Representations of pimps have pervaded mainstream media for decades, glamorizing and commodifying the pimping lifestyle in television (Pimp My Ride), music (50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.“), and movies (Hustle & Flow). These representations, which characterize pimps as manipulative, abusive, and violent black men, have become the substantive material through which we understand the pimp subculture and, by extension, black street culture. The degree to which these depictions are accurate, though, and the implications of contextualizing pimping within urban culture require a more evaluative scrutiny of the relationship between the pimping subculture and the representation of that subculture.
To understand the pimping lifestyle and the representation of that lifestyle in mainstream media requires, first, the understanding of pimping as a subculture. In Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice, scholar Ken Gelder offers six ways of accounting for and identifying subcultures, particularly in relation to structures of mainstream culture. The first cultural logic Gelder offers is the conceptions of subcultures negatively in their relation to work or labor. He notes the dominant image of subcultures as being either unproductive, lazy, and stagnant, or pursuing work that is parasitic, criminal, and, therefore, illegitimate.1 This subculture characteristic is of particular importance to pimping because prostitution, the labor that is fundamental to the subculture’s identity, is outlawed in almost the entirety of the United States. It is not unexpected, then, that representations and consequent societal understandings of pimping are predominantly negative and fused with images of crime and violence.
Gelder’s second cultural logic is that which understands subcultures as transcending class. This is to say that members are perceived to have had shed their class affiliations and backgrounds, entering into a community that is not explicitly structured by mainstream class distinctions.2 Though many subcultures involve the disavowal of mainstream class distinctions, pimping seems to interact with these distinctions in a way that is fundamental to its identity. Bred from and existing primarily in the black street culture, pimping draws its members from the disenfranchised and socio-economically marginalized who, in a capitalist economy that is institutionally racist, see few other options for survival. In this way, mainstream class divisions and the economic gaps between those classes create the conditions that lead individuals into the pimping lifestyle.
The link and interaction between the pimping subculture and the black street culture noted above highlights Gelder’s next two cultural logics for identifying subcultures. Subcultures are characteristically dissociated from the domestic sphere and are perceived as away from the family and the home.3 Further, it is a tendency for a subculture to create its own geography, “a set of places or sites…through which it gains cohesion and identity.”4 Whether they are relegated to or settle voluntarily on specific spaces, subcultures and subcultural identity develop around particular locations. The conditions of low-income neighborhoods foster the emergence of pimping, which then claims the streets as its medium for business and proliferation.
The dynamic between the pimping subculture and the streets, as a public space, is demonstrative of the impartation of identity between the subculture and the space. As the two interact, they become increasingly tethered to each other, and their identities begin to fuse. Consequently, to have a deeper understanding of the conditions of the streets is to have a deeper understanding of pimping as a product of the streets.
Gelder continues his means of identifying subcultures in highlighting the prevalence of equating subcultures with excess and exaggeration. He notes the tendency of “registering the ‘deviance’ of a subculture through a range of excessive attributes…which are contrasted with the restraints and moderations of ‘normal’ populations.”5 Depictions of pimps over the past several decades have been structured around this idea of excess, particularly with respect to clothing and money. Images connotative of pimps are predominantly those of black men in expensive suits donning fur coats and covered in “bling.”
Pimp costume available at Party City
The gold necklaces and diamond rings, which are signifiers of wealth and opulence in mainstream culture, are abstracted in representations of pimps. They come to signify the deviance of the subcultures and the criminality of the lifestyle. In conceptions of the pimping subculture, these objects emphasize the perceived frivolousness and irresponsibility of pimps and their relationship with money and power. When coupled with the tethering of the subculture to criminality, this characteristically excessive wardrobe sediments the subculture as illegitimate in its economic workings and deviant in its consumption. Pimps are understood as criminals whose accruement of money is illegal, destructive, and transgressive. The transgressive nature of the pimping lifestyle is continuous with Gelder’s last cultural logic of identifying subcultures. Gelder notes that “subcultural identity is pitched against the conformist pressures of mass society and massification.” 6 Insomuch as mainstream economic and social institutions form the conditions for the emergence of pimping as an alternative lifestyle, the transgressive quality of that lifestyle precisely opposes and refuses the pressures to conform to traditional and acceptable, both legally and socially, means of income. As emerging from a specific cultural context, the pimping subculture is reactive to the institutional restrictions of mainstream culture and capitalist economy, restrictions it aims to overcome.
