Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. It is not coincidental that the age group arguably most exposed to popular culture – that is, college age students – is the same age group that suffers the highest rate of rape.
Rape culture is often normalized and perpetuated by mainstream media and carried out in hyper- masculine environments. The media’s normalization of violence against women and rape culture, specifically in the world of hip-hop, has a big impact among college fraternities, particularly at American University.
The most important thing to note about both fraternity parties and the hip-hop industry is that both are completely dominated by men and function on men’s terms. At American University, where the fraternity houses are not on campus, students who wish to attend parties congregate in one area of campus and wait for brothers to give them rides. This system leaves it up to the brothers which students attend their party, often based on what the brothers consider to be attractive. Similarly, male rappers define what is attractive based on their lyrics and the types of girls they choose to feature in their videos. It is not simply talent that determines whether or not a female emcee will succeed: females must fit a certain beauty norm. (Women who don’t fit the norm are literally silenced, as evidenced explicitly in Wale’s Song “Pretty Girls,” the hook of which is “ugly girls be quiet, quiet.”)
This focus on aesthetics breeds competition, not sisterhood, in both atmospheres, with women focusing more on impressing the men and playing the men’s game. The most recent example of this in the hip-hop industry is the feud between Nicki Minaj and veteran rapper Lil’ Kim. Lil’ Kim was arguably the first female emcee who stepped out of the box and in a loud, unapologetic, and pro-sex way advocated for female empowerment and was accepted by feminists. However, now that Nicki is filling this role, instead of encouraging the younger rapper to follow in her footsteps and continue pushing boundaries, Kim put out a violent and hateful diss track against Minaj.
Female hip-hop artists also empower women by proving that they can play with the boys: that is, rapping about men the same way that men rap about women. Chanel, a writer for the blog “The Crunk Feminist Collective,” argues that “this method of equality is problematic.” Because men dominate these environments, playing the same game the men play is really the only way to be successful. Similarly, girls at frat parties will call each other “easy,” “sloppy,” and a slew of other names, and try to compete by playing drinking games with brothers.
Girlfriends and female friends of frat brothers at AU are also treated very differently than other girls picked up for rides. They are offered protection, the opportunity to make their own drinks, and a generally comfortable and unthreatening party experience. The same is true for female emcees, as evidenced by their appearance in music videos. Often, a male rapper will feature a well-known female artist in his video while also featuring the typical, nameless, over sexualized “video girls.” One example of this is in Usher’s music video for “Lil’ Freak” – Minaj is featured in this song in a position of respect. In fact, she is used as a tool to victimize the other girls, those that are the object of Usher’s affection, while arguing that she is sexier.
Because in both environments, the men make the rules and the consequences of dissent, that is, reduction to a faceless and nameless object, there is no avenue to dissent. While a few women are able to become successful and seemingly empowered, this implicitly requires the oppression of other women.
Both female rappers and female attendees at fraternity parties have escapist methods of dealing with this. At fraternity parties, this usually involves drinking so much that one is able to be sexually expressive without feeling bad about it and, unfortunately, usually ends in the girl being labeled as easy and being slut-shamed. For female hip-hop artists, the strategy is often to create an alternate persona. One of the first female performers to speak openly about this was Beyonce. Of her alter ego, “Sasha Fierce,” Beyonce has been quoted as saying
“Sasha Fierce is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I’m working and when I’m on the stage…this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am.”
It is important to note that Beyonce has more recently been quoted as saying she “killed” Sasha, that “I don’t need Sasha Fierce anymore, because I’ve grown and now I’m able to merge the two,” meaning she has reached a state of personal empowerment where she doesn’t need to hide behind an alter-ego to be sexually expressive anymore. This causes one to ask, what are the factors that made her need this in the first place?
Rape culture, wherever it is visible, is filtered through and normalized by popular culture. To combat rape culture on college campuses and send the message that it is inexcusable, we must also target the normalization of sexual violence by those that college-aged men look up to: celebrities.
This post is an adaptation of a full essay.