Friday, November 12, 2010

Black Media, Colonized Beauty Standards and the Creation of the Modern Venus Hottentot

     Back in the late 90's a magazine catering to African-American males called "Black Men Magazine" hit the new stands. The slogan above the name declared that it was "For the Strong, Positive, Caring Brother." Thinking to myself that I fit at least part of that description, I picked up a copy. Within it's pages I found articles on finance, charitable ventures, social/political issues of the day, suggestions for vacation spots as well as reviews of newly released music, books and cars. There was also an editorial written by the magazines publisher and an article on Hollywood's 10 hottest black actresses accompanied by a full page pictorial of each. Thinking that I had found a magazine that could be the Esquire or GQ "for the strong, positive, caring brother", I subscribed.

     Well, that was then, this is now. To my chagrin, over a period of about 2 years Black Men Magazine morphed from a topical, informative periodical into a veritable monthly Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Each month articles of substance were replaced with more pictorials of increasingly scantily clad women. Known starlets were replaced with video vixens and beer ad models. The editorial was now a summary of the women featured within the issue and a sex advice column written by a former porn actress was a recurring feature. By the time my 2 year subscription was over, Black Men was well on it's way to becoming exactly what it is today - a magazine that can only be described as soft porn geared toward the perceived tastes of black men.

     Black Men Magazine is certainly not the only publication in this category. Over the past 10 or so years, a proliferation of magazines geared toward Amer-African men featuring women have quietly but steadily cluttered news stands. They have names like Smooth, King, SSX and Show. Almost without fail they all feature women striking provocative poses in various stages of undress. This is usually accompanied by a short bio that mentions her background, ethnicity, current projects and plans for the future. Also, there is almost always a mention of her likes/dislikes in the bedroom. These kinds of magazines are certainly nothing new. Hugh Hefner pioneered the genre in 1953 with the introduction of Playboy, a magazine featuring nude women. Penthouse and Hustler would soon follow (1969 and 1974 respectively) both pushing the envelope even further than Playboy in ways that I certainly won't describe. To my knowledge, the first such magazine to regularly feature Amer-African women was Players magazine (I was unable to find the history and origin of this magazine). Of these magazines the only one that commands any real respect in the world of journalism is Playboy. The magazine has a long history of publishing short stories by respected novelists and interviews with notable public figures. The others have made passing attempts at substantive writing, but mainly stuck to articles of a sexual nature.
     There are three primary differences in these pioneering nude magazines and the new ones I mention - these modern rags feature no real articles of substance, the women are not completely nude and they primarily feature women of color. Of the many disturbing recurring themes found in magazines like Black Men, Show, Smooth, etc., there are two that I find particularly interesting in terms of the ignorance of our own history - the abandonment of traditionally African features as a standard of beauty, and the obsessive emphasis on women with proportionately large posteriors. The latter I like to call the "Modern Venus Hottentot" obsession.

     For those who are unfamiliar, "Venus Hottentot" was the stage name of a woman named Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman who was the more famous of at least 2 South African women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th century Europe. She had the large buttocks that was common among most women of the South African Khoisan tribe, but was seen as highly unusual to Europeans. She was exhibited throughout Europe and encouraged to gyrate her nude buttocks for the entertainment of the spectators. Once her novelty had worn thin with Europeans, she was "scientifically" examined and allowed herself to be the subject of nude paintings. She died at 25 of an undetermined inflammatory ailment, possibly Smallpox. As if she wasn't humiliated enough during her life, her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in a Paris museum until 1974, then stored until South African President Nelson Mandela requested that France return her remains. France honored the request in March 2002 and a proper burial finally came in August of that year.
     The exhibition and "scientific" examination of Sarah Baartman, a slave of Dutch farmers, too a large degree formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female bodies and sexually. She was considered a gross curiosity and an exotic temptress in equal measure. The social, political, scientific and philosophical assumptions about black woman that were born from Sarah's trials are not only still with us today, but are perpetuated in these modern magazines, music and videos. In these forms of media, black women have been objectified and their worth reduced to the desired plumpness of body parts. Like so many issues within communities of color, we can no longer place the blame outside of ourselves - we are the ones perpetuating this more so than anyone else. These publications are often black owned and have an obsession with 40 inch plus posteriors. Models with almost-not-to-be-believed booty's are exhibited and paraded in Rap and R&B videos. This voyeuristic emphasis on the unique proportions of a black woman's body is no different in it's essence than the animalistic display of Venus Hottentot in the 19th century. These periodicals and videos have become modern media freak shows.

