Women and popular culture: The pimp chic debate

Dame Anita Roddick has attacked young female role models who think it is "cool to be a whore", criticising stars such as Britney Spears, right, and Beyoncé over the sexual imagery in their videos. Maxine Frith reports
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"Pimp chic" has entered mainstream culture, with the music industry, luxury shops, clothes designers and even airlines adopting symbols of the culture to advertise their products. Sharp-suited men with scowls, skimpily clad women looking up to them in awe, flash cars and lots of bling may be nothing new when it comes to selling glamour and "cool", but observers say they are becoming increasingly concerned about the effect of marketing these images, especially to children.

Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, hit out yesterday at the trend. She said: "A lot of people seem to think that it's cool to be a pimp or whore. It's not cool. The reality is dark, evil and appalling and unregulated. The reality is sex trafficking, which is about young women being forced into rooms to have sex however many times a day so that the pimp can take all the money."

She added: "There are thousands of ads, mostly focused on women and young girls, that say you are not attractive, you are not sexy, you are not intelligent, unless you look like this. In kids' magazines there is a passivity and a stupidity that is seen as a great way forward. Something has gone very wrong."

Dame Anita criticised stars such as Beyoncé and Britney Spears for simulating sex in their music videos, and highlighted the trend among some hip hop artists to make porn films to be marketed alongside the graphic lyrics of their songs. "What we have now is what I call "pimp and ho chic" with all aspects of the sex industry presented as hip and cool," she said."Pole dancing as exercise, lap-dancing clubs as places to see celebrities, fancy-dress balls and the everyday use of the words "bitch" and "ho" to refer to women are just some of the examples I have come across."

The film director Spike Lee has also hit out at pimp culture, using a lecture at the University of Florida earlier this month to criticise rap stars such as Snoop Dogg for glamorising prostitution at the same time as reinforcing stereotypes about black men.

He said: "We are bombarded by these gangsta images again and again and again and again ... they do make a difference to human behaviour. No one gets upset any more that pimpdom gets elevated on a pedestal."

It is not just the music world that has embraced pimp chic with such fervour. Richard Branson's airline Virgin Atlantic launched an advertising campaign for its new Upper Class airport clubhouse last year that featured the slogan: "Pimp My Lounge." The department store Selfridges ran prominent advertisements last Christmas depicting a man in "pimp chic" clothes, holding a glass of champagne, with two semi-naked women draped over him. Alongside the image, a strapline read: "Get your Christmas booty."

Last week Madonna - no stranger to raunchy videos and suggestive choreography - appeared on the MTV show Pimp My Ride, in which the DJ Tim Westwood turns ordinary cars into bling-laden vehicles. And Hustle and Flow, a film about a pimp who becomes a gangsta rapper, won a £9m distribution deal at the most recent Sundance Film Festival - the biggest movie deal in the event's history.

Fashion has also embraced the trend, with labels such as Phat Pimp Clothing in London and the "pimp" style of singers such as Andre 3000 from the band Outkast being copied in the pages of glossy magazines. In his hit "Pimp Juice", the rap star Nelly included lines about luxury labels such as Prada, Gucci and Dolce e Gabbana.

Stacy Gillis, an expert in feminism at Newcastle University, believes that "pimp and ho chic" stereotypes black men and objectifies women. She commented: "It is about a white, middle class, Anglo-American culture which picks up on little bits and pieces of another society and class but doesn't really engage with it on a political level.

"There is a disenfranchised part of US society that does glamorise the pimp and fetishises their power and that has transferred over here as well. But it is grotesque in that we are talking about women who are extremely disenfranchised and it is about the complete sexualisation of female identity."

Dr Gillis is particularly concerned about the way in which pimp chic is now being marketed to children. The Playboy brand, for example, now has a best-selling line of pink and black pencil cases, stationery and clothes which the company says is aimed at teenagers, but which has proved to be even more popular with primary school-age girls.

High-street stores such as WH Smith have come in for severe criticism for selling the Playboy brand but have refused to stop doing so.

Dr Gillis said: "I have seen girls as young as four wearing boob tubes and T-shirts with slogans like 'So many boys, so little time'. They look up to people like Jordan and want a Playboy pencil case and watch a Beyoncé video. I find it deeply disturbing that we are sexualising girls' bodies at such a young age."

She added: "Pimp culture is part of the backlash against feminism, in which 'post feminism' is seen as being all about choice - that it's OK for me to get my tits out because it's my choice and that makes me a feminist. Well, no, it doesn't."

