Roundtable: Sexual Media Images of Black Women

The alleged rape of an African-American exotic dancer by white Duke University lacrosse players has raised questions about how the news media is portraying the woman in the case. Guests: Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of African-American studies at Duke University; Karrine Steffans, a former video dancer and author of Confessions of A Video Vixen; and Shaheem Reed, hip-hop editor at MTV News.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, on a special Roundtable, the alleged rape of an African-American exotic dancer by white, Duke University lacrosse players continues to make headlines. This story has raised some interesting questions, among them, how to portray the woman in this case. Some media have focused on her status as a single mother and college student moonlighting as a dancer. Others have defined her by what she does for a living.

The emphasis on the latter raises a larger question about the racialized sexual images of black women today, and throughout history. This is an issue Mark Anthony Neal has thought about quite a bit. Neal is associate professor of African-American studies at Duke University. His latest book is New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity. Also with us, Karrine Steffans, a former video dancer and author of Confessions of a Video Vixen; and Shaheem Reed, hip-hop editor at MTV News.

Welcome to you all.

Ms. KARRINE STEFFANS (Author, Confessions of a Video Vixen): Thank you for having me.

Mr. SHAHEEM REED (Hip-Hop Editor, MTV News): How are you?

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Associate Professor, Duke University): Good afternoon, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, I'm great. I just have to say, this is an issue I think about a lot, on a deep level. Which is that hip-hop has come to be a multibillion-dollar, global industry. And yet, men and women are in completely different positions within it. Mark, let me start with you. You wrote this book New Black Man, but how can men and women come together to have a common understanding of what the rights and privileges of sex are?

Prof. NEAL: Well, one of the problems with the way that women are portrayed in hip-hop is that very rarely they have any agency, is very rarely a sense that they're in control of their bodies when they circulate in these music videos. And I think the reality is that there are folks who can't quite understand, with so many more black men having some form of control over the images that go out with hip-hop - the content of the lyrics, et cetera - why black men would feel compelled to portray black women the way they have been portrayed in some cases.

Of course, I'm not talking about all hip-hop, but we're talking about most viscerally, you know, the commercial hip-hop that's out there. And I think part of that has to do with the fact that just as a community, we really have not had serious issues about gender and black women's issues to concretely address how these images circulate within hip-hop.

CHIDEYA: You're on the campus of Duke University, you're a professor. You've called yourself a black, male feminist. You're married. You got two baby girls. How do you perceive the mood on the campus of the university?

Prof. NEAL: When I talk to some of the African-American women students, there is some concern. I mean, it's been voiced in interviews with many of them that have now circulated around the country and the globe. It's almost as if whenever they're in spaces with men, it's almost as if they're expected to act out the images that these young men have been seeing, have consumed in the context of hip-hop videos.

And I think the thing that's really striking about the university - the Duke University lacrosse case, is that folks really can't understand, why were these white guys interested in a black dancer? Well, if they're white guys that are 18 and 19 years old that have been watching BET and MTV for 19 years, they clearly have a specific sensibility about black women's bodies as being available to them, as being a sight for them to enjoy themselves. And, in the worst-case scenario, be able to do anything they want to them sexually without there any - being much resistance.

And this really isn't a new phenomenon. I mean, this is the history of black women's bodies in this country, this idea that on the one hand, black women were beyond rape and this idea of black women being hyper-sexualized. What hip-hop has created a context for is that these black women's bodies now circulate in the globe in a way that's unprecedented.

And I want to be clear: I'm not saying that this is about hip-hop. This really is about corporate America and corporate America's willingness to circulate these images of black women's bodies around the globe. Hip-hop just happens to be a vehicle where that occurs.

CHIDEYA: Karrine, your book, Confessions of a Video Vixen, has become a bestseller. Take me back to the first moment that you were in a hip-hop video and that you had to show a lot of skin.

Ms. STEFFANS: Well, at that time, it was about six years ago. I'm 27 now; I was 21 then. You know, before I starred on my first video, I already had a perception of what I wanted to be. And I got that image from other videos. Coming from an abusive background, I wanted to feel and be beautiful. I was looking for someone who looked like me and I wanted to emulate that beauty. That beauty came in the form of videos.

