Thong

The three remixes and music videos of Sisqo’s “Thong Song” have reinforced the controversy and assumptions surrounding the thong as a sexual object. What the thong makes visible – the butt – is intertwined with the historic hypersexualizing of black female bodies, and how it is framed as oppositional to the purity of white female bodies and sexuality. Informed primarily by black feminist thought, I analyze the three “Thong Song” remixes to highlight the ways in which black women’s bodies have been oversexualized, attempts by black women to regain agency over the thong, and the white-led pushback against the thong and its connotations.

 “Let Me See That Thong”: The Black Female Body and Racialized Female Sexuality

Since its first use as a costume for nude burlesque dancers in 1939, the thong has been conceived as an object for which its significance centers around the visibility of female sexuality and the female body. This is enhanced and enabled through the thong’s distinguishable shape, with thin straps and a string rear that leaves the buttocks revealed. Although the female body is imbued with sexuality, an exposed butt and its association with genitalia assumes a connection between the wearer’s promiscuous clothing and a certain kind of aggressive sexual female behavior. Moreover, the butt is an undeniably racialized body part, and the sexualization of the thong is intertwined with the historic hypersexualization of black and Latinx female bodies. The issues and assumptions entangled in the thong have been reinforced through various cultural moments. The three remixes of SisQó’s “Thong Song” have been especially influential in scripting how people interpret the thong. Informed primarily by black feminist theory, I analyze the “Thong Song” music videos to highlight how the thong has come to both represent and inform perceptions surrounding the hypersexualization of black female bodies, and its historic oppositional relationship to constructions of “pure” white female sexuality and feminism.

 Intro to the “Thong Song”: Hypersexualization of Black Women’s Bodies

In his 2000 single “Thong Song, R&B singer SisQó capitalized on the thong’s history and associations. The central message of the song is a hook that implores “All night long / Let me see that thong!”[1] In the song’s music video released in the same year, the relationship between the thong and sex is reinforced.  The video opens on SisQó in a house in Miami, where his young daughter approaches him and holds up a lacy red thong, asking “Daddy, what’s this?” SisQó freezes, dumbfounded and assumedly looking for an appropriate response – while the less palatable “truth” is implied to be an explanation of sex. In a bizarre transition, the video pans to buses filled with women, with intermittent scenes of SisQó grinning while twirling the thong around his hand, as a voiceover narrates, “This thing right here, is letting all the ladies know what guys talk about.”[2] This line conceives the thong as something “guys talk about,” placing the thong in an explicit male gaze that centers sex and the female body as subjects of male conversation and scrutiny. Through all of these explicit connections between the thong and sex, the thong becomes an extended metaphor for explaining sex, while its wearers simultaneously become sexual objects.

The thong is linked most directly to the display of the buttocks, a heavily racialized body part associated primarily with black and Latinx female bodies. The music video plays on this racialization, heavily featuring a range of light and dark-skin women of color in thong bikinis. The “video vixen” is a term used to describe female models that star in rap music videos – voiceless, sexualized, and mostly women-of-color whose bodies are presented as detached from an identity through a strong male gaze.[3] The “video vixen” plays on the Jezebel trope that black women are often pinholed into – a promiscuous black woman with an insatiable appetite for sex, with characteristics such as big butts, sagging breasts or flagrant nudity.[4] This hypersexualization of black women’s bodies has always been framed as oppositional to white women’s sexual purity.[5] This allows a “voyeuristic consumption” of black women’s bodies that is embedded in the colonial exploitation of African women, with Sarah Baartman as a notable example.[6] Baartman was a South African Khoikoi woman taken to London in 1810 and exhibited in freak shows across Europe due to her prominent buttocks, seen as an indication of heightened sexuality.[7] When she died her body was given to Georges Cuvier, a renowned paleontologist, who made a plaster cast of her body and displayed her genitals and brains in the Museum of Man in Paris until 1976.[8] This “Cuvier-esque” philosophy of viewing black women’s bodies as specimens persists in hip-hop music videos today through the video vixen.[9] Similarly to how Baartman was viewed in segments, with an emphasis on the butt, the video vixens in Sisqo’s video are depicted onscreen through close-ups on their body parts.[10] As the thong remains inextricably tied to the buttocks, visual depictions of it are racialized through the Jezebel caricature and the history of black women’s sexuality and bodies as spectacles for white audiences.

