Upholding sexuality in R&B culture: Doja Cat, gender and sexuality in popular music

Doja Cat is an African-American rapper, singer and songwriter, active since 2013. Born as Amala Zandile Dlamini in 1995, Los Angeles, California, to a South African father and Jewish-American mother, Doja Cat encompasses the hip-hop, or rap, and R&B genres. Rap being a style in hip-hop, which comes from R&B, known as rhythm and blues and ‘race music’, and its emphasis on sexuality, from the black community in the 1930s and 1940s (Shuker, 2002).

Doja Cat’s musical career took off after the release of So High, her first single on the music-streaming platform, Sound Cloud; she then signed onto a record label in 2014 and released her debut extended play of singles, Purrr!, followed by her debut studio album, Amala, in 2018, and her second album, Hot Pink, in 2019. Singles such as Mooo! which went viral on YouTube and doubled as a meme, a humorous form of media spread across the internet with variations to the original, saw Doja fantasise about being a cow, whilst music videos for singles such as Juicy, show Doja dressed as a watermelon and a cherry, self-objectifying as edible and sensual fruit. Self-objectification as a result of objectification from the male gaze in the media, where women are seen as passive and subjected to a controlling and inquisitive gaze (Mulvey, 1999), and most women now reclaim this. Doja’s promotional media in the form of music videos then, casts her in relation to her sexuality. For the purpose of this article, take sexuality for its definition as meaning one’s desirability, sensuality and power of seductiveness. I will not be covering sexuality in terms of sexual orientation in line with gender and the media, but looking at the link between race, gender and sexuality in music, focussing on the rap and hip hop genre.

Identity and music videos

You could argue that Doja Cat plays into the stereotype, a generalised belief of a group of people, of the “general tendency among white Americans and even some brainwashed blacks to regard all black women as sexually immoral, licentious, and wanton” (hooks: 1981, 165). The stereotype of black women in America as provocative and salacious came from ‘American sexist mythology’ against women which was a problem black women faced and tried to reform; however, musicians such as Doja Cat, who sing brazenly about sex and their body and present their music videos in the same way, are arguably playing into the stereotype.

One could say that Doja Cat takes ownership of the stereotype by revelling in this image for her music branding as a female rapper. The representation of gender in music videos and the male gaze of the viewer can be seen in music videos such as Juicy which begins with a naked Doja Cat, squatting with red lipstick and heels on, and only a blown-up cherry to cover her butt. Berger theorised that “the eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world” (Berger, 1972: 9), meaning that the look projected onto us from another being that objectifies us, combines with our own look on the world in that we see ourselves in the look of the other, and so their look confirms our existence. To be recognised by another confirms our status in the world since when we see things we look at the relation between things and ourselves. The look from the other onto us as subjects then confirms our existence in the visible world. This can relate to a woman being looked at, and at the same time acknowledging she is being looked at by looking at that person or audience. She then exists, as the objective look confirms this.

Similarly, some musicians use their sexuality to be looked at and succeed in their career as the more they are looked at, the more their existence as a musician is recognised and garners a larger fan-base. In Juicy, Doja wears a red, deep plunging leotard suit with white fishnet tights under red leather thigh-high boots and suspenders, a silver body chain on her waist with a large key on the front as though implicit of sexual access to her, and a white top cut above her cleavage with the words ‘over budget’; these words can present Doja to be objectified as a prize, a woman that is above a man’s budget and needing the key to access her. Doja is accompanied by two backup female dancers in the red leotard, all with big plastic cherries as centrepieces on their heads. The prominent use of red in the video is attention grabbing and generates the look from the other, along with its connotations of eroticism and sex, emphasised by the exposing outfits Doja wears in the video; so, the musician is seen in the world and the music video garners attention online.

