Primetime Misogyny at the Intersection of Race and Gender
(This is excerpted from an article which appeared in the December 2007 issue of New People.)
In the November 2007 issue of New People, I presented the disturbing findings of my latest primetime television media survey (“Primetime Misogyny 2007”) and compared the findings to my first media survey conducted in 2000. Although in both cases, women and girls were targeted with hate speech and bias language at far higher levels than any other target group (e.g., males, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, physical characteristics, mental illness, children, etc.), it was shocking to see the dramatic increases in the number of language incidents, in the number of target groups and in the widening spread between females and all other groups.
To briefly summarize, my media survey tracked levels of hate speech and bias language during the spring 2007 network (not cable or satellite) television Monday through Friday primetime schedule, and compared the findings to a similar survey conducted in the spring of 2000. From 2000 to 2007, there was an increase from 590 total language incidents to 1,874 language incidents; and the number of incidents targeting females went from 416 to 1,111. The number of target groups increased from 22 in 2000 to 36 in 2007; however, in both surveys, most groups were targeted by fewer than 5% of the language incidents. The second most-targeted group in both years was males, though at nowhere near the same numbers as females: in 2000, males were the target of 84 incidents and in 2007, males were the target of 193 incidents. The dramatic spread between females and the next most-targeted group (males) also increased: In 2000, the spread was 395%; in 2007, the spread grew to 476%.
Last month, I wrote about the connection between hate speech and hate crimes, and how bias language creates a climate of contempt and a corrosion of the target group’s human dignity and human rights. I wrote about the epidemic of hate crimes perpetrated against women and girls worldwide, but which are not considered hate crimes because this violence has become so normalized in our misogynist culture, because we have, in the words of Cornel West, “become well-adjusted to injustice.”
West, the African-American scholar and Princeton historian, spoke those words during an interview to explain why there has been no outcry against the violent, blatant misogyny promoted in gangsta rap music and videos. I use this quote not only because it is so accurate and so succinctly brilliant, but because it represents the connection between the institutionalized racism and misogyny in an entertainment industry that controls what becomes popular culture.
The notion that television or Hollywood or the music business or any of the media simply give people what they want is crap. People adapt to what they are given, and most people look to society to teach them what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Our society, our culture and our capitalist media industry spends billions and billions of dollars in order to influence what people buy and buy into. And it works.
What our society, our children, our sisters and brothers, our friends, see on television, what they hear on the radio, buy at the stores, see at the concerts, talk about, imitate, emulate, fantasize about is controlled by a multi-billion-dollar capitalist entertainment industry that is almost entirely run by middle- and upper-class conservative white males.
Whether it’s promoting a bumbling, inarticulate fool as “The Great Communicator” and running him for president or promoting racist, misogynist gangsta rap as “the music of the people” in order to replace the progressive grass-roots black hip-hop music that really is the music of the people, the influence and power of this industry extends far beyond what we watch on television or what CDs we buy. And our lives are influenced as much by what they do promote as in what they don’t promote. Americans can’t buy what they can’t see, and it’s the American media/entertainment complex that controls what Americans see.
In the case of popular music, the music industry is controlled by white men who are not exactly fans of rap’s father, Gil Scott-Heron: Equal rights, economic justice, and a revolution that won’t be televised because the revolution will overthrow their industry is not something they want people to buy into. So while they gave a few token recording contracts to a few progressive groups in the early days of hip-hop, they were busy grooming their own version of “gritty, urban black music.” Of course, their version of the “reality” of Black America was not too much different from the version of Black America created by white Hollywood during the racist, blaxploitation 1970s: In their world, all Black Men are thugs, drug dealers and pimps, and all Black Women are hookers, junkies and maids.
But back then, only White America bought into that absurd “reality.” Back then, African Americans and all progressives knew that White Hollywood had a vested interest in promoting racist stereotypes that degraded and dehumanized African-Americans. What better way to undermine a movement for social justice and equal rights than to turn its people into cartoonish, buffoonish caricatures of criminals, sociopaths and pathetic heathens?