You know, you didn't see many black actresses in movies and other things. It's like, we were only on BET. We were only in the Jay-Z videos - and whatever it was. And so when I got to the set, I just wanted that so badly. I wanted to be beautiful, which is something I never thought I was. And I loved it.

The way that is different from who I am today is that I now realize that all attention isn't good attention. All money isn't good money. And beauty is so much deeper. It's really an internal process.

CHIDEYA: At the same time though, you are a beautiful woman. I'm not trying to get all crazy here, but I'm just saying that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: ...if you and I were walking down the street together, you would get a lot more attention than me.

Ms. STEFFANS: But you understand...

CHIDEYA: Lady!

Ms. STEFFANS: But you understand it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STEFFANS: That brings up a good point, because you understand - and this is the misconception that we have - it's because I'm symmetrical. It doesn't mean that I feel beautiful. You know, you have people like Halle Berry. The whole world was in shock when Eric Benet went through what he did with Halle. Oh, my gosh! How could he? She put up with a lot for a reason. And he wasn't the only one.

You know - and so a lot of times the most beautiful women are the most insecure, because we are only told that we're pretty - I personally wasn't, but a lot of girls are - oh you're pretty, you're pretty, you're pretty. That doesn't mean that you think that you're smart. No one ever said to me, you know, you're smart, or what else can you do besides but take your clothes off? And, therefore, I didn't feel powerful, I did not feel worthy. And all of that, to me, is part of beauty.

CHIDEYA: Shaheem, you work at MTV and we've recently done a segment on another MTV show. I used to work there as well...

Mr. REED: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...kind of what strikes me is that when you look at old hip-hop videos - and I mean, from when I was a teenager - it's all performance. It's guys in just jeans and a T-shirt having a good time. And now the female body has become a primary driver of what a hip-hop video is. Why did that happen?

Mr. REED: You got to look at it back in the days like the late 80s, the early 90s. It was just a better balance in hip-hop music, period. You had your Public Enemy's you had Tribe Called Quest, KRS-1, Kid 'N Play and a lot of these people, their content that they brought forth varied. Public Enemy talked about uplifting the culture so, obviously, they wouldn't have anybody in there dancing in bathing suits.

Where, you know, now the shift - a lot of the shift in music, what's getting played on the radio are the party anthems, the get down, the popped champagne. And, if you put a video out, you want visuals to coincide what you're talking about on your song. So I think that's why we're seeing more of it.

CHIDEYA: But the question for me is, who's driving the lyrics? Are artists driving lyrics, are companies driving the lyrics? Are the audience, which is increasingly become young kids of all races, driving the lyrics?

Mr. REED: That's pretty much what it is right now. A lot of the audience, they want to hear those party songs. Hip-hop, we go through so many different phases, like we went through a gangsta phase, we went through the pro-black phase. Right now, it's all about partying. As far as the responsibility on it, obviously, an artist is responsible for what he makes, but this is entertainment.

CHIDEYA: And yet, when I talk to young women all across the country about hip-hop. They take it to heart. You know, there's kind of two reactions I see. And I want to ask everyone about this, but you first, Shaheem.

Mr. REED: Okay.

CHIDEYA: One is, when they hear bitch/ho lyrics, they're like, I'm not that girl who they're talking about. And the other is, I'm really glad that they're using these bitch/ho lyrics, because then I know how they really feel about me. How do you, as a man, feel about those two concepts of what those lyrics mean?

Mr. REED: A lot of these artists, they're making music that's a reflection of what they're thinking at the time. You know, they might've just came from a club and had a bad experience with a woman so they're going to reflect that in the music. See, hip-hop is the most real music that's out there. It's very emotional, it's very firsthand, it's very autobiographical.

So, at that point in time, they could have been thinking about calling a woman a bitch. It could be a particular type of woman that they call it. I think if you ask any rapper, they wouldn't say that they think all women are bitches.

CHIDEYA: Karrine, how do you feel about the idea, that this is just a form of accurate expression of how men feel?

Ms. STEFFANS: First of all, if that is something that's in someone's head, then something is wrong with that individual. You know, what is it about that man that allows him to take an incident at a club with a girl he may or may not know to heart to the point he'll go home and write a song with angry, demeaning lyrics?