Furthermore, Doja wears a watermelon thong jumpsuit in Juicy, and is shown cut in half as a watermelon and has a red wig styled in a wet look for sexual connotations. Mulvey states that “there is pleasure in being looked at” (Mulvey, 1999: 60) meaning that the artist also gains from being placed in an objectifying role, or rather placing themselves in this role, which ties into the idea of self-objectification which women now gain pleasure and empowerment from in a neo-liberal environment. Neo-liberalism feminism is about being self-reliant and self- governing; it includes sex-positivity, and is concerned with self-objectification liberation. Third-wave feminism in the 90s, prior or akin to a neoliberal feminism, argued for feminists completing the sexual revolution to make women sexually liberated (Butler, 2013) after a ban on pornography by other feminists began to portray women as needing to be protected from sexual objectification, rather than reclaiming it. Women musicians now such as Doja Cat, play into sexual liberation in the music industry by embracing sexual objectification and the male gaze. In her video for Juicy, Doja also wears a yellow swimsuit with bananas falling around her, a euphemistic image, whilst male rapper Tyga looks at her shake her bum in the video. It could be suggested that Doja gains pleasure from being looked at and receiving the male gaze on her own terms in this way. Similarly, in a scene in her Rules music video, Doja is covered in a long snake that slides around her body as she lays down and stares into the camera, watching herself be watched, suggesting she holds the gaze and enjoys being desired, as she dances around in a snake skin outfit and cowboy hat.

In her ‘Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look’ chapter, Mulvey raises the male gaze in film, and media, with the passive woman in the exhibitionist role to create strong impact as an erotic spectacle (Mulvey, 1999) which foregrounds their sexuality and ‘to-be-looked-at- ness’. The pleasure that the woman derives in being looked at is because she holds the look, thereby by extension from Mulvey’s theory, also the control, and plays to male desire (Mulvey, 1999) whilst embodying it. Similarly, female musicians operate in this way in their music videos with ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ as the video, for instance Juicy, follows the direction of a male gaze; yet, Doja Cat plays to this male desire in creating the direction and gaze herself as an artist and therefore reclaims the power of the male gaze and relishes being the object. In the case of Doja Cat, she is not a passive female but active and complicit in her depiction, in contrary to Mulvey’s theory.

Turner (2010) states a founding that ‘white females and males’ found “exposure to ‘sexually enticing’ rap music videos…led (them) to unfavourable evaluations of African-American women” (Turner, 2010: 175) suggesting that sex-positive music videos influence viewers in encouraging them to create a stereotype and bias view based on black culture. The sexism towards African-American women here portrays a link between gender, race and sexuality where the women are placed as subjects in the videos because of the genre and culture of rap and R&B music (Turner, 2010) and the subordination of women in black culture, and viewers form opinions on the women eroticised on video but withhold opinion from the African-American men alongside them. Ethnicity is defined as “shared cultural characteristics” (Shuker, 2002: 94) whereas race is more biological, meaning that music can be defined into sub-groups by a genre most listened to in a specific community as it is a shared cultural characteristic, such as rap being popular in black culture. On the other hand, Turner also notes from a 1990 Hansen and Hansen study that sexual imagery and erotic content in music videos leads viewers to like the music, the video, and subsequently “makes a product more attractive to a potential buyer” (Turner, 2010: 175). The report suggests that perhaps musicians create sexual music videos for making a greater number of sales for their songs and albums, as music video sexuality is a “commercial product” (Shuker, 2002: 178) as the sexual imagery captures the attention of the viewer who gains enjoyment from the sexuality aspect, therefore perhaps female musicians are more likely to do this in a male-centric music industry to gain sales and advance their careers.

“Music videos performed by black women emphasised those women’s bodies and constructed a one-dimensional sexualised black womanhood.”

(Turner, 2010: 177)

This 2002 founding in the quote means that black women musicians would emphasise their body in their promotional media in form of music videos, their race, gender and sexuality being forefront to market and advertise their music as a product; however, this bodily emphasis would create a narrow and specific view of black womanhood as sexualised. bell hooks (1992) argues that the bodies of black women are reinscribed and “reduced to mere spectacle” (hooks, 1992: 62); this is clearly shown in videos such as Doja’s Mooo!, where she is reinscribed as a cow and parades her body as a spectacle in the video as a form of humour, and further seen in her costume as a watermelon and naked as a cherry in Juicy. Although hooks writes of a spectacle in a negative way, modern black female artists such as Doja Cat reinscribed their bodies as spectacle from their own choice, and arguably give it a positive connotation by embracing their bodies away from classic femininity.

