THE MEANING OF “INDEPENDENT WOMAN” IN MUSIC
||Moody (2011). The Meaning of Independent Woman in Music. A Review of General Semantics, April 2011, Vol. 68 Issue 2, p187, 12p
Rapper Roxanne Shanté’s 1989 rendition of “Independent Woman,” explored relationships and admonished women not to dote on partners who do not reciprocate or to buy into the fairytale dream that a man would always take care of them. The definition of an “Independent Woman” in the Urban Dictionary, a predominantly African American written and defined Web site, is “A woman who pays her own bills, buys her own things, and does not allow a man to affect her stability or self-confidence. She supports herself on her own entirely and is proud to be able to do so.”
Another depiction of independence is found in Tina Portis’ video clip titled the “Deception of the Independent Woman” posted to YouTube in 2010. Portis, an entrepreneur and former single mother, offers her opinion on statistics showing 42% of U.S. black women have never been married and are “independent” because they focus on achievement, often waiting too long to compete for the small number of black men who are equal in status (Johnson, 2010). In the video, she asserts that independent women do not need a pat on the back for doing what grownups are supposed to do: pay their bills, buy houses and cars, etc. She adds that independence discourages relationships as people begin to believe they can do everything alone, so they do not need a mate.
Portis’ depiction of independence is different from Shanté’s vision of independent women mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Both are distinct from those featured in popular music, which often describe the “independent woman” as someone who is wealthy, beautiful, and domestic. This variance in opinion underscores the importance of studying the phenomena of the “independent black woman” in the twenty-first century. I personally became interested in the topic at a concert during which an artist described his idea of an “independent woman.” 1 looked at the women in the audience who were praising the song, and I wondered how many of them, like me, were overworked single mothers struggling to pay bills while raising children alone and trying to look appealing. That was when I decided the glamorous “independent black woman” depicted in popular music is a misnomer. After looking at the lyrics of other songs, I found that rap lyrics are particularly interesting because they often juxtapose positive portrayals of an “independent woman” with negative ones of a “gold-digger.”
Historically, Wallace (1979) asserted that the myth of the black super-woman essentially consists of stereotypes deeply rooted in slavery, or the idea that although “lazy” black women are able to do more physical labor than the average woman, they consistently sacrifice themselves for others, have no emotion, and are really just “men.” She asserts that the matriarchal structure of the black family led by a strong black woman during slavery is often credited for the emasculation of the black man and subsequently the dysfunctional nature of the black family. These myths of the black superwoman have helped shape the negative perceptions of them as a whole, which carries over to present day stereotypes found in imagery of the “independent” black woman.
Portrayals of women in music have increasingly gained the attention of rap music scholars. Some suggest they promote violence, sex, and materialism, while others have accused them of being overly sexist, colorist, and degrading toward women (Kubrin, 2005; Zillmann et al., 1995). However, previous studies neglect to look at depictions of “independence” in music. I hope to fill that gap with this analysis. Popular culture is an important source of ideas that can shape people’s perceptions of themselves and other people (Collins, 2004). Additionally, content of popular music could have great effect on teenagers as they employ it for self-identity formation (North et al., 2000). Although people often belittle and represent rap music in a negative light, it is a large part of popular culture that scholars must continually analyze for new messages and meanings (Pough, 2002).
For feminist theorists, there is no dispute that media function ideologically with other social and cultural institutions to reflect, reinforce, and mediate existing power relations and ideas about how gender is and should be lived (Enriques, 2001). Feminist theorists have long asserted that mass media serve as instruments to transmit stereotypical, patriarchal, and hegemonic values about women, which, in turn, make hierarchical and distorted sex-role stereotypes appear normal (e.g., Carter and Steiner, 2004). Van Zoonen summarizes this “transmission model” as a media reflection on society’s dominant social values that symbolically belittle women, either by not showing them at all or by depicting them in stereotypical roles (1994, p. 17).