Additionally, the “Thong Song”’ music video’s Miami setting plays on the spring break trope of sexual behavior without consequence, while also adding Latin exoticism. This exoticization aids the sexualization of the women of color in the music video. Like black women, Latinx women and their desirability is often “othered” against dominant constructions of Whiteness and femininity, which is constructed instead as restrained and demure.[11] The racialized butt is prominent in the objectification of Latinx women as well. For example, according to Latinx Studies scholars Guzman and Angharad, photographs of Jennifer Lopez are always centered around her butt – emphasizing its irregularity and divergence from white bodies, but also its sexual appeal.[12] With the protruding butt as this symbol of heightened sexuality and enhanced by the exoticized Miami setting, Sisqo’s music video and the casting of the video vixens emphasizes the link between “exotic” women of color and enhanced sensuality.

Foxy Brown Remix: Black Women Reclaim the Thong, and their Sexuality(?)

Later in 2000, SisQó released a remix of the song and an alternate music video featuring the black female rapper Foxy Brown. Perhaps in an attempt to give the women in the video more agency, Brown starts off the song by saying “This thing right here/ Is the official ladies anthem.[13] The song continues to say, “Ladies, I want you to put your drinks down / Pull your thongs up / And grab the thuggest n**** on the dance floor.” Despite the lyrics that compel women to take more control over their sexuality, the music video follows a similar formula to the original, with SisQó as an audience member at a bikini fashion show, ogling barely clothed women of color. This presents a large gap in Foxy Brown’s lyrics, which represent Black women attempting to leverage their own colonial-constructed hypersexuality. This ties into Miller-Young’s scholarship that theorizes black women’s sexual labor in pornography, a space in which black women “play into” ideas surrounding their sexuality. According to Miller-Young, “the black female body gains attention only when it is synonymous with accessibility, availability, when it is sexually deviant.”[14] Despite Foxy Brown’s attempts to take control over the thong, the other women in the music video give into the sexually deviant trope in order to retain purpose and attention.

This tension in Sisqo’s second music video between wanting to portray liberated female sexuality, but still falling into an exploitative framework is explored in Miller Young’s A Taste for Brown Sugar. The manuscript explores black female pornography through a narrative centered on renowned black porn star Jeannie Pepper. As a black woman in the sex film industry, Pepper describes the struggle of wanting to embody “emancipated black female sexuality” without exacerbating harmful stereotypes.[15] In many of her films, Pepper embodies the erotic and exotic Jezebel, often playing characters such as a sex-obsessed African voodoo woman. However, she claims to deal with this type-casting through reconstructing the role mentally in a self-empowering way. She tries to play the parts with joy and attractiveness, thereby exercising “erotic sovereignty” by “reterritorializing the always already exploitable black female body.”[16] This idea of reterritorialization is powerful, as it seeks to reclaim stereotypes surrounding the black female body and sexuality. In many ways, Foxy Brown tries to leverage this same power when she redesignates the “Thong Song” as the “official ladies anthem” rather than the male-centered “what guys talk about.”

