author – activist – faculty – mom
1. The nostalgic imagery of the 1970s birth of hip hop
2. The return of the male ass.
In the 1980s, we saw the rise of homophobia in response to the gay liberation movement of the 70s. Then in the late 80s and early 90s, we saw the rise of mass incarceration of the African American community as part of the Drug Wars in the US. Sexual violence among men is a brutal part of the prison industrial coplex. In response to real or imagined threats of sexual violence, the male ass, in particular the heterosexual black and/or Latino male ass, has been hiding for the last 25 years. Since the early 90s, saggy jeans have been the thing. Even the relatively new hipster jeans are also relatively loose in the ass, although they tighten up in the thighs or the calves.
When I watch vintage 1970s videos with my daughter of teenage Michael Jackson or Al Green comes up on my itunes, I see a black male body revealed, as opposed to hidden. But even more than the lack of revelation of the male body is the homogenization of all bodes. Since the 1970s, there has been a standardization of male bodies revealed: from the waist up only–broad shoulders, large pecs, six-pack abs. We know the drill for female bodies: skinny overall, big breasts, and recently the booty has been introduced to the mainstream. But tits and ass are optional add-ons. Skinny is mandatory.
Part of what fascinates me about men from the 70s is that they are so shamelessly convinced of their sexiness. Any modern-day rapper with Al Green’s frame would keep his shirt on–cover his narrow chest in a standard white tee. But not Al. Any rapper as chunky as the Isleys would add another couple of Xs to his shirt size, but not these brothers, wearing tie blouses and polyester spangled jumpsuits with slits down to their navels, revealing soft bellies–not an abdominal muscle in sight. Not all these men were straight, but these clothes didn’t mark them as queer. Masculine images were more fluid. And this time of highly sexualized culture of disco, both men and women had their bodies revealed and were shaking that ass.
But the gangsta rap aesthetic has meant covered men and scantily clad women, where the females do all the dance work and the men just stand still in poses of power, or pass a few humping motions off as dancing.
Unfortunately, we don’t see women dancing solo yet in the show. The romantic lead, Mylene, is in a solidly traditional female role, a vocalist. She’s a classic church singer trying to go secular. She is caught between the protagonist who declares his love for her, the preacher father who wants to control her, and the predatory hustler who wants to bed her. Episode 1 begins with her seeking the famous DJ (also male) who can make her a star, and ends with her seeking the protection of her uncle from her father’s abuse. She’s the ingenue in a sea of powerful men. Her rejection of the protagonist seems less of a final word than a call to arms so that he can become an even more powerful man, and finally beat them all out to win her like a prize. Mylene doesn’t seem to have a clear path to her own power, but I’m only one episode in, an episode written and directed exclusively by men, whereas there are some writing credits to women in later episodes. We’ll see…
I was also disappointed by the depiction of the one powerful woman in the show, Fat Annie, the nightclub owner. She’s portrayed as sexually undesirable and predatory, as well as obsessed with getting her sons’ attention. I mean, seriously, the woman is younger than Jennifer Lopez. But instead of being a sexy cougar, she’s a creepy Aunt Jemima. Come on, people. Do better.
Also, what’s up with the early hip hop party being all about women grinding their asses on whatever male happened to be nearby. That’s not how I remember it.
But, like I said, this is the pop culture creation myth of hip hop. I’m gonna keep watching for the nostalgia and the distortions, and hoping some women can get in on the action. Meanwhile, I’ll keep marveling at the male outfits. Not so much that I sexually oogle the male body, but more like a nostalgia from my childhood, remembering when black men had a different silhouette.