Although early feminist theorists emphasized the commonalities of women’s oppressions, they tended to neglect profound differences between women in terms of class, age, sexuality, religion, and race. For instance, women of color experience sexism in the context of racism. Debates about the adequacy of gender as the central concern of feminist theory led to the useful concept of intersectionality, which emphasizes that women do not experience discrimination and other forms of human rights violations solely on the grounds of gender, but for many reasons, including age, ethnicity, class, and sexuality (Ludvig, 2006). An intersectional approach to analyzing the disempowerment of marginalized women attempts to capture the interaction between two or more forms of subordination such as race, ethnicity, and class.
To compare messages in rap music with those of other genres, this essay analyzes nine popular singles from the 2000s and Shanté’s single from the 1980s mentioned earlier. I selected them via a YouTube search containing key words “independent” and “woman,” excluding the single, “Five-Star Chick,” which was added because of its inclusion of similar messages. Inserting texts into the system of culture where they are produced and distributed can help illuminate features and effects of the texts that textual analysis alone might miss or downplay.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Traditionally, African American youth mainly utilized rap music as a form of opposition to attract attention toward social issues. Rap music serves as a means of reflection on poverty, police violence, discrimination, apartheid, and hostility in their neighborhoods. Similarly, Krohn and Suazo (1995) found rap music videos placed an emphasis on more controversial themes — materialism and misogyny. Additionally, female characters are more likely to be placed in positions of objectification. As a result, rap music is linked to black male identity, which may lead to an increase in themes of sexism and misogyny, or hatred, or contempt, of women (Sommers-Flanagan et al., 1993; Conrad et al., 2009).
Misogyny is exemplified in lyrics that refer to woman as “bitches” and “whores” and boast about male dominance in relationships and sexual prowess (hooks, 1992; Conrad et al., 2009). Many rappers exercise what Michael Eric Dyson calls “Femiphobia,” the desire to assert black male subjectivity in rap music sometimes at the expense of black female subjectivity or by suppressing women’s bodies (cited in Perry, 2003). Social hierarchy also plays a role in the content of rap music. When one group, such as black men, is not completely empowered but has a stronger or higher position in the hierarchy, they are likely to attack or oppress groups under them (Conrad et al., 2009; Krohn & Suazo, 1995), hooks (1992) characterized rap music as a field that must be intensely labored and maintained to sustain patriarchy, hooks mused “what better group to labor on this ‘plantation’ than young black men.” According to Rose (1994, p. 15), the negative stories narrated in rap music may serve to protect young men from the reality of female rejection; tales of sexual domination falsely relieve their lack of self-worth.
Maintaining the invisibility of black women and their ideas has been critical in maintaining social inequalities, hooks adds that mass media in general institutionalize white and male supremacist ideologies, which produce “specific images, representations of race that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation and overall domination of all black people” (1992, p. 2). This exploitation often results in unappealing and dichotomous stereotypes of black women: for example, the sexually promiscuous black woman, also known as the “oversexed-black-Jezebel,” is an extreme opposite of the “mammy,” who is nurturing and passive, and the “welfare cheat,” who fives lavishly off public assistance. In the end, certain qualities attached to black women are used to justify their oppression (Collins, 2000).
THE INDEPENDENT WOMAN TODAY
Although rap songs in this study present a somewhat positive representation of women, focusing on their superwoman skills and not drugs or violence, they often contain mixed messages. For example, Webbie’s 2007 rendition of “Independent Woman” speaks of his ideal mate as a college graduate who is financially stable, which is positive; however, the song further describes her as making time to cook, clean, and give him back rubs. “I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T Do You Know What That Meant’ Baby Phat Jus Relax Front Ya Own Flat Screen/Back Rubs Cook Clean And Don’t Make Her Make Her Scene/(Webbie, 2007).” Hence, not only is she domestic and hard working, but also she is willing to cater to his every whim. Having an overachieving woman at his disposal perhaps elevates him in importance, on one hand, but may subordinate his female counterpart, on the other.
