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Lori A. Tribbett-Williams

 

Abstracted from: Lori A. Tribbett-Williams, Saying Nothing, Talking Loud: Lil' Kim And Foxy Brown, Caricatures of African-American Womanhood, 10 Southern California Review of Law and Women's Studies 167-207, 167-172 (2000)

 

On January 31, 2000, more than 100 million viewers watched Super Bowl XXXIV. Prior to the kick-off, a long list of celebrities comprised of new comers and old favorites, performed the pre-game theme song, Are You Ready for Some Football? Included on the list of celebrities were Darius Rucker, the lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish, Cyndi Lauper, Naomi Judd and Lil' Kim. Hardcore rap artist Lil' Kim was probably cast by television executives in their efforts to provide a diverse group of performers. She is known best among the new generation of female rappers as the "diva of raunch." Although Lil' Kim's performance was not more than a three or four-second spot, it raised disturbing questions that relate to the public perception of African-American women: First, is Lil' Kim's image an acceptable representation of African-American womanhood? Second, should the success of artists like Lil' Kim and her contemporary Foxy Brown be considered a sign of progress for African-American women and their expression of sexuality?

 

African-American women have struggled for centuries to defeat Eurocentric standards of beauty and womanhood. While today it is increasingly more common for women of African descent to appear on the cover of magazines, the battle for positive representations of African-American womanhood is still ongoing. Events in the not-so-distant past may suggest that the mainstream success of the new generation of African-American female rappers is a sign of progress when evaluating how African-American womanhood has been viewed historically by American society. For example, in 1984, sixty-three years after the founding of the Miss America Pageant, Vanessa Williams was named the first African-American Miss America. In what was later called the "Mess America" pageant, officials for the contest forced Williams to resign after a series of nude photographs of her appeared in Penthouse magazine. The publisher remarked, "Vanessa Williams was a fraud on the American people--a fraud certainly on her own people." This statement leads to two conclusions: First, Williams is decidedly a "fraud," an impostor or something other than a legitimate Miss America. Second, a distinction is made between "American people" and "her own people," which signifies a clear racial divide in America and the view that African-Americans are a separate entity, or the "Other." Thus, the overwhelming success of the new generation, due in large part to their unrestrained sexual expression, is indeed progress. However, for many African-American women, the success of this new generation is eclipsed by a history of myths and stereotypes created to justify centuries of oppression and sexual exploitation.

 

This Note contends that the image of the new generation of African- American female rappers is myth personified. American history is replete with "slave-rooted" images of African-American womanhood. Author Patricia Morton noted that the pervasive misappropriation of negative images of African- American womanhood, among other factors, makes it clear that "[African]- American women have been assigned a hell of a history to live down." Morton further provided four classic images of African-American womanhood that appear throughout history: 1) the "sex object," also known as the "Jezebel"; 2) the "tragic mulatto"--neither White nor Black; 3) the "comical domestic servant," also known as "Aunt Jemima"; and 4) the masculinized, domineering matriarch commonly referred to as "Mammy" or the "Sapphire" image. Among the most commonly depicted images of African-American womanhood is the image of the promiscuous "temptress" known as Jezebel. The new generation of rappers, through their X-rated lyrics and fashions, breathe new life into Jezebel, a mythical caricature and distorted representation of African-American womanhood.

 

Today, the mythical image of Jezebel impacts the treatment of African- American women in American society and the manner in which they are viewed by the American justice system. Associate Professor of Law Joan R. Tarpley asserted that myths are at the foundation of our beliefs and values and consequently are inscribed into law:

 

It is my claim that myth lies at the base of a culture's beliefs and values. Beliefs and values then inspire customs and traditions, and after a time the customs and traditions become the way "we have always done it." In turn, in a dispute a law emerges that states the "what we have always done" as the law of the jurisdiction. The idea that customs and beliefs ultimately emerge in the law is illustrated most profoundly in the results of a recent investigation of the practices of the United States Customs Service. The General Accounting Office ("GAO") revealed that "[African-American] women are nearly twice as likely to be strip-searched on suspicion of drug smuggling as [W]hite men and women and three times as likely as [African-American] men to be subjected to [the] humiliating intrusion." The African-American women in the GAO report were targeted as a result of controversial racial profiling. Race profiling is a method used by law enforcement to stop individuals believed to be drug carriers. The GAO's report provides further support that African-American women are still trying to escape a history of negative images that informs American society's customs, traditions and laws even today with respect to African-American women's sexuality and autonomy. As will be discussed in greater detail below, African-American women were the subjects of racial bias and unfair treatment centuries before the official use of racial profiling. The negative images and myths created during slavery that justified the forced exposure of African-American women's bodies to public inspection, still influence the customs, beliefs and, consequently, the law's treatment of African-American women today. Numerous accounts make it clear that the sexuality of African- American women is devalued because of the historic myths surrounding their sexual identity.

 

This Note focuses primarily on the racist and sexist social construct known as the Jezebel, and the proliferation of the Jezebel image into rap music, particularly the music of the new generation of African-American female rap artists. Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown are affectionately known as "gangsta bitches" and are credited as the catalysts for the revolutionary sexual persona of the new generation. They have established their fame largely because of their "barely there" fashions. Female rapper BOSS commented that "tight clothes mean 'weak lyrics." ' That being the case, Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown are saying nothing lyrically, with respect to the social status of African-American women, but talking loud, since they are among the most successful of the contemporary female rap artists. The new generation personifies what has perhaps been the most destructive image of African-American womanhood, an image that African- American women have for centuries tried to "live down." The Jezebel image, as glorified by emerging female rappers, continues to be resurrected from history and projects a distorted image of African-American womanhood.

 

Part II of this Note, Myths of African-American Womanhood, provides a brief overview of the historic treatment of African-American women, with respect to their sexuality, in order to discover the origins of the myth that Jezebel is the embodiment of African-American womanhood. Part II also discusses the inscription of Jezebel into American jurisprudence.

 

Part III, Jezebel of Contemporary Times, discusses the resurrection of the Jezebel image in mass media and the inscription of the image into the lyrics of rap music performed by African-American male artists and consequently inscribed into American pop culture.

 

Part IV, The Evolution of Women Rap Artists, describes the transformation of the image of African-American female rappers from the more masculine image of early pioneers to the sexier image of the new generation. Part IV also discusses how the new generation personifies the Jezebel image through revolutionary changes in their lyrical compositions and fashions.

 

Part V, Jezebel in the New Millennium, discusses the evocation and inscription of the Jezebel image of African-American womanhood into recent litigation. . .

 

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