â€œOne Time for My Girlsâ€: African-American Girlhood,
Empowerment, and Popular Visual Culture
Treva B. Lindsey
Published online: 8 May 2012
# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
Abstract In this essay I examine how popular/public culture depicts African-American
girlhood and adolescence. Primarily using a hip hop generation feminist theoretical
framework, I discuss both the limitations and progressive possibilities of popular visual
culture in representing African-American girlhood and adolescence. The essay moves
from a discussion of a video that highlights the disempowering possibilities of mass,
digital, and social media for black girls and adolescents to a discussion of two videos
propelled by a black girl-centered discourse of empowerment. Each of the videos
discussed offers insight into the lived experiences of African-American girls from
historical, aesthetic, and expressive perspectives. I use visual media text analysis, hip
hop generation feminist theory, and social and cultural theory to discuss how these
videos contribute to the formation of a contemporary discourse of empowerment for
black girls and adolescents. Ultimately, I assert the importance of popular/public culture
for empowering black girls and adolescents, while acknowledging extant limitations and
obstacles in mass, digital, and social media.
Keywords African-American . Girlhood . Empowerment . Hip hop feminist . Popular
Popular, digital, and social media are primary sites for engaging with social and
cultural norms and racial, gender, sexual, and class ideologies. For marginalized
communities, in particular, representation in mass media can both reify and challenge
stereotypes of their respective communities. Politics of representation often play a
significant role for individuals and communities seeking equality and inclusion. In
US-based mass media, a history of derogatory and dehumanizing representations of
African-Americans exists (bell hooks 1999). According to bell hooks (1999), very
little progress has been made in mass media towards debunking damaging stereotypes
J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34
T. B. Lindsey (*)
University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO 65203, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
of African-Americans of all gender identities. bell hooksâ€™ focus on racial, gender, and
sexual representation from a black feminist standpoint pivots around the AfricanAmerican adult experience. Adulthood is central to her analysis and, more broadly, to
many discussions about an â€œAfrican-American experience.â€ She interprets representations of African-Americans as a community without honing in on the particularity
of damaging stereotypes that circulate about black children. Although similarities
exist between stereotypes of black children and adults, it is important to acknowledge
differing stereotypes as well as age-inscribed responses to harmful representations.
How would analysis of representation shift if the focus were on African-American
children and adolescents? What are the core and subtle differences and similarities
between the politics of representation for African-American adults and for AfricanAmerican children and adolescents? Do representations of African-American children
and adolescents require different theoretical frameworks to uncover the particularities of
their experiences with representational politics in mass media? African-American girls
are largely absent from mainstream popular visual culture, whereas African-American
women are overrepresented in popular mediums as hypersexualized objects of desire,
postmodern mammies, or â€œsistas with attitudes.â€ These stereotypes inscribe the lives of
African-American girls. The relative invisibility of black girls speaks volumes about their
place within popular visual culture. A few black female child/adolescent driven shows
gained commercial success in the twenty-first century. Raven Symoneâ€™s Thatâ€™s So Raven
and Keke Palmerâ€™s True Jackson, VP depict black girl adolescence without explicitly
pandering to or addressing racial and gender stereotypes of African-Americans.
These shows, although propelled by young, black female stars, rely upon an implied
de-racialization of their protagonists. These black girl characters can empower black
girls and adolescents through their visibility, but do not necessarily provide racially
specific models or narratives of empowered African-American girlhood.
Empowerment is integral to the self-schemas of black girls and adolescents. Depictions of African-American girls and adolescents that circulate in popular culture can both
disempower and empower. Self-empowerment can be defined as being both knowledgeable of and able to act in healthful, safe, and self-determined ways that affirm oneâ€™s
humanity. When considering black girls and adolescents, however, empowerment must
be framed to specifically address black girlhood and adolescence. Very little humanistic,
black feminist scholarship specifically explores the unique site of black girlhood and
adolescence. Kyra Gauntâ€™s The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from
Double Dutch to Hip-Hop (2006) is one of the few examples of scholarship that
approaches black girls, black girlhood, and empowerment from a humanities-based,
black feminist perspective. Gaunt explores black girlhood and their tools of empowerment as an ethnomusicologist. Black feminism provides a point of departure for
exploring the possibilities of empowered black girlhood and adolescence, but hip hop
generation feminism may offer a unique set of tools for addressing the particularities
of contemporary black girlhood and adolescence.
Hip Hop Generation Feminism: A Theoretical Framework
For thinking through contemporary black girlhood and adolescence, I offer hip hop
generation feminism as a conceptual and theoretical framework for exploring
J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34 23
empowerment of black girls and adolescents through mass, digital, and social media.
