Video Vixens: Victims of Exploitation, or Using Feminism to Their Advantage?

Melyssa Ford 

PopMatters compares the modern day video vixen to the Hottentot Venus:

Black women, you see, have a special sensitivity as to how their womanhood is portrayed in mass culture.  They've had to contend with centuries of being labeled promiscuous whores, hardwired for animalistic sexuality — and not much else — by that blasted jungle DNA.  It has been a battle for decency and dignity at the most intimate, personal level.  The victories in the battle have been so hard-fought,the wounds still so far from healed, that it doesn't take much to call all that pain back to the surface.  The ravages against black womanhood are legion, but with big butts on endless display in videos and "bitch" and "ho" all but commonplace in hip-hop lyrics, one particularly sad and disturbing case comes to mind.  

Sarah Baartman (1789-1816) survived the slaughter of her people, only to be exploited for centuries hence.  She was born in what we now call South Africa as a Khoikhoi, and enslaved in Cape Town by wealthy Britons.  Her exceedingly large rear end, especially in prominent on a short 4-foot-7 frame, gave associates of her enslavers the idea that there was money to be made.  So Baartman went off to London, where she was christened "Hottentot Venus" and put on public display.  She was marketed as the freak show to end all freak shows.  She was made to bandy about in a cage, her derriere in full and barely clothed view, and would be told to perform a song or dance for the leering, jeering patrons.  The spectacle became a smash hit, inspiring bawdy parlor songs. 

Baartman enjoyed a brief measure of dignity in her downtime from "performing", but such luxuries were a thing of the past by the time the enterprise made its way to Paris.

Have we really progressed much since the days of Sara Baartman?

If it were just the discreetly marketed magazine, calendar, or DVD where such images were available, it would be a slightly lesser deal (though no less bothersome for many).  But the pervasiveness of rap videos stringing together shot after shot of such women shaking what their mommas gave them became too much to ignore.  Having a scantily clad honey or six in the video became de rigeur, just like shots of the entourage making gang signs and rented luxury cars.  Such images all but drowned out any other representation of women rap videos, especially considering the relative paucity of female rappers that can command big budgets for videos (and the even skimpier number of women directing videos, developing artists' marketing plans, or deciding what gets added to the TV rotation and what doesn't). 

Of course, the fact that these videos often illustrate songs that refer to women as "bitches" and "hos" hardly helps matters.  It got so bad that BET, the network that relies on black pop videos for much of its programming, relegated the raunchiest of them to BET Uncut, airing at 3AM — away from the reach of the youngest, most impressionable minds (at least, those such minds without VCRs or Tivo).  One of the most notorious Uncut favorites was Nelly's "Tip Drill" video, which featured various shots of men swiping credit cards down a woman's butt crack.  Needless to say, folks felt emboldened by the cordoning-off of territory for soft-core porn with a funky beat, and started making videos specifically for broadcast on Uncut.

Most of the "video vixens" themselves (with the exception of Karrine "Superhead" Steffans) purport that their work is empowering to women.  According to Melyssa Ford:

"I am the highest paid video girl to date.  I've endured all the snide comments and ignorant remarks from people who presume to know me because I'm on their television screens and in the pages of their magazines.  But I'm not the promiscuous twit I'm often mistaken for.  I am a business woman who has used videos to launch a multimedia career.  My product is me.

"Besides being the lead girl in hip-hop and R&B videos, I am a sex columnist for a men's magazine.  I star in my own DVD.  I've hosted television shows, and I've produced my own calendar, which I sell on the Internet.  My job is to sell fantasy and play the sexy vixen who will turn a nigga out."

All this, from a woman who had once aimed to become a forensic psychologist.  From her description, she even makes herself sound like a porn star.  Which is the better role model for women?  The student working towar a professional career, or the video vixen/model who, with mainly her good looks working for her, is two steps away from pole dancing at the strip club?

Aside from rap videos, the only places you're likely to see these women are in strip clubs (where lots of rappers apparently enjoy spending spare time and money), and in the pages of the aforementioned XXL and Black Men, plus their competitors King and Smooth (which has its own spin-off Smooth Girl).  Just as the granddaddy Players, the hip-hop leaning Fish-n-Chips, and various other titles exist in a racially parallel porn universe from Playboy and Penthouse, so do these black laddie publications chronicle women hardly ever seen in Maxim and FHM (now there are laddie mags for those who like their cheesecake with Latino and Asian flavorings — another sign, apparently, of their emerging consumer clout). 

Are these women really clever at marketing themselves?  Or are they being exploited by the richer, more famous men they work with/for?  They say that feminism has made it possible for them to gain notoriety and make a lucrative career from exhibiting their bodies.  Melyssa Ford and her peers try to demand respect for the careers they have built, but who really respects a woman who uses her body to get ahead? 

"Modern Day Hottietots"  [PopMatters]


6 Responses to Video Vixens: Victims of Exploitation, or Using Feminism to Their Advantage?

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