Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Reggaeton and Gender: We Keep Talking Past Each Other (Part 4: On Masculinity)

Reggaeton just happened to be the music genre my students and I were discussing when we had those long debates regarding images of women in music videos. The issue is not just specific to reggaeton or even hip hop. These blog posts could have just as easily been titled Popular Culture and Gender: We Keep Talking Past Each Other.

Reading over my three previous posts and some of the comments they generated, something caught my attention.

In both discussions with my students, the spark for the debate was images of women in reggaeton videos. On the first occasion, the conversation centered around the interplay of women's roles as wage earners, mothers and wives. On the second occasion, we focused on the impact and the limits of choice on women's lives. Notice how both times the discussion centered on women.

We definitely should be talking about the ways womanhood is defined in our society and how that impacts the kinds of images we see on popular music videos. But we should be talking just as much about how manhood is defined.

Filmmaker Byron Hurt has some thoughts on this: "Most of the time when people think about gender issues, they think about women. Most people don't think manhood when you talk about gender issues. [] No one asks: What does it really mean to your manhood to have cars, to have jewelry, to have women?"

That is precisely why six years ago Hurt set out to make a documentary called Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture. It premiered this summer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will soon be shown on PBS. I saw it and it is definitely a thought-provoking and much-needed piece.

The 36 year old, self-described hip hop head has gone through great lengths to frame the discussion as a loving and unyielding critique of the music he grew up with. Hurt says: "So much of the ills in our society come from the way we men define manhood. I want this film to really get men to question and to challenge the way we're socialized and conditioned."

Just as lovingly and just as unyieldingly as Hurt, we should all be challenging ourselves and each other. What do we expect of ourselves? What do we expect of others? Why?

Hurt's documentary is a great start. Now it needs plenty of follow-up.

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