“The Lesson’s Beef with Women”: Misogyny in Online Hip-Hop Discourse
“gender warriors: when did the opposite sex become the opposing sex?”
– mwasi kitoko, December 11, 2011
Online fan communities have flourished since the late ’90s, enabling people who are geographically dispersed but share common interests to interact on a regular basis and form meaningful relationships (Watson 1997, Baym 2000, Lee and Peterson 2004). Fans of cultural products from jam bands to soap operas can log on to find communities tailored to their interests, mingling with their peers and forging connections that are not confined to the online realm. Due to the vibrancy of these communities, musicians and record labels have found the internet to be a productive medium for disseminating and promoting new work directly to eager audiences, frequently tapping into the online fora where fans are already engaging with their work. Or, if these fora do not already exist, the musicians or labels themselves may create them. Such was the case with Okayplayer.com.
Founded in 1999 as a collaboration between Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of hip-hop band The Roots and internet-savvy author Angela Nissel, Okayplayer.com (OKP) was envisioned as a way of keeping in touch with The Roots’ fanbase, as well as promoting the loose collective of other hip-hop artists (including D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu) associated with the group (Pinard and Jacobs 2006: 87). With time, Okayplayer grew into a multifaceted online community, with blogs, videos, and message boards that addressed a variety of topics beyond hip-hop alone. The site was self-consciously positioned in opposition to the mainstream, with fans averring their preference for “underground” hip-hop in contrast to work they perceived as more commercial or “radio-friendly.” The forums were instrumental in crystallizing this set of fans into a well-defined community that existed offline as well, with members referring to each other as “Okayplayers” and arranging face-to-face meet-ups in subsequent years. In 2007, filmmaker Tim Adkins completed a documentary of the community that detailed the rich interpersonal connections felt by Okayplayers and its significant role in their lives (Adkins 2010). ?uestlove appears in the video, describing his hope that the site would enable direct contact with fans, and how amazed he has been by the community’s closeness, including one couple who got married and had a child after meeting on the forum.
The possibility of meaningful interpersonal contact on the internet has been borne out repeatedly by communities like Okayplayer, but interactions on these fora do not escape offline social divisions. Early discourse about the internet extolled its virtues as a postmodern utopia: people of all races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations could interact without the baggage of their offline identities. For example, Nessim Watson concluded in his examination of an online fan community for the band Phish that “on Phish.net, race, gender, and sexual orientation are non-issues” (Watson 1997: 108). Whether or not this was true for the community he described, the basis for this assertion was “the absence of bodily markers” of such differences. However, numerous scholars have observed that these identity categories remain salient in online contexts. For example, in 1996, Susan Clerc described the proliferation of puerile “big tits” threads in Usenet groups dedicated to media fandom, as well as the disproportionately small number of female participants in these groups and the discouragement they felt upon encountering such posts (Clerc 1996: 82). This practice has an analogue on OKP; in the forums' past, straight male Okayplayers have posted admiringly about female artists’ bodies, but have less frequently held serious discussions about the music made by women.
On Okayplayer, race enters the discussion occasionally, but gender has been a far more active area of contention. Due to the dearth of visibly successful women in hip-hop, in spite of the many aspiring female MCs and artists, many board members wonder how and why it is that women have not had more success. Some attribute this to intentional exclusion or lack of encouragement and opportunity, while others deny that there is a problem and suggest that women are simply not trying hard enough. These attitudes, as the poster el guante observed, are part of the “bigger picture” of sexism and cannot be reduced to the message board dynamic. However, gender (and to a lesser extent, sexuality) is very present in the board’s discourse despite the “absence of bodily markers”; to understand why this is, one must examine both the structures of the boards and the broader social structures that inform them.
The structure of Okayplayer.com, like that of other online services, shapes the conversations that occur within it, just as those conversations owe heavily to (and occasionally influence) social structures and events in the outside world. This view is partly rooted in Marshall McLuhan’s oft-cited maxim, “the medium is the message”; that is, any mediating factor from a simple hammer to a network of supercomputers will have emergent effects beyond those we intend, and this difference should be seen as part of the positive meaning or “message” of these tools. It also relies on Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and doxa, which respectively address how social structures become embedded in individual dispositions, and how unspoken societal codes shape not only what people think but what is possible for them to think (Bourdieu 1977: 159). Both kinds of influence come to a head at points of contention in a community, such as issues surrounding gender; debates reveal the boundary between orthodox/heterodox ideas about gender (those which are acknowledged as disputed opinions) and the doxa, the tacit assumptions that are not considered to be up for debate. Crucially, the doxa can change over time, as previously naturalized assumptions are called into question. In addition, in a pluralistic environment like that of an online message board, people with radically different assumptions may often be present in the same (virtual) space and time. It is especially in these debates over hotly disputed issues between interlocutors with radically different assumptions that the boundary of the community’s doxa can be seen to shift.
