When young people go home and turn on the television, what kinds of things do they see? What is the “curriculum” of music videos that seem to dominate the airwaves? I decided I would watch a full day of music videos to get an idea of the images and messages that a child could potentially see. As an African-American woman, I am particularly interested in how the music videos portray African-American women; the videos that I watched were a mixture of R&B and hip-hop.
One all-too typical video was “What You Want” by rapper DMX. The song’s hook phrase is, “What y’all really want from a nigga” and is sung by R& B singer Sisqo, who was made famous by the “thong” song. Sisqo sits on the roof of a car that few men, let alone teenage boys, could afford. As the car spins around in a slow, hypnotic, circular motion, the woman on the hood of the car comes into view. She is lying across the car, with her legs spread apart and her head thrown back as if she is on the verge of orgasm. Sisqo continues to ask, “What y’all really want from a nigga.”
Later in the same video, DMX runs through a list of women’s names that seemed to have given him some pretty intense sexual memories: Lisa. Nicole. Cynthia. Pam. With every name, a woman flashes on the screen. Each is shown less than 15 seconds and none ever says a word.
In the video “How Many Licks” by rapper Lil’ Kim, one Lil’ Kim doll after another travels down the assembly line. Lil’ Kim asks, “How many licks,” referring to how long oral sex would have to last. The video features her as the main character with a swarm of female backup dancers. The camera views them from a wide shot as they dance closer and closer, hands cupped over their crotches, asking, “How many licks does it take till you get the center of a uhh-uhh.”
Each scene pictures her dressed in different costumes, from a blond curly wig and a sparkling silver two-piece bikini to a black wig, heavy black make-up and a patent leather bodysuit. This Lil’ Kim doll can be dressed up any way you like her. She is a fantasy. In one part of the song, she brags about the men in prison dreaming about her. In the video, they show her in a prison cell wiggling around on top of the inmate. He begins to move slowly down her body while “TOO HOT FOR TV” covers the sex act in question.
What effect are these having on the children and youth watching the videos?
One Saturday afternoon I was watching Teen Summit, a program on Black Entertainment Television (BET) when the host asked a group of teens if the music videos affect the way they relate to each other. One of the boys blurted out, “Yeah, man. I’m still looking for the girls in DMX’s videos” – hence the title of my essay. The others laughed but understood what he meant.
I think he meant that the girls in the videos represent a lifestyle that blends money, power, respect, material wealth, and beautiful women. This lifestyle does not just dominate music videos; much of the “curriculum” in mainstream media focuses on this lifestyle as the essence of the American dream. However, the music videos that I watched are particularly dangerous because they expose young Black men and women to a range of negative images. These videos, then, have a range of potential effects on young Black men and women, as well as on the African-American community as a whole. In addition, there is the issue of promoting stereotypical images of African Americans among young white men and women – a topic beyond the scope of this essay.
Healthy, respectful, and equal relationships with women are certainly not promoted in the images that I saw. Young Black women are present more as ornaments and objects than as human beings. They are often in the background and virtually never have anything to contribute besides big breasts and butts.
Although the artists, lyrics, and story lines were different, the basic message for African-American young men was that money can buy you beautiful, sexy, and seductive women. For example, many videos had one similar scene in particular: the camera scans a seemingly endless stream of beautiful women. They are all dancing seductively with their “come get me” expressions. Simply put, if you were ballers and shot callers like these male artists, you could have your pick; all these women wanted and longed for them. The reason these women were attracted to the men was not because of their looks, intelligence, or sense of humor. It was because of their money and the things that this money could get them.
Similarly, these music videos may also have negative effects on young Black women. The women in the videos become the standard by which beauty and desirability are measured. Black girls may internalize these images and begin to accept the role of sex object. According to these images, the most desirable woman is not the Black woman that you would see at the bus stop or in the grocery store. The boy on Teen Summit was not turned on by a girl in his biology class or one who lived next door; he wanted the ones who are highlighted in the music videos, thereby pushing an image that most Black girls will never achieve.
Furthermore, the videos teach young Black women to aspire to be the trophies of powerful men. They do not show decent, loving male-female relationships. Instead, they display women who will do anything for the love of money. The women are indeed getting paid for these cameos and many of them find that it is an easy way to make money which again, supports this notion of quick fixes and fast money. The half-naked women are always smiling and laughing in the videos, so they seem to be having a good time, thus making it even more difficult for young people to form a critique of the videos.
Because the dreams promoted in the videos are so materialistic and individualistic, the videos are a betrayal of the tradition of collectivism that has been the cornerstone of African-American struggle. Historically, African Americans have stressed the importance of moving the entire community forward. Yet these videos promote the progress of the individual by any means necessary.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
The American dream was not created by or for African Americans but it is one that many of us fiercely desire. Yet what happens to those whose daily lives are closer to nightmares rather than dreams? Should we continue to allow these images to cloud the minds of millions of African-American children who will not be excessively rich actors, athletes, or entertainers? If we do, we must be prepared for the consequences.
Given the racist, classist, and sexist nature of the educational system, the justice system, and society as a whole, the focus on these dreams increases the likelihood that young Black people will find alternative ways of achieving these goals, which may be illegal and possibly violent. If we sincerely want our children to have a different set of goals, dreams, and priorities, we must create that environment.
What are the priorities that we should be promoting? What are the alternatives to what the mainstream media feed our children? First, I believe that we should encourage children to start being critical rather than passive consumers of the media. Too often, educators ignore the potential impact on students or do not see these issues as “appropriate” curricular content. In other words, adults need to give children opportunities to openly and honestly discuss the images in music videos and media in general.
Second, adults need to be realistic about how powerful and enticing these images are. We cannot simply tell children that the women in these videos are bad or that chasing money is the wrong priority. We have to show them that there are other ways to have their needs met without becoming addicted to consumerism; additionally, we have to challenge young people to think critically about what it means to live the “good life”.
Finally, I think that educators, parents, and community members need to understand the influence that we have in our children’s lives. Young people do want direction, structure, and advice. So, if we do not want young people to become lulled into this fantasy world that is depicted in music videos, we have to demonstrate that our confidence comes from who we are rather than what we have.