Rapper and singer Nicki Minaj is another example of an artist that successfully reterritorializes the black female body in a self-empowering way, in contrast to Foxy Brown. Her self-hypersexualization is most evident in her 2014 music video for “Anaconda.” The song’s refrain is similar to the “Thong Song,” as visibility is central with the repeated “Oh my god, look at her butt!”.[17] This hook acts in a similar way to Foxy Brown’s claim that the “Thong Song” is the “official ladies anthem.” The song’s hook is a sample of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” which, like the “Thong Song,” is all about the male gaze and centers on calling for men to look at a woman’s butt. However, in Minaj’s sample, her own expressed sexual confidence and the almost-exclusive presence of women in the music video allows her bodily autonomy – calling everyone instead to look at her butt. Wearing a thong in some scenes to accentuate her frame’s “hyper black[ness]”, Minaj’s sexual dancing in minimal clothing in an exotic jungle environment evokes the Jezebel image and the European male gaze on Sarah Baartman.[18] Moreover, Nicki Minaj’s appeal is very centered around her butt as a symbol of heightened sexuality,” as Sarah Baartman’s was. However, dissimilarly, Minaj is both the rapper and the video vixen, as the video features almost solely women and Minaj is clearly in control of her own representation and sexuality.[19] Foxy Brown also plays this dual role of rapper and video vixen in the SisQó music video, which could work to change the perception of the thong to something that confident, powerful women could wear as a tool for empowerment. Unfortunately, Foxy Brown’s presence in the alternate SisQó music video does not evoke this same sense of control, as she is presented as an accessory to SisQó and the other video vixens remain voiceless sexual bodies.

In the “Thong Song” music video, Foxy Brown explicitly encourages other women to engage with their own sexuality, with the lines “Ladies, I want you to put your drinks down / Pull your thongs up / And grab the thuggest n**** on the dance floor.” However, this call is fraught, as Miller-Young discusses, because when black women do engage in the hypersexual stereotype, they are seen to be furthering tropes of an entire racial group.[21] Meanwhile, white women’s sexual confidence is never generalized as a reflection of the entire demographic. This is especially interesting when it comes to the woman that ushered thongs into the societal psyche – Monica Lewinsky. The Starr Report, the 1998 investigative report into President Bill Clinton, details how then-22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky initiated the first sexual encounter with President Clinton by “lift[ing] her jacket and show[ing] him the straps of her thong underwear.”[22] In the media coverage of the affair, Lewinsky and her thong became synonymous with aggressive, promiscuous female sensuality. One report characterized Lewinsky as the “office Jezebel,” placing a white woman within a racialized stereotype and equating her supposed promiscuity to the hypersexuality of black women.[23] While media outlets slammed Lewinsky daily, her actions did not have repercussions for white women and instead deflected by constructing her licentiousness as almost “black.”

The alternate version of SisQó’s “Thong Song” with the Foxy Brown verse does not give women of color more agency over their thong and sexuality because the video is still presented through a distinct male gaze. However, Pepper and Minaj display ways in which black women “reclaim and reverse” the dominant image of black female sexuality and show how black women can regain that control, although it can still be interpreted as furthering harmful stereotypes.[24]

2017 Version: White Women Claim and then Discard the Thong

In 2017, SisQó appeared as a feature in a new track and music video for the “Thong Song” – described as a “shinier,” “bouncier” remix composed by the Norwegian trio JCY.[25] The music video follows a similar formula to the previous two versions featuring bikini-clad women on a beach. However, there is one noticeable disparity: the video vixens are almost entirely white or light skinned ethnically ambiguous women.[26] While the portrayal of black and other women of color solely as hypersexual bodies in past videos was not positive, the sanitization denies black women ownership of their black body by allowing white women to coopt those features. This whitening of black women is echoed in the representations of black bodies in fashion magazines, which black feminist scholar bell hooks explores in Black Looks. The Black models featured most in magazines are often bi-racial or fair-skinned with blonde or light-brown hair, because they “must resemble as closely as possible their white counterparts so as not to detract from the racialized subtext.”[27]  However, contrarily to this, hooks critiques that “when flesh is exposed in an attire that is meant to evoke sexual desirability” it is worn by non-white models. Therefore, this representation depicts the tension that exists between the Eurocentricity and whiteness that is deemed as pure and “beautiful” and the divergence from whiteness which is instead seen as implicitly sexual.

In some ways, this mimics the ways in which thongs have recently been sterilized of their sexual connotations by companies to appeal to white audiences, first through becoming appropriate and then through the recent white feminist backlash that rejects the thong altogether.