Hip hop generation feminism or hip hop feminism, as an articulated standpoint arises
from Joan Morganâ€™s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist
Breaks It Down (2000). Morgan (2000) thoroughly discusses her relationship with
hip hop and its gender and sexual politics from a perspective grounded in the social,
political, economic, and cultural realities of marginalized women in the late twentieth
century. Her work also identifies hip hop as an expressive multigenerational culture.
Currently, hip hopâ€™s audience spans from those coming of age during the post-Civil
Rights era to those born in the post-9/11 era. In 2011, the Crunk Feminist Collective
digitally published a â€œHip Hop Generation Feminist Manifesto.â€ Adding â€œgenerationâ€ to their feminist moniker, this collective acknowledged that although hip hop
Appreciate the culture and the music, we do not have a blind allegiance to it (hip
hop), nor is our feminism solely or in many cases even primarily defined by Hip
Hop. Hip Hop links us to a set of generational concerns, and to a community of
women, locally, nationally, and globally (Crunk Feminist Collective 2011).
This set of generational concerns is foundational to contextualizing contemporary
images of black girls and adolescents circulating within mass media.
Similar to black feminists, hip hop generation feminists often approach the experiences and representations of black females by focusing on adults. Hip hop generation feminist analyses tend to emphasize empowerment of adults. For example, hip
hop feminism uses a sex-positive analysis when grappling with the role of sexual
pleasure and sexual expressivity in empowering adult women and trans-people. This
analysis shifts in application to children and adolescents. Although similarly sex
positive, it must account for different age-specific issues of consent, maturity, responsibility, and agency. Hip hop generation feminists utilize what hip hop feminist
Joan Morgan identified as a â€œfuckinâ€™ with the graysâ€ framework (Morgan 2000). This
framework provides critical tools for grappling with female sexual desire within the
complicated spaces of hypermasculinity, misogyny, and heteropatriarchy. This analysis challenges the policing of black womenâ€™s sexual identities that often emerges
when black women publicly engage in explicit sexual behavior. Black politics of
respectability within a US context, although grounded in late nineteenth century and
twentieth century African-American womenâ€™s activism and discourse continues to
inscribe both the lives of black women and the responses to the circulation of (hyper)
sexualized images of black women (Harris-Perry 2011; Henderson 2010; Hobson
2005; Jones 2007; White 2001).
Hip hop generation feminism recognizes the specificity of experiences of the hip
hop generation, while attempting to navigate the complicated but interwoven terrains
of racism, classism, patriarchy, sexism, ableism misogyny, homophobia, and a politics of pleasure and sexual erotics. It also promotes empowerment. From a hip hop
generation perspective, what constitutes empowered black girlhood and adolescence?
More specifically, what are the possibilities for this empowered black girlhood to
exist within public/popular cultures that continue to perpetuate damaging and controlling images of black womanhood? These images often disempower and dehumanize African-American females, regardless of age. Because popular culture,
particularly social and digital media culture offers unprecedented access to images
24 J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34
of black girls, adolescents, and women, it becomes a dynamic site for thinking
through how particular narratives and scripts about black females circulate. I consider
the possibility of public/popular culture space being liberatory and empowering for
black girls. Despite the limitations of the trafficking of images of black girls that
contribute to a continued complicity with the exploitation and denigration of young,
black females, public/popular culture can and has offered spaces for empowering
The Limitations: A Brief Case Study in Disempowerment
In October 2011, a video was released of a black adolescent female having oral sex with
a black adolescent male. The taped, consensual sex act was placed on the internet and
immediately became available on a number of websites. Over the course of the week in
which the video was released, the female adolescentâ€™s name became a top trending topic
on Twitter, child pornography freely circulated, and a barrage of commentary assaulting
the humanity of the young female and her â€œinvisibleâ€ parents commenced. Few in the
world of social and digital media commentary addressed the adolescent boy in the video
or the reality that people watching and sending the video were spectators and traffickers
of child pornography. Tweets, blog postings, and other social media commentary
disparaged the female adolescent with words such as slut, whore, hypersexual, and
stupid. Within the confines of a week, this female teenager became central to extant
conversations about the oversexualization of children and teenagers.
In most of the social media responses to the filmed sexual act, the adolescent girl
was multiply situated as a helpless victim, an example of black female hypersexuality,
a transgressive and morally misguided teenager, and as a teenager lacking proper
parental guidance and supervision. Although concerns about her safety, her health,
her pleasure, and her agency arose, she, like many other black women and girls
whose images circulate within mass media, fueled discussions about hypersexuality
and black womanhood. Despite her status as an adolescent, the racialized, gender
stereotype of the hypersexual black woman became central to her framing within
digital and social media. A victim of child pornography and speculatively of sexual
coercion (it has been stated that she may have performed the sexual act as a means to
reinstate her relationship with her former, intimate partner), questions about sexual
violence and coercion remained on the margins of dialogue (Ade-Brown 2011). There
is an array of potentially negative outcomes associated with sexually coercive
experiences of black girls: lower self-esteem, decreased mental health, and engagement in higher risk sexual behaviors (authors).
