Straight up. I’m a Queen Latifah fan. I have been since her debut album “All Hail the Queen,” standing proudly donned in red, black and green as if to announce a new reign in hip-hop. When she dropped her third album “Black Reign” with the anthem “U.N.I.T.Y” in honor and defense of African-American women, I was hooked. I got my fan card, and I’ve kept it up-to-date ever since. So, as you read this, please keep in mind that I’m talking about the entertainment personality “Queen Latifah,” not the “regular person” named Dana Elaine Owens.

Queen Latifah matters to me as a pastor as well. Why? Because she shapes in a powerful way perceptions about African-American women — women like the daughters, sisters, and wives in my church.

What Makes Latifah Exceptional

The remarkable thing about Queen Latifah has been her mix of staying power, mainstream appeal, and creative diversity. She’s moved from hip hop, to soul and jazz vocalist, to television sit com, to film, comedy, talk show host, and fashion model. Her industry success cannot be matched by any other African-American female starting whose career began in hip-hop. And she keeps rolling. With Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe, SAG and Emmy nominations to her credit, Latifah is a bona fide A-list superstar.

Along the way, Latifah has also portrayed a range of Black female images. She starts as the young urban, slightly angry hip hop femcee. But before long she plays a young, single professional entrepreneur in the television sit com Living Single. And as her film career develops, her depictions diversify as she takes on more fun-loving, girl next door comedy roles. That ‘hood streak remains in much milder forms, but she clearly breaks out of any typecasting. She even does voiceover for “Ellie” in three Ice Age movies.

Through it all one thing remains constant: Latifah presents to the world a physically beautiful Black woman. She dons the cover of numerous magazines, always radiant and glamorous. She almost single-handedly casts down the notion that “beautiful” equals “skinny” and reinstates voluptuousness. For crying out loud, she’s a Cover Girl spokeswoman with her own line of cosmetics for African-American women! If you need a definition of physical beauty, think Latifah.

“Through it all one thing remains constant…”

The Complexity That Belies the Beauty

Despite Latifah’s obvious beauty and marketing success, she presents us with a complex—often ambiguous—picture of womanhood.. We might think of her as presenting several tropes and images in tension with one another. These are, of course, stereotypes. And like all stereotypes, they break down at certain points. But they do give us a way of categorizing what we’re viewing when we see African-American women pictured in popular media.

Let me suggest three complicated and problematic images we might see in Latifah’s filmography.

The Asexual Mammy. Most of us hate the stereotype of African-American women called “Mammy.” I almost left this section out of the post because of my own strong dislike of the stereotype. Mammy was the female plantation slave who had “aged out” of sexuality. She maintained a motherly disposition toward young white children, but her femininity was limited to her domesticity. Though she was actually a hero in many respects, like the much-misunderstood and maligned “Uncle Tom,” the “Mammy” stereotype has been used with devastating effect on the image of African-American women of certain sizes, hues, and ages.

Many of Latifah’s on-screen roles have a similar asexual character. We know she’s a woman. That’s inescapable. But she’s often late in expressing any romantic interest, as with the late-in-series romance with “Scooter” on Living Single. The women around her in that series were all “Sapphires,” stereotypical portrayals of sexually insatiable and sassy Black women. By contrast, Latifah’s role hardly registered a sexual response. That’s largely the case in her lead role in The Last Holiday, where she plays a rather lonely but faithful department store employee largely unnoticed and non-descript until a late romance blossoms with leading man L.L. Cool J. It’s a deep and painful irony that a woman so physically lovely could in any respect escape the romantic attention of others.

I suspect this is another art-imitating-life situation for some middle-age African-American women who become grandmothers before their time. Moreover, some middle-aged African-American women find themselves pushed into an asexual Mammy-like status by a culture gone mad in its prizing of youth. Our churches are filled with gorgeous, committed, capable and intelligent sisters who aren’t seen by men who train their eyes only on the young.

The Hip Hop Fashionista. Latifah’s creative roles also play around with feminine ideals in another way. She’s one part tomboy and another part runway model. She expands the realm of feminine to include both sweat pants and A-lines. She can knuckle up and she can dress to kill. Her roles beg us to ask, “Is ‘feminine’ a pair of J’s or a pair of Jimmy Choo’s?” For Latifah “feminine” is both, “just wright,” love and basketball.