In 1999, between the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal and on the cusp of the “Thong Song” release, thongs were the fastest growing category of women’s underwear. According to the Wall Street Journal, thongs were able to win over the mainstream market by disassociating from sex and emphasizing their fashion utility – severing them from Monica Lewinsky and the “anything-goes beaches of Brazil.”[28] Although the demographics of thong buyers are unknown, black and Latinx female sexuality’s oppositional relationship to white female sexuality racializes this transition. Through this new marketing, the thong became “naughty for nice people,” sold at “respectable” places like J. Crew, a decidedly white space.[29] However, the thong never completely lost its connection to sex and female sexuality, seen by the outcry that erupted when Abercrombie & Fitch began selling thongs in child sizes, including suggestive sayings like “Eye candy” and “Call me.”[30] Overall, attempts to desexualize the thong and emphasize its link to “fashion” allowed it to proliferate in more white spaces. This echoes the way in which the Norwegian trio JCY tried to revamp the “Thong Song” music video with mainly white models to retain white audience appeal and how lighter-skinned models in fashion magazines allows for diversity with Eurocentric beauty.

In recent years, the popularity of thongs has decreased, and the media coverage surrounding them has been accompanied with headlines like “Young women say no to thongs.”[31] Instead, it seems many are embracing granny panty full-coverage styles, championed by young white upper middle-class female entrepreneurs with boutique underwear businesses.[32] In opposition to thongs, granny panties implicitly convey self-respect, independence and a rejection of dressing for men’s pleasure, causing writers like Caitlyn Moran to proclaim “Strident feminism needs big undies.”[33] However, these companies feed into the racialized ideas of sexuality and feminism. These “feminist” businesses echo the historic exclusion of black women from white feminist organizations, who have been criticized by scholars of color for being “overly concerned” with white middle class women’s issues.[34] Moreover, it perpetuates the racialized dichotomy of female sexuality, as these white female entrepreneurs frame themselves as too pure for the skimpy thong, while the underlying negative associations it has to black female hypersexuality remain unaddressed.

Therefore, the three music videos and versions of the “Thong Song” are intertwined with ideas surrounding the hypersexualization of the black female body, the attempts by black women to reclaim this sexuality, and the ways in which white female sexuality acts as this oppositional force.  Through the song’s emphasis on this garment, the thong too becomes imbued with all of these ideas and perceptions.  While the thong constitutes a small slip of fabric, its visibility and significance carry immense cultural weight, informing the ways in which black and Latinx women are represented and work against their perception as overtly sexual beings.  Meanwhile, many middle-class white feminists continue to racialize sexuality in order to distance themselves from it.   Perhaps “strident feminism” does not require big undies – but rather, a deeper consideration of the racialization of sexuality and its consequences for women of color.

 

Bibliography

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Collins, Patricia Hill. Perspectives on Gender. Vol. 2 of Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. N.p.: Routledge, 1990.

Deleon, Jian. “Controversy & Fitch: A History of Abercrombie’s Most Flagrant F**k-Ups.” Complex. Last modified May 22, 2013. Accessed April 9, 2018. http://www.complex.com/style/2013/05/controversy-fitch-a-history-of-abercrombies-most-flagrant-fuck-ups/.

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Fitzgerald, Kiana. “SisQó Explains Why He Made That ‘Thong Song’ EDM Remix.” Last modified August 24, 2017. Accessed April 9, 2018. http://www.complex.com/music/2017/08/sisqo-thong-song-remix-interview.

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Gordon-Chipembere, Natasha. “Claiming Sarah Baartman, a Legacy to Grasp.” Introduction to Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman, xv-1. N.p.: Milliken, 2011.

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hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. N.p.: South End Press, 1992.

Hunter, Margaret, and Alhelí Cuenca. “Nicki Minaj and the Changing Politics of Hip-Hop: Real Blackness, Real Bodies, Real Feminism?” Feminist Formations 29, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 26-46. Accessed April 9, 2018. doi:10.1353/ff.2017.0015.

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[1] “Sisqo – Thong Song,” video file, YouTube, posted by SisqoVEVO, June 16, 2009, accessed April 9, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oai1V7kaFBk.

[2] “Sisqo – Thong,” video file.

[3] Ferris State University, “The Jezebel Stereotype,” Jim Crow Museum, accessed March 11, 2018, https://ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/.