The act of procuring has had historical footing for centuries, but pimping as a subculture is a more contemporary cultural transformation of that practice. It incorporates the practice of procuring with the hyper-masculinity and dominance over women definitive of urban street culture, developing a considerably new cultural identity. The close cultural proximity of the pimping subculture to urban street culture evidences the implications of a racist, capitalist society in fostering the development of pimping. Urban street culture, which combines hip-hop culture, street dance culture, and a number of other subcultures, is generally responsive to the economic and social institutions in America that marginalize and oppress black individuals. It is responsive in the way that it provides self-expression and identity formation against the oppressive mainstream culture. In analyzing the conceptions of pimping in black youth, Annegret Staiger identifies the link between racial identity and the pimping subculture. She writes, “Examining the content of adolescents’ performances [of pimping] reveals how they position themselves racially within a set of discursive practices emanating from a history of racial imagery and racial oppression.”7 Black urban youth understand pimping as an extension of some part of urban culture, a culture that developed consequent of constructed racial hierarchies.
There is a tendency by mainstream media to magnify these links to the degree of dissolving them so that pimping culture and black identity are near synonymous. The image of the pimp –his dress, his wealth, his power over women – has been glamorized in the mainstream media, and thus given commodity value. Pimping culture has saturated hip-hop culture and has become an integral part in the identity of black men in the rap industry.8
Snoop Dog and Don “Magic” Juan. Source
The careers of rappers like Snoop Dog, 50 Cent, and Nelly have relied on the pimp stereotype to found their identities in the commercial market. Further, their prominence in the rap industry during the past few decades has come to represent commercial rap success. What the youth get from the media, particularly the young black males to which the music is targeted, is that to be a successful rapper is to be a pimp.
Movie Poster for American Pimp. Source.
In urban street culture, the image of the pimp is that of success and overcoming the restrictions of racist institutions, yet what does this image mean in other cultural contexts? In the 1999 documentary American Pimp, the Hughes Brothers aim to analyze the mainstream conceptions of the pimp in comparison to the self-held conceptions of the lifestyle by pimps. The film delves into the pimping subculture through the accounts of its members. In creating the film, the Hughes Brothers worked to leave the expression and representation of the subculture to its members, thereby allowing pimps to define and explain the subculture for themselves. Consequently, the film takes on a quite clinical gaze, which scholar Bill Nichols notes as the situation of the film “within the ambivalent space between detached recording and human response.”9 The filmmakers provide the personal accounts of the pimping philosophy and subcultural identity by the pimps and, as objectively as possible, allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Along with the pseudo-monologues of the pimps, the film is interspersed with images of the pimps throughout their pimping career as well as segments from 1970s blaxploitation films that have structured societal conceptions of pimping.
Pimp Don “Magic” Juan and his escorts. Source.
American Pimp takes on an interactive documentary mode, as Nichols understands it, in that it “stresses images of testimony or verbal exchange and images of demonstration” which are meant to found the film’s depictions as congruous with the authentic subcultural identity.10 The textual authority of the film’s argument is dependant on and aligned with the self-perception of the pimps.11 In this way, American Pimp seeks to put into conversation the prevailing representations of pimps with the notion of pimping as personal identity, a move that has had mixed successes.
The film opens with a number of individuals offering their understandings of and reactions to the pimping lifestyle. The general response of the individuals, who are white men and women of different ages, are that pimps are immoral, manipulative, dirty, and despicable men who exploit and abuse women for drugs, power, and money. These perceptions are meant to interact with the pimps’ images of themselves and their understanding of the pimping lifestyle. Throughout the film, the viewer meets about 16 pimps, including Fillmore Slim, Gorgeous Dre, Don “Magic” Juan, and Rosebudd to name a few. The accounts of all of the pimps are linked in their emphasis on youth inculcation, the perceived legitimacy of their business, and the subscriptions to strict gender dynamics. One poignant example of the link between black youth and the pimping culture is the interview with Don “Magic” Juan and his mother. After establishing his pimping as exemplary of the subculture, Juan recounts the story of his birth in which his doctor said he was going to be a special child, seemingly prophesizing his success. Juan solidifies the tethering of the pimping culture and urban street culture and positions pimping as an almost maturation of black youth culture. Prominent among other personal accounts was the image of a neighborhood pimp as a role model of success. This success was measured in terms of power, wealth, and women, as the pimps characterized him through his attire and the slew of beautiful women at his side. The presence of this neighborhood role model across the pimps’ accounts is representative of the conception of pimping as not only a viable in a capitalist economy that oppresses them, but glamorous and natural for black youth. In offering these accounts, the documentary represents the subculture as embedded to some degree in black youth street culture. Consequently, the documentary affirms the ties between racial oppression and the development of the pimping subculture.