Histories of the sexual exploitation of black women and of the depiction of black
women as hypersexual beings continue to structure responses to popular culture
representations of black women engaging in sex acts. If the girl on the video were
an adult, I could use a hip hop generation feminist analysis to discuss a politics of
empowerment that encompasses an adult female deriving pleasure from embracing a
sexual self-schema that includes engaging in oral sex and exhibitionism. I could also
shed light upon issues of consent and coercion that can inscribe the sexual lives of
black women, but would make sexual agency and transgression from established
racial, cultural, sexual, and gender norms central to close readings of consensual,
J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34 25
adult activities. This analysis in its entirety, however, cannot be applied to a girl or
teenager. Children and adolescents are not adults, and an analysis of the female
adolescentâ€™s actions must be situated within an analytic framework of black girl
and adolescent empowerment. Centering on black girls and adolescents shifts the
analysis to a discussion of consent, coercion, self-esteem, empowerment, and the role
of popular culture in the lives of black girls and adolescents. The adolescent girl in
this video was disempowered through popular visual and digital culture. Despite the
reality of disempowering possibilities associated with mass circulation of images of
black girls and adolescents, popular visual mediums such as social and digital media
and television can afford black girls and adolescents with empowering narratives and
images of themselves.
Using two particular black girl-centered popular culture moments that occurred
exactly a year prior to the massive circulation of the video of the young woman
performing oral sex, I introduce a black girl-centered discourse of empowerment
within popular culture. On Tuesday, October 12, 2010, the long-running childrenâ€™s
program Sesame Street premiered a special musical segment featuring an unnamed
African-American girl puppet entitled â€œI Love My Hair.â€ The video showcased a
black girl puppet singing about the natural beauty and versatility of her hair. The short
segment appeared to specifically target black girls through the primary character and
the lyrical content. On Monday, October 18, 2010, Willow Smith, child recording
artist and daughter of popular actors Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, released a video for
her debut single, â€œWhip My Hair.â€ The song encouraged the celebration of an array of
hairstyles and celebrated individuality and expressivity. As of October 2011, these
videos garnered over 65 million combined views on YouTube.
Through close readings of these moving visuals, I offer key elements to the
formation of a hip hop generation feminist discourse of empowerment for black girls
including healthful expressivity, media literacy, self-affirming social networks, and
the tools and resources to develop self-schema that affirm the uniqueness of black
girlhood. Employing these key elements, I briefly turn my critical lens back to the
hypercirculation of the pornographic video of the female adolescent to further
complicate my discussion of this discourse of empowerment. Grounded in hip hop
generation feminist theory, praxis, and interests, I seek to approach these moving
images of black girls from a critical perspective that recognizes the necessity of
examining black girlhood on its own terms and arguably, with its own tools.
â€œI Love My Hairâ€
For over 40 years, Sesame Street has served as a leading childrenâ€™s program with a
far-reaching global audience. Currently broadcast in over 140 countries, each version
of the show attempts to incorporate culturally specific references, sequences, and
characters. Although originated in the USA, Sesame Street, in its numerous countryspecific incarnations, implicitly speaks to childhood as simultaneously culturally
specific and universal. By developing characters and sequences that address nationspecific issues to using a relatively comparable format regardless of the viewing
audience, Sesame Street builds upon its stated commitment to educating children
about diversity, while celebrating both commonalities and differences among people.
26 J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34
From an HIV-positive puppet named Kami on the South African and Kenyan
versions of Sesame Street to the African-American human family, the Robinsons on the US version, Sesame Street has served as one of the few television
shows featuring both leading and supporting characters of African descent. Subtly
touching upon the reality of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa and upon
the prevalence of stereotypes about African-American families, this childrenâ€™s show
introduced its audience to lived experiences of people of African descent. Although
arguably not groundbreaking in its content or approach, Sesame Street provides a
unique platform for African-American children to see themselves represented in
In October 2010, a special segment aired on the US version of Sesame Street. The
segment, created and written by the showâ€™s head writer Jim Mazzarino, featured a
brown puppet (presumably African-American) singing an original song titled, â€œI
Love My Hair.â€ With lyrics professing love for her hair and the wide array of styling
possibilities for â€œAfrican-American hair,â€ the song, as Mazzarino noted, responded to
a growing lack of self-esteem in his adopted, Ethiopian daughter caused by her desire
to have long, straight blonde hair (Davis and Hopper 2010). Although Mazzarino
produced the segment to affirm the beauty of his own daughter, the song touched
upon several extant narratives that pivoted around black girlsâ€™ and womenâ€™s relationship to Eurocentric and white hegemonic beauty standards. Mazzarinoâ€™s lyrics do not
challenge these hegemonic beauty standards, but do encourage black girls to embrace
their hair in spite of prevailing racialized and gendered norms of beauty.
