Embodiment Through The Male Gaze: Young Women of Color Talk About Their Relationships With Men

08 Mar

We have to be extremely concerned about the fact that young people are receiving a steady diet of misogynistic lyrics and run the real risk of internalizing these messages and acting out accordingly. In my work with young women of color in particular, I have used several tools including poems and prose to open up discussion about these issues. As part of an ongoing series on this blog, we will share some of the resources that have been most helpful to us in our work with young women to address issues of violence in their lives.

Sarita, a young mixed race twenty-two year old interviewed by Tricia Rose in her book “Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy (2003)” eloquently illustrates the connection between misogynistic lyrics/images and the way that young women of color are treated and viewed by men. I have used this excerpt to open up a dialogue about these issues with girls and young women.

“In this music video by the rapper Redman, he is on his rooftop, and down on the street there are scenes of prostitutes. They are black with blond wigs on, short shorts and halter tops and really slimy outfits. The camera is showing their asses and their breasts. They are propositioning men in cars and talking to police in very sexual ways; and the video really bothers me because usually in hip-hop videos, you represent who you hang out with. All their boys are up on the rooftop with them and they are representing each other the way they are; but then when it comes to representing us, they represent us like hookers. But they don’t hang out with women who look like that; the women they hang out with look just like them. They wear baggy jeans, big sweatshirts and whatever. They have their hair and nails done, but they are just average everyday girls. The groupies that hang around Redman may be sexual but they don’t dress like that. That’s not what we look like; and when I go into any black neighborhood I don’t see prostitutes. I don’t see women dressed like that in any black neighborhood I’ve been in, in my entire life.

I don’t understand that. Why is it that you can represent me like that? Why are you representing me like that to the world? It really pisses me off, because I feel like, ‘Damn, I birth you, I raise you, and I break my back to feed you all your life’ — which I am sure every single one of these rappers’ mothers did — ‘and then this is the thanks I get?’ I have a lot of anger about it; it directly affects the way black men treat black women because we’re seen as objects, commodities. Like when I’m hanging around Malcolm’s house, guys drop by all the time from around the way and just shoot the shit and then leave. So they’ll come in, completely ignore me, shake Malcolm’s hand, and sit down. If Malcolm doesn’t introduce me, they can’t come to me as an individual and say hello. They have to do it through a man because in their eyes, I’m his bitch — I’m his property. For instance, it was hot in his apartment and one of them was like, ‘Malcolm, is it okay if I take off my sweatshirt?’ To him that’s respecting Malcolm, but he could have easily said, ‘Do you mind?’ to me. But he can’t communicate with me as an individual, he has to communicate through another man.

It was the same thing when I was walking down the street and this guy was disrespecting me. He was crawling on the ground in front of me pretending to lick my vagina — licking the air and being disgusting in front of me. Malcolm was across the street and he came over and said, ‘Yo, man, what are you doing?’ And the other guy said, “She’s with you, man, I’m sorry no disrespect,’ and gave Malcolm a pound and started to go on his way. I was like, “What the fuck was that?” I said to Malcolm that I was not pleased at the way he handled that. And he was like, ‘What did you want me to do — get in a fight? He had six guys,’ because the only recourse in his mind is to fight someone. I said, ‘No, but you could have said, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be apologizing to me. You should be apologizing to her,’ ‘cause I’m the one he offended. I told him that I can’t make that guy apologize to me because there are six guys there. I’ve seen girls get their asses kicked by guys who tried to proposition them. The girls go, ‘Please, I don’t have time for you,” and the guy chases her down the block and kicks her ass. I’ve seen that happen and everybody knows it happens. I need my man to ask for me to get my respect. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s not great, but at least it’s better than him apologizing to Malcolm as if I was Malcolm’s property. As if he spit on Malcolm’s car and was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ That type of shit happens all the time and it affects the way black women deal with each other.

Another time we were sitting around in Malcolm’s apartment and one of the guys came in with his girlfriend. Malcolm was out of the room, but his roommates were there; his roommates are very rude, and they don’t care about anyone. So the guy came in, and he didn’t get introduced to me. Nobody said anything. So I said, ‘Hi, I’m Sarita. Nice to meet you.’ But the girls, they couldn’t say anything to me and I couldn’t say anything to them because of the way things were. We were property of these men in this social setting, so we couldn’t say hello to each other. We had to be introduced through our male owners. But my male owner wasn’t there, so I did a breach of etiquette by even saying hello to this man; and then when my male owner came in the room, everything was okay again, but I still didn’t get to meet the girls. So I’m sitting here trying to braid Malcolm’s hair, and I’m making a mess of his braids, and I look over to a girl, and I see a way to try and talk to her. So I said, ‘You see what I’m doing, girls? I’m making a mess on his head, huh?’ And she looked at the braid, and she started laughing. She said, ‘I don’t know what you’re trying to do,’ because I don’t know how to cornrow, and I was experimenting. I was like, “Come and show me how to cornrow.” She said, “I know how to cornrow,’ because her man has three kids and she’s telling me, ‘I have to do their hair every morning.’ So, she came over and started to show me how. That’s how I made a little connection with her. And we started talking. It’s like we’re not even respected enough to get introduced to each other. It’s like, ‘You all don’t even matter. Just sit by us and let us have a conversation. Stand on the wayside.’ We’re not individuals on the same level as you to get introduced to everybody the way you get introduced to everybody.

All these images of black women as objects of black men directly affect the way our social etiquette works. And it really fucking pisses me off. It makes me sick because then I have to take it upon myself to breach the social etiquette all the time if I want to be an individual in a situation. And if I want to join a conversation? I’m as smart as anybody else in that room, most times smarter. Why should I sit by the side when they’re talking some bullshit they don’t even know about when I could sit there and school all of them on stuff? Malcolm is fighting with this, and it’s so hard because this is all he knows.” (P. 44-47)

Sarita raises a number of important issues that deserve further consideration. I am particularly struck by her discussion of the social etiquette that exists for young women when they are in the presence of men. The men act as translators and as conduits. Sarita seems acutely aware of the rules but looks for ways to transgress. She seems to be engaged in a one woman resistance. She seems exhausted and resentful [with good reason] at having to fight this oppression. When I have read this passage with girls, they always express a kinship with Sarita. We discuss the harassment that she experiences, the relationship that she has with women, etc… The conversation is always incredibly rich.

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Posted by on March 8, 2011 in Hip Hop, Violence


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