But is pimp culture really so bad? Jonathan Freeman, a lecturer in youth culture and marketing at the Warwick Business School, believes not. "I don't think the word pimp may have the same connotation for some young people and children as it has for people like Anita Roddick," he said. "They do not imbue it with the same malevolence, and if you look at something like the Virgin Atlantic campaign, it could be viewed as a bit of fun that fits in with its image and its name.

"I am not saying that it is right, but I think that different people will see it in a different light.

"What will be interesting is if people like Anita Roddick make people look at the culture in a different light and that makes the advertisers change tack."

Six women give their views

Alexia Loundras, music journalist and Mercury Prize judge

"There's no doubt that several successful male pop artists offer a less than enlightened portrayal of women in their music, but it's wrong to suggest that it is the whole picture. In the past few years there have been plenty of strong female voices offering young women far more positive pop role models - artists such as Ms Dynamite, Pink and Beyoncé's old group, Destiny's Child (they of the hit single 'Independent Women').

"Ms Roddick is right to draw attention to the fact that 'pimp' is inching towards becoming an accepted term for 'cool' (and it would've been nice if Madonna had considered that). But young people today are not stupid - there is simply no way that my 14-year-old sister would dream of thinking it was fashionable to describe themselves as 'whores'."

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writer and broadcaster

"Anita Roddick is absolutely right to slam the pimp and whore culture, promoted by big business and detestable icons - licentious pop stars, so called rebels, black "pride" mercenaries and designer mobsters. They do it for money and status, they slash and burn moral boundaries, distort and coarsen society. Among black Britons it is destroying the parts racism couldn't reach or break. Boys and men, some more susceptible because they are under-educated, are drawn to mean, "cool" rap-star lifestyles - violent misanthropy, bling, drugs and half-naked girls. Black-on-black violence is spreading, disrespect for females endemic. Decent black men and women (those lucky and strong enough to retain a sense of themselves) can only watch and weep as the future dissolves into chaos."

Dawn Porter, author of Diaries of an Internet Lover (published by Virgin)

"I think the whole pimp culture thing has been taken out of context. Women like Beyoncé look fabulous. They may be bumping and grinding on their videos but hundreds of thousands of young girls admire them, not because they want to be prostitutes with a pimp, but because they are expressing themselves in the way that they want.

"I think the critics are blowing it out of proportion. I don't like seeing small girls walking down the street with tight tops and midriffs showing, but that is nothing new - I did it when I was younger. It's about dressing up for young girls, while for women it should be about having the freedom to dress how we want.

"As far as I am concerned, until we have exposed genitalia on a music video, there isn't a problem."

Max Akhtar, MTV presenter

"Beyoncé has talent. It is easy to pick on people who are successful, but she is young, a single woman and a multimillionaire - and that is inspirational. I see people like Mary J Blige and Beyoncé as role models.

"Rap music is still led by men. There's one Missy Elliot to every five Kanye Wests. Alicia Keys went from being a tomboy to wearing a negligee. When I asked her about the change in image, she said she felt she had reached the point in her career when no one could accuse her of being sexy to sell records.

"If I'm interviewing someone and choose to wear a skirt and heels, or jeans and a hoodie, I still know my stuff. Women already have to work harder to prove that it is not their face or their image that lets them be successful."

Caroline Coon, artist and founder of Cunst Art: Feminist Performance Art

"There is an issue about 'whore culture' but the way women have to confront it is by firstly acknowledging it is already illegal to buy sex from anybody under 18. People over the age of 18 should have the choice to do what they like with their bodies, and be as sexually explicit as they like - even for money. What culture has to do is overtly celebrate women who are sexual. The real problem is what male culture gives itself permission to do. How despicable of men to think that if a woman is sexual, she can be labelled a whore, men can do whatever they want with her, denigrate her, rape her, even murder her, and then excuse themselves.

"I valourise women who are overtly sexual and want to question women and men who are critical of women's sexual behaviour."

Joan Smith, columnist

"I do think Anita Roddick is right to raise this issue. Something which started in the 1970s as part of the sexual liberation of women has been hijacked and turned into something which is now simply part of the sex industry. I am shocked at how prevalent this culture is - from MTV to magazines like Nuts and Loaded, which convey something that is not nudity, but a particular version of male fantasies. Sex has been industrialised, through people-trafficking and prostitution. Young women are treated as commodities. And it is not acceptable to put some kind of jokey spin on this. Gangsta rap music comes from people who live in a violent society and in response adopt a macho identity. But it is wrong that something that comes out of a ghetto culture is celebrated without any understanding of its origins."