Although many people would rather forget Don Imus’s famous “nappy-headed ho” comments, I explore why it’s important to remember the incident in an article published in the Spring 2012 issue of Journal of Research on Women and Gender.
The article titled, “From Jezebel to Ho: An Analysis of Creative and Imaginative Shared Representations of Black Women,” analyzes Imus’s rhetoric and connects his ideas to modern portrayals of black women in social media outlets such as Facebook hate groups.
On April 4, 2007, the shock jock and two co-hosts provided their analysis of the NCAA Basketball Finals, a competition during which a predominantly African-American, female basketball team played a predominantly Anglo-American, female basketball team. At the time, Imus was one of the most recognizable voices on radio, speaking to nearly 15 million listeners across 100 stations.
Several themes emerged during their discussion, which convey ideas about black women, particularly athletic ones, such as they are unattractive, rough and masculine. For example, Imus stated, “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers. Man, they got tattoos…” to which McGuirk chimed in, “Some hard-core hos.” Then Imus continued, “That’s some nappy-headed hos there. I’m gonna tell you that now, man, that’s some — woo. And the girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, you know, so, like — kinda like — I don’t know.”
While his references to tattoos and nappy hair might take on a different connotation depending on the historical period under consideration, the term, “ho,” is always negative. It is a vernacular term for “whore,” which is synonymous with a morally loose, sexually overactive woman.
The three men concluded their plotline with the idea that superior female athletes do not fit the stereotype of mainstream beauty. The transcript included this excerpt from Rosenberg: “It was a tough watch. The more I look at Rutgers; they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors.” In focusing on physical appearance instead of the players’ capability on the basketball court, Imus and his co-hosts helped characterize members of the mostly black basketball team as unappealing and masculine. This portrayal relegated the team to familiar negative stereotypes– instead of talented athletes and black females.
The degree of consistency between the three men was remarkable. Imus was highly effective in getting his two co-hosts to help him develop a fantasy theme about the team. While using different terms and descriptions, all three men added important elements to the plot that served to frame female athletes and black women negatively. One of them could have disagreed or stopped the conversation; however, they all chose to contribute.
While the shock jock started the dialogue, his ideas “chained out,” and all three men added important elements that created an overarching fantasy type that framed the mostly black team negatively. Resorting to stereotypes deeply entrenched in cultural narratives of black women; they focused on the basketball players’ looks, sexuality and femininity. Imus dismissed this conversation as only meant to be humorous.
While social media outlets have the potential to include positive user-generated content, many Facebook users utilize the platform to disseminate negative messages. For example, Facebook hate groups stereotype first lady Michelle Obama with similar comments as those found in Imus’s 2007 transcript.
For instance, the site titled, “I hate Michelle Obama,” has dozens of photos that portray the first lady negatively. For instance, the caption for a photo of her superimposed onto the set of the TV show, “iCarly,” states, “’Carly, there’s a baboon in your basement.’” Several photos on the page feature Mrs. Obama dancing with comments about her “always jigging.” Posts also link the president and first lady to stereotypical portrayals such as the idea that the “Obama’s can’t stop playing basketball.”
In addition, users incorporate the angry black woman stereotype in pages targeting Mrs. Obama. Unflattering photos include her scowling and making angry gestures. Other photos depict her as masculine and unattractive. For instance, in one image, she has a superimposed mustache on her face.
Other groups place her picture next to another person or character such as the Predator or James Brown. Titles include, “Is it me or does Michelle Obama look like James Brown?” “Michelle Obama is Creepy,” “Michelle Obama’s face scares me” and “Michelle Obama looks like a man”. The description for “Michelle Obama looks like a man,” states, “Obamacare will pay to have this giant shlong removed from between my legs!!!” Fans post comments such as, “She has man hands” and “I heard she is pregnant.” To support their claims, members post unflattering photos of the first lady that depict her as angry.
In other words, Facebook offers a new platform for racist and sexist messages such as those highlighted in Imus’s 2007 transcript to thrive.
Study findings provide crucial insights regarding the ideas and positions some men are likely to embrace about women, particularly black ones. They also demonstrate that historical representations of black women are still strong and have an impact on modern portrayals of the group.
The essay is important for several other reasons. First, previous studies addressing the Don Imus case focus primarily on freedom of speech issues, FCC laws governing racist and sexist language, perceptions of his firing and media framing of his comments. While these scholarly works hold immense value, and offer a strong foundation for future research on the topic, they fail to provide a feminist communication/critical race perspective, which is important to address with issues dealing with gender and race.
Cultural narratives and stereotypes of people of color and marginalized groups such as African Americans, Latinos, Arabs, Native Americans, gays and people with disabilities have historically reflected and reinforced negative stereotypes by portraying them as lazier, less intelligent, less moral and more prone to crime than other groups. I hope this extension of critical race literature might raise community awareness and foster sensitivity these groups and lead o better portrayals. Alternative portrayals can help change such misconceptions. For example, feminist theorists can seek to de-center the patriarchal voice by providing alternative feminist discourses to help supplant the traditional views of women, race and sports
Finally, representations are noteworthy because people attach negative qualities depicted in the media to groups and use them to justify their oppression. Until people are judged by the content of their character and not by their gender or race, studies such as these will be important.
- ‘It’s Over For Them’: Don Imus Blasts CNN’s Boston Coverage, Goes After New President Jeff Zucker (mediaite.com)
- Don Imus: Jesus Might Have Been Gay [VIDEO] (myhoustonmajic.com)