The dominant focus of the film’s argument is the pimps’ understanding and interaction with the business of prostitution and the cultural forces that develop around that interaction. What is consistent across each pimps’ account is the value of pimping as a business and a means to accumulate wealth. The pimps attempt to legitimize their lifestyle through the demonstration of accrued wealth, forming an interesting link between pimping as a business and corporate America.12 Though their business is illegal, pimps rationalize pimping through measures of economic success characteristic of mainstream capitalist culture. In addressing this connection, the documentary offers pimping as an economic hierarchy similar and reflective to that of mainstream economy. The documentary, through tracing the pimps’ lives from the struggle of their youth to the glamour of their pimp status, demonstrates pimping as an alternative and economically beneficial lifestyle. Faced with the oppression of capitalism which valorizes race, black racial identity incorporates these subversive grasps at power.13 What is understood as villainous by the mainstream is, in this instance, seen as heroic by the subculture.
Though the documentary does allude to the pimping lifestyle as a transgressive and seemingly successful opposition to racist capitalist institutions, it is widely criticized for the glamorization of a lifestyle that abuses women and exploits their labor. In tracing the origins of pimping, the pimps interviewed note that “hoes came first,” that prostitutes have always been around and will always be around. In continuing with their self-legitimization, the pimps explain their protector role over the women who submit to the life of a prostitute.
A scene from American Pimp demonstrating the gender dynamics of the pimping subculture.
They emphasize that women are misguided and don’t know how to spend their money. One prostitute, Spicy, explains, the pimp is more than just a pimp; he’s a financial companion. Still, as David Lawrence Todd critiques, “The women’s unwillingness to offer any categorical condemnation of pimping seems to reinforce the misogynistic logic underlying the pimps’ claim: these women have chosen “the life,” and they need pimps for direction because they do not have what it takes to make it on their own.”14 Though the documentary portrays a symbiotic relationship as understood by the pimps and hoes, the cultural context in which this relationship is understood as symbiotic is not the context from which the viewer comes. The viewer, who is assumedly from the mainstream culture, sees the relationship as exploitative and abusive, where the pimp’s game is to extract from the prostitute as much as he can.15 The pimps employ rhetoric of power and possession when telling their “hoes” to go out and “get my money.” Further, there is a represented delusion and abstraction of genuine power. The viewer becomes aware of the contradiction of the pimps’ power when Don “Magic” Juan explains the dynamic between pimp and hoe: “Pimps supply food, shelter, clothing, medical bills. All she has to do is supply the money.” This deluded notion of entitlement and ownership and the pimps’ self-perceived generosity in supplying their prostitutes with basic living essentials represent the cultural distance between the subculture and mainstream culture. The question must be asked, then, what the filmmakers’ goals were in allowing pimps to seemingly incriminate themselves? In an interactive documentary form like American Pimp, the ethical issue, as Nichols notes, “pivots on the manner in which the filmmaker represents his or her witnesses, particularly when differing motives, priorities, or needs are at work.”16 This isn’t to say that the Hughes Brothers had an agenda to villainize pimps and the pimping subculture, at least directly. Rather, it is to consider what including these accounts aims to achieve in altering or adding to the public’s perception of the pimping subculture. According to the pimps in the documentary, media representations are incongruous to the actuality of pimps that “respectable hoes” would associate with. As the documentary progresses and the pimps show themselves over and over again as aligning to mainstream image of pimps as manipulative, frivolous, and abusive, the viewer is uncomfortable with the realization of this image. Todd, in his review of the film, writes, “The filmmakers refrain from attacking their participants; instead, they challenge viewers to contemplate a number of uncomfortable possibilities about pimp culture, including considering what role the viewers themselves play in a racist society that both glorifies and abhors black pimps.” 17 In considering Todd’s analysis, American Pimp emerges not as a film meant to revolutionize the image of the pimp, but extrapolate, through the subcultures own involvement, the dynamics of the subculture within a larger mainstream context.
