The media is on fire with questions about whether Nicki Minaj went "too far" with the artwork for her next single, Anaconda, which shows her from behind wearing just a pink G-String. Amazingly, what nobody is discussing is the wider issues of the historical roots, cultural resonance and contemporary implications of a mass circulated image that arguably reduces black women to just "big butts" and little more.
According to black cultural critics such as Patricia Hill Collins, one of the most famous historical examples of the way black women have been dehumanized through the "booty" is the case of a South African slave called Sarah Baartman. Baartman spent much of her life being exhibited as a "freak" because of the size of her buttocks. Known as the Hottentot Venus, she was put on display in London and Paris, often in a cage. After she died in 1815 - in poverty - she was dissected, and her sexual organs were housed in a Paris museum until 1974.
In porn there is no shortage of sites with the word "booty" in their names - Big Booty Cuties, Black Booty Cam - while others make it clear that the black woman's buttocks are the focus of attention - Sweet Chocolate Butt, Phat Ass Ebony, and Black Sweet Ass. And virtually every porn site featuring black women talks about the "booty" in its promo text, promising lots of "big black round asses".
This fetishization of the so-called "Black Booty" is also common in mainstream pop culture, especially hip hop (much of which is owned by white corporations) - and must be put in the context of the sexualized racism that black women have experienced in the US, going back to slavery and continuing through to the present day. Images of sex are never simply about sex, especially when it comes to African Americans in the US. The late film critic James Snead wrote in his book White Screens, Black Images, that "in all Hollywood film portrayals of blacks... the political is never far from the sexual." Indeed, one could add that the sexual is never far from the political when it comes to images of African American women across all media genres.
Racist images of black women are laden with a history of legitimizing the wholesale rape of black women on the plantations. Children who were the product of rape by white plantation owners and overseers were easy to spot because they were lighter skinned than children who had two African parents. How could one explain this away at a time when the white landowners were seen as fine, upstanding citizens? The answer, of course, was to brand the black woman as sexually out of control, possessed of an "animalistic" sexuality that was just too much for the white male slave owner to resist. He was thus cleansed of his sins by her constructed whoredom.
Pop culture images of black women wearing animal skins, made up to look like animals, or posed with animals abound in US media. Ironically, one of the most popular images of this type shows Nicki Minaj in an animal print jumpsuit. Kmart, cashing in on this, carries a line called the "Nicki Minaj look" that has a whole range of animal prints. In her video Stupid Hoe, Minaj is shown in a cage wearing a leopard skin suit, and pictures of animals are interspersed with images of her on all fours in the cage. And now her new single has the name of a snake, the traditional symbol of a sexual temptress!
Hypersexualized images of white women are also a staple of pop culture, but for white women this is not presented as a condition of their whiteness, since whiteness is colorless and hence invisible by virtue of its power status. For people of color, however, it is their very color that constantly makes them visible as a racialized group, since they carry the marker of "difference" on their skin. The hypersexualized images of black women thus serve to breathe new life into old stereotypes that circulate in mainstream society. While these stereotypes are often a product of the past, they are cemented in the present when they circulate in pop culture.
Irrespective of Minaj's own personal economic and cultural power - and what sometimes looks like an ironic rebranding of racist images in her videos - the notion of black women as hypersexualized and promiscuous still shapes the dominant ideology in the US. From Ronald Reagan's racist term "welfare queen," an utterance he used to refer to black women receiving public assistance, to the New York Post's headline proclaiming Nafissatou Diallo to be a "hooker" after she accused Dominique Strauss Kahn of rape, the USA has yet to come to terms with its ugly racist past and the ways in which racist images continue to shape the white imagination today.
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