Bodies of Difference Essay“Woman, then, stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
― Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
In contemporary visual culture theory the concept of the male gaze, as proposed by Laura Mulvey, has been instrumental in informing the way in which we view images of female bodies in the arts and media. The positioning of women as fetish objects for male viewing pleasure is a critical concept that has been ingrained into the contemporary analysis of visual culture from a feminist perspective. The idea of visual culture perpetuating racial stereotypes is also a well-established contemporary critical position- for example Richard Dyer’s essay “Lighting for Whiteness” in which he discusses how cinematic lighting techniques influence perceptions of character and morality on a racial, and racist, basis . However, when it comes to the presentation of African American women in art and visual culture, the analysis seems to focus on concepts stemming from antebellum era stereotypes (jezebel, mammie, welfare queen), and how certain celebrated depictions of African American women break through these stereotypes, a vision of racial uplift and strength, rejecting all stereotypes and those that “hold them down”. They simultaneously embody the role of the victim and the survivor, they suffer through racism, domestic abuse, economic disadvantage, and other circumstances that demonstrate their victimhood, and emerge stony and unflinchingly strong, and thus become symbolic both of feminine empowerment and racial uplift. Whilst such narratives are unquestionably more productive than flat negative stereotyping, what I wish to propose in this essay is that such female figures, figures that embody strength and a rejection of stereotype, are becoming a recurring trope of visual culture, art and literature in and of themselves. This trope of the strong black woman, sexually aware and in total control, is as harmful as any other, and has become a culturally acceptable stereotype of black femininity- it has become a template for their “otherness” that is accepted by those who fight for racial and gender equality, and had been transformed from an rejection of racism and misogyny into a stereotype that rejects nuance. I will examine this idea in relation to artists (visual, musical and literary) who present black femininity in this way, and examine the stereotyping and potential fetishisation of the “strong black empowered woman” trope that I have outlined, and how ideas of gaze, race, and femininity impact on these works.
I will begin with a well-known photographic piece by Renée Cox: “Hot-en-tot” (Fig.1) . In this photographic self-portrait, Cox “dons an armature of “tits and ass”” which resembles Sarah Baartman, an African American Woman and historical figure, exhibited in freak shows due to her proportionally large buttocks, and toured around Europe for the viewing pleasure of a white European audience. The work itself is incredibly powerful- it plays with established racial stereotypes and grotesque fetishisations of the black female figure, using the image of Baartman to convey and challenge ideas of the racialized body. The image is reminiscent of Andrea Lee’s Sarah Phillips short story collection, and the story “In France” in which the title character Sarah plays a game with male companions whereby she stands on a box and turns slowly, so they can observe and critique her body; a demonstration of the exoticism, fetishisation and sexualisation of the African American woman’s body . In this image, Cox stares powerfully down the lens of the camera with a mixture of hurt and defiance in her eyes. Her expression both dares the viewer to keep looking, and to look away. The unbroken gaze of Cox unsettles the dynamic between viewer, and the subject/object form of Cox’s augmented figure. She challenges the way in which she is looked at, and forces the viewer to confront their own gaze- one which fetishises, lingers on the “tits and ass” which embody the racial stereotype she is both performing and rejecting. Whilst the power of this piece is undeniable- Cox confronts the sexualised, fetishised view of her body from her position as a black woman, in this image one can see the strong black female/ victim of racial profiling and cultural violence trope that I previously proposed. That isn’t to say that this isn’t an incredibly powerful, important piece of artwork, but my aim is to demonstrate that works such as this, whilst they present ideas that apparently reject the stereotyping of black women and fetishising of their bodies, may inadvertently play to a different trope of black femininity. The mixture of strength and vulnerability in Cox’s gaze sets the figure up in a position of victimhood, and subsequent recovery and strength, which fits the narrative of racial uplift. Cox has been beaten down by these ideas of what her body should be- in her armature and her expression one can see that pain- and that pain has the potential to be fetishised, as does the strength to overcome that. This piece aesthetically presents a black female body of a racist stereotype- it demonstrates and rejects this, but it also presents another, definite image of what a contemporary African American woman should be- a stereotype sanctioned by liberal thinkers, black rights activists and feminists alike; an image of a victim reclaiming power that black women should aspire to. This image is an acceptable rejection of the commodification of the black body because it commodifies and controls it in a different way- through the uplift politic.