Discourses about gender and sexuality are particularly salient for female and LGBTQ artists and fans who participate in the Okayplayer boards, for whom such discussions are not merely philosophical but entail real effects on their lives and livelihoods. In the sections to follow, I first detail the structure of Okayplayer and its effects in shaping discourse, focusing on questions of gender and sexuality. I then look at a 2007 conversation between board members and OkayArtist Erykah Badu as well as the later response to Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” video, examining the issue of objectification and its status within the doxa of the board community. I will then address a conversation that occurred shortly thereafter in which board members reflected on the sources and effects of the misogyny that several posters feel had pervaded OKP. Finally, I will turn to the ongoing discussions about “gender wars,” which demonstrates that prior assumptions about the board’s demographics and about the nature of gender and sexuality are no longer going unchallenged.
Before proceeding to my analysis, a note on methodology. Given the fact that participants tend to be geographically dispersed and may come from divergent cultural backgrounds, the study of online communities requires methods that differ somewhat from those of traditional ethnography. Discourse-centered online ethnography is an emerging methodology for the analysis of online discourse that seeks to go beyond the visible “log data” of an encounter (Androutsopoulos 2008). It incorporates the texts of public exchanges that take place, but challenges the idea that these exchanges are transparent to the reader, seeking to gather additional responses from interlocutors. Unfortunately, as of this writing, only one Okayplayer has responded to my inquiries; thus, the analysis in this paper is predicated almost entirely on “log data.” However, such an approach may in fact dovetail Okayplayers’ own assessment of the value of the forum: in response to declining membership on the forums, the user imcvspl has observed: “Despite the fact that [Okayplayer has] fallen behind in its hotness, it still serves as an amazing living archive. I hope it continues to do so.” Teknontheou concurs in a post just below him, saying “The Archives are gold for Heads. Especially younger ones who are just now getting into music in a serious way.” These posters believe that engaging with past discussions about music can be illuminating, and it is my belief that past discussions of the music industry and society at large will prove revealing as well.
Structures of Okayplayer Interaction
Online interactions, whether on Okayplayer or elsewhere, are heavily imbricated with commerce. Most evidently, banner ads and the text-based Google AdWords have become almost ubiquitous in online settings, and OKP is no exception. Less overtly, online fora may host promotional materials, or be attached to business ventures in order to create a sense of brand loyalty; although the commercial and creative independence of The Roots and artists under the Okayplayer umbrella may make such moves seem less calculated, they nevertheless form a part of the context of the fan community. Some of these efforts have analogues in face-to-face interaction, such as in-person distribution of promotional materials by “street teams” and word of mouth recommendations; however, online fora permits ultimate control of the interactional context, if a group chooses to exercise it. For example, Marjorie Kibby gives an instance where a record label decided to close down a chat page for fans of the artist John Prine after it became overrun with abusive comments (Kibby 2000). Such an option is always open to ?uestlove and the forum administrators, who may “lock” topics and prevent further posting if they feel a situation is getting out of hand; they may also delete posts deemed to be inappropriate, giving them the power to reshape the archive of the conversation and redirect or stop the flow of a conversation already in progress.
In addition to commercial interests, Okayplayer and other internet fora are pervaded by divisions along identity categories such as gender, sexuality, race, and class. Online conversationalists try to ascertain others’ identities through the way that they have represented themselves verbally, and to construct their own speech to be legible in this way (O’Brien 1999: 77). Jannis Androutsopoulos has shown that some German hip-hop fans online affect features of African-American speech in their textual online communication so as to signal their place in an “in-group,” although they are not of African-American descent (Androutsopoulos 2008: 14). Posters on Okayplayer use varying amounts of slang and adhere to different typographical conventions, but such distinctions do not necessarily correspond to race or class; rather, they are part of the self-image that a poster projects, and that other posters use in responding to them. At the level of interactional style, Susan Herring has argued that mailing list participants act according to their gender socialization: she observes that men on the lists often appear to be arguing with each other even when they are agreeing, and vice versa for women (Herring, et al. 2001: 99). However, such argumentative strategies did not hold true in my observation of Okayplayer, in which some self-identified women were openly confrontational and some (albeit fewer) men tended to be conciliatory. Nonetheless, identity categories still play a considerable role in interactions, and the online environment offers many resources by which users may self-identify and be identified by others.