I think this expansion of the feminine is powerful and on the whole positive. But when you combine this range of feminine images with the above-mentioned asexuality you arrive at a kind of androgyny, or a kind of masculinizing of womanhood. Something powerfully feminine seems to be lost. It’s possible to combine a tomboy quality with obvious attractiveness to men. Think Jada Pinkett Smith or Dominican actress Zoe Saldana.

Again, Latifah’s portrayals have their real-life counterparts. For example, for some time we’ve been witnessing an increasing number of girls who dress and act like boys, including crude and sexual language that make grown Black folks blush. Latifah’s screen roles aren’t to blame for this development, but the popularity and success she’s garnered playing these roles certainly don’t help with clarifying femininity for a teenage population bombarded with confused messages.

The New Black “Stud.” In the world of sexual and racial stereotypes, the term “stud” described African-American men used to impregnate women in order to perpetuate slavery. According to the stereotype, the “stud” was virile, powerful, bestial.

In our day of sexual confusion, the term “stud” no longer solely applies to African-American men. It also applies to the world of lesbian sexuality. Interestingly, Latifah’s break-out film role was the 1996 movie Set It Off, in which Latifah plays a “stud” lesbian with criminal and violent tendencies. The film role revived and strengthened long-standing rumors regarding her sexuality. Those speculations continue to dog her today, though she adamantly refuses to discuss her private sexual life.

I applaud Latifah for keeping private the parts of her life that should be kept private. That should be the case whether heterosexual or homosexual. Such protection of privacy is a form of modesty really.

Nevertheless, she does publicly endorse the homosexual orientation and lifestyle of others. At the 2014 Grammys, in tandem with Macklemore’s performance of his pro-gay anthem “Same Love,” Latifah officiated the marriage of thirty-three heterosexual and homosexual couples. In doing so, she doesn’t leave us guessing about her equating hetero- and homosexual relationships. The private Dana Owens keeps her sexuality to herself; the publicly asexual Latifah endorses the sexual preferences of all. What we have, in effect, is the endorsement of homosexuality as good and beautiful by an entertainment personality that remains sexually aloof and ambiguous.

Yet in her public endorsements and much of her filmography, Latifah leaves out a clear and urgent endorsement of heterosexuality and marriage. That’s an immense tragedy in light of the current crisis in African-American marriage and family formation.

Macklemore performing “Same Love”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=MR6s2G7f6Oc

Enter Jackie Hill

The sexual ambiguity created by the range  of Latifah’s roles (not necessarily any single role) leaves a lot to be desired. While she consistently holds up the beauty of African-American women and even redefines it in some measure, she also consistently confuses sexual identities and categories for many of her viewers. She does it with a wonderful attitude and splendid smile, making the problematic images all the more digestible.

That’s why we need more Jackie Hills.

Jackie Hill is a young spoken word and hip hop artist. More importantly, she is a Christian. Following molestation as a child, she entered a season of sexual confusion followed by a life as a practicing lesbian. One of her more popular poems is “My Life as a Stud,” in which she recounts how she entered the life and how Christ saved her from it.

While Macklemore and Latifah hurriedly assure us that some “can’t change even if they wanted to,” Hill reminds us that “wanting to” is actually the crux of the issue. There is a Savior who can change anyone, who is Lord of sexuality just as He is Lord of the universe. His love and grace are sufficient for every sinner, the lesbian or homosexual simply being one of the many of us sinners. Latifah and Macklemore seek to normalize a view of sexuality and femininity that the Bible calls “unnatural” (Rom. 1). Hill demonstrates that what can feel so powerful and “natural,” even from the youngest ages, can in fact be changed. It’s Jackie Hill who offers hope of freedom. Her response needs to be heard.

