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 wayperceptions 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”
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”
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.