Misrepresentation of african american women Essay
African American women have historically been viewed as hyper-sexual creatures, due to unique anatomical features not often seen in other races. This hyper-sexualized view of Black women dates back as early as the days of slavery when European imperialists traveled to Africa and were excessively intrigued by (and abashedly attracted to) the women in the tribes. Europeans were in awe of the physique of African women, comparable to none, as well as their dancing and traditional garments.
Europeans unfamiliarity with a body type that is not unusual amongst African women resulted in a projection of hyper-sexuality onto Black women that did not truly exist and has been hard for Black women around the world to rid themselves of. Saartjie [Sara] Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus,” became the blueprint for degrading and humiliating the Black woman on a worldwide level. Saartjie Baartman was a South African born woman who was enslaved by a Dutch farmer near the city of Cape Town.
Her master was approached by traveling Europeans to travel to Europe to have her body examined and put on display. In 1810, Saartjie’s master informed her that she would be free and assume fortune and fame in order to persuade her to leave his plantation for the sideshow act she would unknowingly become in. It was this promise that led to Saartjie’s willingness to travel to Europe. Saartjie traveled to England and upon her arrival, she was placed on public display, often times in a cage, so her large buttocks and breast could be observed by hundreds of curious Englishman.
These invasive spectators were recorded as laughing at her, calling her names, and throwing items at her. Saartjie’s body was so spectacular and strange to Europeans that medical students were able to use her for scientific research. She was again sold from England to a French circus to dance in the nude as entertainment and was one the main attractions. Saartjie never enjoyed the freedom she was promised and turned to alcohol to cope with her humiliation and entered prostitution to support her when she was no longer necessary as a side show attraction.
She died in 1815, only five years after her arrival to Europe. Saartjie’s humiliation did not end with her death. She died of unidentified disease in France and her body was turned over to a museum. Her brain, vagina, and her skeleton were removed from her body, preserved and put on display. Her frameless body was then preserved in such a way that she stood erect as well. Her body was eventually buried in France but the parts removed from her body remained on display in a French museum until 1974. The displays were removed that year and replaced with casts of Saartjie’s confiscated body parts.
Saartjie Baartman’s humiliating enslavement marks the beginning of the Black woman’s degradation. She could be considered the first “video-vixen model. ” However, culture has changed such that women willingly dance erotically while scantily clad or totally nude, whereas Saartjie was forced. This willingness has transformed the way the Black woman is viewed and the way the Black woman views herself. The manner in which Saartjie Baartman was treated is indicative of European attitudes about Black women and African standards of beauty.
Saartjie was renowned for her physique, which Europeans responded to Saartjie as an object with disgust, intrigue, sexual attraction, and condescension. The removal of her organs indicates a perverse obsession with the body of the African woman. This attitude about the Black woman’s body has persisted, taking on new faces as culture changes and pop culture emerged. Media images of Black women have long been degrading, unflattering, and/or extreme. Black women have specific functional roles in the media: typically and most often as Jezebel, Mammie, and the welfare mom.
The Jezebel stereotype of the hyper-sexual, manipulative Black woman is more prevalent and more widely seen in the media from television, movies, magazines, and music videos. It is the Jezebel who is the African American woman who is not ashamed to take off her clothes in exchange for things she may need. The music industry especially popularizes strippers and video models as an acceptable and desirable occupation for a Black woman. Not only do majority of hip-hop lyrics degrade women to the lowest level that a woman can be degraded, but the music videos take special care to degrade the black woman even more.
Rap music videos depict a false image of what a real woman looks like in reality: “music videos have gotten so raunchy they might as well be pornography, presenting a hyper-sexual depiction of women that distorts and demeans the image of black women in particular. Even in the tamer videos, women might as well be prostitutes. They are objects, part of the bling-bling, like the platinum chains and diamonds sported by rappers” (Daily Review 7/4/04).
It is just in this way that Saartjie Baartman was displayed and responded to and it is in the way Black women have been consistently considered: as objects of sexual exploitation. Hip hop music has become explosively popular in the US and much of the rest of the world in the last twenty years. Hip hop music influences larger society in powerful ways and has become a subculture that has transcended race, socioeconomics, and gender. Its popularity and ability to transcend across many social lines that are usually impenetrable is the biggest threat to the perception of Black women by others and by themselves.
When leaders like President Barack Obama and other prominent politicians reference lines from popular rap songs, they are often received with admiration and excitement by the media and larger public. Such a response from a pop culture reference reveals hip hop music’s ability to influence culture on a magnanimous level. Hip hop music is an industry run by men, with overwhelmingly male artists who provide entertainment for other men. In this understanding of the industry, the images of women presented through this massively popular music are exclusively chosen by men.