[4] Ferris State University, “The Jezebel,” Jim Crow Museum.

[5] Ferris State University, “The Jezebel,” Jim Crow Museum.

[6] Mireille Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (n.p.: Duke University Press, 2014), 9

[7] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (n.p.: South End Press, 1992), 63.

[8] Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, “Claiming Sarah Baartman, a Legacy to Grasp,” introduction to Representation and Black Womanhood: The Legacy of Sarah Baartman(n.p.: Milliken, 2011), 10

[9] Gordon-Chipembere, “Claiming Sarah,” introduction, 11.

[10] hooks, Black Looks, 62.

[11] Isabel Molina Guzmán and Angharad N. Valdivia, “Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S Popular Culture,” The Communication Review, 2005, 206, accessed April 9, 2018, DOI:10.1080/10714420490448723.

[12] Guzmán and Valdivia, “Brain, Brow,” 212.

[13] “Sisqo featuring Foxy Brown – Thong Song (Remix),” video file, YouTube, posted by Jared, March 11, 2012, accessed April 9, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZewKqq5ncY.

[14] Mireille Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography(n.p.: Duke University Press, 2014), 62.

[15] Miller-Young, A Taste, 3

[16]  Miller-Young, A Taste, 14

[17] “Nicki Minaj – Anaconda,” video file, YouTube, posted by NickiMinajAtVevo, August 19, 2014, accessed April 9, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDZX4ooRsWs.

[18] Margaret Hunter and Alhelí Cuenca, “Nicki Minaj and the Changing Politics of Hip-Hop: Real Blackness, Real Bodies, Real Feminism?” Feminist Formations 29, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 33, accessed April 9, 2018, doi:10.1353/ff.2017.0015.

[19] Hunter and Cuenca, “Nicki Minaj,” 29.

[21] Miller-Young, A Taste, 13.

[22] Kenneth Starr, The Starr Report, accessed April 9, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/icreport/icreport.htm.

[23] Slate Group, “The Thong Show,” Slate, accessed April 9, 2018, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/1998/09/the_thong_show.html.

[24] Elijah Frazier, “Girls, Girls, Girls: Analyzing Race and Sexuality Portrayal in Music Videos” (master’s thesis, Stanford University, 2013), 10, accessed April 9, 2018, http://comm.stanford.edu/mm/2013/01/Elijah-Frazier-MA-Thesis.pdf.

[25] Kiana Fitzgerald, “SisQó Explains Why He Made That ‘Thong Song’ EDM Remix,” last modified August 24, 2017, accessed April 9, 2018, http://www.complex.com/music/2017/08/sisqo-thong-song-remix-interview.

[26] “JCY – Thong Song (feat. Sisqo) – Official Music Video,” video file, YouTube, posted by JCY, July 18, 2017, accessed April 9, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gz7R82AzWVM.

[27] hooks, Black Looks, 72.

[28] Asra Q. Nomani, How Thong Underwear Managed to Win over a Mainstream Market, Wall Street Journal, last modified June 8, 1999, accessed March 11, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB928797031306049284.

[29] Nomani, How Thong Underwear Managed to Win over a Mainstream Market, Wall Street Journal.

[30] Jian Deleon, “Controversy & Fitch: A History of Abercrombie’s Most Flagrant F**k-Ups,” Complex, last modified May 22, 2013, accessed April 9, 2018, http://www.complex.com/style/2013/05/controversy-fitch-a-history-of-abercrombies-most-flagrant-fuck-ups/.

[31] Hayley Phelan, “Young Women Say No to Thongs,” New York Times, last modified May 27, 2015, accessed March 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/28/fashion/young-women-say-no-to-thongs.html.

[32] Phelan, “Young Women,” New York Times.

[33] Emma Brockes, “These Stilettos Are Not Made for Walking, nor Is the Thong,” New York Times, last modified July 26, 2012, accessed March 11, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/27/books/how-to-be-a-woman-by-caitlin-moran.html.

[34] Patricia Hill Collins, Perspectives on Gender, vol. 2, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (n.p.: Routledge, 1990), 7