ReelGirl Star of the Week: Willow Smith

Girls and hair, girls and hair, girls and hair! Toys marketed to girls– more often than not– involve hair. Very long hair. Barbie, of course, is well known for her waxy blond locks. Strawberry Shortcake and her friends Plum Puddin’ and Lemon Meringue wear stiff rectangles of hair that stretch to their knees. Even toys that don’t make you think about hair, say horses, get transformed into “My Little Pony” with girls shown on TV brushing their animals’ flowing manes and curly, pink tails.

Rapunzel Braiding Friends hair Braider

The latest addition to the plethora of hair based toys is Disney’s Rapunzel doll, sorry, I mean “The Braiding Friends Hair Braider” that “lets your little lady easily braid the Rapunzel doll’s hair.” This toy goes with the new Rapunzel movie, now called “Tangled” because the guys who run Hollywood decided they didn’t want to award a female character the title role. The abundance of toys marketed to girls and focused on grooming relentlessly reinforces that what’s important for them isn’t what their bodies can do, but how they appear.

This is why I was excited to see that Willow Smith, the nine year old daughter of actors Jada and Will, has a new video out called “I Whip my Hair.”

Yes, it’s abut hair. But sometimes the most effective way to create change is to make use of our current obsessions in order to alter them. This video is about what hair can do, not how it looks; which of course translates to what’s important is what Willow can do, not how she looks. Willow dances around her school, swinging her hair, obviously enjoying not only her singing and dancing skills, but the way it feels to move her body. She is also enjoying being looked at, not in an objectified way but she is celebrating being a dancer and singer and yes, being a star. In the video, she is admired by both boys and girls watching her– no small accomplishment for a girl when men too often decide it’s bad marketing to put her in the title of a movie.

Watching Willow jump around her school, past the rows of lockers is reminiscent of the well known Briney Spears catholic school girl video where she’s got her shirt tied up, baring her midriff in the cliched sexual fantasy. Ten years later, I feel like we’ve made some progress. Willow isn’t wearing sexualized clothing. She is wearing some make up– including what looks like white mascara and rhinestones– but she looks like she’s having fun with it, playing with costumes, not made up in a serious, creepy Jon Benet Ramsey way.

Willow Smith

Not only that, but Willow is a girl of color enjoying her hair– sadly, a radical statement. Even girls restricted to decorating their locks on TV usually aren’t wearing cornrows. Chris Rock did an excellent documentary called “Good Hair” about black women, girls and the ingrained, internalized racism, passed on from moms to daughters. Rock’s film is funny and analytical, but Willow uses a different tactic. By putting out a video that gets over 7 million YouTube hits in one week, instead of complaining about our culture, she changes it.’s Lori Adelman comments reports on the video:

What many may not know is the meaning behind “Whip My Hair”. In a recent interview with MTV, Willow Smith explained the inspiration behind her lyrics:

” ‘Whip My Hair’ means don’t be afraid to be yourself, and don’t let anybody tell you that that’s wrong. Because the best thing is you.”…Willow has a message for you, too, buried in the chorus between exuberant if repetitive directives to “whip your hair back and forth”: “Don’t let haters keep me off my grind/ keep my head up/ I know I’ll be fine.”

Willow Smith is ReelGirl’s Star of the Week.

Check out her video here.

I Prefer My Misogyny Straight Up

For those of you who think I am pro-censorship, I’m posting something I wrote years ago about Eminem. I wrote this when I was talk radio producer for KGO and the male radio hosts were upset about Eminem’s lyrics.

I am more into parent education than I was when I wrote this. Though then and now, I didn’t think Eminem was good for little kids. What annoyed me so much back then is the same thing as today– protestors who normally don’t care much about sexism or women focusing on the wrong issue, the way Eminem described inequality instead of actual inequality. I remain passionately committed to helping women get into a position where they can tell their own stories.

This op-ed is from I hope its not illegal to post the whole thing but I can’t believe they’d really care. Here it is.

‘I prefer my misogyny straight up’
Wednesday, July 12, 2000

I LIKE hip-hop music. I know I’m not supposed to because so many of the songs have horrifyingly violent, sexist or homophobic lyrics.

Hip-hop is also the most innovative thing to happen to music in a long time.

When you compare hip-hop to its biggest rival for domination of the music charts – the corporate-created Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, and pop-princess clones Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera – rappers/producers like Dr. Dre and Method Man are infinitely more talented. Hip-hop is captivating precisely because it tells a story, overlaying lyrics on top of familiar backbeats, creating songs that are at once new and familiar.

The story hip-hop tells may be disturbing or degrading, but that’s no reason to shun it. As art has always done, hip-hop describes our times, exposing a sometimes ugly world – of drugs, sexism, poverty and violence – that middle-class America may prefer to hide away.

In the ’60s, Bob Dylan enraged those who upheld the status quo. Today, we have a whole new slew of musical poets.

Just like they did with Dylan, the older generation asks, “How can you listen to this awful music? There’s no melody! And those lyrics!”

Baby boomers protest that THEIR songs were about peace and love, while hip-hop celebrates killing and humiliates women.

But surely rock ‘n’ roll stars have never been known for their kindness to women. The Rolling Stones cranked out hits like “Under My Thumb,” “Brown Sugar” and “Little T & A,” sneered through lyrics like “You make a dead man come” and glorified violence in songs like “Midnight Rambler.”

Sexual violence in lyrics wasn’t limited to bad boy bands either. Old peaceniks Jerry Garcia and Neil Young sang songs like “Down by the River” about murdering a lover. Ever since Elvis shook his pelvis, music has shocked, and the older generation just didn’t get it.

Critics charge that hip-hop crosses a line, most recently fingering rap sensation Eminem, who sings about raping his mother and slicing up his wife in front of their daughter.

But Freudians would tell you Eminem’s mother rage and sexual fantasies are pure id, the uncensored subconscious struggling for self expression. The views of Sigmund Freud, of course, are infamous for his distorted views on women, though that doesn’t stop us from studying him in our best educational institutions. Nor should it.

Hip-hop may be more shocking and graphic than your run-of-the-mill shapers of Western thought, but I prefer my misogyny straight up. Movies like “Pretty Woman,” in which Julia Roberts plays a prostitute with a heart of gold, may be prettier packaging, but if you think women are “hos,” just tell me so.

Tales of sex and violence aren’t limited to male artists. “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks and Macy Gray’s “I Committed Murder,” two recent hits by women artists, both detail violent killings with unrestrained glee. Angry young women muttering obscenities include Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love and Ani DiFranco.

Nor is disdain for men by women artists a new fad. Sylvia Plath, the late poet and darling of ’60s English lit majors, famously compared male genitalia to turkey necks and gizzards. Never one to shy away from sex or violence, she once said she “eats men like air.”

The difference, of course, is when women say these things, it really is just art. Because men are the guys with power, their expressions of domination, violence and sexual exploitation contribute to a culture where women really are forced into limited categories of queens or hos, where masculinity is defined by how many babes you score, and where women often are left powerless and exploited.

But sanitizing music is just shooting the messenger; it can’t transform a sexist culture. Warning stickers on CD covers are no protection from the deeply entrenched social realities that hip-hop pushes right in your face.

Women won’t feel threatened by lyrics when they overcome real inequities and get real power. Women will then be too busy making art and making deals to waste time wondering if they should side with the radical right, clamoring to keep obscenities out of Wal-Mart.