Butler (2013) argues that the “highly sexualised musical careers” (Butler, 2013: 48) of women are usually not all white and middle-class, but women of colour with the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Doja Cat fitting into this category. Butler suggests here that women of colour must, or generally tend to, use sexuality in their musical careers more than their white counterparts, perhaps to achieve the same rate of success, which arguably is down to media representation of women of colour in music as sexualised for a long period. Butler writes that these same women embrace consumerism with feminine goods and become heterosexual subjects; this is arguably true of Doja Cat whom appears as sexualised on her promotional media, most distinctly, her album covers too, all whilst promoting consumption of feminine goods such as glossy makeup and jewellery.

Fig. 1

Figure 1 shows the album art for Doja’s latest album, Hot Pink, where she features half naked, in hot pink gloves, manicured nails, a backdrop and wet-styled long hair. The prominent hot colour to emphasise the album title is also a stereotypically feminine colour, seeing Doja Cat embrace feminine goods and feminine beauty whilst being a heterosexual subject. The opened mouth and stare at the person buying, or looking, at the album cover, also evokes Mulvey’s notion of being looked-at-ness, and Berger’s theory of enjoying the look so to validate one’s existence in the world, and to entice the consumer into buying the product, through use of sexual attraction (Turner, 2010).

Image: Doja Cat-garden on Elle for Hot Pink interview/Fig. 2

Figure 2 shows a touched photo of Doja Cat in a green hedge costume for the promotion of her album, Hot Pink. The dichotomy of the pink gloves as Doja holds the pink hedge cutters, connoting domesticity, whilst the hedges behind her have been cut into phallic shapes portrays the female empowerment tone of the album. Instead of being domestic, Doja uses sexuality to usurp gender stereotype roles in this photo as she also takes a male wide-legged stance in front of the phallic hedges, whilst dressed in an exposed half-jumpsuit, edited into hedge material, and wearing some garden form of heels. Additionally, the hedge cutters in Doja’s hands having cut the hedges into penis’, could also portray power and control as she has the scissors to cut the phallic parts if she wished.

Fig. 3

Figure 3 is the album art for Doja’s single, Juicy. Here she embraces red over hot pink, keeping to strong sexual feminine colours that sexualise her music image as she stars naked on this cover, with a red rose between her teeth, and the letters of ‘Juicy’ above her made up of fruits, linking her to fruit sexual connotations and objectification as an edible subject. Doja craftily places her hands over her body for cover, shoving femininity and sexuality with red manicured nails, and red block heels, whilst turning her head towards the consumer that looks, as her backside is on show on the cover.

In Black Feminist Thought, Collins remarks “whether by choice or circumstance, African-American women have ‘possessed the spirit of independence,’ have been self-reliant, and have encouraged one another to value this vision of womanhood that clearly challenges prevailing notions of femininity (Steady 1987)” (Collins, 2000: 116), meaning that African- American women have had to become independent and embrace this different notion of womanhood, away from the feminine norm. Collins seems to suggest that race and gender come to play by grouping African-Americans as an oppressed group that have gained independence and chosen to no longer be oppressed. Such can be seen in Doja Cat who embraces her body and curves throughout her music career, against past oppression on African-Americans discussing sexuality (Collins, 2000) and fitting in the modern trend for self-love and self-empowerment. Despite this, ‘prevailing notions of femininity’ are arguably not challenged because it is the norm for most black female musicians to express themselves through their sexuality now (Cummins, 2007); so, past notions of femininity already went challenged even at the time of Collins writing.

