We Are Not Here for Your Entertainment
By Ciana Alessi
My boyfriend recently played a performance from rappers Lil Baby and Gunna during the 2018 BET Awards and while panning between the screen and my phone, I noticed something bizarre about the stage setup. There are a few actual props on the stage amongst the two rappers, including miscellaneous light fixtures and a desert-like scene, then, most notably, there are around 15 women in bikinis posed like statues. At first, the anything-can-be-art postmodern part of me questioned if I was being too blindly critical of this setup, especially near the end of the performance when the women start walking a catwalk, runway-style. I sat there wondering, is it art or objectification?
Now, hip hop in general gets a bad rap for being excessively misogynistic, so let me first say that yes, there are many rappers that are explicitly misogynistic, insomuch as are there many actors, pop singers, and corporations that express their misogyny in more covert forms that are just as harmful. So as a disclaimer: this is not a hip hop issue, it’s a cultural issue.
It’s impossible to say in a sweeping generalization that when women are shown as X it’s art, and when women are shown as Y it’s objectification, but I do believe it’s helpful to shed light on the intentions behind women’s presence in an effort to make some sort of distinction. In this aforementioned BET performance, the women were simply standing on stage, posed, showing off the bathing suits they were wearing. As previously mentioned, at one point they runway walk in their attire and go back to standing around the stage. As a slight interlude, America’s Next Top Model is my number one guilty pleasure show. I love the photoshoots, Tyra Banks in her prime, and, of course, the drama that always ensues. What can I say? I’m a reluctant product of the reality TV generation. I bring up my problematic obsession because my immediate critique of the women standing in bikinis got a response from a little voice in my head saying, as Miss Jay would, they are selling a product, and the product in this case was the bathing suits. I then thought, however, about the clear agency of a female model within a fashion show or photoshoot: she’s supposed to express her personality, she controls the image of the clothes, accessories, etc. on her body as she sees fit, and, essentially, she chooses how she wants herself and the products to be portrayed within the restraints of her surroundings. This is an entirely different position from that which the women in Lil Baby and Gunna’s performance occupy. Although they can control how they walk down the runway, and possibly the position they pose in for most of the performance, their agency appears almost entirely stripped. Moreover, they do not appear to be selling a product, so much as they are a product.
Women are frequently seen as ornamental, so unfortunately this is a common occurrence. Take the phenomenon of “trophy wives,” for example. This name in and of itself portrays a theme that is so widely accepted that its obscurity is often forgotten: women being defined by their equivocation to shiny, prized possessions. This is not normal nor is it a naturally occuring concept. The idea that women are or can be discussed like objects has instead been cemented as a cultural fact, in that culture itself has actually created this notion. Seemingly innocent exclamations like “she’s a dime!” show the way that women’s objectification subconsciously pervades in social life. When women are positioned as objects, they necessarily have no subjectivity; the entirety of their humanity is outside of themselves and gets placed into another’s hands. They lose their agency. Their existence is no longer for themselves, but as a form of entertainment for others.
A woman’s presence is not for your or anyone’s entertainment. She is not placed on a pedestal for visual consumption, an empty vessel within which you place your desires. Portraying women in this way is quite frankly dangerous, as it teaches younger and younger generations to continue making the mistakes we make. Therefore I ask, if you’re going to have a little over a dozen women as part of your BET performance, or a mass of women in your music video, allow them to be active agents. Allow them to engage in the activities that occur within this setting instead of using them as accessories amongst it. Women are not additional props, silent trophies, or shiny coins; we’re just regular old humans, smart enough to know when we’re being wronged.