A Means to an End

The title of Steven Shaviro’s article, Supa Dupa Fly: Black women As Cyborgs in Hip hop Videos, is a little misleading. It should be titled, Supa Dupa Fly: Black women’s use of Postmodernism in Hip hop. Although Shaviro does talk about black women as cyborgs in hip hop videos, that does not seem to be his true argument. After reading the article a few times, I realized that Shaviro was crediting the effects of postmodernism to that of the cyborg, which is easy to do seeing as how the cyborg is an important element of postmodernism. Either way, Shaviro’s overall message is ultimately achieved, that is through the use of the cyborg and postmodernism, black female hip hop artists, specifically Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, have been able to make very strong statements concerning topics such as gender, race, power and identity.

The means by which Elliott and Kim have made their statements regarding gender are quite different but have for the most part come to the same end. Elliott has decided to fight her gender battles by forcing her way into what are generally viewed as musically male areas and boldly opposing the stereotypical female appearance. Seeing as how, “electronic sound tends to be coded as masculine (Shaviro 172),” Elliott’s executive involvement in the production of her popular and heavily electronic-based music is a perfect example of her reshifting the gender lines in hip hop. As Shaviro states, “[Missy] takes the boys’ futuristic, electronic sounds, and claims them for herself as a black woman (172).” This is also a good example of Shaviro’s confusion. Remixing and fusing entities such as musical genres is a postmodern characteristic, not the idea behind cyborgs.

Aside from his misinterpretation, Shaviro makes a good point that Elliott’s use of electronically synthesized sounds has served as a tool in bending racial lines as well as gender. “Digitally synthesized sound… connotes rigidity: a metronomic regularity and militaristic regimentation of rhythm. Nothing could be further from the off-rhythms and syncopations of swing and funk…Synthesized music is white in contrast to black (Shaviro 172).” If we accept this fact, than what Elliott is doing is simply, but effectively, blurring the lines between White and Black music.

When it comes to her appearance, brown-skin larger-than-average Elliott makes the common move of embodying the exact opposite of that which she is trying to oppose. It is a little more effective in this case only because of the rules of the arena in which she is fighting. The “near-anorexic…light skin (Shaviro 174)” image of females in hip hop culture is not only perpetuated by the males but by the females as well, which bring us to Lil’ Kim.

Kim, on the other hand, has completely surrendered to what is normally viewed as the degrading image of women in hip hop culture, which is that of the scantily clad, long hair, light-skin girl that is willing to do any and everything in (and outside) the bedroom. As Shaviro so kindly reminds us throughout his article, Kim is known for her no-holds-barred lyrics concerning sexual activities and describing exactly what she is willing to give and receive. It is here that the cyborg finally becomes relevant as Shaviro illustrates how Kim has packaged her ultra hip hop female persona in her “How Many Licks” video. “It presents Lil’ Kim as a doll…We also see an assembly line where the dolls are being manufactured: arms and legs are screwed onto the torso, and then Kim’s head is plopped on (178).” By presenting herself this way, many (not necessarily Shaviro) argue that Kim is making the stereotype obvious and then throwing it in the face of men by presumably using it to gain power over the very men she is supposedly opposing. Shaviro somewhat supports this theory by stating, “With her skimpy clothes and provocative poses, together with her frank and rapacious attitude towards sex, she’s a figure of … the very woman whom male rappers are always berating, and warning their listeners against…. In the process, she virtually reduces herself to the status of a cartoon (175).”

Kim has taken the above persona to new heights by embracing what Shaviro calls becoming-cyborg, which he defines as somewhere between “fashion [which] is infinitely malleable (171)” and “sex-change operations or a cyborg implantation [which] is not (171).” Her becoming-cyborg qualities of blonde wigs, blue eye contacts and numerous plastic surgeries have allowed her to play with the idea of identity. A testament to her success (whether it was purposeful or not) is her “big cult following among gay white men (Shaviro 176).” Kim’s becoming-cyborg state has left her looking like a drag queen, which explains why white gay men seem to love her so much, but it also brings up what I think to be the most interesting issue in the article, that of performing. Shaviro likens Kim’s über-woman persona to that of blackface (177). Of course the difference is that Kim, a female, is performing female while blackface is a white person performing a black person. The question still remains whether it is right or not. Is a black man in blackface acceptable? Shaviro doesn’t answer the question but it does show how Kim actions shine light upon the subjects of race, gender and identity.

No matter how or why these particular female hip hop artists have been able to bring up the above social issues, the fact is through postmodern methods, including the cyborg, they have been able to. I understand that Shaviro took the liberty of using a loose definition of cyborg in the majority of his article, but, in that case, placing the correct, and very specific, definition of cyborg at the beginning of his argument wasn’t a good idea. When it comes down to it, the whole idea of social commentary, which is what Shaviro is purporting these artists are doing, is in some ways the essence of postmodernism.

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