     Many of the images that we are allowing to be broadcast de-value women. In print they are almost always near naked with emphasis on breasts and buttocks, usually with a phallic prop and a purposefully clueless facial expression. In music videos they are portrayed as hyper sexual, materialistic, mentally vapid playthings of alpha males, usually doing the booty clap or suggestively sucking on a Popsicle. The sad irony is that these videos present a view of women of color that’s not radically different from that of 19th century slave holders. The message that is sent to young girls is that your sexuality is greatly valued over your intellect, your beauty over your brains. Your body and looks are infinitely more important to your advancement than your mental capacity. The message to young men is clear also. Women are only worthwhile if they are sexually available to you and physically that order. Which brings us to the issue of colonized beauty standards.

     One of my constant battles with my soon to be 5 year old daughter is instilling a sense of self beauty. At this age, the princess obsession is on full tilt and Cinderella, Snow White and Barbie rule the day. This is a wonderful phase of a young girls life especially as they are developing and stretching their "imaginary play" muscles. My challenge is that the standard of beauty that my daughter measures herself against comes from these images. She does not have blond hair cascading to her waist, fair skin and European facial features, so it is often a chore to convince her that she is indeed a princess. The recent introduction of Princess Tiana (Princess and the Frog) was a Godsend in this regard, as well as my recent discovery of Iridessa, one of Tinkerbell's fairy pals who is unmistakably a woman of color. Even Barbie has made remarkable strides in recent years. I've even found black Barbies that have traditionally African facial features as opposed to the usual "paint Barbie black" approach and to that I give kudos to Mattel. So the toy makers and and movie studios have begun to address the issue, but have we? Again, the men's magazines and videos WE put out there are replete with images of women who are barely recognizable as having any African ancestry, and in some cases they don't. The magazines regularly feature Latina and occasionally Caucasian models who fit the "criteria". There is often a deliberate emphasis on the mixed ancestry of multi-racial models with "black" almost always listed last. It creates the perception that this is the least desirable of the mix. Why is it that we downplay African features as beautiful?

     Let me be clear. I have nothing against long haired, light-skinned, big booty women with sharp features. Full disclosure, I've dated a few. My concern is that our integration with dominant culture has diluted our love for self through assimilation. Our struggle to be treated as equal has given birth to a want to be something other than ourselves. We've abandoned an appreciation for our culture and even turned against it in an effort to be accepted. In the process we've poisoned our own perceptions of who we are and should be...especially as it pertains to black women. No race of people that fails to protect the image of it's fairest is afforded respect. The images presented in the magazines mentioned are compromising the character of black women to promote a narrow vision of what they should look and act like, and not to celebrating them for who they are. The psychological effects these video/print images have will effect the development, relationships and sexual/mental health of our children and community as a whole. Don't think it's that serious? Consider this....

and this...

     The bottom line is this. As men, we need to set and uphold a standard. That standard is the uplift and protection of women. If we continue to accept and consume what is being fed to us it will continue to be produced. We must stop perpetuating and accepting the lowest common denominator in the depiction of our women. It affects our mothers, sisters and daughters and our community as a whole. We must stand up and be the men that God has placed us to be - protectors, nurturers and providers. Marion McCleod Bethune once said that "ultimately a race is defined by the character of it's women". By allowing and broadcasting these degrading images and portrayals, what message are we sending about our women's character?

No comments:

Post a Comment