Okayplayer contains a fair amount of meta-discourse about appropriate ways of interacting on the boards, which form part of a process of enculturation that users undergo as they enter the forum. There are several Okayplayer message boards, including “OkayArtist,” focused on artists under the OKP umbrella, “The Lesson” for more general music discussion, and others for music-making, movies, video games, and politics; users are encouraged to find the relevant board before posting a topic. In practice, the boundaries between topics on these boards are fluid; “charter members,” or those who have been on the site since before the year 2000, often complain that moderators have grown lax about enforcing these divisions. A set of community guidelines last updated in 2008 lays out principles for participation, and is visible at the top of the list of boards. Though not everyone reads these guidelines, some posters will make reference to them when they feel that others are in violation. In general, certain posters will complain vociferously when they see something that annoys them, regardless of whether it is officially forbidden or not, while others espouse a philosophy of “keep it moving”: if you don’t like what you see, go somewhere else. The notion of what makes for a good or bad post is often addressed in meta-discussions on the forum, especially in recent posts; stated guidelines plus the expressed judgments of posters are both at play in the process of enculturation to the forum’s norms.
This enculturation shapes Okayplayer discourse in particularly reductive ways with regard to gender and sexuality. It begins at signup: ne must sign up for the Okayplayer boards in order to post. Users are forced into a binary choice of “male” or “female”; the system does not allow for other identifications, such as transgender or genderqueer, and the only way to opt out is to hide one’s user profile altogether. Recent discussions on the boards have run the gamut of sensitivity to such issues of identity, including topics like “do you acknowledge gay folks’ gender self identification?”, “Lesbians Confuse the Shit Outta Me,” “why do women get to be overtly sexy but men cant?”, and “gender warriors: when did the opposite sex become the opposing sex?” A variety of views are expressed on the forum, but in many cases it is assumed that women who post about misogyny have an ax to grind, offering an easy out to those who would belittle their views. Open discussion of non-normative sexuality is a relatively recent occurrence on the boards, but is framed largely as an incitation to members of these groups to speak, defining themselves for the benefit of the heteronormative majority. There are relatively few Okayplayers who openly identify as LGBTQ, so such efforts appear to elicit a number of second-hand responses.
Issues of gender as they relate to interaction on the boards and to broader social structures are most apparent in board members’ discussions with and about female artists. Okayplayer has long enabled interactions between artists and fans, and Erykah Badu is one of the most prominent on the community’s roster. Her interaction with fans seems generally positive, and is largely not characterized by misogynist discourse. Nonetheless, an examination of some fans’ objectifying response to her posts and, later, to the video for her song “Window Seat,” reveals some of the issues that Okayplayer faces as a community with regard to gender and sexuality.
“Erykah Badu gets THE LESSON”
On November 17, 2007, Erykah Badu logged onto the Okayplayer message board “The Lesson” under the username “analoguegirl” and announced that she would be available for “the next couple of days” to answer “any question within reason.” The response was swift and enthusiastic; the topic garnered nearly 600 replies over the course of a week, on subjects ranging from what sites she would visit on tour, who she planned to collaborate with, how she goes about the process of songwriting, and even what shampoo she uses. Badu responded to some posts verbosely, others briefly or not at all, for reasons that are often opaque. A small minority of posters expressed their opinion that Badu’s presence was a calculated move to drum up support for her album “New Amerykah Part I: 4th World War,” but most posters affirmed that they were delighted with her responses, with one poster calling it the “best post by an artist in The Lesson” and many others thanking her for making music that had been meaningful to them.
In addition to the posts admiring Badu’s music, a small number of responses focused on her status as an object of sexual desire. In her initial post, Badu quoted the lyrics of her song “Me” on her album “New Amerykah Pt. 1”: “This year I turned 36 / my ass and legs have gotten thick.” Some 17 posters responded to this line in particular, with messages like “ROWR,” “cosign fams lol,” “everything else became a blur after that,” and “even Pavlov’s dog had to shout.” Badu did not reply to any of these, save for one admiring post by “spitfire”:
- “about that thickness…”
hate to have such a shallow contribution to this thread, but that made me laugh out loud. my girl fell in love with your music a long time ago (as did i…[…]) but when she came back from your amsterdam show earlier this year she was in physical love as well…
for the thickness visuals click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvwuVdffvO0
either way… don’t get it twisted this is a compliment. you make that 36 look gooooooooood, queen.