Similarly, Drake’s single “Fancy” (2010) includes a mixture of positive and negative messages that emphasize independence. For example, he stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy body: “Hit the gym step on the scales stare at the number/You say you droppin’ ten pounds preparin’ for summer/And you don’t do it for the man, men never notice/You just do it for yourself you the f*** coldes” (Drake, 2010). This is a positive message, and women should aspire to be healthy for themselves and not to please men. Nevertheless, Drake continues to focus on beauty throughout the single as he describes his “fancy woman” spending hours in salons getting her nails, hair, and “everything did.” On one hand, he shows his ideal independent woman respect for taking care of herself for the sake of looking good and not for a man. On the other hand, his emphasis on her immaculate grooming habits underscores and promotes the importance of superficial beauty in the rap culture. The lyrics create a problem if listeners falsely believe a shortcut to independence is getting their hair, nails, and toes done in lieu of obtaining an education or job security.
Also worth noting is Drake, like other male rappers in this study, appears to demand an “independent” mate who is bright, perfect, and beautiful although he admits he is not. In “Fancy,” Drake says his ideal mate must have a little class and the confidence to “overlook his past ways.” In another example, Yo Gotti speaks of his ideal woman as having a perfect credit score in addition to being a churchgoer and a schoolteacher. He expresses his desires for a domestic woman, or “bitch,” who will love him unconditionally. He adds, “She can cook and clean, she knows how to treat a gangsta right” (Yo Gotti, 2009). These lyrics do not hold men to the same high standards as “independent women.” The underlying message is that it is necessary for a woman to be outstanding while it is okay for her mate to have a jaded past or to be a “gangster.”
This irony is also punctuated by these artists’ use of derogatory terms to describe the “independent women,” which they hold to such high esteem. For example, Webbie compliments his ideal woman for her financial success on one hand; he calls her a “broad,” on the other. According to the Urban Dictionary, a broad “is less respectable than lady but much more respectable than bitch.” By referring to his ideal independent woman as a “broad,” Webbie indicates that although his ideal woman is perfect in every way — educated, beautiful, and domestic — she is still just a woman. Hence, emphasizing he is above her in social hierarchy.
Similarly, Yo Gotti calls his independent woman a “Five-Star Bitch” or “Chick.” Although “chick” is less offensive than “bitch,” it is still not a respectable moniker for a woman. Consequently, although it contains positive messages, on one hand, they are offset by the use of derogatory words to describe women, on the other. This goes back to hooks’ (1992) assertions that rap music serves to keep black women in their place. Also worth noting is these artists may not really see themselves as the thugs or gangsters they portray in their songs. After all, they are talented, successful entertainers who have worked hard to foster successful careers. However, male listeners who are not as successful or hard working may also desire the same type of independent woman. In other words, these messages may encourage men to hold out for the “perfect” woman presented as the ideal in these songs.
NE-YO’S R&B “MISS INDEPENDENT”
Ne-Yo’s R&B single “Miss Independent” (2008) has some of the same characteristics as the rap songs in this study. While he does not use derogatory words to describe “independent women,” independence coupled with perfection is a common theme. The “independent woman” in his song is labeled the “boss.” He describes her physical appearance right down to her pedicure, which punctuates the idea that every effort must be made by independent women to appear flawless: “Cause she walks like a boss. Talks like a boss/Manicured nails to set the pedicure off/She’s fly effortlessly” (Ne-Yo, 2008).
Worth noting is none of the male rappers in this study mention the idea of marrying or actually settling down with an independent woman. Instead, they discuss as one of her positive attributes — the idea that she does not weigh men down, question their previous actions, or beg for money like other women. Depictions of “independence” in the lyrics of these four songs might be better described as “phenomenal.” In other words, women who cook, clean, raise their children, look gorgeous, sport designer labels, drive fancy cars, etc., are remarkable, extraordinary, and scarce, but not necessarily “independent.”