Black hair, as both an industry and as a discourse, has a long and contentious
history within the African diaspora, and specifically within black communities that
encounter white/Eurocentric beauty standards as aesthetic ideals (Banks 2000; Byrd
and Tharps 2001; Rooks 1996). What becomes particularly salient in both historical
and contemporary black hair discourses is the processes black females utilize to
achieve these hegemonic beauty ideals. Those who choose to maintain the â€œnaturalâ€
state of their hair often confront the possibility of being ostracized and marginalized
from prevailing standards of beauty that uphold long, straight hair as a universal ideal
and of being stereotyped as militant and aggressive. Natural hair is a racially and
gender-specific term that most commonly refers black womenâ€™s hair that has not been
altered through chemical and or other products and processes (Rooks 1996). These
products and processes include: perms, relaxers, texturizers, hair-straightening treatments, and flat and curling irons. Those who opt for products and processes that
straighten their hair can face accusations of racial inauthenticity, of reinforcing white
cultural hegemony, and of trying to culturally assimilate through aesthetic practices
(Byrd and Tharps 2001; Lake 2003). Debates among and about black women
regarding their hair offer a rich site for examining how cultural ideals and historically
rooted standards affect the lives of individuals and communities.
Despite the ongoing discussions within and about black femalesâ€™ hair, popular
culture, both nationally and globally, continues to propagate a cultural ideal of long,
straight hair. The majority of the most notable black female popular culture stars of
the twenty-first century reflect this cultural ideal. From BeyoncÃ© to Ciara to Oprah
Winfrey, straight black hair has become both a default and active ideal of black
beauty within mass media. This message becomes particularly poignant for black
girls and adolescents, who often aspire to mimicking their favorite popular culture
J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34 27
stars. The straight hair ideal for black girls and adolescents is equally present in
shows targeting youth audiences. Disney and Nickelodeon stars, Raven Symone and
Keke Palmer, respectively, primarily showcase straight hairstyles. Consequently,
black girls and adolescents who imbibe both adult- and youth-oriented popular
culture that features black females will typically only view black women and girls
with long, straight hair. The predominance of these images of black womenâ€™s and
girlsâ€™ hair coupled with popular images of non-black girls and womenâ€™s long, straight
hair delivers a powerful message for young black girls: long, straight hair is essential
to being beautiful.
â€œI Love My Hairâ€ focused upon black girls embracing their â€œnaturalâ€ hair. From
books to blogs to salons, black womenâ€™s hair is often a focal point for discussions
about black beauty. More recently, a growing number of voices weighing in on
discussions about black hair emphasize the beauty and health of black hair in its
â€œnaturalâ€ state. The emergence of black hair businesses that specialize in products and
processes for natural hair textures of black women has been central to an increasing
number of black women deciding to â€œgo naturalâ€ or refusing to undergo processes
that alter the natural textures of their hair (Jacobs-Huey 2006; Prince 2009). Although
mass media outlets such as advertising continue to primarily promote texture-altering
products and processes, digital and social media have created a platform for â€œnaturalâ€
hair manufacturers and stylists to build a stronger consumer base. Despite the
growing number of natural hair-affirming outlets in digital and social media, advertisements for black girl-specific hair products typically promote relaxers and other
texture-altering products and processes. â€œKiddie Permsâ€ are the primary products
targeted at black girls. These relaxers produce the same effects as â€œadult perms,â€
which are to temporarily straighten more tightly coiled, kinky, or curly hair textures.
The most prevalent of the â€œkiddie permâ€ genre is Just For Me. Its commercials
feature the voices and faces of black girls and its packaging includes images of black
girls. Just For Me commercials provide examples of the importance of the content
and messaging of advertisements featuring and targeting black girls. While these
commercials use black girls, it also represents a version of black girlhood that must
conform to particular ideals of beauty and normalcy.
The â€œI Love My Hairâ€ segment disrupted the â€œblack girl hairâ€ landscape by
lauding the beauty of black girlsâ€™ hair without trumpeting the necessity of
texture alteration. Following in the footsteps of black feminist scholar bell
hooks, who in 1999 authored the childrenâ€™s book, Happy to be Nappy, this
Sesame Street segment affirmed the beauty, freedom, and empowering possibilities
of natural â€œblack girl hairâ€ (bell hooks 1999). The African-American girl puppet
proudly singing about the versatility of her hair provides an affirming discourse about
girls with nappy, kinky, and tightly curled/coiled hair textures. Additionally, the song
addresses the creativity of black girls by touching upon the variety of â€œnaturalâ€ hair
styles black girls can and do exhibit. Within a two minute segment, this musical video
incorporates two of the key elements of a discourse of empowerment for black girls:
healthful expressivity and the representation of a self-schema that affirms the uniqueness of black girlhood.