Kara Walker approaches racialised sexual violence, both cultural and physical, in an entirely different way. Whilst Cox observes the fetishised racial gaze as one directional and focussed on the black female body, and criticises this with strength and an unflinching gaze back, Walker approaches issues of gender violence through an antebellum era narrative, and with a dark humour that has been met with discomfort. Arlene R. Keizer describes the work as follows: “Walker’s work is explicit, playful, grotesque, and deliberately shocking: it is emphatically not the work of mourning.” However if Walker’s work is not the work of mourning, then what is it the work of? In “The Emancipation Approxiamtion” (fig.2) , a black female slave figure can be seen performing oral sex on a “founding father” style figure who is being held up by a male black slave; I would argue in this piece, where the female figure seems to be freely participating in the sexual experience, is one of reclamation of the sexual identity of enslaved black women; it makes the bold claim that not all of their sexual experiences were dominated and owned by their masters, that they were capable of pleasure and sometimes found it. Of this work, Keizer writes that “[these] works dare to imagine that black women may have experienced sexual desire for the white men who dominated them. Many in the black community experience this suggestion as a profound heresy, as a breaking of the last taboo” . In this quote, it can be seen that in her engagement with an alternative to her own history, Walker has been highly criticised, as if the notion of a slave engaging with a master and gaining any sexual pleasure from the actions is a total impossibility, and more than that, an abomination. What Walker is doing here is to suggest a different possible dynamic to the rhetoric of slavery that is most commonly narrated; that all slave women were victims of sexual violence and did not derive any pleasure from their engagements. Where Cox challenges the sexualised gaze from a racial perspective through direct opposition, Walker rewrites and restyles it; in giving the black slave women in her work the power of sexual desire and pleasure, she undermines the trodden down black female stereotype that “mournful” works reinforce. She restyles history to give these women a semblance of pleasure, and in doing so is criticised for supposedly excusing the slave masters who did rape women. I believe the criticism goes deeper than a criticism of content; it is fundamentally a criticism of Walker for not correctly performing her identity as a black female; she refuses to sit and mourn the atrocities of the slave era quietly, and instead takes control of these narratives and rewrites them. About her work, Walker said “I really started working this way because I was so sick of that dialectic of my colored gal experience.” Walker here identifies the issue with her work; that she is expected to conform to the role of “coloured gal”, and when she does not, and creates work around antebellum era sex that crosses a line that others have created for her, she is criticised. However seemingly positive her “coloured gal” stereotype may initially seem to others, it is unavoidable that it is constraining; by expecting her work to conform to a certain image of slavery, this is restricting her artistic expression and ability to confront these issues as she sees fit. Walker’s refusal to conform to the contemporary ideas of acceptable black femininity draws criticism, because she dares to function outside of the dialectical roles of race and gender that she has been assigned.
Renée Cox performs acceptable black femininity- a fine balance between victimhood and strength, she accepts the damage done by stereotypic images of the black female body, and the cultural violence of these ideas, challenges them, and exposes them. She acknowledges her position as victim, and demonstrates a strength in overcoming that victimhood, embodying the “strong black empowered woman” trope that was previously outlined, by her defiant rejection of the things that put her in that position of victim, and is applauded and rewarded by the art world and critics for doing so; Walker rejects her position in the discourse around race and gender and chooses to strike out and create her own position, and is criticised for it. Where Cox empowers though critique of racial fetishised eroticism, Rihanna, domestic abuse victim and internationally renowned musical artist and performer, rejects her victimhood and embraces the eroticism of violence, and the violence of eroticism in a similar way to Walker, and uses this to further her career as a performer. Nicole R. Fleetwood writes that “while never denying the violence she experienced in her relationship, Rihanna worked to distance herself from the language of victimisation and image of helplessness that often accompany the label “battered woman”; instead, she cultivated a closeness to erotic pleasure that incorporates practices of pain”. Therefore, it can be seen that through her music, performance, and public persona, Rihanna rejects this trope of the victim, or “battered woman” who gallantly survived, and refuses to be a two-dimensional representation of uplift and victory over her abuser. She doesn’t deny the violence, but dares to deny her audience a story of survival; in her refusal to position herself as a victim, she instead narrates complex ideas around intimate violence, and eroticism. As Fleetwood writes, “In Rihanna’s post-assault performances, there is a refusal of a particular sexual and racial politic of uplift and transcendence.” In her performance and her music, she rejects this stereotype of the empowered survivor, instead opting to perform more complex narratives, where the border between erotic violence and domestic abuse is made muddy, where she is not just a “battered woman” but a woman who takes erotic pleasure from pain, and whose experiences go beyond that acceptable narrative of abuse and survival. She narrates complexity, in her sexuality, in her desire, in her relationships and in her abuse. What is interesting about this is the reaction to her refusal to play along the acceptable lines of how she should embody her own victimhood. Fleetwood describes how Rihanna was on the receiving end of “a firestorm of criticism from activists, cultural critics, and music consumers and has been subjected to particular forms of regulation by some of the most ardent opponents of gender violence and supporters of black female empowerment.” It is this that I believe is crucial to understanding how the “empowered black women who survived” trope is potentially an extremely oppressive force, rather than a positive template for black femininity.
