“‘Duped’ by deficit discourse”: Xicano’s critique of bell hooks’, “Gangsta Culture—Sexism and Misogyny: Who Will Take the Rap?”

First and foremost, I wonder why bell hooks feels she can unquestionably co-opt the term “gangsta” from the very “misogynistic” rappers she seeks to critique.  I’m not sure if she is trying to show her solidarity with black, male, gangsta rappers or not.  I feel that her use of the term is analogous to whites using “mock Spanish” or ebonics. 

hooks “critique of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and its relationship to black “gangsta rap,” for me, serves as yet another example of how a renowned academic can be “duped” into reifying the very racialized regime of representation (s)he seeks to deconstruct.  Silenced in her article is not the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” but rather the underlying urban black male conundrum: whether to break under the pressure of the “normative gaze” and conform or to express themselves in a way which validates their lived, material existence despite-as she contends-reinforcing the deficit discourse(s) which buttress the stereotypes that define them, speak for them and authenticate them. Also silenced are the female “gangsta rappers” and the multitude of biologically male “gangsta rappers” who don’t wish to glorify the plight of urban blacks, rather, bring attention to the urban violence, oppressive apparatuses of the state, regimes of surveillance therein and the “bad rap” urban black males get. 

My positionality leads me to discursively come to the conclusion that while-as she contends-misogynistic attitudes are portrayed by the dominant culture as “an expression of male deviance” (p. 116) for white and black males it is normalized for Latino men, albeit as machismo—a European construct.  hooks treats black male misogyny as an “aberrant pathological standpoint” (p. 116) which-she laments-has become a (mis)representation of dominant values in black culture. Here, I must say, I agree with her analysis. She attributes much of this to the regime she calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.  However, I couldn’t help but wonder how she feels that her piece is absent from any complacency with the discourse of the very “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” she critiques.  She has (re)represented misogyny and sexism as a heterosexual black-male-gangsta-rapper problem privileging heteronormativity and serves to buttress rather than disrupt the racialized binaries that discursive whiteness depends upon.  She offers us an egregiously oversimplified definition of “gangsta rap” and gangsterism.  Of all the sources to choose from she uses a Brent Staples New York Times piece to help her define “gangsta rap”. 

While I would agree that white male consumers are “turned on” by the misogyny, sexism and brutality which is a cornerstone of gangsta rap—that is if you subscribe to her narrow definition—yet add that urban black males can be validated, and testified to, through the lyrics of gangsta rap.  hooks can’t seem to decide whether purveyors of gangsta rap are bamboozled into musical minstrelsy or active entrepreneurial exploiters of the (white) cultural demand for their product.  At no point does she acknowledge gangsta rap as an art form but we hear, loud and clear, her aberration for it.  I contend that there is much reflexive expression in “gangsta rap” and its artists are urban bishops to many who don’t seek to co-opt the voice of the urban ghetto’s rather they pull that voice from the darkness into the light.  To brand those who produce gangsta rap as hedonistic consumerist is to leave little space for the possibility that gangsta rap could be regarded as culturally relevant pedagogy. 

If hooks feels that “the young black males [in Menace II Society who] have learned their gangsta values form watching movies and television and shows where white male gangsters are center stage” (p. 118) are analogous to urban black males and their racialization then she definitely needs to interact more with her “Brother Cube”.  If, as according to hooks, viewers of this scene in Menace II Society are misled to “believe that the gangsterism these young black males embraced emerged from some unique black cultural experience” (p. 118) then the suggestion is that it does not.  For me this gangsterism is not mutually exclusive from the black cultural experience and to suggest otherwise is to silence and “other” a significant segment of the urban black community. 

She seems to be using the “master’s tools” to distance her notion of the black norm from those who are already disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream America.  This serves better to divide and conquer than the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy she holds in contempt of the social contract.  If hooks uses Joan smith’s sense that gender discrimination is easily acknowledged while “hatred for women is encouraged because it helps maintain the structure of male dominance” (p. 119) as analogous to racial discrimination and racism she is missing the fact that both racial discrimination and racism are denied today. 

hooks shifts focus and claims that “[n]o one speaking about this film [The Piano] mentions misogyny and sexism or white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (p. 119) to which I suggest that perhaps the misogyny and sexism are taken-for-granted rather than strategically ignored, as for the latter, I’m not sure anyone would use this nuanced term.  hooks claims that this film “seduces and excites audiences with its uncritical portrayal of sexism and misogyny” (p. 120).  I read several instances which point to the very criticism she claims is missing.  For example, Ada’s sexual pursuit of Baine seems to disrupt the traditional misogynistic gender roles, and I took Ada’s demand that her piano be “thrown overboard because it is ‘soiled’, tainted with horrible memories” (p. 120) seems to demonstrate Ada’s criticism of what the piano represents: Stewart’s misogyny.  For hooks the fact that reviewers and audiences mistakenly arrive at the conclusion that Champion’s work “expresses a feminist standpoint” (p. 120) strips the film of its critical portrayal of sexism and misogyny. 

Ultimately, I felt that by advancing, as hooks puts it, “the sexist assumption that heterosexual women will give up artistic practice to find ‘true love’” (p. 121) is by virtue a critique of that assumption.  I found hooks use of the qualifier “heterosexual” to be trivial unless there is more to its use.

I found hooks suggestion that “most young black males” are “passive, uncritical [consumers] of the mass media” (p. 121) as a reification of the deficit discourse that informs such an assessment and short-sighted as there are many more socializing/racializing mediums: family, peers, schools, religion etc.  Discursive whiteness is the means through which sexism and misogyny become racialized as black problems and dismissed as non-problematic as long as it is projected towards black women. I feel that the “brutal, raw anger and rage” (p. 122) hooks attributes go gangsta rap is a result of the racial stratification and discrimination blacks endure and this is projected towards those they love in the form of misogyny and sexism.  I can’t help but disagree with hooks that it is only young white males “who feel a desperate need for gangsta rap” (p. 122).  Obviously the gangsta rappers feel a desperate need to create it and those in the urban ghettos seek to be validated through it. 

I contend that hooks subscribes to, and employs, a very narrow definition/understanding of gangsterism if she sees it as intrinsically patriarchal, sexist and misogynistic.  There are many enclaves of girl gangs, homosexual/lesbian gangs, asian/latino/native/white/interracial gangs that adopt their own power dynamics.  hooks suggests that young black males are “duped by a vision of manhood that can only lead to their destruction” (p. 123).  I counter this by suggesting that they are primarily ushered to this vision and not necessarily “duped” but validated, empowered and invigorated by this vision of manhood.