Although full autonomy is not a primary or age-appropriate element of a black
girlhood discourse of empowerment, the formation of a sense of self-determination
and relative autonomy is significant in the development of black girls and
28 J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34
adolescents. In the lyrics of the song, the African-American girl puppet proclaims that
she does not â€œneed a trip to the beauty shopâ€ to have her hair styled (Mazzarino
2010). The black beauty salon is a fixture in many black communities, and having
oneâ€™s hair styled is often viewed as a rite of passage for black girls and adolescents
(Gill 2010). The proclamation by the girl puppet in the video, however, subverts this
tradition by lauding her lack of dependence on a beauty salon for validation or
production of her unique beauty. Not all black girls in beauty salons are altering their
natural hair, however relaxers and â€œpress and curlsâ€ are the most common processes
being performed on black girlsâ€™ hair in beauty salons.
By situating herself outside of black beauty salon culture, the puppet also presents
herself as an authorial figure with regards to her hair. She does not need or desire a
salon because she believes in her abilities to healthily maintain and style her own hair.
The puppet becomes a mistress of her own â€œhair destiny,â€ and consequently establishes herself as an autonomous subject, as it pertains to her hair. The self-affirmation
displayed by the puppet stems from both the celebration of her hair as well as her
ability to maintain and style her hair in creative and innovative ways. Furthermore,
she asserts her need to share her love of her hair. This sharing allows her to connect
with real, black girls confronting images and rhetoric that explicitly and implicitly
devalue black girlsâ€™ â€œnatural hairâ€ and privilege straight hair as the ideal for female
beauty. The potential connection between the puppet and black girls watching the
segment facilitates the development of a mass media-based community/social
network that affirms the uniqueness and beauty of black girls.
Although a white male wrote the song and thus provides the creative space for the
establishment of this affirming network, spaces created for and about black girls are
integral to black girl empowerment. Black girl empowerment within public/popular
culture stems from the creation and centralization of black girl-centered spaces in
mass media. It is important that black girls serve as authors and producers of the mass
media-circulated content; however, affirming and humanizing representations of
black girls and black girlhood can also provide sites of empowerment for black girls
engaging with public/popular culture. The circulation of representations of empowered black girls can inspire them to both see themselves as valuable and as potential
producers of content that foregrounds their experiences as black girls.
I Whip My Hair Back and Forth
In the week following the first airing of the â€œI Love My Hairâ€ segment, another video
featuring a black girl became a viral sensationâ€”Willow Smithâ€™s â€œWhip My Hair.â€
Prior to the videoâ€™s release, the song played in heavy rotation on urban and pop
format radio stations. The popularity of the song created a high level of anticipation
for the official release of the video. Preempting the release of the official video were
several videos posted to YouTube featuring girls, predominantly girls of color,
performing to the song. One of these videos, which featured several young girls of
diverse racial backgrounds but had an African-American girl as the lead or stand-in
for Willow Smith, garnered millions of views and thousands of comments applauding
the abilities and beauty of the young dancers (Ware and Kae 2010). The song proved
inspirational for girls and sparked the creation of a distinct creative moment that
J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34 29
pivoted around the musical and kinetic expressivity of black girlhood. Gaunt (2006)
examines the everyday music culture of African-American girls and argues that black
girls subvert extant power relations of race and gender through the counterpublic of
the everyday popular sphere. Because the subversion of these relations is often
rendered invisible or insignificant in popular culture, it is important to explore the
moments in which the expressivity of African-American girls becomes explicitly
central to popular culture and mass media.
With the official release of the video, fans and critics of the â€œgirlsâ€™ anthemâ€
acquired a sonic/visual text with which to engage African-American girl expressivity.
Visually vibrant and colorfully captivating, the music video offered numerous images
of girls and adults resisting conformity. The opening sequence depicted Willow Smith
walking into a drab cafeteria with a boombox filled with her song and paint for
â€œcoloringâ€ the space. Through whipping her hair, she literally paints the room and its
occupants in an array of colors. Her disruption of the space allows for the cafeteria
occupants to become enlivened. The hair whipping becomes a metaphor and a
weapon for challenging conformity and established conventions. More specifically,
Willow Smith, as a black girl, situates herself as an empowered figure that can
disrupt, subvert, and incite.
