Sexism and Racism in Film: Straight Outta Compton

A new film is in development which documents the rise of American rappers N.W.A. The Straight Outta Compton bioepic casting call came under heavy criticism for being racist, as the casting agent was asking for four different “classes” of “girls,” which were organised around skin tone. I argue that the casting call is not simply racist; it is also sexist, and reflecting colonial relations. The focus on lighter skin tone of Black women as an ideal of beauty has a long and profoundly damaging history. This racist ideology continues to the present day and problematically positions darker skin tones as less beautiful, and attaches additional stigma to Black women. As we’ll see in this casting call, even in a film about successful Black men, being a “dark” Black woman is analogous to being “out of shape,” unattractive and poor. There is an interplay between racism and class in this “colour code” which is further implied in the casting call, through the focus on hair. By stipulating that the “beautiful class” of women should have straight hair, and that the less desirable “classes” have weaves, there is a racist, sexist and class exclusion at play that penalises Black women’s femininity.

The most noticeable aspect of the objectification of Black female bodies in rap videos.. is the colour caste system gets reintroduced and affirmed. -bell hooks
The most noticeable aspect of the objectification of Black female bodies in rap videos.. is the colour caste system gets reintroduced and affirmed. -bell hooks

Street art mural of N.W.A.'s Eazy-E. Photo: Christiaan Triebert, CC 2.0 via Flickr
Street art mural of N.W.A.’s Eazy-E. Photo: Christiaan Triebert, CC 2.0 via Flickr

Colorlines reported that the Straight Outta Compton bioepic casting call was racist (see it in full below).* Gawker notes that the casting call was pulled. Late yesterday, the casting agent, Sande Alessi Casting, who are White, issued an apology on their Facebook, for using “offensive language to recruit women.”

Cinema Blend points out that casting calls can be as specific as they like, however, in this case, “they describe what they think poor girls look like.” More to the point, the casting agent associates colour hierarchies with place and poverty. It’s true that casting calls are very specific about the look they want for each role. Yet the issue is what these “looks” are meant to represent (namely racism and class hierarchies) and how they recreate and reaffirm stereotypes.

Colour Coding Black Women’s Bodies

In Cultural Criticism & Transformation, bell hooks talks about how films in general and hip hop music have commodified and colour coded Black women’s bodies according to a “colour caste system.” She argues:

To the extent that rap music or any kind of Black music uses more Black female bodies, the Black female body comes into greater representation solely along the sexual terms… All of these images and representations that have been a function of racist and sexists stereotypes get reproduced in rap videos, but the most noticeable aspect of the objectification of black female bodies in rap videos, for Black women and men is the colour caste system gets reintroduced and affirmed.

It’s quite rare to see darker skinned black females among the groups of women that are seen as sexually viable and desirable in most music videos whether rap or otherwise because in fact, it is the light skinned, preferably long haired, preferably straightened haired female who becomes once again reinscribed as the desirable object, this again is one of the tragic dimensions right now of race in America because more than ever before colour caste systems are being overtly affirmed as through, you know, we didn’t change this, we didn’t fight against it, so now all we can do is embrace it and live out the consequences of it.

In a film about successful Black male rappers, this Straight Outta Compton casting call not only reproduces the colour code ideology endemic in rap videos, it makes the gendered colour coding explicit.

On the one hand, we have “A Girls” who are the “hottest of the hot.” They can be any race, but they must have “real hair.” “B Girls” are “fine” (read: “hot”) but they must be “light skinned” (“Beyoncé” types) and they must have “long natural hair.” Both types emphasise “great” and “small” bodies.

Screen grab via Gawker
Screen grab via Gawker

On the other hand, we see that “C Girls” and “D Girls” are solely African American. The former with “a weave” but they must have “medium to light” skin, while the latter are “medium to dark” skinned, “poor” and “not in good shape.” Note that the hierarchy infantilises women (as many movies do). These parts are not made for women; they are for “girls,” even though they are aged 18-30 years. The added dimension here is age; to be specific, the associations between youthful bodies and race. This typology links body type, skin colour, age and hair with class. A and B “Girls” are lighter skinned and thin, and therefore attractive and “classy looking.” C and D girls are darker, not thin and not “natural.” These bodies are signified as the embodiment of poverty.

The focus on natural hair, in itself, is a racial code, meant to exclude a specific kind of Black woman, who is somehow “less hot” because her hair is not “natural.” It would be interesting to see if the agent is willing to cast a “hot” Black woman if she had curly or “kinky” hair. Many scholars note how Black hair is about identity politics and as such goes to the heart of racism. Cheryl Thompson argues, “hair is an Achilles’ heal for many black women… Black hair is not just about hair; it is about identity.”

Sexism in Film Casting

The awful reality is that this casting call is reflective of how many films are cast. Victoria Frings noted in Salon that casting calls for women parts emphasise looks:

Smoking hot, beautiful, cool, personable, attractive, fit, stylish, siren, curvaceous, sexy, alluring and flawless.

While for men it’s a mixture of physical and personality traits:

filthy rich, confident, wealthy, businessman, authoritative, debonair, corporate giant, brash, corn-fed, pudgy, adorable, serial killer, funny, smart, famous, passionate and handsome.

Male characters get to be a mixture of professions and ambitions; women are primarily window dressing.

For women of colour, the physical focus is even narrower and imbued with racist ideology. Andrea Lewis’ webseries “Black Actress” explored how Black women are not shown to be fully human in TV and movies. The Straight Outta Compton casting call dutifully fulfils this dehumanisation of Black women: they are simply bodies reduced to two archetypes: “hot” (conforming to dominant White, Western ideals of beauty); and “out of shape” and poor – in other words, “not hot” (conforming to dominant White, Western ideals of what it means to be Black).

"Nina Simone 1965" by Kroon, Ron / Anefo, Dutch National Archives, The Hague, CC. 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Nina Simone 1965” by Kroon, Ron / Anefo, Dutch National Archives, The Hague, CC. 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The casting of Afro-Dominican-American Zoe Saldana in the Nina Simone bioepic raised similar themes of race and other sociological issues about Black women’s bodies. Simone was expressly political about the insidious bond between patriarchy and colonialism, and how this impacted on her lived experiences as a Black woman, as well as her opportunities as a performer. Simone’s daughter has specifically objected to Saldana’s casting because of the actress’ lighter skin colour and features, which are less like her mother’s, and were used to put her mother’s beauty down even at the height of her fame.

Normalising Racism & Sexism

I’ve previously shown how ideas about what is desirable are shaped by social forces, such as socio-economics (this is known as “sexual capital” in sociology). I’ve also noted that narratives of beauty are driven by a sexist, capitalist ideology, which normalises the idea that looks-based discrimination is “natural.” In this N.W.A. bioepic, we see the same taken-for-granted assumptions of beauty, which mask historical relations, class and other social forces. The colour-coding mentality of film casting illustrates that even when movies document the successful rise of Black individuals, Black women occupy a narrow space that validates and perpetuates racism and sexism.

“I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” ― bell hooks
“I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” ― bell hooks

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bell hooks on rap music and colour coding of Black women’s beauty

Nina Simone on standing up for Black Beauty


* I first published this post as a comment on Colorlines. I’ve added a couple of references, a quote and updated on the casting agent’s apology.