Let's try to get to the bottom of this:
The message of "Baby Got Back" is either feminist or sexist. You think it's uproariously funny, unless you think it's downright degrading. It's a black thing -- or not.
No one, it appears, is taking "Baby Got Back" sitting down. Perhaps known more familiarly as "the big butt song," the hit single and video by Seattle-based rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot manages to both anger and amuse with its theme that big is beautiful when it comes to that part of a woman's anatomy.
Now in its fifth straight week at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart, the single is flying out of record stores at a pace between 20,000 and 30,000 copies a day, according to Sir Mix-a-Lot's record company. Its outrageous video -- filled with real behinds, fake behinds, even fruits that look like behinds -- is frequently requested on various shows, although MTV has decided it's too controversial to air before 9 p.m.
Sir Mix-a-Lot has landed on both sexual and racial minefields with his infectious ditty, although he claims that he is just celebrating curvy black women who don't fit fashion's dominant (read: white) string-bean ideal.
The video, for example, opens with a young white woman saying -- in the style of those sorority sisters on "Saturday Night Live" -- "Oh. Mah. Gaad. Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. . . . I mean, it's out there. I mean, gross."
The object of their dismay, a black woman with an hourglass shape, swivels around a bit, followed by Sir Mix-a-Lot stating point-blank: "I like big butts, and I cannot lie."
The message gets applause in some circles, mocking as it does the thin-woman stereotype in magazines, videos and other image-defining media.
"The general theme is a positive one, that black men do appreciate black women," said Darlene Powell Hopson, a Connecticut-based psychologist with an interest in the is- sue of black women and their body image. "They're not looking for women who have European-like bodies.
"You look at music videos, most of the images are of European-looking women -- even the black ones," said Dr. Hopson, who has consulted with companies that make realistic-looking black dolls. "Some of the girls I work with, you hear them saying they wish they were lighter in skin tone, or thinner in body shape. You hear that even from adult women, they're uncomfortable with the size of their behinds. They're internalizing the standards of beauty that they see in the media."
Yet some black women, the would-be recipients of Sir Mix-a-Lot's adulation, say that however complimentary he's trying to be, he's still reducing them to a single body part. And it happens to be that body part, long the target of jokes and stereotypical remarks when it comes to black women.
"Not all of us are full-figured as characterized in the song," said Arlinda Harris, who owns a skin care salon at Merritt Athletic Club in Woodlawn. "I am proud of my butt, but when it's stared at, it's embarrassing. There are other parts of me that I'm proud of -- sometimes I want to pull out my brain for people to look at."
"There are so many things they could talk about when they talk about a woman -- her brain, for example, or her looks in general," agreed Marlear Alston, promotions director at radio station V-103 (WXYV-FM), which occasionally plays the song. "Instead, it puts the whole emphasis on that. It's degrading."
Ms. Alston said all the talk about the song and video that she's heard around town breaks down on gender lines.
"You hear conversations, the women are saying, 'I don't like that video,' and the men are saying, 'Oh, it's great,' " she said.
"If you listen to the lyrics, it's not derogatory, it's complimentary," said Stan Jacobs, music director at V-103. "I don't have a problem with it personally. It may offend some big-boned women who have gotten teased, but I think it's a fun song. People can identify with it."
Ironically, the women featured most prominently in the "Baby Got Back" video -- a group of dancers in short-shorts and fishnet stockings -- are quite slim and their body parts in question are decidedly small. And, indeed, Sir Mix-a-Lot is not so much promoting fat women, as hourglass-shaped ones with what he calls "little bitty" waists and "buns, hon."
While rap artists have long gotten the anti-women rap, some of Sir Mix-a-Lot's lyrics can seem quite feminist.
He takes issue with the thin-but-bosomy Barbie-doll ideal foisted elsewhere in the media: "I ain't talking about Playboy 'cause silicone parts are made for toys." And, as a Madonna-like dancer (complete with cone breastplates) frolics on screen: "So I'm looking at rock videos. . . . You can have those bimbos, I'll keep my women like Flo-Jo."
Among some, "Baby Got Back" is appealing more for its naughty goofing on the issue rather than any serious message that might be derived from it.
"It's more of a white boy - white dance song, not urban. It's got that style. It's almost a comedy record, a novelty record," said Jeff Ballentine, program director at dance-oriented 92-Q (WERQ-FM) radio station. "It was getting requested every 2 1/2 hours at night at times, usually by young men."
Indeed. Just mention the song to Jason Staubitz, 15, James Emanuel, 12, and Mike Carroll, 15, three friends hanging out at Security Square Mall recently, and they erupt into laughter.
"It's guys talking about big butts. It's funny," Jason explains. "The beginning of the video, he's standing on a big butt and . . ."
More helpless laughter.