Unlike the â€œI Love My Hairâ€ segment, â€œWhip My Hairâ€ does not directly target
black girls. Smith is surrounded by a multiracial and multiethnic cast who become
empowered to embrace their individuality and self-expressivity through her demanding that people â€œWhip your hair back and forth.â€ The message of the song and the
video are therefore deracialized and posited as universal and cross-racial. Furthermore, â€œWhip My Hairâ€ features girls and young adolescents. By encompassing â€œpretweensâ€ in her representation of youth, Smith depicts an aspect of adolescent development, autonomy, and self-definition. In an interview on the Ellen Degeneres Show,
Smith explained that her song articulates that, â€œIâ€™m me, Iâ€™m doinâ€™ what I wanna doâ€
(Dionne 2010). Although Smith did not write the song, her ability to articulate
what the song means to her and how she wants it to resonate with her audience
aligns her song and video with a discourse of black girlhood and adolescent
empowerment. The inclusivity and diversity extant in the video does not detract
from the fact that the protagonist/lead singer and performer of the song and
video is a black girl. Her status as the central figure provides a space for other
young black girls and adolescents to identify with both Smith and the message
she believes the song conveys.
The idea of â€œIâ€™m me, Iâ€™m doinâ€™ what I wanna do,â€ is not particularly groundbreaking. The desire to do what one wants to do can be viewed as selfish, childish, or
immature. However, when thinking through a standpoint in which a black girl
demands the space to be herself and to express herself on her own terms, Smithâ€™s
declaration of being herself without rigid norms or ideals of selfhood resonates as
rhetoric of black girl empowerment. Within a hip hop generation feminist framework,
her words suggest that Smith is attempting to articulate a way to affirm her humanity
on her own terms. Her usage of hip hop generation words and phrases such as â€œturn
my swag on,â€ â€œhaters,â€ â€œmy grind,â€ and â€œshake them offâ€ situate Smith within a
generationally distinct public/popular culture space. While on the surface, her declaration may appear anti-authoritarian, a critical read of her understanding of her song
and video reveals her desire for a space to resist conforming to established ideals and
30 J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34
norms for girlhood, which is at the theoretical core of hip hop generation feminism as
it pertains to adults (Morgan 2000). For her empowered standpoint, Smith embraces
non-normativity and individuality. Smithâ€™s defiance of ideals becomes apparent
through her avant-garde natural hairstyles, her unconventional fashion choices, and
her celebration of individualized expressivity.
A (in)visible text in the music video for â€œWhip My Hairâ€ is the presence and
performance of trans-woman and Vogue culture icon, Leyomi Mizrahi. Playing the
role of a teacher, Mizrahi offers her queer of color body and her Vogue-inspired
movements to her students. Her presence is subversive on several levels. Most
viewers may be unfamiliar with Mizrahi, her trans-identity, or the queer of color club
culture from which her movement originates. By presenting Mizrahi as the teacher of
the students whom Smith encourages to â€œbe themselves,â€ a space of empowerment is
subtly created for youth to think through their identities and to consider the possibilities transcending established boundaries. Mizrahi literally and figuratively subverts
gender norms through rejecting her gender assignment and embracing a gender
identity and expression that permits her to assert her humanity. Whereas Smith offers
girls a space to think through individuality and expressivity, Mizrahi provides a
visible example of self-determination and of a self-authored identity schema.
Mizrahiâ€™s presence in the music video further validates Smithâ€™s anthem as space of
empowerment stemming from self-affirmation, particularly for selves often marginalized and devalued within the context of popular culture and the public sphere more
broadly. Fulfilling the role of â€œteacher,â€ Mizrahi presents possibility for the youth in
the video as well as the videoâ€™s spectators. Her illegibility may limit the potential
impact of her presence; nevertheless, she affords spectators with an opportunity to
heighten their media literacy and to challenge a rigid gender binary. Smithâ€™s video
makes available the opportunity to discuss a progressive model for gender and sexual
identities that is premised upon the validation and valuation of self-authored identities
and expressions. Similar to Mizrahi resisting her gender assignment, the video for and
lyrics of â€œWhip My Hairâ€ draw attention to resisting identity assignment based on
prevailing norms. The moving visual text also offers its audience an opportunity to
imagine a space that validates the significance of individuals choosing to express and
identify themselves on their own terms.
Bridging the Gap Between Loving and Whipping My Hair
From a generalizing standpoint, the common thread between these black girl songs is
hair. The dual release of these moving visuals within a week of one another, however,
signaled a presence of a distinct and significant cultural moment that placed black
girls at the center of popular culture. Although literally encouraging black girls to
love their hair, â€œI Love My Hairâ€™sâ€ affirmation of the unique physical beauty of black
girls resonates as a cogent anthem for young girls struggling with questions about the
meaning of beauty and if they feel comfortable and confident to identify as beautiful.