In the case of Rihanna, the expectation was that she would embrace her victimhood, maybe cry a little in interviews detailing her ordeal, allowing her personal trauma to become public tragedy, and then emerge from it all a strong woman who overcame, a symbol of the power of black women in domestic violence situations. The reality was wholly different- she never denied the assault, and wove it into her work, but did not present a clean cut, “I am victim, he is abuser” narrative- she instead played with ideas of violence, eroticism and intimacy, intertwining them in a way that angered many activists. Some claimed that she was doing other abuse victims a disservice in her rejection of the “battered woman” image; and this is where the power politics of race and sex come into play. Rihanna’s choice to express what happened to her as an artist was criticised because she refused to represent all women of colour. Narrating and exploring her own experiences with heterosexual violence and masculine control, as well as eroticism, was not sufficient. As a black woman, she was expected to perform according to the “ideal standard” of victims. Rather than playing on ideas of erotic violence for her own gain, she should have “known her place” as a black woman and victim, and performed in a way that takes on the burden of representation that being a high-profile black female entails; she should have performed an acceptable narrative of victimhood, and survival. Those who chastised her claimed to be proponents of “black female empowerment” and “opponents of gender violence”, and yet criticised Rihanna for exploring what happened to her on her own terms. Thus, the stereotype of the survivor, the strong black woman, is called into question; how can an individual claim to support black sexuality and empowerment, and yet viciously criticise and regulate a woman who does that on terms that differ from their own. In this criticism, a truth is revealed; that black female empowerment is only acceptable on certain terms that fit with the accepted cultural narrative. This stereotype of the strong black survivor oppresses and controls; it uses Rihanna’s gender and race to enforce and regulate her behaviour, and reprimands her for not conforming to someone else’s standards on the basis that she is obliged to take on a burden of representation because of her race.
Therefore, I propose that because of this expectation that black women should be these unflinchingly strong symbolic figures of happiness, comfort in their sexuality, and inner strength, and because of the weight of this expectation to perform these roles, both within the black community and outside it, that any female artist (be that visual, literary, or musical) is bound by these expectations. Returning to the Laura Mulvey quote with which I began this essay, that women are “bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions”, I believe that women are now beginning to be bound by a new set of expectations, that they are bound by the obsession to see perfectly strong feminist figures. What the examples in this essay demonstrate is that there is a new fantasy and obsession that women, and particularly women of colour, have to live out. This is a fantasy that blossomed out of oppression, and dictates that black women must pay tribute to the horrors of a racist and colonial past, respect and mourn. It dictates that black women must overcome their struggles in a way that opposes patriarchal oppression and racism; that all black women must be an example by which other black women can and should model their lives. It places a burden of responsibility on all black women to perform in a way that is deemed correct, and what is interesting about this is that this weight of expectation of performance does not stem from a place of overt oppression, but from a place that claims a desire to liberate and empower black women, which makes it even more troubling. Renée Cox exemplifies this woman, and is praised and revered (and rightly so) for demonstrating her strength and power as a black woman. However, Kara Walker and Rihanna demonstrate their position as a black woman in ways that do not work with the burden of representation in ways that are deemed acceptable. In her reimagining and rewriting of sexual violence in slave narratives, Walker has been met with harsh criticism for not presenting works of mourning, instead imagining these master-slave sexual relationships as complex and layered, even presenting slave women as deriving sexual pleasure from the encounters. Similarly, Rihanna approaches the domestic violence she faced not from the position of a victim or of a recovered battered woman that found strength and overcame; she never denies the assault, but instead places herself in a position of a woman engaging with the complexities and interwoven ideas of intimate violence and pleasure. In her rejection of the expectations the public had of her, and her decision to deal with violence in a way that highlighted the complexities that she lived, she was criticised. This, I feel as though through my use of examples, there is an obvious issue with any stereotypic depiction of women, and it can be seen that the burden of representation that women feel is harmful to their artistic output if it restricts the expression and images they desire to create.
1 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1985) p.804
2 Richard Dyer, “Lighting for Whiteness” in White, ed. Richard Dyer (London, Routledge, 1997) p.89
3 Renée Cox, “Hot-en-tot”, photograph. Last accessed 2 April 2017, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/renee-cox
4 Debra S. Singer, “Reclaiming Venus, the Presence of Sarah Baartman in Contemporary Art” in Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot”, ed. Deborah Willis, (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2010) p.89
5 Andrea Lee, Sarah Phillips, (New York, Random House, 1984
6 Arlene R. Keizer, “Gone Astray in the Flesh: Kara Walker, Black Women Writers and African American Postmemory” PLMA 123 (2008) p.1656
7 Kara Walker, “The Emancipation Approximation” (photograph by Brent Sikkema) last accessed 4 April 2016, http://db-artmag.de/archiv/05/e/ausstellungen-karawalker.html
8 Keizer, “Gone Astray in the Flesh”, p.1666
9 Kara Walker, “I Hate Being Lion Fodder:An Interview/Conversation via Email Between DariusJames and Kara Walker in Deutschland Bank Mag, Last Accessed 4 April 2016, https://kathmanduk2.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/from-the-archives-kara-walker-i-hate-being-lion-fodder/
10 Nicole R. Fleetwood, “The Case of Rihanna: Erotic Violence and Black Female Desire”, African American Review 45 (2012) p.420