Stereotypical and over-sexualized caricatures of African American women have plagued the self identity and image of Black women for hundreds of years; the struggle for a correct and respectful portrayal continues to be fought. Age old negative depictions of Black women have found their way into our modern day society, and sometimes we do not even fully realize the impact of them, as they are often threaded into our heads through messages in hip hop or the media.
There were essentially four categories for Black Women to fall into in the 19th and 20th century. The Jezebel, mammy, welfare mama, and matriarch (Yarbough). The term Jezebel came from days of slavery as a way for white men to justify the rape and sexual mistreatment of African American women. The Jezebel woman was not satiated with sex with a black man, so she would seduce white masters; this essentially deemed the act the woman’s fault because she was portrayed as such an overly sexual being that she could just not control herself. The mammy, in contrast, was asexual and nurturing, she was only around to fulfill her domestic families’ needs and to please others. She was typically portayed, physically, as being extremely large, dark skinned and extremely unattractive. There was also the “welfare mama” who was known for basically living off of the system and not contributing much to society, having sex with men just to leech money off of them. Lastly, there was the sort of matriarchal, “bossy” woman who would use sex with men as a means of controlling and emasculating them (Yarbrough). The stark contrast between these four stereotypes of black women shows the deep rooted misunderstanding of the range and depth of sexuality between African American women.
The cultural artifact I have chosen to represent the struggles of African American women and sexuality is the image of Saartjie Baartman. Saartije or “Sarah” Baartman was one of two Khoikhoi women, who due to their enlarged buttoxes, were basically deduced to being “freaks of nature” (Hammell). The exhibit that they were a part of was called the “Hottentot Venus” and was displayed in Europe in the 19th century. “Hottentot” used to be the correct term for the Khoikhoi people, but is now considered offensive, and the term “Venus” comes from the Roman goddess of love (Hammell). The fact that the word “Venus” is derived from a symbol of sexuality shows just how early on black women began to be hyper-sexualized and misrepresented in the public eye. The picture on the left, a spinoff of the exhibit, shows Sarah Baartman as a sex symbol, simply existing in order to please men. A picture of a young woman from a hip hop album is juxtaposed next to this picture of Sarah Baartman to show that the hyper-sexualization of African American females has not subsided.
Many young feminists saw Saartije Baartman as one of the main origins of the misrepresentation of African American women in mainstream art. They see the depiction of Saartije as a the roots of a development of institutional and cultural racism. Sander Gilman (who was involved in the first wave of feminism learned in lecture), a cultural and literary historian said “While many groups of African Blacks were known to Europeans in the nineteenth century, the Hottenton remained representative of the essence of the Black, especially the Black female. Both concepts fulfilled the iconographic function in the perception and representation of the world (Hammell).” This damage on the image of African American women started with the image of Saartije but has not ended there. Influences from the 19th century and even earlier on have manipulated the image of the Black woman into the 21st century. The image of the young Black woman licking the lollipop seductively shows how the pressures and expectations of African American women have influenced not only the way society views them, but also the way they view themselves.
Women, for example, are portrayed in hip hop as exclusively sexual beings. You can even tell by the angles in the music videos, how men are shot from the bottom to symbolize “power” and women are shot from angles that focus on their lips, breasts, hips and butt; the image of women in pornography could very well intersect and be compared with the image of Black women in Hip Hop music videos. Black women essentially stand to reinforce mens masculinity and are rarely depicted as individuals more complex than sexual objects. The most accessible and mainstream images of African American women are to be found in Hip Hop videos and lyrics (Yarbrough). The lack of representation of a Black Women separate from media’s stereotypes has created an unhealthy link between hyper-sexualization and the modern day African American woman.
Words like “bitch” “ho” “queen” “ma” and such are used to depict Black women. These words, unfortunately, stem from stereotypes that date back hundreds of years (as seen by the matriarch, jezebel, welfare, etc., terms), so replacing them has proven to be extremely difficult. These words are loaded and extremely dangerous, because when an individual uses them they are lowering the image and status of African American women in peoples’ eyes and subjecting them to abuse and rape culture. Often, young African American women unknowingly chose to play into these dangerous stereotypes and representations in hopes of outlining and discovering an identity for themselves. A study done by Stevens and Few in 2005 showed that ideas about physical attraction were influenced by the media and therefore effected their interpersonal relationships and script with men (Albert). Needless to say, there are far too many Nicki Minaj’s telling young Black women that they can use their “buns” to captivate men and not enough Lauryn Hill’s telling them to stop “showing off their ass ‘cause they think its a trend” and let their minds flourish instead.
So what can we do to stop this cycle and repair the image of African Women so that they do not have to be subject to hyper-sexualization, rape culture and mistreatment? First, we must create more spaces that embrace Black womanhood. There a few mainstream resources African American women can reach out to that represents them in a positive light. We must also acknowledge that the artistry media that surrounds Hip Hop is a multimillion dollar industry that feeds off of body image and sexualization to get money. We need to encourage young girls that although this hyper-sexuality is what is represented on their TV screens and in their earbuds, that this image is not encouraged nor expected of them; we must reinforce that their worth is not defined by the standards of men.
Yarbrough, Marilyn. “Race, Racism and the Law.” Race, Racism and the Law. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Collins, Patricia. “Defining Black Feminist Thought.” – The Feminist EZine. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
Elizabeth, C, & Davies, B., (2008),Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Volume 1 pp. 137-138
Hammell, Nathaniel. “Sara “Saartjie” Baartman.” Leander. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.
Albert, Brandon. “Hip-Hop: The False Advertisement of Women | Commonplace.” Hip-Hop: The False Advertisement of Women | Commonplace. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.