Jackie Hill performing “My Life As a Stud”

Conclusion

The Black Church has often dropped the ball when addressing this most difficult of issues. We need to confess it when we do. But we need to keep leaning into this issue because the very notion of beauty and sexuality are being defined by a culture replete with Cover Girls portraying womanhood in confusing ways. All of our mothers, sisters and daughters are affected. They join us in our worship and they live in great need of the Lord’s grace. It’s the task of pastors, elders and the entire church family to see to it that they receive this grace in our congregations. We must preach the gospel in such a way that all people hear the free offer of salvation from our merciful God. We must preach the Bible’s vision of gender roles in a way that welcomes and celebrates feminine diversity. We must do the careful disciple-making work that helps young women through periods of sexual confusion, questioning and experimentation. And in the meantime, we Christians will have to learn how to be discerning about the images our favorite entertainers as we offer support and critique. I want the Queen Latifahs of the world to succeed and be saved. The church and the world actually need more Jackie Hills.

The Front Porch
Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Receive the latest updates from The Front Porch

Invalid email address
Stay up to date with us.

10 Comments

  • Avatar Laura says:

    Brother, I was saying “yes!” so many times throughout this article! I am beyond excited about this whole series.

    I have a question about one section. You said, “His love and grace are sufficient for every sinner, the lesbian or homosexual simply being one of the many of us sinners.” Of course homosexuals are sinners, because they’re humans, but I hope I’m reading you wrong here, because it’s sounding like you’re saying that same-sex orientation/temptation is itself sinful (beyond the sense of “being a result of the fall”), and that if a same-sex attracted Christian “wants it” enough, God will change his or her orientation. I don’t believe the Scriptures teach that temptation to sin is itself sin, nor that either heterosexuality OR marriage is the telos of human sexuality, but rather that joyous chastity (since chastity can be practiced at any stage of life and with any orientation) is our duty before God and our delight. I’m hoping that I’ve just misunderstood you, and I’d love if you could clarify that for me.

    Again, thanks so much for this series. It’s a blessing to me as someone who longs and prays for the growth of gospel truth and godly womanhood in every church, culture, and neighborhood.

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for joining us on the porch and saying “yes!” We can hear you on the porch 🙂

    Great question. Actually I labored over that sentence as much as any in the post. Mainly because I don’t like to refer to people with same sex attraction in a way that absolutizes the desire. But in the end, my alternative sentences were too clunky. So I’m grateful for the clarifying question. Let me try to say what I believe the Bible teaches in a less succinct series of statements.

    1. Yes, all human beings are both made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) and fallen sinners (Gen. 3). This is equally true of persons whether they are hetero- or homosexual in their desires.

    2. What we call homosexuality or lesbianism is one among many sins or types of sinners the Bible lists as deserving judgment (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

    3. Moreover, same sex desires and actions are described as “unnatural” (Rom. 1:26-27). These desires, along with heterosexual desire for someone not your spouse, belongs to the category of “sinful desires” (Rom. 1:24) and “shameful lusts” (Rom. 1:26). So, based on Romans 1, we would have to say that homosexual desire is “sinful” in the way that looking on another man’s wife or hating someone is sinful (Matt. 5).

    4. I am not suggesting that God will deliver all people with same sex desires from those desires. I know He can. But for His own inscrutable purposes, He may not and such a person (if a Christian) may have to defeat those desires for the rest of their lives. The culture thinks that’s slavery and self-denial. It is self-denial, but it’s not slavery; it’s discipleship, the same cost heterosexual Christians should also bear.

    5. The Christian who chooses celibacy over same sex desires actually demonstrates something about the sufficiency and satisfaction of Jesus Christ and about the limitations of sex (which the culture says is all important) that many heterosexual unmarried and married persons need to learn from.

    Those are the kinds of things in the background of that sentence. Hope that helps, even though we agree at some points and perhaps disagree at others.

    Grace to you,
    Thabiti

  • Avatar Sharon K says:

    Hello Pastor Anyabwile
    I’ve have been reading quite a lot of the articles on the front porch and they are really engaging and challenging the way I look at issues, so thank you for this platform.