Nevertheless, women as independent and in control can be seen in the Go to Town music video which opens with Doja Cat in a dominatrix cat face mask, a point-studded choker, a bra, leather skirt and leather knee-high heeled boots, whilst holding a pink whip, and leaning on a cage holding a man trapped inside. The pink and pastel colours used evoke classic femininity whilst pairing this with the power that women can hold but in a context of sexuality and submission. Similarly, in her music video for Rules, Doja Cat takes on a ‘female boss’, an empowerment term, role with a chauffeur telling her ‘time to eat boss’ as her face is subtly made up as a cat, holding a silver briefcase and cane. Then Doja is in a pin-striped black suit, open at the back to reveal a complete thong to highlight her sexuality at the same time as she walks away from the car lit up by flames in the background, a trope for male movie stars in action films suggesting the empowerment for her as a woman.

Lyricism

The lyricism of Doja Cat’s music is highly sexualised and explicit content, fitting into what is popular in the rap genre (Turner, 2010). In Juicy, Doja starts with “I keep it juicy juicy, I eat that lunch, she keep that booty booty, she keep that plump” (Cat, 2019), suggesting that she eats a lot which is the reason for her big ‘booty’, emphasising the backside along with the repetition of ‘juicy’ and the colloquial ‘booty’ as something that men like and fixate on. Doja sings that she has “that natural beauty” (Cat, 2019) indicating her real bum, meaning that it was not a product of plastic surgery, which then implies a comparison between real bums and fake ones, which is a rising trend; however, can appear as a put down to women who have undergone cosmetic surgery and put ‘natural’ women above them on a hierarchical scale. On the other hand, Juicy as a song seems to be more concerned with empowering women to love their personal figure and bone structure which is unique to them, the ‘natural beauty’ she sings of, as Doja is not afraid to be a spectacle. Furthermore, Doja sings “they wanna know how long it takes to pull my pants up” (Cat, 2019), the ‘they’ being the male lookers who desire her, and the longer it takes to pull her trousers suggests a larger backside and curves, and the issue of women trouser sizes fitting one’s curves, showing women that it is okay to love one’s curves. In addition to this, Doja highlights that it is okay for women to have cellulite on one’s curves, “I don’t buy it, where the cellulite?” (Cat, 2019), on images of women, suggesting that the application Photoshop that is used amongst celebrities with airbrushing is wrong. Another meaning is Doja does not believe the women who do not naturally have cellulite, but support them too, empowering women to show their body by loving what society views as ‘imperfections’.

Doja arguably leans into the stereotype of African-American women as sexually immoral, singing “can’t trust a big butt” (Cat, 2019), meaning that a man cannot trust someone with a ‘big butt’ perhaps suggesting that her backside will draw extra attention to her and the woman would simply accept it, making her less trustworthy in a relationship. On the other hand, the extra lust and attention that a ‘big butt’ brings could place the power in the hands of the woman who possesses male desire and becomes that heterosexual subject, being able to control men by way of sexuality. Similarly, a subversion of sex roles perseveres as the men are subservient, “he on his knees, attend the Mass, he beg for that” (Cat, 2019) and Doja obtains this by using her sexuality, in terms of her body. The man attends the ‘mass’ that is her butt, worshipping the woman’s assets which is a form of objectification to see the woman for just the size of her bum; however, Doja Cat’s lyrics suggest that women should use that to their advantage by making the men subservient and to love one’s features at the same time. This empowerment of women that as aforementioned, Collins said African-American women encourage ‘one another to value this version of womanhood’ persists in Juicy as Doja glorifies the hourglass shape, with African-American women being known for larger curves, “hourglass, coke bottle body” (Cat, 2019), referring to the body type rooted with the likes of Marilyn Monroe back to its original comparison to a coke bottle.

A sexualised image in Doja’s songs continues in Tia Tamera, here she sings “my twins big like Tia and Tamera” (Cat, 2019), ‘twins’ being a euphemism for her breasts, focussing on her body as spectacle. Additionally, the song title, Go to Town appears as a sexual innuendo for a guy doing the sexual act of going down on a woman, “go down…let me see you go to town” (Cat, 2018), keeping to the highly sexualised performance of rap female musicians. In this way, Doja establishes female empowerment by encouraging that women’s pleasure is placed as a priority; so, the man must give the woman pleasure too to receive sex. Doja is then in control and holds the power by way of sexuality again, “it’s your one chance baby never or now” (Cat, 2018), giving the man an ultimatum.