Movie poster for Hustle & Flow. Source.
Though American Pimp is useful in analyzing the interaction between a subculture and its representation in mainstream media, it is perhaps more important to deconstruct commercialized and massified depictions of a subculture, such as the film Hustle & Flow. The 2005 independent film written and directed by Craig Brewer follows the story of a Memphis pimp DJay whose dreams for a better life lead to aspirations of becoming a rapper. The film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards (winning for Best Original Song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp“) and Golden Globes and made over $23 million at the box office. The commercial success of the film necessitates an examination of the film’s means of representation and the implications of that representation. Hustle & Flow is an interesting representation of the pimping subculture in that it offers a very human and considerably complex character as the pimp and protagonist. Compared to the overwhelming representation of pimps as immoral, heartless, and money hungry abusers, DJay is much more compassionate, human, and, ultimately, relatable for the audience. Part of what drives the narrative arc of the film is DJay’s tentative power over his women. At the start of the film, he is routinely challenged by one of his hoes, Lex, who he eventually throws out of the house. As the film progresses, the viewer sees DJay becoming more emotionally attached to Shug and Nola, his other two hoes. There is a scene at the end of the film when DJay passionately kisses Shug, acknowledging a relationship that is much more nuanced than pimp and hoe. There is the portrayed sentiment of DJay’s genuine care and love for the women. At moments, his exploitation of their labor falls to periphery, and the viewer is left with a truly felt and emotionally intimate connection between him and the women. These moments, though, are too few to counteract the dominant theme of exploitation of women and their labor.
Left to Right: Shug, Lex, DJay, and Nola. Source.
The film is demonstrative of the near synonymous nature of pimping culture and rap culture. The abuse of women’s labor and exploitation of their bodies characteristic of pimping culture is the same means through which DJay pursues and minimally achieves his rap dreams. The levels of exploitation range from having Shug sing the hook of his song (to which she responds by buying a gold chain with his name on it) to trading Nola’s body for a new microphone.
Shug singing the hook to “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Source.
The most substantial exploitation of women, one applicable to the rap culture as a whole, is the lyrical content of his raps. The song epitomic of the film, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” is about the struggles of pimping: “In my eyes I den seen some crazy thangs in the streets/ got a couple hoes working on the changes for me/but i gotta keep my game tight like Kobe on game night/ like taken from a hoe dont know no betta I kno it aint right.”18 Though DJay expresses remorse in this first verse, the rap still commodifies the experience of the streets, which he links to pimping and, consequently, the exploitation of women. The success of his rap career, which the viewer only knows to be one rap popularized on the radio, is dependent on this exploitation. In ending with DJay being imprisoned for assault with a firearm, the film diminishes our newly established perceptions of him as a relatable and normal person. In the end, he conforms to the manipulative and violent representation of a pimp that has been and, assumedly, will continue to pervade social consciousness.
Sociologist Todd Gitlin describes media as structuring consciousness “by virtue of their pervasiveness, their accessibility, [and] their centralized symbolic capacity.”19 Because mainstream media dominates the majority of ideological space in society, the messages and representations they proliferate have profound effect on the collective social consciousness. Gitlin also emphasizes the impact of media frames as “persistent patters of cognition, interpretation, and presentation” that selectively structure the verbal, visual, and representational discourse in the public.20 Considering Gitlin’s points on media’s structuring of discourse along with the sustained representation of pimps and rappers as violent, manipulative, and exploitative given in Hustle & Flow offers a useful explanation to the pervasive conceptions of the pimping subculture. Mainstream media has allowed for the commodification of the pimping lifestyle, and the incorporation of that commodification into the rap culture has solidified the negative understandings of the subculture. This is not to say that the pimping subculture is not negative and detrimental to society. The exploitation of women’s bodies and the physical and emotional abuse of women are unarguably destructive to society. Where the perpetuation of these specific representations are problematic, though, is their ambivalence of contextualization within urban street culture and the ignored relationship between urban street culture to mainstream culture.