THE OBSESSION WITH MATERIALISM
It appears that both male and female artists are obsessed with materialism, which supports findings by Krohn and Suazo (1995). While female singers boast of buying things for themselves, songs by male authors praise women who don’t depend on a man to buy them products. For example, Drake speaks of his independent woman as, “Independent with the demeanor of an R ‘N’ B singer/Naked ring finger (Check)/M3 Beamer (Check) Champagne Range/Triple white Jag’/Closet full of brand new clothes and hand bags Alexander McQueen, Prada, Gucci, Chanel” (Drake, 2010).
Similarly, Webbie speaks of his ideal mate’s taste for the finer things in life. “I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T Do You Know What That Mean?/Baby That Jus’ Relax Front Ya Own Flat ScreenlBack Rubs Cook Clean And Don’t Make Her Make Her Scene” (Webbie, 2007). He emphasizes that he values a woman who is stylish as well as wealthy — domestic as well as nurturing. However, once again it appears that the ideal relationship is one in which the woman does everything such as paying the bills, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children, which brings up the important question of what men contribute to the relationship. In fact, not one of the songs discusses a male’s role in a relationship.
Songs by female artists also contain similar messages of materialism. For example, members of Destiny’s Child discuss material wealth in “Independent Women Part I.” The singers claim their independence through their financial stability and rarely mention beauty or domestication. “The shoes on my feet/I’ve bought it/The clothes I’m wearing I’ve bought it/The rock I’m rockin’/I’ve bought it/’Cause I depend on me/If I wanted the watch you’re wearin’/I’ll buy it/The house I live in/I’ve bought it/The car I’m driving/I’ve bought it/I depend on me” (Destiny’s Child, 2000). Likewise, the group encourages women to be strong and independent out of self-respect and not to impress men. The idea of depending on anyone is frowned upon: “If you’re gonna brag, make sure it’s your money you flaunt/depend on no one else to give you what you want” (Destiny’s Child, 2000).
These lyrics emphasize the idea that they do not need a man to provide for them because they are financially stable. The idea is reaffirmed in “Independent Women Part II”: “Don’t depend on no man to give you want you need… What do you think about a girl like me?/Buy my own car and spend my own money” (Destiny’s Child, 2000). As with songs by male artists, these lyrics serve to promote consumerism and encourage listeners to covet what the artists have — material wealth — which appears to make them happy.
Interestingly, materialism was not the focal point in Roxanne Shanté’s 1989 single “Independent Woman.” Shanté’s goal, it appears, was to strengthen women. It primarily focused on the idea that women have come a long way; however, some are still lagging behind. Also worth noting is it does not include images of beauty, and derogatory words: It is strong and uplifting. She explores relationships, dependence on a mate, and spoiling men who are not loyal. It is a call to arms, encouraging women to listen up because her advice was important. She says, “So wrapped up in fairytale dreams so naive that every male seems honest and loyal/ready to spoil Buyin’ him gifts as if the boy’s loyal” (Shanté, 1989).
Kelly Clarkson initially takes a similar stance on the subject in her song “Miss Independent.” She describes independent women as “self-sufficient/Miss keep your distance/Miss unafraid/Miss out of my way/Miss don’t let a man interfere, no/Miss on her own/Miss almost grown/Miss never let a man help her off her throne” (Clarkson, 2003). However, Clarkson’s stance on independence changes once she falls in love. She mentions “Miss Independent” now in love, sees the opposite gender in a positive light. Suddenly, the idea of independence is viewed as a protective shield against men or a defense mechanism against potential heartbreaks as Clarkson states: “What is this feeling taking over?/Thinking no one could open the door I Surprise, it’s time, to feel what’s real/What happened to miss independent’s no longer need to be defensive/Goodbye, old you, when love, is true” (Clarkson, 2003). The song depicts love and independence as mutually exclusive. In other words, one can’t be independent and in love at the same time. Through “true love,” a woman can finally take off the mask of autonomy she wore throughout her independent years.
Similarly, Clarkson’s idea of “independence” links it to a relationship with a man and the idea that it is very difficult for one to be independent and be in a relationship at the same time. Clarkson has an interesting take on the concept of independence. She expresses fears that many adults — both men and women — the loss of independence in exchange for a relationship and family. This fear is warranted because independence is often lost as people develop a relationship with a significant other, and they must work together. However, although her lyrics do a great job of defining independence and exploring the effect it can have on a relationship, she does not present a solution to this dilemma.