Feminism has reshaped itself through engaging with new ideas concerning identity, location and difference and focussing on the history and politics of post colonialism and imperialism, driven by black women (Gill). In her Black Feminist Thought chapter, The Power of Self- Definition, Collins quotes Audre Lorde who proposed that African-American women take on the role of watchers to survive oppression. The “watching generates a dual consciousness in African-American women, one in which black women ‘become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection’ (Lorde, 1984: 114)” (Collins, 2000: 97), meaning that African-American women observe the oppressive behaviour around them and become doubly conscious of it by being aware of it and also adopting the language themselves to feel protected against it by becoming familiar to the language in using it themselves, a form of reclaiming. This ‘illusion of protection’ is evident in music today in the lyrics of rap and hip hop songs by African-American women such as Doja Cat’s lyrics. There is a subversion of femininity in rap songs as Doja takes on the language of the oppressor being originally derogatory terms used by men towards women (hoe, bitch, pussy). In Rules, Doja sings “said play with my pussy but don’t play with my emotions” (Cat, 2019) meaning to show women as robust, asking for sex and good relationships and not to be toyed with or manipulated, using the term ‘pussy’ that men use frequently to women and to each other. Women have the control in Doja’s songs by waging their sexuality, “if you spend some money then maybe I just might fuck ya” (Cat, 2019) and “you got a whole lotta cash and…you know I want it” (Cat, 2019) suggest being a ‘gold digger’, attraction to money, or, going for men for their money, using her sexuality as leverage to gain the money and be spoilt by the man. Doja confirms her control, singing “’tryna cast spells on a bitch with potions” (Cat, 2019), meaning the man is trying to get the woman into a trance, in love with him perhaps, but Doja is saying that she possesses the control because she has the ‘potions’, the foundation ingredients for what the man is trying to achieve by casting ‘spells’ on her; so, she is one step ahead. Furthermore, Doja gains enjoyment from her position of power in Rules, “wanna shake that ass, I’ma do this shit in slow motion” (Cat, 2019), meaning that she will move slowly for the man to enjoy her body movements for longer, and this is her choice suggesting a pleasure from being looked-at-ness (Mulvey, 1999).

Image: @aidens.crap.art on Instagram

Language and power in feminism now encompasses using past derogatory terms such as ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’ after taking on amelioration, going into a positive meaning through reclaiming the terms. Women rappers such as Doja cat often use ‘bitch’ and other past derogatory terms in their song lyrics to exude power. In Bottom Bitch, Doja sings “I’m her pimp…that’s my hoe…you’re my bottom bitch” (Cat, 2019), meaning that she has the control in the relationship with the girl as her ‘pimp’ that manages her. The colloquial use of the derogatory term ‘hoe’ to promiscuous women and ‘bitch’ to show dislike to a woman are used in their ameliorated contexts in most of Doja’s songs and similarly, hip hop songs. ‘Bottom bitch’ is slang in pimping culture suggesting a trust with the girl she calls a ‘hoe’ and ‘bitch’ in the song, knowing her for the longest time; however, it can also mean being the ‘bottom’ sexually submissive partner in a relationship. Gender and sexuality is then intertwined in music media as women sing about sex to obtain power in the desire that they can convey and the ownership over partners.

Songs such as Better than Me, seem to pit women against one another on the other hand. Doja sings how “all of them bitches ain’t better than me…she ain’t no Queen…I can do that too bitch” (Cat, 2019), competing with other women for a man to put herself up, and using ‘bitches’ in its derogatory sense. Doja sings that if the woman “messing with my man you cruising for a bruising” (Cat, 2019), meaning she is threatening to beat up, or punch, the woman, arguably a subversion of classic femininity and behaviour. The competition continues with the superlative phrase, “the best pussy come from wifey” (Cat, 2019), using men’s language and language from rap culture (pussy) to refer to herself and claim the position of ‘wifey’ which would also give her superiority. The media displays women as empowering until it comes to being competitive over men in this light.