To this, Badu replies only “holla.” Here, the archival record is inadequate to ascertain how the participants felt about this interaction. Was Badu flattered by spitfire’s post? Did the video remind her of a fun performing experience? Regardless, she was clearly reading some of these objectifying posts, and would encounter similar responses to one of her music video released two years later.
The replies that focused on Badu’s sex appeal prefigure the reactions to her 2010 video for “Window Seat,” a song on part II of “New Amerykah.”
The song’s lyrics speak of contradictory wishes, wanting sometimes to be free of others and their demands, while at other times needing them and wanting to be desired by them: both “Don’t want nobody next to me” and “I want you to need me… I need you next to me.” Badu invokes her ambivalent relationship to the attention and desire of the public; she both revels in the energy that she feels when performing for an audience and feels constrained by their demands. The video is oblique in its connection to this theme, but also addresses freedom and the forces that constrain it. Badu walks through the streets of Dallas removing articles of clothing until she arrives, naked, at the place where John F. Kennedy was assassinated, at which point she is also shot. Badu states in a voiceover at the video’s end that we are all guilty of “groupthink,” the fear of individuality, and are driven to “assassinate what [we] don’t understand.” Responses to the video on Okayplayer were mixed: several posts focused on the attractiveness of her nude body without addressing the substance of her video, while another criticized her for the nudity, claiming that “[t]his plays right into that T & A stereotype, as evidenced by the usual comments about her within this very post.” One man offered a brief interpretation of the video’s connection to the song; still, most posters took away the impression of sexual objectification regardless of Badu’s intentions.
Rana Emerson writes of Black women’s self-portrayal in music videos, arguing that they are obliged to appear as sex objects for commercial reasons, but can also use video as a platform for the expression of their sexuality:
Black womanhood [in music videos] is the result of a process of negotiation in which objectification of the female body must be present in order for the performer to gain a level of autonomy, to gain exposure. While this seems on the surface like “selling out” to the dictates of patriarchy and the marketplace, I would argue that instead, it affirms the multidimensional nature of Black womanhood. A woman does not need to alienate her sexuality to be assertive, nor must she be a one-dimensional sex object. She can be allowed to express her sexuality, her body, and her own life simultaneously (Emerson 2002: 130).
Contrary to Emerson’s optimistic view, Okayplayers’ responses to Badu reveal the persistent assumption that any display or mention of the female body is necessarily an invitation to regard it as an object of desire. Such a stance can be considered part of the doxa of Okayplayer (and of society at large), in that it is not directly acknowledged and thus not open to debate. One form of orthodoxy on the issue at Okayplayer is that female artists choose to present themselves in hypersexualized ways, and that this justifies men in consuming objectified images and disregarding their artistic merits; the posters “scorpion” and “tREBLEFREE” express this view in the later discussion about misogyny on the boards. Other posters articulate several heterodox views: first, that women are not choosing to be objectified, but have no other choice if they wish to succeed, or alternatively that they are choosing to objectify themselves, and that this should not affect one’s respect for them, both of which follow similar reasoning to Emerson’s argument. In each case, however, posters seem to subscribe to the underlying premise that it is “natural” for men to objectify women, an assumption which has only been challenged in more recent conversations.
It is worthwhile to compare the discourse around the objectification in Badu’s video to the board’s reaction to D’Angelo’s video “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” This video, released some ten years prior, features an apparently nude D’Angelo singing sexual lyrics in the style of Prince as the camera pans over his muscular body. It was notorious at the time for inciting the desire of women and the envy or disgust of men (Century 2000). One poster, BrainChild, liked D’Angelo’s work as a whole but felt the video was pandering, writing in 2001 that “it overshadowed the music and brought people (women.. and a few guys) away from what *I* thought the whole Voodoo project was about: bringing songwriting and good musicianship back to the forefront.” Thus, critiquing artists for being marketed for their sexuality is not exclusively applied to women. Still, Okayplayers’ admiration for D’Angelo was not diminished by his status as a sex object; one poster in the conversation with Badu reminisced about the song 10 years later: “when d’s ‘untitled’ cut off right at the end[,] i wanted more[.] lol[.]”
