WARNING: This blog is potentially NSFW.
The release of the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton is just around the corner and is being heavily promoted with all of the “Straight Outta _____” memes on social media. The biopic is a tribute the highly incendiary and influential hip-hop group. Like them or not, the influence that NWA has had on not just hip-hop, but music in general, and artistic rights against censorship is still felt to this day.
So what is the connection to a music group with a slur in their name to something as innocent as Snow White and the Seven Dwarts? Well, I have always thought that the effect that NWA’s album Straight Outta Compton had on hip-hop music is very similar to the effect Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had on animation.
Straight Outta Compton hit the music scene like a tidal wave when it came out. It was not the first gangsta rap album nor was it the first hip-hop album to touch on social issues in the black community, but it was certainly the most visceral and rebellious. In Straight Outta Compton, NWA mixed the competitive, braggadocio spirit already established in hip-hop and the grim realities on growing up in impoverished majority black areas flooded with drugs and murder, like Compton, California into a final product the likes that nobody had ever heard up at that point. Straight Outta Compton is the primary reason for the gangsta rap explosion in the 1990s and it demanded that the world listen to what the fledgling hip-hop genre had to say. To this day, the attitude, imagery, and bravado NWA put out in Straight Outta Compton is ubiquitous in pop culture and still emulated by current-day hip-hop artists. Heck, the producer of the album is currently a billionaire headphones salesman!
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also hit the movie scene like a tidal wave when it premiered in 1937. Snow White was not the first animated cartoon, but as the first full-length animated feature, Walt Disney’s ambitious cinematic interpretation of the classic European fairy tale immediately blew audiences away with the scope of its visuals, its music, the quality of its animation, and its manner of storytelling. Snow White would become the blueprint for almost every single animated feature-length film to follow since. Almost eighty years since Snow White’s premier, Walt Disney’s animation studio is still the most successful and influential animation studio in the world, every trope and style established in the film has been ubiquitous in pop culture for decades, and current-day animated features still follow the example of it.
Another major thing that Straight Outta Compton and Snow White have in common is that whether they intended to or not, they ended up having a troubling influence in the way their respective media portrays women. In the world of Straight Outta Compton, women are either sex objects, scheming gold diggers, completely disposable, or a combination of the three. Among the more infamous lines in this album include but aren’t limited to, “I spell girl with a ‘B'”, “So we started lookin for the bitches with the big butts/Like her, but she keep cryin/’I got a boyfriend’ bitch, stop lyin’/Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nuttin but a dyke”, “Then we headed right back to the fort/Sweatin all the bitches in the biker shorts/We didn’t get no play, from the ladies/With six niggaz in a car are you crazy?/She was scared, and it was showin’/We all said ‘fuck you bitch!’ and kept goin'” or “But what about that bitch that got shot?/Fuck her! You think I give a damn about a bitch, I ain’t a sucker”. Straight Outta Compton was not the first hip-hop album, or even the first popular music to express misogynistic sentiments (most of your favorite classic rock artists either glorified and/or practiced sexually predatory behavior), but its massive influence on the hip-hop landscape played a big role in normalizing casual sexism within hip-hop from then on, especially mainstream hip-hop. NWA further entrenched these attitudes by cynically cashing in on shock value with their follow-up album, Niggaz4life, which even more bluntly expressed how little they valued women outside of sexual gratification (a few songs here are literally about killing a prostitute in order to keep from paying her for her services). Even after NWA broke up, misogyny continued to be a customary aspect of Ice Cube’s, Eazy E’s, and Dr. Dre’s solo albums (in that regard, The Chronic can be downright embarrassing to listen to sometimes). Misogyny is still a major problem with current-day mainstream hip-hop stars like Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West, and Rick Ross. Even with Nicki Minaj being one of the most popular female rappers in years, her supposedly feminist anthem (well, feminist according to many music bloggers anyway) “Anaconda” reinforces every single misogynistic trope set up in Straight Outta Compton.
Snow White’s influence in its portrayal of women is not as vulgar and blunt as Straight Outta Compton, but it is just as problematic. The success and popularity of Snow White would end up establishing female characters in animation as mostly passive love interests for male characters. Snow White is constantly dependent on male characters throughout the movie, whether its Prince Charming, any of the seven dwarfs, or the huntsman. The only other female character in the movie was Snow White’s antagonist and her motivation to kill her was simply because she thought Snow White was prettier than her. After Snow White escapes from her castle and meets the dwarfs, her role turns into what would become the cliche maternal happy homemaker role that would flood television in the 1950s. In fact, I think the only action Snow White does on her own volition not motivated by or revolving around another man is answering the door for the Witch in disguise and doing so almost gets her killed. More passive dependent princesses would follow in Disney’s next princess movies, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Actually, in the case of the latter, the princess is little more than a plot device. There wasn’t much improvement with this during the Disney Renaissance years either. These newer primary female protagonists may have displayed more personality than the princesses of old, but all the same their roles in the films were either to fall in love with some dude or were simply for some dude to fall in love with. Does anybody else find it troubling that one of the most autonomous Disney princesses (Belle) is a character who stayed in an abusive relationship? I’ll admit that Disney made some improvements to their lead female characters by the time they got to Mulan and Lilo & Stitch, but by then the damage had already been done. By this time, Snow White was more than 60 years old and its portrayal of lead female character was emulated by plenty of other animated films across many other studios across the world. Even now, Disney still has more work to do. Frozen poked fun at its legacy of its female characters’ dependency on romance when Kristoff questioned Anna’s decision to marry Hans only after knowing him for a day. But later in the film, Anna and Kristoff decide they are the only ones for each other and how long did they know each other at the point? A week at the most?
The other troubling aspect with women popularized by Disney was established in Bambi. Everybody knows the famously traumatic centerpiece scene I’m referring to. Since then, a common theme in a lot of animated films is on-screen deaths of mothers. Each of the movies treats the mother’s death scenes with the proper gravity, but if we’re gonna be honest, these deaths are just plot devices for the main character (usually the departed mother’s son).
To be honest, dead and/or absent parents in general are a common troubling trope in animated films, but it’s more common and the most well-known death scenes in animated films involves the characters’ mothers more often than the their fathers.
Both Straight Outta Compton and Snow White are amazing pieces of art in their respective fields, but those fields have a lot to resolve in regards to their treatment of women the pieces in question helped influenced. I know the patriarchal attitudes in music and cinema aren’t divorces from the structural patriarchy it exists in, but with mindfulness and care, I believe both hip-hop and animation can be more welcoming towards women as complete, autonomous people, which can only get each medium closer in tapping into its full potential.