I also think that the boardroom where they decide, listen, these lyrics are too soft. They're about uplifting. We don't want that. Hey, let's do participation records to get the girls out there because the fact of the matter is that African-American women between the ages of 18 and 35 are the largest consumer group in this country for these kinds of things. We don't buy the most property. We don't buy the most high-priced items. We will go out and buy a CD in a minute. And so, therefore, record companies, they want participation records; records where women will go out on the dance floor and participate. There was a song that said, grab the wall and shake it like a dog, shake it like a saltshaker. Those are things that they're telling you to do so you feel like you're part of something.

Regardless of where it comes from, what I want to see is more women - the women that say, well that's not me, I'm not that girl, well then why do you own that album? Because the fact is, is that videos cannot get made this way without us. I don't listen to hip-hop anymore, because you know what? That girl isn't me. So why would I buy something that isn't about me?

Prof. NEAL: Yeah.

Ms. STEFFANS: Now, if you feel that that's you, and it represents you, then buy it.

CHIDEYA: Right.

Prof. NEAL: That's the way I feel, too.

Ms. STEFFANS: But don't say - yeah, but don't say it doesn't represent you, but then you're buying it every time it comes out.

CHIDEYA: Shaheem?

Mr. REED: If you're offended by the music or if you're offended by a music video, you don't have to watch it. You don't have to purchase it. You don't have to listen to the radio.

CHIDEYA: But, but let me...

Mr. REED: You could listen to an R&B station.

Prof. NEAL: See, but, you know, but this is my think...

CHIDEYA: I want to get Mark in, because, see, you've got two little girls. And one, you know, I have to say, not to over-personalize, but when I was growing up, I mean, there wasn't a lot of gender in hop-hop. There wasn't a lot of categorization of women. How do you even - I mean, I just want to bring it back to Duke. How do you - have you discussed this with your children? How do you bring all of these issues into it?

Prof. NEAL: Well, I'm trying to discuss it now with my seven-year-old, you know, who's hearing me use the term called rape, and she's trying to figure out what exactly that is. And it becomes important to me, because on the one hand -and I'm not talking about anything of denying folks free speech. My issues are that if I'm in the car at 3:00 PM in the afternoon, I don't want to hear that.

What I think we have to get serious about - I mean, we talk about the artists, and artists have to be a part of this conversation, but if we're not talking about the folks who circulate these things - the artists aren't responsible for getting their records played on the radio stations. So if we're not having conversations with the FCC, if we're not talking to Viacom, if we're not talking to Sony, we're not talking to Time Warner in the way that we can shut them down if they're not going to be responsive to our desires, then just talking about how bad an artist is is not going to get us the kind of effect that we want. Because there's always going to be somebody else that's going to step in to do the same kind of crap.

My problem is, now - is I've got to deal with eight, nine, and ten-year-old boys, who are expressing sentiments about my seven-year-old daughter, and who, and will be expressing sentiments about both my daughters when they get older. Because of the images that they've seen in hip-hop and the messages that hip-hop has told them, you know, the little boys are saying already, I don't care about them bitches. And what happens when that gets translated when they're adults and they're stilling on to the same kind of feelings?

So it's not just a question of, well, if you don't like that, don't listen to it. If you see that this stuff is circulating and you can't control how it's circulating in a way that's going to access things that are going to impact your lives and close to, then it has to be just about - it has to be more than turning off the stereo.

Ms. STEFFANS: And I wasn't making my point to say let's just not listen to it. The point is that this is all run by conglomerates...

Prof. NEAL: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ms. STEFFANS: ...it's a money making machine. If we stop giving into this, especially as women - stop buying it. And someone's going to feel it in their pockets. If you hurt them where it counts, you know...

Mr. REED: Well, you know what the thing is, too, I think we need to, instead of, you know, focusing so much on the artist and focusing so much on the companies that really don't have anything to do with these households, we need to focus on the parent. If a seven-year-old kid is saying, I don't love these bitches, where's the father? Where's the mother?

Prof. NEAL: The parent. That's true. That's true.

Mr. REED: You know? We need to focus on that. We need to try to push some of this energy into getting some parenting...