Perhaps in response to the objectifying tone of some users’ replies to Badu, a user named fire asserted that “the lesson hates female artists,” promising to expand on her belief in a separate post. Badu replies “ah… i see. i didn’t get that tho,” suggesting that the interaction has not been as negative from her perspective. fire’s assessment in this case is based on a history of observation to which Badu, as one who seldom logs into the boards, cannot lay claim. It is also true that this post in particular does not evince as much of the misogyny that can be seen in board members’ discussions of other female artists.
Badu announced on November 20th that she would be leaving the forum. However, she continued responding to users intermittently until November 25th, reiterating her reasons for regarding the term “neo-soul” as an inaccurate characterization. This post ended on a relatively peaceful note; however, an ensuing discussion revealed that some felt Badu had been “hated on,” despite most fan’s adoring responses. This hatred was characterized by posters as explicitly misogynist.
“what’s the lesson’s beef with women?”
Several weeks after the discussion with Erykah Badu ended, an Okayplayer with the username k_orr (a charter member who did not participate in the Badu topic) raised a direct and provocative question: “Been meaning to ask, what’s the lesson’s beef with women?”
It’s not evey just the outright misogyny, or the subtle male agenda in posts about female artists….but generally speaking, there’s a dearth of post about women involved in music.
Are we just a reflection of society?
one k. Orr
With this post, k_orr expresses his belief that the boards’ noticeable neglect of female artists might be “a reflection of society,” but questions why it is found on the boards as well. Poster soulsupreme voices his agreement and adds to the observation, writing, “Whether its Joss stone, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott or Lauryn Hill there’s definitely some beef on OKP based on the posts I’ve seen. Only chick thats a bit hater proof is probably Erykah Badu, but even she gets hated on this site.” Another poster disagrees with soulsupreme’s claim, stating that Badu is worthy of ridicule: “[Badu] doesn’t get hated on. she gets called out on the dumb shit she says in posts from time to time. and deservingly so.”
Other posters observed the absence of (and antagonism toward) women in music, but deny that there is any anti-female agenda, finding it to be just coincidence. The first response, by disco_dj, attempts to justify the lack of coverage by saying: “the majority of the stuff I post on is either House, Classic Soul, Classic Hip-Hop, or Jazz. Aside from their involvement as Vocalist, women don’t have a great deal of involvement in those genres. Now there have been exceptions obviously, but the stuff I like is just male dominated for whatever reason. Not anti-Female.” fire, the poster who previously asserted that “the lesson hates female artists,” asks rhetorically what those genres would be without vocals. disco_dj replies that there are not many women involved in production, to which fire replies “i know as many females producing & engineering as males…the PROBLEM is that the male dominated industry does not give them the same chances/respect/opportunities as they do their male counterparts.” With her assertion, fire expresses a view shared by several posters, that women have been purposefully excluded from the channels of success.
After these opening salvos, another poster asserts that women “have sucky taste in music,” invoking the stereotype that women only enjoy “mainstream” music (cf. Huyssen 1986). He adds that “the misogynistic bent is probably […] just what you get when you have a bunch of guys together.” fire mocks him with the one-line quip, “men have better ears,” while another poster, ellaminnowpea, replies:
- “As a woman and a feminist…”
I cannot tell you how it pains me to agree with this.. but I do. Aside from a tiny fistful of girlfriends, it is extremely rare for me to be able to have a good conversation about music with women. I don’t understand it.
As a woman and a feminist, I also have been struggling with the question as to why I don’t like more women in hiphop. In any other genre, it is mostly women that I buy, or appreciate, but hip hop is my “genre of choice”, and I have been asking myself why I don’t get into more female mc’s. Most of them I just don’t feel.
This post does not receive a response. ellaminnowpea’s view is somewhat of an outlier, as she is one of the few women who admits that she does not care for the female hip-hop artists she has heard. She makes no mention of the structural factors impeding women’s participation that are been brought up by other posters, yet the dearth of female MCs in general has caused her guilt over her distaste for the few that she has heard.
