rap and hip hop tend to denigrate women sexually whereas female artists in this genre tend to be more self-righteous, confident, and uplifting. A content analysis of lyrics in the forty-nine most mainstream rap songs over a two year period revealed three main themes: “1) consistent with trends in mainstream pornography, women are commonly characterized as sex workers, particularly strippers and prostitutes, 2) women’s voices are used strategically in songs to “sell” particular images of women and gender ideologies, and 3) women are often valorized for their loyalty to male partners despite danger to themselves” (Hunter, 2009). In Wale’s 2014 song The Body, the opening verse starts with “Baby you got a body like a Benz, I’m just tryna drive it once again.” In the second hook, the lyrics include “You remind me of my Jeep, I wanna ride it. You somethin’ like my car, I got the keys to them I need the keys to you.” The underlying message in this case is ownership.
Furthermore, there seems to be no middle ground when it comes to how women are labeled according to male hip hop artists. You’re either the bad girl, gold digger after a man’s fame and wealth, or the loyal girl that would do anything for her man. Though the patriarch is the usual provider for the women, on some tracks, the men list off what they want and expect in the women that they pursue. In Drake’s song Fancy for example, he discusses the importance of normative feminine standards, such as maintaining a polished look and getting your hair and nails done. Mary J. Blige is also featured in the song. We hear her singing in the background, lyrically reinforcing the behaviors of “nails done, hair done, everything big.” Having a woman reinforce this type of behavior suggests that women who care about their appearance will be taken more seriously by men, as well as other women.
This type of double standardizing lyricism is also depicted in Webbie’s 2007 version of Independent Woman. Webbie “speaks of his ideal mate as a college graduate who is financially stable, which is positive; however, the song further describes her as making time to cook, clean, and give him back rubs… Hence, not only is she domestic and hardworking, but also she is willing to cater to his every whim. Having an overachieving woman at his disposal perhaps elevates him in importance, on one hand, but may subordinate his female counterpart, on the other” (Moody, 2011). The expectations sought out for women through male rap artists’ lyrics is overwhelming and unrealistic in most cases. This is one of the main reasons why female rap artists have turned to hyper-sexualization. If she can’t offer a man all that he wants, hopefully her body and looks will be enough.
After decades of successful women in hip hop and rap, why is it that we still see a large gap in the ratio of male to female artists in this genre? Are there just fewer women than men aspiring to become rappers? Or is it due to the lack of support for female hip hop artists endorsed by the media? Female rap artists’ sales ultimately do not equal those of male artists, which is the main contributor for gender inequity by record labels in the hip hop genre. There have been many attempts from rising female rappers in the last decade, yet many have had short-lived careers. Those who have lasted in the genre usually tend to incorporate a sexualized persona in their music and marketing to keep the attention of those who are willing to look twice.
Realistic and equal representations of women in today’s music industry have been distorted in corporate media while cultivating gender bias to sell their music and personalized brand. Through sexualized images, downgrading lyricism, and stereotypical behaviors in the rap and hip hop genres, the music industry is primarily after one thing: money. Whatever gets the consumer to buy and continue to purchase as a loyal customer will shape how and what media corporations sell. In today’s rap and hip hop industry, male artists are encouraged to scrutinize and manipulate women visually and lyrically to imbue the rapper lifestyle. In order to bring about any sort of change to the narrative amongst these gender biases, both male and female artists will need to represent women as equal subjects and artists in need of respect.
Student Author: McKenzie Gaudette, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator: Dr. Julie Frechette, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Communication, Worcester State University
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