- Feminism and the Streets:Urban Fiction and the Quest for Female Independence in the Era of Transactional Sexuality
Though gender relations in hip hop culture are a hotly debated topic, critiques of misogyny in commercial rap music typically dominate. Charges of hypermasculinity and female objectification fly, while conservative popular discourse indicts the culture as pathological and defenders view hip hop as authentic expressions of racial and economic disaffection. Because the popular debate tends to get bogged down in either defensive or critical positions, it rarely explores the nuances and complexities of the negotiations of gender ideology that take place in hip hop cultural expression. This does not mean, however, that hip hop storytelling has no impact on the politics of gender. Rather, it is the limiting of our understanding of hip hop culture to merely the rap narratives that prevent the recognition of the complex negotiations of gender ideology, which are at the center of the post-civil rights, hip hop era popular cultural landscape.
In this essay, we turn to urban fiction, a literary genre rooted in the storytelling aesthetic of hip hop culture, to assess its contributions to the popular discourse on gender. We argue that its engagement of archetypes of female empowerment such as the "Bitch," the desire for romantic coupling, and the struggle for control over female reproduction work in tandem with black feminist efforts to theorize gender experiences in the post-civil rights era. Specifically, we understand these texts to do the following: (1) extend the concern of traditional feminist theorizing with the quest for female independence; (2) engage the contradictions of feminist theory and practice engendered by individual sexual desire articulated by hip hop feminists; and [End Page 237] (3) offer provocative representations of black men that correlate with black male feminism's concern with examining family structures and challenging the reproduction of rigid definitions of black masculinity.
While it may seem counterintuitive to turn to such an excoriated genre as urban fiction to begin an assessment of feminism in the black community, its roots in hip hop culture help to explain why one might do so. The emergence of hip hop culture has been associated with a very distinct generational experience. As Tricia Rose remarks, hip hop is the first black musical form to be associated with a collective, generational lifestyle and experience.1 In turn, critics have enumerated hip hop culture's influence on political awareness and participation, the mobilization of new constructions of identity, and feminist theorizing among that generation. Patricia Hill Collins takes up the latter in From Black Power to Hip Hop, identifying the unique relationship of hip hop generation women of color to feminism. She argues that this relationship is mediated by their need to "carve out a space that simultaneously accepts and rejects the tenets of feminism and nationalism."2 This attempt to carve out such a space has necessitated a move away from traditional academic approaches. Hill Collins reads the surge in the publication of personal narratives by women of color in the 1990s as an important development for engaging the complicated relationship of the hip hop generation to feminism. In moving away from "scholarly venues and other traditional outlets for feminist thought," hip hop generation feminists respond to the increased salience of the popular cultural sphere in the post-civil rights era.3 Hill Collins argues that this shift of feminist theorizing into the popular cultural sphere may in fact constitute a new mobilization of the feminist movement, which she sees as having been in abeyance since the 1980s.
Joan Morgan's When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost is, possibly, the urtext of hip hop feminism. Award-winning journalist and lover of hip hop, Morgan's style of feminism attends to the sometimes competing impulses of racial solidarity and gender equity in a "real talk" style that resonates with the hip hop generation. Consider some of the provocative questions she raises:
Can you be a good feminist and admit out loud that there are things you kind of dig about patriarchy?
Is it foul to say that imagining a world where you could paint your big brown...