Today, however, we see the extraordinary power and influence of this multi-billion-dollar industry; we see the results of a racist, misogynist industry that has everything to gain from teaching African American men to murder each other and enslave their women. Today, gangsta rap’s influence extends so deep into the African-American community that it has become the primary identity of the people. Today, the teachings of past leaders like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Malcolm X—of what elevates a people, makes a nation great—have been destroyed by the hyper-macho, hyper-violent vision created and marketed by a white male entertainment industry.
While it’s true that for generations white America also successfully convinced African Americans that nappy hair and dark skin was bad and our notions of beauty were (and still are) completely Euro-centric, what white racists had not been able to accomplish was the degradation of black women. No matter how many women were raped by white men, no matter how many children torn from their mothers or fathers and sons taken away, the strength and continuity of the African American community was the women. But in the words of a Native American saying, “A nation is never conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”
Today, virtually any gangsta rap video on MTV or BET will show you how African American women have been degraded, humiliated and dehumanized; how their spirits have been crushed, their bodies enslaved, their hearts ripped out and thrown to the ground. This is a shocking revelation to those of my generation who thought the racist myths of previous generations had been dispelled and overcome, and who thought that generations of internalized racism had been recognized and defeated. Instead, we find that today’s (co-opted) hip-hop culture of young African American women—and women of other races—are buying into these notions and these expectations of exploitation and sexual degradation. Videos that feature leering gangsta rappers pouring beer over women’s breasts or slapping jiggling butt cheeks or that feature men with their harems of near-naked fawning sex slaves; there is little difference between these images and the degrading, dehumanizing images of the auction block or the systematic rape of African women by white slavers, except that those women tried to fight back. The most disturbing thing of all is the women who don’t fight back because they’ve bought into their enslavement so completely.
And, of course, the wider culture has bought into it, as well. From the language on television to the behavior of famous men, the treatment of African-American women by white men is becoming increasingly, more blatantly and more publicly proprietary and degrading.
The crude actions of Justin Timberlake and then Adrien Brody—who presumed he had the right to grab Halle Berry at the Academy Awards and force a very long and intimate kiss on her—were repeated on primetime television in this year’s survey as white men in non-scripted situations acted out their belief that black women exist for their personal sexual gratification and treated them like their personal sex toys.
The remarks made by Don Imus are another example; he was, quite frankly, simply aping what he sees on television all the time. He—like the rest of America—has learned not only to disrespect African American women, but to act out that disrespect and contempt as a way to prove his manhood and be accepted in our society. It apparently worked quite well for him: Yet another radio station has announced it will carry him when he returns in December, and the RFD television station has signed a multi-million-dollar contract with him, as well.
What television very clearly promotes today—both in language and actions—is that to be accepted in society, you must degrade women. Derogatory language against females—particularly the most offensive Category 4 epithets and slurs—is frequently used, for example, for comedic purpose; no other Category 4 slurs are used this way. Female characters are also more likely to be insulted, and “female” characteristics are more likely to be targets of insulting language, than any other group or group characteristic.
None of this is new, of course. However, the level of contempt—like the levels of hate speech and bias language targeting females—has grown considerably since 2000, as have the levels of utterly degrading pornographic imagery of females and an astoundingly brutal and sadistic violence against females never before seen outside of snuff videos.
This hatred is seen in other sectors of the media/entertainment industry, as well: From the increasing number of video games marketed to children and young men that actively promote explicit violence against women (for example, Grand Theft Auto players get points for raping and killing prostitutes) to advertising campaigns that promote misogyny as “hip” and “cool,” like the brand of skateboards marketed to young males which features a male figure holding a gun to the head of a female figure; the name of the skateboard is “Bitch.”
There is a visceral level of contempt and violent hatred for women on primetime television and in our popular culture that is being marketed and sold to an American public that is mostly unconcerned, mostly well-adjusted to injustice.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that the American people have ceded democratic rule to a corrupt and murderous kleptocracy; that most Americans no longer even know how to stop our nation from waging endless wars. Maybe America is in the process of dying, of committing suicide, beginning with throwing the hearts of its women on the ground.
©2007, Mimi Yahn
The Primetime Misogyny 2007 Media Survey was sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center and made possible by a grant from the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. For a copy of the report, go to: http://www.wgfswpa.org/section_grantmaking/index.htm
Primetime Misogyny 2007 Executive Summary