“Oh, She’s a Gold Digger”:
The Objectification and Commodification of Black Women in Contemporary Culture
Black women in the United States have continually been objectified and commodified because their skin color and gender. Both darker skin tones and women are considered “subordinate” in our society that notoriously “categorizes people, things, and ideas in terms of their difference from one another” (Hill Collins 56). This binary form of categorization is harmful because it allows preconceived ideas of which categories are dominant and which are subordinate to form and take control. Moreover, intersectionality thought argues that every identity humans have, including race, gender, class, and sexuality, cannot be separated as they are all connected to each other, and together, they construct a full-fledged identity. In Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images, Patricia Hill Collins states, “Analyzing the particular controlling images applied to African-American women reveals the specific contours of Black women’s objectification as well as the ways in which oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, and class intersect” (Hill Collins 57). Using an intersectional lens when examining controlling images allows a better understanding of these images and what they try to impose. These controlling images, originally created by the powerful institution that is White America, are still perpetuated within the Black community, reinforcing the objectifying of women. This perpetuation is often on display in hip-hop music and hip-hop music videos such as “Gold Digger” by Kanye West. In “Gold Digger,” Kanye West perpetuates the controlling images of Black women by participating in the use of stereotypes against and the objectification of Black women’s bodies.
In the first verse, West makes sure to warn other men about these women when he says, “If you fuckin’ with this girl, then you better be paid/ You know why? It take too much to touch her/ From what I heard she got a baby by Busta/ My best friend said she used to fuck with Usher.” West’s lyrics paint Black women negatively and coincide with the jezebel, or “hoochie,” controlling image, displaying Black women as reliant, domineering, gold digging (Hill Collins 81). Mentioning rumors he has heard about “this girl” and her relations with other famous, wealthy men, he further contributes to that “hoochie” image that ultimately tries to control Black women’s sexuality. West later says, “Eighteen years, eighteen years/ She got one of your kids, got you for eighteen years/…And on the 18th birthday, he found out it wasn’t his?!” Here, he accuses Black women of using children to manipulate and trap men for their money. These lyrics are reminiscent of the “welfare queen” controlling image that was created and stigmatized during the Reagan administration in the early 1980’s “to mask the effects of cuts in government spending on social welfare programs” (Hill Collins 62). Thus, the discourse surrounding welfare programs and the “deterioration of U.S. interests” targeted Black women, allowing for the perpetuation of a Black women as “symbols of what was deemed wrong with America.” This forced depiction of the lazy, promiscuous Black woman using government money to gain a luxurious life has proven so extremely powerful that it remains inescapable in the present-day, even against statistics that refute the idea. West successfully perpetuates both the “hoochie” and “welfare queen” controlling images with his own accusations against Black women.
West asks, “But I’m looking for the one have you seen her? / My psychic told she’ll have a ass like Serena/ Trina, Jennifer Lopez…” Here he lists a voluptuous figure as his only requirement for “the one,” while sexualizing very famous women of color as he uses their bodies as an example of what makes “the one” desirable. The music video is also filled with women of color dressed in lingerie, dancing and posing in front of magazine covers and next to him while he performs. In one scene, there is a room full of these women with him while they dance, objectifying these women by portraying them as only sexual entertainment for him. However, this is perceived as both normal and acceptable because Black women have been sexualized and have had their bodies put on display, not only by Black men, but also by White society for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, White parties and balls would often have Black women on display for entertainment much like West does in his music video, and “most often attention was not focused on the complete black female on display…She is there to entertain guests with the naked image of Otherness. They are not to look at her as a whole human being. They are only to notice certain parts” (bell hooks 62). Although Black women’s bodies are often celebrated in contemporary culture, there is still separation of their bodies from them as people. West, although expressing his positive attraction to curvaceous bodies, still objectifies the women of color he names in his song and music video by refusing to allow them to be seen as more than a body. While he accuses Black women of only desiring him and other men for their money, he fails to mention any aspects of why he desires these women other than their physical appearance. West sounds hypocritical at times, delivering to listeners the message that although men set the standards, women are not allowed to have their own.
In what are some of the last lines of the song, West says, “I know there’s dudes ballin’, and yeah, that’s nice/ And they gonna keep callin’ and tryin’, but you stay right, girl/ And when you get on, he’ll leave yo’ ass for a White girl.” This is the only point in which West mentions race; however, it verifies that this song is specifically about women of color. Without the inclusion of this line, the song could have been about women in general, but Black women are “Othered” by West. Patricia Hill Collins writes, “Many Black men reject Black women as marital partners, claiming that Black women are less desirable than White ones because we are too assertive” (60). However, this idea of Black women being “too assertive” to be “marital partners” is another example of a false narrative imposed by controlling images. These stereotypes are often so deeply-rooted and powerful that even members of the Black community, especially Black men, fail to recognize that these controlling images are not actual representations of Black women. West’s binary thinking is an example of how powerful White hegemony is.
West fails to represent Black women in a way that does not minimize their existence in “Gold Digger,” as every second of the song and music video relies on controlling images of Black women. West’s participation in binary thinking reinforces Black women’s status as “Other” while also reinforcing the idea that White women are superior as he portrays a Black woman “as an object to be manipulated and controlled” (Hill Collins 56). This type of objectification and discrimination of Black women often happens in hip-hop music and typically by male members of their own community. However, Black women in hip-hop are often encouraging and proud of both their bodies and their abilities, proving that they consistently “[resist] these ideological justifications for [their] oppression” even through its omnipresence in the United States (Hill Collins 70). Although they are consistently placed on the outskirts of society, they keep fighting for progression. The existence of Black men, like West, who perpetuate the controlling images of Black women may be due to the culture of toxic masculinity or the power of White U.S. institutions. Most likely, it is both that deserve credit.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images.” Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Routledge, 2000, pp. 55-72.
hooks, bell. “Selling Hot Pussy.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Routledge, 1992, pp. 61-77
West, Kanye. “Gold Digger.” Youtube, Directed by Hype Williams, Written by Kanye West, Ray Charles, and Renald Richard, Performance by Kanye West and Jamie Foxx, Youtube, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vwNcNOTVzY&list=RD6vwNcNOTVzY&st art_radio=1