Pyramids vs Birthday Song: Black Women in Mainstream Media

Sorry for bombarding you with so many images. But there’s a method to my madness which will become clear momentarily. Yesterday Frank Ocean dropped  the highly anticipated video for his enthralling single Pyramids. While watching the video I was struck by his respectful and tasteful portrayal of strippers. Who would have thought, huh? And my thoughts eventually faded to the disgustingly misogynistic display of black women’s booties in the 2 Chainz’ video Birthday Song.

Birthday Song is the wishlist and self-aggrandizement of a hoodrich, socially UNconscious 2 Chainz. Pyramids is like an onion, layered with substance and commentary that becomes more evident with each listen. There’s no comparing 2 Chainz shallow lyrics to the mastery of Frank Ocean’s epic reflection on the entertainment industry and society’s degradation of the black female image. But I think it’s significant to observe the divergent representation of the black female body in the two. My interpretation is personal, and I admit I may be biased being a black feminist hoping to restore the mainstream image of the black female body. So, forgive me if I rant.

Frank’s fans will immediately notice he left out the entire first part of the song from the video! I’m trying to understand why because these lyrics define “the plot.” The scene opens with the narrator releasing vicious attack animals upon the predators who have taken the protagonist Cleopatra. Frank references her several times as a queen. Here we are reminded that the black female body was once revered and respected as royalty. Begging for the restoration of the royal highness and her return to glory, he notes that her throne is empty and yet to be replaced.

Cleopatra is eventually located laying with Samson, which results in her immediate descent and fall from grace. For me, Samson symbolizes white men and the entertainment industry who have exploited and reduced the black female body to a mere fetish and  forced her to submit to them for entertainment purposes. In the outro we learn Cleopatra has died. This is where the video for pyramids picks up.

We find Frank in a Las Vegas strip club seemingly disillusioned. Cleopatra has lost her status and is now working for the man at the pyramid, disconnected from her regal past. He’s hysterically laughing at one moment, then the next he looks somewhat uncomfortable. There appears to be some inner turmoil or struggle of some matter. Evident in the lyrics for this section is black men’s complicity in the exploitation of black women. No longer is he protecting or attempting to rescue Cleopatra. Now, he’s pimping her and she’s working at the pyramid to pay his bills. In the video Frank appears torn; and a moral struggle ensues.

The video does a great job expressing the conflict and anguish evident in the excluded half of the song. Is it right to participate in the degradation of this woman who once held the status of royalty? Most of the attention in the video is centered on the exaggerated expressions of pleasure and enticement and not so much on the women’s bodies. Although most of the video takes place in a strip club I don’t have the usual feelings of betrayal and disdain while watching. Unlike Birthday Song, the camera focuses mostly on the women’s faces and their expressions. The portrayal of women in Pyramids sustains their humanity, while also slightly exploring the psychological distress of participating in your own oppression. Partial nudity is apparent throughout the strip club, but yet the ambiance of the video is less exploitative than 2 Chainz’ Birthday Song.

I’m not even legitimizing 2 Chainz’ fuckery with a review. All I’m going to say about that ridiculous waste of energy, bodies, and money is how it reinforces the idea to white America (wait a minute…to all of America), that the black female body is something to be obtained and conquered. Why provide another excuse for the sexual assault of black women, which happens to 18.8% of black women and 24.4% of mixed race women compared to 17.7% of white women.

Birthday Song and Pyramids both present black women’s bodies as objects. But I think Frank’s attempting to bring awareness to the deterioration of the black female image. Important to note in the video is his obvious conflict. I think this moment symbolizes the conflict that has arisen in him as a socially conscious male and participant in the industry that continually perpetuates  attacks on the black female body. Some may feel I’m reading too much into Frank’s song. But for me the song is an awesome and brilliant commentary about the exploitation, commodifcation, and objectification of black women. And if you need an example of what any of those look like refer to 2 Chainz Birthday song below. What’s your take?

Frank Ocean, Pyramids

2 Chainz, Birthday Song

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4 thoughts on “Pyramids vs Birthday Song: Black Women in Mainstream Media

  1. Except you missed one thing…Most of the women in 2 Chainz’s video aren’t exactly “black”. I point this out not to minimize your analysis of what is going on in this video and on a grander scheme, in the black community and the greater culture of hip-hop music. I think a lot of the women in the video (the more prominent ones) can be described either as mixed race, or “ambiguous” looking. Notice that in one of the rooms shown in the video, there appears to be an ongoing birthday party (a smaller one) or baby shower, in which there are actual (not ambiguous-looking) black men and women. They are portrayed to be “low-class” based on their surroundings and clothing. When you contrast this image to the main video vixens (most of whom are not black), you see that….I don’t know. I don’t know what you see because it’s hard for me to put this into words. All I’m saying is, on the one hand, I do not want black women’s bodies to be treated as objects – fetishized and oversexualized. On the other hand, though, when I see that what is considered “beautiful” or “to be desired”, even when it’s through objectification, is now any woman who is not 100% black (or looks black; as we know that among African Americans and many blacks outside of Africa, it’s almost impossible to find 100% or even 90% anything anyway), it makes me hurt just a little bit because I know I will never cut it with this standard of beauty. If the only ones who are good enough to be the main “video hoes” are a woman who looks Indian, one who looks Latina, one who may be mixed race (at least 1/4 black), where do I and many of my friends stand? I emphasize the term “video hoes” to show that I acknowledge that they are being objectified (and is that what anyone should aspire to?) however, objectification still puts some one on a higher pedestal than those who are completely rejected; those who are just simply not good enough. I know what they say: “If you bad, you bad” – which is absolutely true. Some mixed race, monoracial, light skinned, darkskinned; it doesn’t matter – some women are just breathtaking. But I can’t help but wonder sometimes? What if? What if sometimes, just sometimes, it is strictly “if you ‘exotic’, you bad.” All others can fall back.

    Anyway, great read! Enough of the boo-hooing. I have a paper to write 🙂

    • Hello,

      I was contemplating tonight, about the gender stratification that seems to be increasing, especially in urban industries and music targeted towards the marginalized and lower/working classes (as well as variations and versions for mainstream USA). So I decided to search into Google “Hip Hop and Women”, “Mainstream USA degradation of Women” and I happened to come across your blog.

      First I would like to say that I found your blog very enjoyable to read and your analysis and interpretations of Frank Ocean’s music video Pyramids are spectacular and a great analogy from that time period to today. But more over, moving away from the small details, I’d really like to focus my response on the stratification and inequalities of women.

      In which I feel you presented here perfectly. Women have always been undermined and second-class citizens for the majority of US history (and globally), minority women were double targeted, one for being in a minority group, and two for being a female. I’d just like to say, “I’m tired of it!!!”.

      I am so tired of turning on the radio, and hearing songs about raping women, “locking them down”, how women are sneaky, objectifying them in every single way possible, even dehumanizing them( US!).

      I feel this new sounds of hip/hop and rap (however likable the ‘beats’) the lyrics are ghastly and appalling. I feel that for those strong women who fought for our rights, the feminist movement has failed, and women are being forced (either through subliminal messages, watching pop. media/ etc. All are contributing forces) back into the days before when we had no rights!

      I just want to say I hope you continue writing, I fully support you. I may not be Black myself but I understand through an educated standpoint, it may not be the entire experience an individual may gather in his or her lifetime, but I understand through education, many classes, readings.. everything.

      So Thank you! I am so glad there are women standing against this! I get so irritated at the exploits, images, nasty lyrics, I don’t care what ‘race’ we are, we’re still women, we’re still human, and we have to stick together!

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