Is the world of rap finally entering the twenty-first century?

With Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, Angel Haze and the recent emergence of “queer rap”, we could finally be seeing some progress in a musical genre that's long been dominated by straight men and macho self-aggrandisement.

Singer-songwriter and former Everything But The Girl frontwoman, Tracey Thorn, was recently asked in an interview whether her “not being an extremely hot girl” has held her back in her career. Long-running international music monthly Rolling Stone has just announced the winner of a contest called "Women Who Rock". American lifestyle magazine, Complex, last month ran a feature on the ten “hottest women” at a New York music festival, fitting in nicely with other articles they’ve published this year, including "Ten Sexy Indie Artists You Should Know" and "The 15 Hottest Frontwomen In Rock History".

These are all examples of the sexism female artists face in the music industry, and they’re all from media that covers genres where women have long been successful. So what about a style of music where women are, historically, less likely to make a go of things, such as hip-hop?

Hip-hop has long been known for its negative attitude towards women, its commodification of them, and its view of females as being useful for little more than sex. The average rap video will tell you that, with its legion of semi-naked, booty-shaking dancers. This is a culture where behemoths Jay-Z and Kanye West have both come under fire for their use of the term “bitch” in their lyrics, yet have decided to continue to use it. The closest West came to a one-eighty was when he tweeted: “Is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing?” which brings into question Kanye’s understanding of “endearing”. We’re talking about a genre where the opening line to one of its best-known and much-loved songs reads: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks”.

All these negative stereotypes in a world of macho self-aggrandisement makes the recent success of a breakthrough band of female MCs, or "femcees", all the more heartening. Nicki Minaj is now a household name, but hot on her heels are Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn and more.

What all these rappers have in common is that they’re defiantly solo artists and are unaffiliated to a wider group or crew. Perhaps as a result of this, the music press have been keen to play up any potential rivalries, with a brief Twitter spat between Azealia Banks and Kreayshawn generating far more column inches than it should have done.

But in a man’s world, are these women able to succeed on their own terms? Minaj has sold over a million copies of both her studio albums thus far and has been vocal in speaking out against the sexism she’s faced. Yet her most recent LP, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, contains a track called "Stupid Hoe" and a duet with Chris Brown, notorious for his assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna. Critics’ darling Azealia Banks has showcased her frenetic and explicit lyrics, most notably on the song that propelled her to fame, "212", and often refers to herself as a “bad bitch”.

Banks has challenged the status quo and critics alike with her openness about her sexuality and those lyrics. Despite this seemingly anti-commercial stance, she’s received frequent radio play and has been extremely successful in 2012, so much so that she’s likely to be found on a magazine cover near you. This may have contributed to the fact that her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, originally due to be released in August of this year, has been put back to February 2013. Banks’ confrontational, no-holds-barred approach have given her a huge following and made her arguably the most famous female rapper behind Nicki Minaj.

Perhaps more interesting though is Angel Haze. The Michigan MC was largely unknown before the release of her debut single, New York, but had soon sold out her show at the Hoxton Bar & Grill. What’s particularly striking about Haze is her range of lyrical themes, most clearly evidenced on her mixtape, Classick, which she put online in October. She’s about as far away from the hip-hop video dancing female stereotype as it’s possible to be, as she takes on matters of confidence and self-image, and contemplates the effects domestic violence have on the wider family. Classick also features a cover of Eminem’s confessional Cleaning Out My Closet, with the lyrics rewritten into a jaw-dropping autobiographical account of childhood abuse. While it may not be a comfortable listen, it handles a near-impossible subject to cover in an unflinchingly honest but mature way.

Of the rest, Kreayshawn has followed online hit, "Gucci Gucci" (over 39 million YouTube views at the time of writing), with an underperforming album, and Iggy Azealia is expected to sign with a major label before her debut full-length LP comes out next year.

All this seems a far cry from the time when to hear of a female rapper was genuinely rare, with Missy Elliott being the main exception to that rule. Whether the new breed of MCs trade in raw, gritty rhymes or conform to a more mainstream view of what a woman in rap “should” be, their very presence can only be a positive thing. Add to this the recent emergence of a strain of hip-hop made my predominantly gay males, known as “queer rap”, and it seems the world of rap may finally be ready to enter the twenty-first century.

Nicki Minaj is now a household name. Photograph: Getty Images
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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era