Almost four years ago I attended a symposium featuring rapper Talib Kweli that focused on hip-hop’s responsibility to the community at large. What sticks out in my mind is a joke told by Mr. Talib (lyrics stick to your ribs). When asked about his thoughts on Cam’ron’s “Suck it or Not” and whether he found the content misogynistic, Mr. Kweli praised the former Dipset leader’s ability to create the type of jam one would want to hear in a strip club, if one were into that sort of thing. Although, he added, if the song came on the radio while his little daughter was in the car, he’d be quick to change the station.
Mr. Kweli was alluding to an unfortunate trend within the hip-hop community, and American culture at large: the objectification of the female population and its commercial success, even in the light of feminist advancements. A more recent example is the success of artists like Ke$ha, who makes Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” look positively Amish. It’s also present in our language, perhaps best exemplified in hip-hop lyrics, where epithets and slurs seem almost mandatory (“Big Willie Style aside”).
On one of his older hits, Jay-Z raps: “Now once upon a time not too long ago / A nigga like myself had to strong arm a hoe / This is not a hoe in the sense of havin a pussy / But a pussy havin no God Damn sense, try and push me.” While the word choice may be questionable, I would argue that the intent here isn’t malicious. The problem here is the manner in which the message is conveyed. It’s important to remember that art isn’t created to be politically correct. Similarly, the use of the n-word has been a huge topic of debate in the African American community; while I respect Bill Cosby’s assertion that its use may be detrimental, I think it’s impossible to govern language. It evolves over time and is subject to both formalization in schools and the capriciousness of cultural movements.
One of my favorite Talib Kweli songs is “Black Girl Pain,” featuring Jean Grae. The song is memorable for both its catchy hook and socially conscious lyrics. “My mama said life would be so hard / Growing up days as a black girl scarred/In so many ways though we’ve come so far / They just know the name, they don’t the pain / Black girl”. On the first verse, Talib raps about his daughter: “I keep her hair braided, brought her a black Barbie / I keep her mind free / she ain’t no black zombie”. Here Talib relates his attempts to help his daughter form an identity as African American woman, yet the influence of society’s schema of feminine beauty is still present in the word “Barbie.” Maybe Talib chose “Barbie” because it rhymes with “zombie”, but while “Black Girl Pain” may speak some truth, one would be hard pressed to find a feminist overly satisfied with Barbie dolls’ influence on the collective feminine psyche; the essence of Barbie is still hot blonde, regardless of the dye color in the plastic of a particular doll.
These issues reach beyond gender, race, and class. Their weighted sum is a heavier thing than the issues themselves (for proof, see the stream of radioactive diarrhea emitted by John Mayer’s face hole; seriously, like is this the same guy who wrote “Daughters”; like, wtf???)
These issues are present on television shows as well. Critics have praised _Mad Men_ for shedding light on the terrible things our grandmothers were forced to go through. Betty Draper may be an early-60s update of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer, but my money’s on her going back to Don, which would effectively nullify the comparisons to Nora. _Mad Men_, perhaps more than any other program, lives off its own aesthetic; it criticizes America’s obsession with materialism and instant gratification by wallowing in both. Would viewers even care about Betty Draper’s problems if she didn’t look like a Maxim girl? Hear that? That’s the sound of shaking heads.
On a recent episode of House, super type-A administrator Lisa Cuddy fires a chubby, unattractive woman for providing a meth lab with pilfered pharmaceuticals. What offended me wasn’t so much a skinny woman being morally superior to an overweight one. That’s par for the course, I suppose. What bothered me was how freaking attractive the actress that plays Dr. Cuddy is, and how much they play it up on the show as part of her type-A-ness, as if high cheekbones and cup size are customarily listed on C.V.’s.
Last Sunday night, I attended a showing of visiting lecturer Emily Abt’s new movie _Toe to Toe_, which delves into questions of girl pain, both black and white. Mrs. Abt is known for her documentary work, such as 2001’s _Take It From Me_ a profile on four women on welfare. _Toe to Toe_ is her first narrative film.
So far the film has received mixed criticism, both Time Out New York and the Post calling it a clichéd after school special, while A. O. Scott of the New Times selected it as an NYT Critics’ Pick. The movie deals with two high school lacrosse players caught in a love triangle, one black, one white, the former determined to get a scholarship to Princeton, the latter subscribing to a life ethos best epitomized by the lyrics of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”.
Luisa Krause’s performance as Jesse the tragic white girl is the stuff that leads to successful careers, a great example of an actress embodying a character and putting herself out there without overacting (something Signore DiCaprio would be wise to remember; I would also ask him to cease and desist from doing impersonations of Will Hunting impersonating Marlon Brando). Jesse is wounded in every sense of the word, walking around in loose-fitting tees and booty shorts, her posture reminiscent of the scoliotic lean of models and pelicans. She is deeply in need of somebody to love her back. Her mother, a cold executive type, pays her little attention. When she sleeps with the third point of the love triangle, Rashid, played by Silvestre Rasuk, she tells him that she wants to have his babies.
Tosha, played by Sonequa Martin, is the counterpoint to Jesse’s train wreck. She comes from a rougher background, but tries in school and is well disciplined, perhaps to a fault. Her struggle is both physical and mental: in the classroom, on the lacrosse field, and at home, holding her family members to higher standards and being brutally beaten by a lisping antagonist.
While the movie does fall into cliché at times (there is a “running scene” cut up with a montage of POV shots of Jesse getting the joy railed out of her), Abt doesn’t pull any punches in her depiction of teen sexuality. Making an honest film about adolescents is a problematic task in itself. Teenagers tend to live on a kind of heightened emotional plane, which requires a carefully selected soundtrack and bottled emotion in order to recreate on the screen. _Toe to Toe_’s soundtrack is equal parts underground hip-hop, quiet piano, and acoustic guitar fills.
While I recognize the criticism of the film by Time Out and the Post, I don’t necessarily agree with it, as both reviews basically wrote the movie off, ignoring its emotional depth and the limitations of adolescent subjects. Both reviews highlight the strong performances of the leads, while the Time Out review notes the movie’s “strong feel for location” (the vanilla suburbs and chocolate city of D.C.). One of the best indications of well-written narrative is that none of the characters come off as one-dimensional. This is the case with _Toe to Toe_; the secondary characters, Tosha’s family in particular (a working class African American family, easy prey for stereotype), are anything but stock. Leslie Uggams gives a particularly memorable performance as Tosha’s opinionated grandmother.
Speaking from a man’s perspective, _Toe to Toe_ is one of those movies that make you feel guilty for being a guy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it speaks to a social truth, which I think it does. The fathers of _Toe to Toe_ exist off camera and are left mostly unmentioned. Tosha’s brother, who has his own baby mama, is an unmotivated pothead, content to take his baby girl to a go-go (a type of DC hip-hop show) even if she can barely walk. Abt pulls no punches in depicting Jesse: she is a victim of her gender, losing any sense of self-worth after finding out she may be sterile. The men of _Toe to Toe_ become reduced to incubi, able to plant a seed then disappear. In this movie, men have less responsibility; therefore they have less opportunity to redeem themselves.
During one of the movie’s more troubling scenes, I noticed a girl in the row ahead of me shaking, and holding onto a woman whom I assumed to be her mother. After the movie ended she composed herself and walked to the front of the theater to stand beside costar Shonequa Martin. Visibly shaken, she emphasized that she’s nothing like Jesse in real life. Brava.