Commentary: Sexism, Rolling Stone and the Kendrick Lamar Cover

Commentary: Sexism, Rolling Stone and the Kendrick Lamar Cover

Commentary: Sexism, Rolling Stone and the Kendrick Lamar Cover

What the new issue got very wrong.

Published March 11, 2015

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or at least that’s what it looks like if you take a glance at the new cover of Rolling Stone.

This week, the cover with Kendrick Lamar hit newsstands. For a magazine that is often woefully behind in covering — or even acknowledging — hip hop, this seems great. But then look right behind Kendrick, to the crop-topped torso of the woman who is doing his hair. As is the norm with controversial images, this one went viral hours after its release, with many people upset that a racially-ambiguous woman was grooming him. It was shaping up to be the Pharrell Where Is the Black Lady on the Album Cover controversy of 2015.

Can’t a Black woman get on the cover of Rolling Stone? Why didn’t Kendrick insist a brown woman stand alongside him? Isn’t this one more way of saying that a light-skin  (or perhaps white) woman is the prop that every successful Black man wants?

These were some of the (very good) questions being asked, yet the answers will be hard to ever come by because the woman’s race is unknown — since her head has been cut out of the photo. She is faceless, unknown, just a body in a sexy pose.

In essence, this is the larger, bigger, crazier problem than what race she is. For if this woman was very brown and more obviously Black, then there would be a headless Black woman on the cover of Rolling Stone being used as a sexualized prop. If this woman is indeed white or Latina, then there is a white or Latina woman on the cover of Rolling Stone being used as a sexualized prop. No matter her race, at the end of the day there is a woman being used on the cover of Rolling Stone as a sexualized prop. Her face isn’t important; the gaze is meant to go to her torso, to maybe imagine lifting her shirt up even more.

But hold up, people may say: This is the same mag that did the same thing to a man back in September 1993, when Janet Jackson appeared on the cover with a faceless man’s hands holding her bare breasts. The difference, however, is that all we knew of this man were his hands. He wasn’t cut off right before you saw his head, he was totally out of the shot minus his hands.

In addition, men are not typically offered up in photos and in other kinds of film as visual, sexualized props. Women, however, are. How many videos have we seen of a rock star wearing whatever rock stars wear, next to a bikini clad woman? How many videos have we seen of male rappers in layer upon layer of clothes — wool hat, big T-shirt, big jacket, big jeans, big sneakers or Timbs — while women wearing a string of fabric dance beside them? Male musicians must get awfully cold, because they are typically wearing enough to face an Arctic winter — even when the ladies can brave the temps in a thong.

So Janet Jackson’s man-hands cover is not the same, because this man’s body is not part of a history of men being objectified for their body. Also, his body is not the sexualized thing in this image, her breasts are.  Meanwhile, Kendrick is somber-faced and fully dressed — the serious artist next to the sexy fill-in-the-face woman.

Let’s hope that the next time Rolling Stone puts a rapper on the cover, they believe he can hold his own and sell copies without a tired “boost” of sexism.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.



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(Photo: Rolling Stone)

Written by Ayana Byrd

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