In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, scholar Dick Hebdige underlines the institutional use of mainstream media, through caricature, villanizing, and stereotyping, to keep subcultures and social movements from gaining too much power and, therefore, challenging the hegemony.21 He highlights the duality of value in representing subcultures in providing “substantive images of other groups” while “[relaying] back to working-class people a ‘picture’ of their own lives…”22 The perpetuated representations of the pimping subculture contextualize the subculture into the black community but fail to acknowledge the implications of a racist society on marginalized people. This is to say that the mainstream media condemns the pimping culture but does nothing to analyze how racist institutions foster the continuation of the subculture. Instead, the representation of pimps relays back to the mainstream culture a level of detachment and dissociation with the pimping subculture. The result is this: the media tells members of the mainstream that they are not the subculture, yet they do not tell them precisely why they are not the subculture. In interacting with these representations and incorporating them into their conceptions, individuals fail to contextualize the pimping subculture as responsive or reactionary to the oppressive institutions of mainstream culture, institutions that are just as reprehensible as pimping.
The lack of contextualization of the pimping subculture within the racist capitalist mainstream culture begs for a deeper critical look at the pimping subculture as a subversive grab at power. To do so, I would like to follow up American Pimp with my own documentary called Where Are The Streets?. Where Are The Streets? will delve into the process of inculcation of black urban youth into the pimping subculture. Emerging from urban street culture, the pimping subculture draws in black youth aiming to gain wealth and power in ways that are not available to them in mainstream culture. Consequently, Where Are The Streets? will work to uncover the constructed relationship of pimping with subversive power and how black youth understand that power. It will incorporate Hebdige’s understanding of media as repressing subcultures through representation by focusing on pimping as embedded within the streets, setting the foundation for analyzing how mainstream institutions oppress minorities and foster the development of these subversive power structures. The documentary will transition between adult pimps’ account of their entrance into the subculture and black youth, the majority being males, who are surrounded by and may be entering the subculture. A number of females (black girls and prostitutes) will be included to evidence the gender dynamics emergent from the pimping subculture and how the subculture affects black female youth identity. It will also include the mainstream media representations that, according to Carla Thompson, “repackage and popularize the traditionally reviled profession of pimping.”23 Where Are The Streets? will illustrate the degree of psychological identifications of black youth with the subculture.
As the credits roll, viewers will hopefully be able to situate “the streets” as existing within and dependent of the mainstream culture. They will be able to understand the implications of elite institutions on urban street culture and the indirect but powerful influence on the development of the pimping subculture. Understanding media as dominating social consciousness through selective structuring of representation is invaluable in understanding the dynamics between subcultures and mainstream culture. Regardless of the degree to which the pimping subculture is aligned with mainstream media representations, failing to contextualize the subculture in respect to the mainstream from which it emerged is morally neglectful.
1. Gelder, Ken. Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. New Ed Edition. Routledge. 2007. 3.
2. Ibid., 3.
3. Ibid., 4.
4. Ibid., 2.
5. Ibid., 4.
6. Ibid., 4.
7. Staiger, Annegret. “”Hoes can be hoed out, players can be played out, but pimp is for life”-The Pimp Phenomenon as Strategy of Identity Formation.” Symbolic Interaction. 28.3 (2005): 409.
8. Rose, Tricia. “There are bitches and hoes”. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010. 321.
9. Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. 87
10. Ibid., 44.
11. Ibid., 44.
12. Boyd, Todd. “To the Player’s Ball and Beyond. Right On.; The ’70s film ‘The Mack’ has an avid cult following that includes many top rappers and cinephiles such as Quentin Tarantino. Goldie was right about his legacy..” Los Angelos Times. 1 Oct 1995.
14. Lawrence, David Todd. “American Pimp/Raw Outtakes and the Hard Truth.”
Journal of American Folklore. Winter (2007): 86.
15. Staiger, “Hoes can be hoed out,” 414.
16. Nichols, Representing Reality, 45.
17. Todd, “American Pimp/Raw Outtakes,” 87.
19. Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World is Watching. Berkeley and Los Angelos, California: University of California Press. 2003. 2.
21. Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, England: Methuen. 1979, 85.
22. Ibid., 85
23. Thompson, Carla. “U.S.-CULTURE: HOTTEST HIP HOP GLORIFIES PIMPING.”
Global Information Network [New York] 12 Nov 2003, 1. Web. 23 Oct. 2013