“Feona Attwood argues that sexual display has developed more positive connotations in a culture in which female celebrities routinely present their bodies as objects of spectacle which indicate success, confidence, assertive female sexuality and power.”

(Gill, 2007: 38)

So, the appearance of Doja Cat and artists today displaying their bodies on social and promotional media (album art, music videos, Instagram and Twitter), and in performances could be interpreted as “signifying sexual autonomy and desire rather than passivity and objectification” (Gill, 2007: 38). Gill means that the sexual displays of artists such as Beyoncé and Doja Cat is now seen as positive and empowering, and indicative of success, rather than being passive and objectified in how they are presented as musicians, instead, they symbolise sexual freedom and obtainment of desire. On the contrary, the positive image of sexual autonomy comes from the woman appearing to be in control by choosing to show her body, but is this not just an appearance? For the woman, the musician in this case, is still behind a camera being directed in how to pose and what to do in some cases, and at the hands of capital profit from the audience’s consumption of music videos and performances, does this not objectify the woman to be a symbol of capital? The musician still chooses to cooperate, or to have the creative direction in most cases granting her active and not passive; moreover, her decision to portray her body as part of her artistry acts as a reversal to exploitation as she self-objectifies and reclaims this power. But the distribution of the musician’s images at the hands of businesses making profit from the popularity of neoliberal feminism certainly casts her as a pawn that is objectified in that she is used to make money. It then seems to be an issue of the wealth produced that determines the objectification of the musician and her sexuality. How far are we willing to praise a musician that celebrates their body in relation to gender and sexuality if the end goal is consumption and not empowerment?

Image: Sharon Mccutcheon on Unsplash

Conclusion

In conclusion, in drawing on Doja Cat as a recording artist and popular music example, the relationship between gender and sexuality within media has shown to go hand in hand when female musicians are concerned, and most pertinently, those of African-American descent. African-American female musicians largely maintain the sex symbol status in their musical careers, perhaps to create frenzy and attract sales, or rather because this is the category they naturally fall into in rap and black culture as women; however, with the reshaping of feminism, as noted by Gill, they can now use this to express themselves and reclaim empowerment and success for women in the music industry.

List of Images referenced
Fig. 1: Doja Cat. 2019. Hot Pink album cover. USA Fig. 2: Doja Cat, Hot Pink Interview.
Fig. 3: Doja Cat. 2019. Juicy single album art. USA

References

Gill, R. 2007. Gender and the Media. In: Gill, R. Gender and the media. Cambridge: Polity, pp.1-41.

Berger, J. 1972. Ways of seeing. In: Berger, J. Ways of seeing. London: Penguin Group, pp. 1-30.
Mulvey, L. 1999. Visual Pleasure and Narrative CinemaIn: Thornham. S. ed. Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 58-70.

hooks, b. 1981. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

hooks, b. 1992. Selling Hot Pussy. In: hooks, b. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, pp.61-79
Shuker, R. 2002. Popular music: The key concepts. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. 2013. For White Girls Only? Postfeminism and the Politics of Inclusion. Feminist Formations25(1), pp.36-58.

Turner, J. S. 2010. Sex and the spectacle of music videos: An Examination of the Portrayal of Race and Sexuality in Music Videos. Sex Roles. 64, pp.173-191.

Collins, P. H. 2000. The Power of Self-Definition. In: Collins, P. H. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, pp. 97-123.

Cummins, R. G. 2007. Selling Music with Sex: The Content and Effects of Sex in Music Videos on Viewer Enjoyment. Journal of Promotion Management13(1-2), pp.95-109.

Cat, D. 2019. Juicy. Doja Cat. Amala (Deluxe Version). USA: Kemosabe; RCA.
Cat, D. 2019. Better than me. Hot Pink. USA: Kemosabe; RCA.

Cat, D. 2018. Go to Town. Amala. USA: Kemosabe; RCA.

Cat, D. 2019. Tia Tamera. Doja Cat and Rico Nasty. Amala (Deluxe Version). USA: Kemosabe; RCA.
Cat, D. 2019. Rules. Hot Pink. USA: Kemsoabe; RCA.

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