Ms. STEFFANS: Absolutely.

Mr. REED: ...counseling for these girls that have kids...

Ms. STEFFANS: Absolutely.

Mr. REED: ...at 15, 16 years old.

Ms. STEFFANS: Well, there needs to be life counseling...

CHIDEYA: Let me just...

Ms. STEFFANS: ...also, because why are we having children?

CHIDEYA: Well, let me just quickly...

Mr. REED: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...we're just about out of time, and I want to just quickly, Shaheem, ask you - when you have women and men riding along in a car, rapping along to a song with a two-year-old in the background who can rap along to the same song -I mean, you can talk about parenting all you want, and the thing is, I think it's - it really is a very honest controversy between free speech and free expression and between these ideals of how do you choose what enters your life in terms of media. Because the thing is, I've heard two-year-old kids rap a rhyme pretty darn well with words they don't even understand.

Mr. REED: Right.

CHIDEYA: So do the artists bear any responsibility? Does even MTV bear any responsibility?

Mr. REED: Well, I need to tell you that - let me tell you this. When it comes to you guys and me, I totally feel that the first responsibility lies on the parents. I grew up in a household where, when I was six-years-old, I could sit down and if I heard, like, my parents watching Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor, something like that, with, you know, some of the harsh languages, they didn't, like, oh, Shaheem, leave the room, turn it off. They sat down and explained it to me, what was going on.

Kids are going to hear this stuff regardless. Like, even if you turn the radio off, even if you turn the TV off, they're going to go to the schoolyard and they're going to hear Sally and Bobby and Shayquan(ph) saying these lines and these curse words anyway. That's just a fact of the matter. But as parents, let's explain to them what's going on so they can be better facilitated to handle all of this and the decisions. If they hear Lloyd Banks calling a girl a bitch in a song, okay, Lloyd Banks says it, that's entertainment maybe, to whoever, but let's keep it going. Let's - that's not my idea, per se.

CHIDEYA: Go ahead, Mark.

Prof. NEAL: You know, that's real, but, you know, my thing is that we also can't let these other factors off the hook.

Ms. STEFFANS: Mm-hmm. Exactly. Everyone has to take responsibility.

CHIDEYA: I just have one last question, and it's for Karrine. What would you tell people in this case about Duke, where people are making assumptions about a woman who has been an erotic dancer, who is a mother? What would you say to the world about judging this woman and how she's been constructed in the media?

Ms. STEFFANS: You know what? Having been an erotic dancer and being a mother while doing it, I don't know if I can say something to the world about judgment. What I have to say is to little girls about the decisions they make in their lives. You know, this is a woman who has children. Who, I believe, put the cart before the horse. I want to get a hold of our young girls - and, and -who also have young children, and say, okay, listen, honey, get your education first; get financially stable first. Therefore, you won't become desperate and have to take jobs that degrade your body in order to make money to support your children and get an education.

I did it. I had a child before I even graduated high school. You understand, I've never gone to college. I've only got my GED and just now applying to NYU for my bachelors. But I did it all backwards. Not everyone is going to be a best-selling author and make it somehow. I wish I would have done it the right way. And I think that is our responsibility as women.

When you find out what works, pull another woman up and tell her what worked for you, you know, and she'll learn from you. We can't leave this in the hands of other people of the conglomerates. And, you know, we'll try to change them; we'll march if we have to. And so, and that's what my crusade is with my book and lecturing at different universities is starting some sort of movement, so that maybe in generations to come, we won't be talking about this anymore.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, guys, I know we could keep going on, but I just want to, again, say that the conversation around Duke University and the woman who alleges she was raped has started a conversation that we do need to have.

And I thank you all for joining me. We've been talking with Karrine Steffans, a former video dancer and author of Confessions of A Video Vixen; also Shaheem Reed, hip-hop editor for MTV News; and Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of African-American studies at Duke University. His latest book is New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity.

Thank you all.

Ms. STEFFANS: Thank you.

Mr. REED: Thank you.

Prof. NEAL: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS AND NOTES, our health contributor, Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, has news you can use on uterine fibroids, what they are and how to treat them; and uncovering black musical history through classic black ballads.

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