Additionally, hip hop music tends to sell a lifestyle and not just a song or beats. As was previously discussed in the quote from Daily Review, expensive material things and several beautiful and naked women are things to achieve and obtain. An object is for use of some kind and the hip hop music industry has single handedly crystallized the developing notion that women in general are objects for sexual pleasure exclusively. This idea is particularly harmful for Black women and girls in the face of a media that has very few other images of Black women.
White women are of course objectified and hyper-sexualized in the same manner, but the damage of such objectification is buffered by other images of a range of professional White women, heroines in film and television, prominent White actresses, politicians, businesswomen, journalists, etc “Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel” (Pilgram, 2002).
Black women and girls have very few other images to measure themselves against or look to for motivation or encouragement. These pervasive images of the Black woman as a promiscuous and manipulative Jezebel juxtaposed with the lack of other, more positive images, is extremely damaging to the Black woman’s self-esteem. These images also inform others of how to perceive and ultimately treat Black women, which is further corrosive to the Black woman’s self-esteem. As if the power that images tend to have on the human psyche were not enough, hip hop music also incorporates lyrics that correspond to the tone of disrespect for Black women.
Negative epithets that refer to a woman’s sexual and social behavior like “ho” and “bitch” are common, frequent, and acceptable in hip hop lyrics and serve to further denigrate Black women. Often, rappers and fans alike make excuses for the disturbing images and lyrics featured in songs and videos, expressing that the women featured in the videos are working of their own volition and are not being objectified. While the women of these videos are participating of their own volition, the degrading lyrics and the degrading images are not negated just because the women are choosing to participate.
The message being sent is still clear and ubiquitous: Black women are objects of sexual gratification that do not have to be spoken to or spoken of as human beings. Viewers are influenced by these images and lyrics and are encouraged to develop erroneous ideas about and monolithic perception of Black women. Additionally, because other, more positive images of Black women are missing in the media, viewers are left with little real information about the Black woman’s experience, life, and character.
Hip hop music has also set the standard of presentation for female rappers as well. Female rappers who have debuted in the last 20 years invoke the power the same sexual images and presentations as the male rappers do. More recent female rap artists like Nikki Minaj have amplified the hyper-sexual stereotype about Black women with her sexually charged lyrics, provocative style of dress, and various implants to enlarge her breasts and buttocks, looking not unlike Saartjie Baartman and the many beautiful women of Africa.
Artists who pre-date Nikki Minaj, like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, debuted in a similar fashion, using their sexuality through lyrics and risque media poses in which they were almost always scantily clad, to propel their careers. These female rappers only serve to further push the music industry’s agenda to denigrate women, Black women in particular, by buying into and proudly displaying the very stereotypical behaviors that function to keep hyper-sexualized images of Black women in the minds of viewers. Female rappers serve the same purpose as those women dancing in hip hop videos: to push the sexual agenda of a sexist music industry.
However, the message delivered through female rappers is pronounced solely due to the fact that the artist is a female who is promoting a hegemonic patriarchal message. The sexual nature of hip hop in general is made more acceptable if the objects of sexual exploitation, women, also become hip hop stars. Lastly, the current female hip hop stars are adopting images of beauty from childhood icons such as Barbie, as is the case with Nikki Minaj. The adaptation of Barbie for the purpose of hip hop is a clear indication that there is an agenda to capture all viewers’ minds to believe the images they are presented with about Black women.
The most effectual approach to challenging the erroneous and negative images of Black women in the media is for those who are aware and knowledgeable to expose the falsehoods of the pervasive stereotypes and ideas about Black women. Bibliography Frith, Susan. “Searching for Sara Baartman. ” Johns Hopkins Magazine, June 2009. http://www. jhu. edu/jhumag/0609web/sara. html (accessed April 20, 2013). “The Hottentot Venus. ” Accessed April 22, 2013. http://whgbetc. com/mind/hottentot_venus_emory. html. Payton, Brenda. “Sorority Sisters Combat Explotiative Rap Images. ” Daily Review (Hayward, CA). 4 July 2004. Pilgrim , David.
“Jezebel. ” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. . http://www. ferris. edu/jimcrow/jezebel. htm (accessed April 23, 2013). Clemlyn-Ann , Pollydore, and Jennifer A. Richeson. “Affective Reactions of African-American Students to Stereotypical and Counterstereotypical Images of Blacks in the Media.. ” Journal of Black Psychology. no. 3 (2002): 261-275. Simmonds, Felly Nkweto. “’She’s Gotta Have It’: The Representation of Black Female Sexuality on Film. ” Feminist Review. (1988): 10-22. http://www. jstor. org/discover/10. 2307/1395143? uid=3739936&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21102132644181 (accessed April 22, 2013).
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