Appealing to the notion that the exclusion of women is just ‘the way things are,’ the user tREBLEFREE reiterates disco_dj’s point, asserting that “the music industry itself is one huge sausage party. Generally, The Lesson just reflects whatever is going on in music past and present.” After growing frustrated with the debate, he asks for “real females” to chime in, stating, “I mean REAL women who know their REAL power is in their mind and not in between their legs or swinging from their chest… These chicks that’s wearing their vagina on their shoulder (read: fire) are gettin’ on my nerves…sheesh.” Other posters reply saying “you’re WAY out of line, treb”; one poster attempts to continue debating substantively by asserting that “its just that its almost as if we can’t display ANY sexuality when it comes to males without it being said to be their power or considering it our number 1 asset. maybe you guys didn’t get the memo but women are just as much sexual beings as men and its natural for us to display it sometimes,” but tREBLEFREE replies that “Well, personally, I don’t see as many women attempting to even be heard or make it as I’d like to see (without selling their sex).” Here, tREBLEFREE insists that women are choosing to objectify themselves completely, and the idea that such a “choice” might be constrained by commercial pressures is not acknowledged.
The discussion goes back and forth with little progress until 84 replies into the topic, when a user named el guante summarizes the key dimensions of the debate, noting how it goes beyond the message board into many facets of life:
it’s hard, because in one sense, pointing out message board music sexism isn’t exactly getting at the root cause of things; we could be asking: “how has sexism impacted women in the music industry, and how has it impacted the ways in which we as fans consume music?” at the same time, however, it is important to turn the lense on ourselves and our little internet village here.
one important point is that in a male-dominated community like this (yeah i’m a lurker, but i’ve been around), you’re going to have both overt sexism/misogyny AND well-meaning posters who just don’t know that what they’re doing is supporting a sexist agenda. this comes out in the “women listen to/make shitty music” responses and the “i wish there WERE more women in my favorite genre, but there aren’t so i post about men” responses, respectively. it becomes easy for the latter group to get lazy because they can say “well at least i’m not like THOSE guys.”
and it’s this latter group that’s the key. we’ll always have to deal with the out-in-the-open misogynists, but i think that it’s the majority– the well-meaning and the blissfully ignorant– who are in a position to make change. so what can we actually DO? a few thoughts: […]
el guante goes on to observe that sexism is “any attitude or action or whatever that keeps men in the spotlight and gives them more value than women.” He ultimately advocates that those who are against misogyny must “be careful” about “what we talk about and how we talk about it.” Five posters respond to agree, while scorpion asserts, “you doing too much talking, bro…”:
no disrespect, but this really is a simple problem solution situation…
Women want to be taken seriously musically, they need to LEARN THE CRAFT….
but theyre content with singing/rhyming and showing off their bodies…and waiting for someone to GIVE them somn to sing or rhyme over….
if they want respect, they have to earn it…they have to be dilligent and break down the barriers…and chill with the “its hard…..men dont take us seriously” cop-outs…
The resolution of the debate, for scorpion, cannot be found through talking; instead, he insists that women simply “need to get on their grind.” Since scorpion rejects the notion that there are structural issues preventing women from achieving success in the music industry, and attributes their failure to a personal lack of effort or ambition, no other answer than greater effort on women's part can change the situation.
In another post, detailing her belief that men are utterly incapable of listening to women’s music without objectifying them, fire asserts: “guys […] are sexual by nature. […] all boys think about all day is sex. they don’t think about anything else, no matter what you do or who u are the bottom line is they want sex. i have alot of male friends and this statement is like 90% true.” With this assertion, fire concedes to the idea that men are “naturally” prone to objectify women, precluding a more thorough reexamination of gender and sexuality that might enable some way of out of the situation in the industry and society in general.
During the years since this discussion of misogyny in The Lesson, debates over the status of women on the message board have continued, and are frequently referred to the “gender wars”; board topics address not only the relative merits of female and male artists, but also interpersonal and romantic relationships between men and women and other aspects of the “battle between the sexes.” However, the terms of the debate have not remained static throughout this time. In December of 2011, a poster named mwasi kitoko raised a novel question: “gender warriors: when did the opposite sex become the opposing sex?” Her post sought to uncover the roots at an individual level of the antagonism that had become prevalent on the board: “who convinced you that we were on different teams? was there a specific moment in time where you came to the conclusion that you must combat the opposite sex/gender in the name of your own?”