Amidst the barrage of images of black girls and women with long, straight hairstyles,
â€œI Love My Hairâ€ offers black girls an alternative discourse for processing the
meaning of beauty. â€œI Love My Hairâ€ can become a tool in their arsenal for selfaffirmation and expressivity.
J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34 31
This musical segment supplies a text for building media literacy among black girls
encountering a relative abundance and scarcity of particular images of black women
and girls. In Popular Culture, New Media, and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood
(Marsh 2005), scholars discuss the importance of media literacy in early childhood
and young adolescent development. Children engage with media texts on their own
terms, and consequently, the insertion of a text that deviates from common representations of a particular group broadens the scope of childrenâ€™s experiential interactions with mass media. More specifically for black girls, the brief move from the
margins to the center could inspire black girls to think about other ways their unique
identities can and should be affirmed. Both black feminism and hip hop generation
feminism emphasize the importance of moving black bodies, and particularly black
female bodies from the margins to the center of representation and theory (Crunk
Feminist Collective 2011; bell hooks 2000; Morgan 2000). â€œI Love My Hairâ€ is a
gateway to consider the numerous ways in which black girls can and should be
represented in popular culture. It is also suggestive of the arguably greater potential
that exists in black girls both creating and being the primary subjects of mass media
representations of themselves.
â€œWhip My Hair,â€ although not solely focused on black girlsâ€™ hair, contributes to
this short-lived popular discourse in which the creativity and beauty of black girls
thrived. Smithâ€™s song openly promotes that young people should not be concerned
about the negativity of others and urges her audience to â€œkeep their heads upâ€ and to
â€œkeep fighting,â€ even when they feel like â€œgiving up.â€ Embedded within this song is a
call for perseverance, tenacity, and confidence. â€œWhip My Hairâ€ calls for audacity in
the face of adversity. While the song may not be a viable, primary force for instilling
confidence or tenacity in black girls, its popularity indicates that black girls, and
young people more broadly, seek popular culture texts that impart affirming messages. Although she appeals to young girls, the more explicitly defiant aspects of the
video and the song encompass a broader female-based audience comprised of girls,
adolescents, and adults.
Critically considering the numerous representations and forums of representation to
which young people of the twenty-first century will be exposed, the significance of
developing a cadre of texts in popular culture that foreground childrenâ€™s creativity and
expressivity cannot be undervalued. Both â€œI Love My Hairâ€ and â€œWhip My Hairâ€ are a
part of this burgeoning group of media texts. Their emphases (both implied and overt)
on black female youth acknowledge the particularity and universality of black girlhood
and adolescence. By exploring the politics of hair and the politics of individuality and
expressivity, these videos enter into a discourse of black girlhood empowerment. Hip
hop generation feminism provides a critical lens for understanding this discourse.
Unlike the child pornographic tape that circulated in October 2011, the videos for â€œI
Love My Hairâ€ and â€œWhip My Hairâ€ emerge as examples of the empowering
possibilities of mass and social media for black girls. These mediums facilitate an
â€œimagined communityâ€ of black girls that are seeking to define and articulate
themselves (Andersen 2006). Twenty-first century digital and social media culture
32 J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34
can fulfill multiple and often contradictory purposes. The popularity of internet-based
child pornography coupled with an inglorious history of sexual exploitation of girls
presents a potentially dangerous media context for black girls. The ease with which
images and information circulate in mass media can entail negative and dire consequences for black girls and adolescents being exploited or being discussed within a
digital universe that continues to rely upon harmful and dehumanizing racial, gender,
and sexual stereotypes of black girls and women.
Debunking these stereotypes and the development of a cogent and cohesive
discourse of black girl empowerment requires an intervention led by and on behalf
of black girls and black girlhood. Creating a counterpublic, popular culture space for
dismantling stereotypes and challenging established ideals and norms is one of many
ways this discourse is created and propelled. In a discussion of a black counterpublic,
Richard Iton (2010) illuminates the political importance of black popular culture.
Extending this understanding of black popular culture to black girls, I replace
â€œpoliticalâ€ importance with â€œempowering possibilities.â€ As subjects, black girls and
adolescents do not have traditional political power such as voting or holding political
office. Similar to other disenfranchised communities, however, black girls can use
popular/public culture to depict their lived experiences and to challenge stereotypes
that negatively affect their lives. Being visible, being heard, and being fully actualized through representations are equally important to the empowerment of black
youth as it is to black adults. Media texts featuring, focusing on, and targeting black
girls create a space in which empowerment can emerge.
Combating media texts that dehumanize and devalue black girls necessitates an
arsenal of media texts that derive from a discourse of empowerment that includes
healthful expressivity, media literacy, self-affirming social networks, and the tools
and resources to develop self-schema that affirm the uniqueness of black girlhood.
