Too Little, Too Late: Why We are Way Behind on the Too $hort Debate

by Ewuare X. Osayande

On February 17, 2012 it was reported that the publisher of XXL magazine has decided to “suspend” unnamed staff members after a number of groups have called for the magazine’s editor to be fired for publishing a video interview of rap artist Too $hort (Todd Shaw) in which he gives “fatherly advise” to middle-school boys about how to “turn little girls out.”

In said video Too $hort, whose entire career has consisted of producing rap songs that are predicated upon the sexual objectification of girls and women, is recorded giving vivid instructions to middle-school-aged boys about how to “take it to the hole” and digitally stimulate young girls by “pushing her up against the wall” and “stick your finger in her underwear.” Within a few days, both Shaw and XXL editor Vanessa Satten offered apologies. In his sorry excuse of an apology, Shaw excused himself by stating that he was in “Too $hort mode.” Satten, for her part, stated that she does not “see all content before it goes live.”

Not only are the apologies hollow but the campaign to get the editor fired is a misfire; it is short-sighted at best and reactionary at worst. She is not the sole responsible party for this. We are talking about XXL, a magazine whose pages are lined with near-pornographic depictions of and expressions about women every issue since it hit the market back in 1997. The magazine’s tagline, “Hip-hop on a higher level,” certainly is not referring to cultural enlightenment or social advancement of any kind. In allowing this interview to be published online, Satten did exactly what her predecessors have done for more than a decade. If we are to be consistent in our concern, then we should be initiating a full-on boycott of XXL and all of Harris Publications’ imprints.

If you knew the publishing history of Stanley Harris, owner of XXL, you would not be surprised by this latest concern, and you certainly would not look to him as someone with the prerequisite moral character necessary to handle this issue appropriately. Harris began his publishing career in partnership with Myron Fass. Together, they published a variety of porn and pulp magazines in the Sixties and Seventies. Such titles as Flick, Poorboy, Jaguar and Brute would often feature pictures of bound naked women with headlines about rape and necrophilia. Harris would attempt to go mainstream when he left the partnership and established Harris Publications in 1977. Today, it is responsible for such niche publications as Men’s Workout, Exercise & Health, Quilt, Revolver, Combat Handguns, Celebrity Hairstyles and Rides. XXL is not his sole entre into so-called Black culture. His stable also includes King magazine (considered the Black man’s GQ but is more comparable to Penthouse given the way Black women are regularly depicted on the magazine’s cover).

Why should we expect a publisher like Stanley Harris to have the ethics necessary to handle this situation appropriately? Appealing to him to fire his editor only works to legitimate him as it bestows upon him a moral sensibility he has not historically shown in his corporate dealings. You don’t ask the fox to keep the hens in check. You take out the fox.

But before I go any further on this, I want to take a moment to address those that see nothing wrong with $hort’s advice. I read one comment by a man who admitted that he would give the same advice to his son. For some, $hort was just telling young brothers how to pleasure a girl. In the minds of many men, a moist vagina is the ultimate sign of a girl’s or woman’s willingness to engage in sexual activity. Such thinking is brutally incorrect. Rape crisis centers are inundated with calls by women who are tormented by the fact that they experienced an orgasm while being raped. As clarified in the book Resurrection After Rape: A Guide for Transforming from Victim to Survivor, an orgasm is not proof of a woman’s approval or pleasure in cases of unwanted sex or coerced sex. An orgasm or a wet vagina is simply a biological response to stimuli. It does not equate acceptance or desire. Yet such thinking is often used by pedophiles to coerce girls into misinterpreting their bodily responses when being touched. This kind of mental manipulation and coercion is what lies at the heart of $hort’s advice. His advice is the advice of a man that does not love women or girls, but sees them as prey, as notches on his belt, as something to be conquered and controlled. The minds and bodies of girls are not playgrounds for boys or men. That is but part of a much larger message of accountability and respect that we should be sending to our sons as a community.

For girls, the issue begins with challenging the way we fail to adequately educate them when they are still young. During a recent screening of “NO! The Rape Documentary,” director and producer Aishah Shahidah Simmons stated that sex education for girls is a form of self-defense that cannot be overlooked or belittled. Such an education would provide for them the mental awareness necessary not to get tricked by men or boys or be misled by their own bodily responses.

We have much work to do on this issue. Just this past weekend at the Grammy award show singer Chris Brown, who remains under supervised probation for the 2009 beating of then-girlfriend and fellow celebrity artist Rihanna, performed and won the award for Best R&B Album. During his performance, hundreds of girls and women tweeted some form of the message “Chris Brown Can Beat Me.” Such a response is a sign of a kind of female self-hatred and internalized sexism that is nothing to joke about or belittle. It is a response that finds its origin all too often in the halls of middle schools all across this country where little girls are pushed up against walls and coerced into sexual acts only to be told they wanted it, liked it, and/or caused it and are threatened to silence and left to suffer the psychological trauma.

Problem is that we, as a community, have given a pass to an entire recording and publishing industry that has socialized us to accept a culture named “Black” that demeans us, sexually exploits us and despoils our youth. That acceptance in the main presents a much larger problem for us. Our willingness to call out Too $hort’s video, but support the works of other rap artists who say as much and worse in their corporate-sponsored videos represents a contradiction that has come back to roost. This is especially true among the “hip-hoperati,” a clique of academics and hip hop journalists who have made their livelihoods celebrating hip hop as a tool of empowerment. Many of them voicing their disapproval of this Too $hort video are the very same ones who have spent their entire careers intellectually explaining away the sexist actions of rap artists and rap magazines. Seems some of us want to have our cake (or Kanye) and eat it, too. But we can’t have it both ways and keep our integrity as a community.

Fact is, the corporate conglomerate we call hip hop is the culprit. To single out Shaw and Satten, in a culture that is awash in misogyny, gives a pass to every rap artist who sits at the top of the Billboard charts on the bent-over backsides of girls and women who have been depicted in their videos in manners worse than described in this particular interview. I’m saying that what Shaw did and what Satten allowed is reprehensible and both should be taken to task. But let us not be so na├»ve as to think that this is sufficient. How we are handling this is akin to someone bringing a glass of water to a forest fire. This campaign should be just the beginning of a sustained attack on an industry that is sexually assaulting our girls and giving lurid and criminal advice to our boys every time a record plays on some Clear Channel station across the county.

Just this past month, the community was full of hope that the birth of Jay-Z’s baby girl would be met with him putting the B-word on eternal sabbatical. For days the social media debate was raging over this. But all the talk would go silent once Jay-Z came out and clarified that he would continue using the derogatory epithet as he saw fit. Thing is, there has been no communal outcry, no attempt to get him to apologize for all the years he has demeaned women in his lyrics.

Wonder how Jay-Z would feel the day when some random boy may approach his daughter in middle-school with the “Hova’s” “fatherly” advice booming in his prepubescent mind.

Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is a political activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop. He is founder of Onus Rites-of-Passage, a character development and cultural enrichment program for African American boys and young men that emphasizes gender equality and justice.