This topic gathered 96 responses, from men and women who display a variety of attitudes. Several posters confer about Adrienne Rich’s notion of “political lesbianism,” and bring up their fondness of various feminist texts. One poster, thrill, asserts that men are “the enemy” primarily because of “socialization and privilege,” the effects of which are hard to overcome even for “well-intentioned and ideologically feminist men.” She also states that: “the notion of masculine and feminine traits is sexist[.] i learned to be assertive from my mother.” To this, another poster, bloocollar replies: “that’s a ridiculous assertion[.] so nature is sexist?” Once again, a disconnect in the underlying assumptions of each speaker prevents conversation from moving forward, although the “naturalness” of men’s and women’s behavior has been called into question by preceding posts and the overall framing of the debate. This change does, however, suggest that concepts of gender and sexuality are not as fixed as they once appeared.
The prospects for women in the music industry remain limited, as Okayplayers acknowledge. However, there seems to be more awareness that this is an artifact of the industry’s structure, and at least in part attributable to the categories that fans are willing to consume. In March of 2012, imcvspl posted a message entitled “Not for nothing, but white women is kinda killing it these days,” citing his admiration for innovative artists such as Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs), Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), and Julia Holter and observing that they do not seem to have Black equivalents:
I’m trying to think what the parallels from the black community are. I mean you can say we don’t do shit like that and you’d be wrong but undertandably so. But examples of I don’t know how to call it, expressive creativity from black women are so few and far between. Have the boxes we’ve errected for them prevented this type of artistic development.
Other posters offer examples such as Erykah Badu, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Janelle Monáe, Santigold, and Syd the Kid; their relative merits and cultural position are examined, with debates focusing on the creativity in their musical structures. This discussion is striking in that, unlike many of the previous posts, it is an earnest debate that does not lapse into the discussion of oversexualized, objectified representations of women. Another poster expresses admiration for Nicki Minaj, noting that “she got flow” and “image/personality wise shes kinda interesting if very post-gaga/gwen.” While Minaj’s gender play and subversive intent are attributed to inspiration from other artists like Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani, the fact that she is consciously signifyin(g) on notions of femininity is clear to the Okayplayers in the discussion.
Okayplayer has seen numerous changes in the last several years, as has the broader social environment of which it is a part. Artist participation has declined significantly, which for some posters is a cause of the decreased popularity of the board. Indeed, one poster told me that he decided to leave the forum after this discussion of Okayplayer's demise, finding the atmosphere of negativity off-putting (AFKAP_of Darkness, p.c.). In general, the popularity of newer services such as Twitter has outstripped that of longer-form message boards like OKP, which board members have also linked to a sea change in how people listen to and respond to music; they lament that a 140-character limit is coming to define the extent of opinions and critical analysis around music.
Despite gloom over the perceived decline of Okayplayer and discourses surrounding music in general, there has been an upswing in discussions around gender and sexuality in recent years, and it is heartening to see how these conversations have changed to allow for new possibilities. Discussion about gender on the boards has previously placed the onus on women for not being sufficiently “on their grind,” as an explanation for the lack of female involvement in hip-hop. The posters who place the blame on women in these debates used to fall back on orthodox views that held these women responsible for the sexual objectification in their marketing. While their opponents expressed the heterodox position that women were forced to market themselves in this way, the debate still relied upon ideas of “naturalness” of men desiring women as sex objects, retaining a stifling doxa that prevented much progress toward uncovering the roots of objectification and misogyny. However, posts such as mwasi kitoko’s show that not all Okayplayers accept such a dim view of society, seeking to understand the social construction of gender and sexuality. Posters are striving to look beyond the current state of music and see how more female and LGBTQ artists can rise to prominence in the years to come.
In the process of writing this paper, I developed a web application that would help me to visualize the connections between authors and temporal relationships between replies. Two conversations are included: “eryKAHBAdu gets THE LESSON” and “Been meaning to ask, what’s the lesson’s beef with women?” Screenshots from this application are included below.
In the default view, the page displays messages as small circles; the horizontal axis represents the “depth” of a reply in a thread, and messages from Erykah Badu are highlighted in green. Clicking on a circle brings up the text of its message; clicking on an author’s name will switch to the author view author view.
By pressing “Time,” the view shifts to show the date and time of posts on the axis; note the density of posts right after Erykah Badu logs on, with a tapering off after the first few days. The topic on misogyny follows on the lower right of the page.
Finally, by switching to the author view, one can see whose posts have garnered the most replies. The size of a shape reflects the number of responses, while proximity indicates how often two authors have responded to each other; triangles and circles represent men and women respectively, as taken from the public profile data. Erykah Badu is represented by the large circle on the right, while k_orr (the author of the “beef with women” topic) is the triangle on the left.
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