    My question is simple and related to something you mentioned in the article, asexuality and femininity. It has been my experience in the church that if a woman does not display a certain type of femininity, there must be something wrong with her.
    I know that we have been created differently and and that even with in the definition of femininity there is a broad spectrum of definitions, but for those who lie outside the mainstream “description/expectation” of what a woman should look or act like , maybe even displaying traits that are considered masculine, they often find themselves been looked down on….(my observation)

    I would think that whether a woman was ultra feminine(whatever that means), or like Latifah asexual surely it wouldn’t matter as both reflect the glory of God? I might be wrong? what is your take on this?

  • Avatar deb w says:

    Sharon, I had a similar question as well, and perhaps may be even more confused on this than you are. While I draw the line at Latifah’s masculine/stud like portrayals, I felt that the Mammy section was unnecessarily harsh. In fact, I have found some of Latifah’s roles where she remained above the typical Hollywood obsession with women as “romantic interests” to be quite refreshing. Women need role models who are not defined by whether they are able to attract the romantic interests of every man they come in contact with.

  • Avatar Laura says:

    Thank you for your reply, brother! Very helpful.

    I would be curious to know your response to a different perspective from Melinda Selmys, a sister in Christ who has journeyed from being a secular lesbian to a married Catholic. (It’s not unique to her; I’ve been coming across this perspective a lot lately.) She looks at the story of Joseph Sciambra (former gay p0rn actor, prostitute, and satanist), and seems to imply a connection between the description of unnatural desire in Romans 1 and increasingly-perverse sex addiction rather than orientation per se. This reading makes a lot of sense to me given the language in Romans 1 of “giving up” opposite-sex acts for “unnatural” same-sex perversions — a pattern that wouldn’t seem to jive with the journey of most same-sex attracted folks. Any thoughts on that, if you have the time?

    Thanks again. Looking forward to the next installment!

  • Avatar george canady says:

    Ok, so I have waited and prayed, and waited for my wife to comment here. She did feel lead to comment about this subject on the porch while the women were up there. But not here.
    I am out of my league here really to say anything about this, only share my encouragements I give to my wife from time to time. You see she is a knock out in a way that most would recognize the models on covers of fashion magazines to be. What she is doing with me is something of a mystery and a thing that only God knows. I see in my mirror a mix of George Castanza and Homer Simpson. What happened!? When we go out on our date on Friday nights, I’m sure people think she is on a mercy date. I know her love for me is God’s love through her.
    Unfortunately for her though, early in her life, she used her gift as a default and did not do the deep work of character development. She wound up loosing everything she gain by using that gift selfishly. And now, in here fifty’s, she is looking at a day when none of the gift of European beauty will matter at all. She still looks very young for her age and still can default if she chooses, and sometimes she dose, But, I am encouraged to see her dig deep in scripture now in an attempt to spend the rest of her life developing her God given, unique Christ centered, character. I see and can only imagine how hard that labor gets sometimes.
    God began to take my own (unearned, culture pleasing) beauty and status 15 years ago. I have a new (Jesus earned) beauty that even my beautiful wife can see, as the forgiveness of Christ is the center of our home. I am more sure now I will love my wife always because of another’s beauty in her.
    There is something still in me to have good hair and look like that someone else or be as well preserved as my wife, but I confess that and move on with this stuff on my head that looks like a bad toupee praying that God will allow someone to take me seriously so I can participate today in the declaration of the beauty of the good news.
    P.S. I have her permission to share, and personally, I think her loss will turn out to be her and others gain.

  • Avatar Deryk Hayes says:

    Man Thabiti I’m starting to grow a great appreciation for you. I was somewhat bothered by the whole elephant room situation (can’t really put my finger on why though, please forgive me) but you are becoming a mentor by far. I look forward to hearing you at Together For The Gospel this year (my first time and I’m really excited). Three questions if I may; 1. What advice do you give young(er) preachers like myself who desire the pastoral office and work 2. What African American preachers are you listening to and would recommend 3. What’s your favorite books that you have written (those that helped you most while writing)

  • Avatar LouG says:

    I agree with the strangeness of the Mammy comments, as well as the exhortation toward young women trying to present themselves as romantic interests. We are constantly having to deal with this as a problem and to help the young women to adorn themselves with Godliness, and putting off the worldly garb and romantic looks.

The Front Porch

Conversations about biblical
faithfulness in African-American
churches and beyond