“I like big butts and I can not lie, you other brothers can't deny, that when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face, you get sprung!”. We have all heard the song; most of us know the lyrics, and most of have sung (or danced) along at some point to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit 1992 single, “Baby Got Back.” However, what most of us do not realize is that there is a powerful force at work behind this song: enlightened sexism—the media illusion that equality has been reached between the sexes, women are powerful, and therefore, feminism is “done”—outdated and unnecessary. Through an analysis of the music video, I hope to show how “Baby Got Back” exemplifies what Susan Douglas means by the term “enlightened sexism” and the power this force has over people’s views of sexism, particularly in making us view sexism and the objectification of women as a joke, which we all should participate in.
The media (particularly through film and television) is constantly feeding us images of powerful, successful women: from Grey’s Anatomy’s authoritative, “won’t take any of your crap” Dr. Bailey to Sex and the City’s powerful and prominent PR executive, Samantha Jones—we even saw a woman as president on the show, Commander in Chief. As Douglas claims, the media “overrepresent women as having made it—completely—in the professions, as having gained sexual equality with men, and having achieved a level of financial success and comfort enjoyed primarily by the Tiffany’s-encrusted doyennes of Laguna Beach” (4-5). Enlightened sexism conveys the idea that in light of the fact that women have made so much progress as a gender and sexism is an ancient way of the past, it is both okay for men to stereotype and objectify women and for women, themselves, to enact these objectifications and go along with them. Enlightened sexism “insists that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism—indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved—so now its okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women” (Doulas 9). Since equality has been reached, both men and women can join in on the fun, which is sexism. However, the truth is that we have not even scratched the surface on reaching full equality between men and women. While much progress has been made, we have not reached our final destination, and women are nowhere close to being equal to men in terms of power in today's world. If we have achieved gender equality, then why, as Douglas points out, would women today earn only 80% of what men earn one year out of college, and a mere 69% ten years out of college? Why would the most popular jobs for women still be subordinate and less powerful positions, such as secretaries, nurses, elementary school teachers, cashiers, and retail sales-persons? So while the media may tell us that women’s liberation is a “fait accompli” (Douglas 5), if you look through the media haze, you will recognize that the media is simply producing “fantasies of power”—sexism is not dead, and we must continue to fight for gender equality.
Now it might be a little clearer where Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” fits into this whole picture. If you watch the music video, you will witness what must be one of the most blatant examples of the sexual objectification of women that we have around today. The video consists of black women (unsurprisingly, with rather large behinds), clad in tight and revealing garments, aggressively shaking their butts, sensuously rubbing their butts, slapping their butts, patting their butts, patting each others’ butts, and more generally, dancing very provocatively. At the beginning of the video, during the famous “oh my god, Becky, look at her butt,” segment, there is even a women in an extremely short, skin-tight dress standing atop a revolving stand, caressing her curves. The image of this woman being on display on what essentially is a pedestal is very noteworthy and telling. The accompaniment of a few seconds of what sounds like “godly” or “heavenly” musical voices completes the image of the woman’s body being on display and deserving of worship. The blatant sexualizing and objectification of women is also evident in many other aspects of the video. The set of the video consists of structures, which are unmistakably meant to look like butts. Also, erratically throughout the video, images of certain fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes and lemons (as well as chickpeas, which are shaped like butts) are flashed across the screen. There was even an image of a banana thrown in, which in our society has strong sexual connotations as representing a penis. There is also a butt-like object on the record, which is repeatedly shown. The explicit sexualizing of women is also evident in how different words, which can be used to describe women’s’ butts, such as “rump, thick, rear, bubble, tail, dorsum, stuffed and much back,” are frequently flashed across the screen in huge, bold lettering.
The music video and the song lyrics are so transparently sexist and objectifying towards women and as feminist scholar, Rosalind Gill, claims, “the extremeness of the sexism is evidence that there’s no sexism!” (Douglas 13). The force of enlightened sexism makes people believe that since no one could actually be sexist anymore, the existence of blatantly sexist and degrading images of women, like the appalling ones in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s video, are completely acceptable. As Douglas argues, enlightened sexism “includes in-your-face sexism in which the attitudes about women that infuriated feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s are pushed to new, even more degrading levels, except that it’s all done with a wink” (13)—the wink, in the case of “Baby Got Back,” signifying that we, the audience, know that the song and video are meant to be viewed as over-the-top and exaggerating the sexualizing of women. We can think of this music video just as we think about MTV shows, such as My Super Sweet Sixteen, where Douglas claims the viewer is essentially being elbowed in the ribs and told by MTV, “we know that you know that we know that you know that this is excessive and kitschy, that you’re too smart to read this straight and not laugh at it” (14). We are all “in” on the joke about the objectification of these women and their big behinds. As Douglas argues, the mindset produced by enlightened sexism is that “it’s silly to be sexist; therefore, it’s funny to be sexist” (13), and it is even funnier to be over-the-top sexist, which is exactly what the music video of “Baby Got Back” is. The entire video has a humorous, almost joking tone to it. This comical tone can be seen in how literally many of the lyrics are acted out in the video—during the “you get sprung!” line, a slinky is shown stretching out; during the, “I wanna get with you and take your picture” line, a picture is literally taken and we are shown a picture of a woman’s butt; and during the “you can do side bends or sit-ups, but please don't lose that butt” line, the scantily clad dancers in the background are doing a dance version of a sit-up. In this way, the disgusting extent to which women are being objectified in this video is hiding behind the facade of its exaggeration and humor.
The blatant sexuality, extreme objectification, and overall humorous tone of “Baby Got Back” makes us feel like it is okay to have fun with the song and video and play along with the “joke” (since we all know that sexism does not actually exist, right?). I will be the first to admit that I go along with it—I know almost every single word to this song and at the age of twelve, was lightheartedly singing and dancing along to it with my friends. When this song comes on at a dance or party, it seems like every girl rushes to the dance floor with her girl friends to get in on the “joke”—it’s simply a fun song. As Douglas asserts, “enlightened sexism is meant to make patriarchy pleasurable for women” (12), and for many girls, what is more pleasurable than to scream the ridiculous lyrics and dance around with their friends shaking “what your mama gave ya.” We even see people doing this in the media. In “Charlie’s Angels,” there is the infamous scene where Cameron Diaz gets up on the stage of a club when “Baby Got Back” comes on and starts dancing, at first timidly, but then wildly, as her self-consciousness melts away. She looks to be having the time of her life, spurred on by the crowd and shaking her booty. In one Friends episode we even see Ross and Rachel singing “Baby Got Back” to their baby daughter, Emma, in order to make her laugh. The ending scene of the episode shows both of them singing and dancing to it in front of Emma’s crib, with Ross shaking his butt, Rachel slapping it, and them both loudly singing, “shake it, shake it, shake that healthy butt!”. In the background, the audience is roaring with laughter, and why not? It is funny (and entertaining).
The question we should be asking is how has it become acceptable and “cool” to joke about the objectification of women? When did we slip into a world where our humor governed our morals? Sure, we may say that we’re in on the joke, and deep down we know that the objectifying and sexualizing women is bad, but at what point do these images begin to actually seep in, shape our views, and govern our behavior? When does the joke become a reality? Based on the prevalence of sexual harassment and rape, I would say that we have already reached this point. Our mission, then, is to take on the “ongoing, never-ending project of consciousness raising” (Douglas 22). We must acknowledge the force of “enlightened sexism,” recognize how it is shaping our views by means of the media, and furthermore recognize that despite the media’s “fantasies of power,” women and men are not equal in the world today and we must keep fighting for gender equality.