The formation of organizations, groups, and collectives that promote media literacy
among black girls and adolescents, that train black girls to create and produce content
focused on their lived experiences and that provide a space for black girls to forge a
sense of community is a necessary step in establishing a black girlhood-centered
discourse of empowerment. Hip hop generation feminists have addressed and must
continue to address the specific needs of black girls. Popular culture is one the
primary sites of critical engagement for hip hop generation feminists. It is also a
formative site for girl and female adolescent development. By focusing on some of
the potential outcomes for representations of black girlhood and adolescence in mass,
digital, and social media from a hip hop generation feminist standpoint, the value of
public/popular culture for black girls and adolescents becomes particularly salient.
The adolescent who was filmed during a sexual act was a victim of one of the most
dangerous crimes of twenty-first century, child pornography. The digital and social
media era relies upon mass circulation of infinite images and does not always account
for the damaging effects these images have on children and adults. The video of this
adolescent and the subsequent mass media response exemplify the disempowering
possibilities of public/popular culture. Her victimization, however, provides a rich
opportunity to dialogue with black girls about racial, gender, and sexual stereotypes,
black girlsâ€™ emergent sexual self-schemas, the positive and negative possibilities of
social and mass media, and the importance of embracing a discourse of empowerment. Pairing a discussion of that girlâ€™s victimization with examples of empowering
J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34 33
public/popular cultural texts epitomizes how hip hop generation feminists and society
more broadly must continue to think about the range of possibilities, both positive
and negative, popular/public culture affords black girls and adolescents.
Ade-Brown, L. (2011). â€œLeave Amber Cole alone: Social media is victimizing our young people.â€ Global Grind.
Accessed 30 Dec 2011.
Andersen, B. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New
Banks, I. (2000). Hair matters: Beauty, power, and black womenâ€™s consciousness. New York: New York
Byrd, A. D., & Tharps, L. L. (2001). Hair story: Untangling the roots of black hair in America. New York:
St. Martinâ€™s Press.
Crunk Feminist Collective (2011). Hip hop generation feminist manifesto. Crunk Feminist Collective Blog.
http://crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/. Accessed 8 Nov 2011.
Dionne, Z. (2010). Willow Smith explains â€˜whip my hairâ€™ on TV, performs live. http://www.popeater.com/
2010/11/02/willow-smith-ellen-degeneres-show-whip-my-hair/. Accessed 12 Oct 2011.
Gaunt, K. D. (2006). The games black girls play: Learning the ropes from double-dutch to hip-hop. New
Gill, T. (2010). Beauty shop politics: African American womenâ€™s activism in the beauty industry. UrbanaChampaign: University of Illinois Press.
Harris-Perry, M. V. (2011). Sister citizen: Shame, stereotypes, and black women in America. New Haven:
Yale University Press.
Henderson, C. E. (2010). Imagining the black female body: Reconciling image in print and visual culture.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hobson, J. (2005). Venus in the dark: Blackness and beauty in popular culture. New York: Routledge.
bell hooks. (1999). Black looks: Race and representation. Boston, MA: South End Press
Hooks, B. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Boston: South End Press.
Iton, R. (2010). In search of the black fantastic: Politics and popular culture in the post-civil rights era.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Jacobs-Huey, L. (2006). From the kitchen to the parlor: Language and becoming African American
womenâ€™s hair care. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jones, M. S. (2007). All bound up together: The woman question in African American public culture, 1830â€“
1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Lake, O. (2003). Blue veins and kinky hair: Naming and color consciousness in Africa America. Westport:
Davis, D., & Hopper, J. (2010). â€œI Love My Hairâ€ video inspired by fatherâ€™s love of daughter. ABC News.
id011908940. Accessed 6 Nov 2011.
Marsh, J. (Ed.). (2005). Popular culture, new media, and digital literacy in early childhood. New York:
Mazzarino, J. (2010). â€œI Love My Hair.â€ Sesame Street. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v0enpFde5rgmw.
Accessed 12 Oct 2011.
Morgan, J. (2000). When chickenheads come home to roost: A hip hop feminist breaks it down. New York:
Simon & Schuster.
Prince, A. (2009). The politics of black womenâ€™s hair. Ontaria: Idiomatic.
Rooks, N. M. (1996). Hair raising: Beauty, culture, and African American women. New Brunswick:
Rutgers University Press.
Ware, M., & Kae, J. (2010). Whip my hair choreography. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v0C5L1TrqhUJ4. Accessed 12 Oct 2011.
White, E. F. (2001). Dark continent of our bodies: Black feminism and the politics of respectability.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
34 J Afr Am St (2013) 17:22â€“34
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