Conversely, Mary J. Blige takes a different stand on “independence” in her song “Feel Like a Woman,” in which she asks her partner “to make her feel like a woman.” Unlike other female artists who proudly espouse independence, Blige says she is tired of it. The artist asks for emotional support and a man to rescue her from her misery. The most controversial part of “Feel Like a Woman” encourages an old-fashion courtship in which the man buys her gifts. “Boy, buy me diamonds/Buy me pearls/Buy me this/Buy me that/Make me fall deeper in love with you” (Blige, 2007). The singer emphasizes independence does not excuse her partner from treating her like a lady. She desires an old-fashion courtship. She asks him to play his role in a relationship, and she is ready to play hers. Blige’s song expresses the sentiment that she is tired of being independent and that she wants to depend on a man for a change.
Blige’s song may be an anthem for some single women who have a negative perception of independence as featured in rap music after spending years fending for themselves and their children without the help of man. It is difficult to have a successful career, flawless appearance, and spotless home. On the other hand, her message might strike a negative chord with women right’s activists who fought for independence. Some may view her lyrics as promoting the negative ideals associated with “gold-diggers” as it is uncommon in the entertainment industry for a female artist openly request leadership from her partner.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
As this essay reveals, there are many definitions and connotations of “independent woman” in the lyrics and videos of male and female artists. Male and female artists do not agree on all aspects of independence. For example, both genres often portray materialism as the ultimate symbol of independence. However, rap music is more likely to portray “independent women” as perfect, beautiful, and domestic. Conversely, songs by female artists do not focus on looks or domestic ability. Instead, they focus on the importance of women relying on themselves and not men, with the exception of Blige, who expresses a desire for an old-fashion courtship. Contrary to male rappers who often use words such as “bitches” to refer to women, R&B artist Ne-Yo and female artists do not use such terms. Also worth noting is men are often depicted as average in these songs, whereas women are usually beautiful, perfect, and multitalented. This tendency is detrimental as it sends the message women must be perfect in order to be “independent,” whereas it is okay for them to settle for average men or “thugs.”
I believe these songs are a step in the right direction in improving the perception of rap lyrics. They do not focus on drugs or violence. However, misogynistic messages are present, which mar their otherwise positive statements. Independence is an important topic to discuss in music; however, it should not be packaged with ideas of beauty, materialism, and unrealistic standards. As a former single mother of three, ages 18, 7, and 5, who mowed lawns and worked at the mall while teaching at a major university to take care of my family, I embodied the “independent” woman discussed in these songs. I took pride in being able to do it alone (without child support). However, one day, I realized motherhood might be easier if I had a “helpmate.”
I am also concerned about such portrayals because I have an 18-year-old daughter who is still trying to figure out what “independence” truly means. She has accumulated mixed messages from popular music, friends, and society, in general. I talk to her about these messages; however, it is a challenge to counteract some of her (mis)perceptions. Educators and parents must teach adolescents that women should be ready, willing, and able to be financially independent if the need arises. However, songs that discuss the “independent woman,” as one who focuses on perfection, material gains, and beauty, should not be modeled. The concept of independence must be put into context regarding relationships. “Independent” adults pay their bills, cook, and clean for themselves; however, at some point, the attainment of independence may become secondary for people who desire a relationship and family. Ideally, listeners should choose their own meaning and not be duped into believing that they must fit someone else’s ideal of an “independent women.”
Mia Moody, PhD, is a professor of journalism at Baylor University. She is the author of Black and Mainstream Press’ Framing of Racial Profiling: A Historical Perspective. She teaches courses in public relations, minorities and women in the media and reporting.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank students, Courtney Webb, Jessica Foumena, and Chelsea Quackenbush, for helping me research this important topic.
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Source: ETC: A Review of General Semantics, April 2011, Vol. 68 Issue 2, p187, 12p