Missy Elliott’s “Work It” serves as an anthem in lyricism and imagery for Morgan’s perception of ‘hip hop feminism.’ The song galvanizes women to take charge of and vocalize their desires, just as male rappers have capitalized upon in the past.
Feminism has remained a complex phenomenon throughout the development of hip hop culture. While not as prominent as their male counterparts in the popular interpretation of hip hop’s birth, black female artists paved their own path in the genre through a different perspective on life. Missy Elliott has adopted a street smart approach to her rap persona, portraying herself as a strong woman with confidence in her sexuality.
African American music is rooted in the patriarchal structure deemed upon black communities following the horrors of slavery — as humanity was deprived of slaves in order to serve their masters, gender was also blurred until the abolition of slavery, which caused black men to follow the lead of the white men they’d served for years and began treating black women as inferior. These misogynistic ideals enforced the stereotypes of black women that remain heavily used today: the “Sapphire” to fulfill the ‘angry black woman’ trope, characterized by masculinity, over-assertion, and aggression, and the “Jezebel” to represent the desired and promiscuous black woman with an unquenchable sexual thirst, thereby aligning this trope with a masculine view as well.
In her essay “Hip Hop Feminist,” Joan Morgan responds to the impressions of her black female community on the white-based ‘feminism’ of the 1990s. This ‘traditional’ sense of feminism dictates the image of women as a political force through “ivory tower elitism [that] excludes the masses.” Therefore, generations of black women from the Bronx and Harlem have felt historically discounted and excluded from the feminist movements since they don’t fit the white feminist’s vision. Morgan urges that black women should utilize their “feminist privilege” in efforts to escape the overbearing oppression of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. In this, Morgan focuses on the nature of pleasure, which has been historically connected with power struggle for black women, depriving them of deciding their own sexual satisfaction not based on victimization but as women of equal quality to men.
Missy Elliott’s “Work It” serves as an anthem in lyricism and imagery for Morgan’s perception of ‘hip hop feminism.’ The song galvanizes women to take charge of and vocalize their desires, just as male rappers have capitalized upon in the past. Elliott calls for black women to “flip it and reverse it” on their male counterparts, revealing a double entendre regarding women taking control in the bedroom as well as switching up the traditional impressions of male hip hop artists as the womanizing players, leaving women to act as the inhuman objects of desire. In this sense, Elliott aims to connect with her audience’s interpretation of the “Jezebel’ figure of African American tropes, as her lyricism presents her to conservative listeners as ‘sex-crazed,’ although black men have continuously based their raps off of the ‘conquests’ of women in a similar manner.
Elliott structures her verses to address several aspects of black female sexuality as misinterpreted in past hip hop works. First, Elliott dives into a sexual encounter from a female perspective, painting herself as the dominant in the situation as she commands her partner to “go downtown and eat it like a vulture.” On a deeper level, oral sex is a highly referenced act in hip hop, but quite uncommon to hear from a female artist, who are generally perceived to be performing rather than receiving. However, Elliott is in control of her sexuality, and she plays into the hypermasculinity of hip hop to reflect her normal expectations for pleasure as a two-way street.
In her second verse, Elliott contextualizes the beauty standards of women as they present themselves in sexual circumstances. She familiarizes a female audience with the date-night expectations for women — far more than the male grooming expectations — by reminding her “fly gal[s to] get your nails done, get a pedicure, get your hair did.” Elliott also speaks of the effects of alcohol in seduction, as she entices drunk men by looking like “a Halle Berry poster.” Alcohol is a common theme in ‘strip club rap’ and similar hip hop works based on sexual conquests, and Elliott lays out these common depictions in a new format by revealing a woman’s tricks in seducing men.
Elliott unifies the song’s themes in her final verse, calling for the empowerment of her fellow black women in the face of oppression and expectations by men. Elliott preaches an environment of no judgement when rapping, “Girls, girls, get that cash / If it’s 9 to 5 or shaking your ass / Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thing / Just make sure you ahead of the game.” Black women are often overlooked in their endeavors for success, as they have been historically intended to rely on their husbands to provide for them as they stay home and care for the family. Elliott, however, refuses to serve anyone, as she accuses these male visions of subservient black women of maintaining a ‘slave mentality’ and “pictur[ing] blacks saying ‘Oh yes’a massa’ (No!).”
The accompanying music video to “Work It” is an even more striking illustration of Elliott’s ideals concerning the underrepresented power of women in hip hop culture. The video opens with Elliott covered in bees as she announces “This is a Missy Elliott one-time exclusive,” portraying herself as the ‘Queen Bee,’ a familiar trope in hip hop as it portrays a female as the all-mighty leader of the male ‘bees’ that live to serve her wishes. Power over men is a underlying trait of the music video, as Elliott displays herself as the focal point in a group of male dancers, deeming herself just as talented in both the pillars of break-dance and emceeing as the prominent male figures of hip hop culture.
As Elliott raps the second verse in a beauty salon, the music video uncovers yet another layer of iconography responding to the male’s gaze upon women. Elliott speaks of women’s beauty standards while displaying three stereotypical forms of black women: the strong activist woman baring her ‘realness’ in a fro; the traditional ‘jezebel’ figure getting her “hair did” to please the desires of her man; and Elliott herself, representing a configuration of the ‘jezebel’ and ‘sapphire’ stereotypes along with the hypermasculine tropes of male rappers. Elliott decidedly presents herself decked out in ‘street wear’ as she break-dances and gestures suggestively to the sexual nature of her lyrics, all in all satirically commenting on the state of black male-female sexual relations within the stereotypical constraints of hip hop music.
In the lyricism and imagery of “Work It,” Missy Elliott calls for a more representative discourse of hip hop’s hypersexuality of both men and women based on stereotypes rather than natural desires, aligning herself with the visions of ‘hip hop feminism’ presented by Joan Morgan as a source for black female empowerment in a male-driven genre.
Elliott, Missy. “Work It.” Under Construction, The Goldmind Inc. and Elektra Records, 2002.
Morgan, Joan. “Hip Hop Feminist.” That’s the Joint: The Hip Hop Studies Reader, Second Edition, Routledge, 2012.