Earlier this month singer Janelle Monáe issued a serious clapback to a Twitter follower who suggested she was too sexually attractive in her new song and its accompanying video Yoga:
In Monáe’s words:
Nicely put Janelle.
This response is in keeping with what has been part of Monáe’s entire philosophy since entering the music industry as well as made most explicit by Yoga. She recognises institutional racism and sexism and makes a point of kicking over the hurdles such social inequalities present. Much has been made of the lyrical declaration “You cannot police me, so get off my areola!” that features in the song. To me, this expression of female independence and power was imbued with the ongoing struggle for women to truly own their bodies and more specifically, those nine words communicated the complete physical exploitation of the black woman.
More generally, we can argue that such a statement is a promotion of the “free the nipple” campaign – a movement that started in New York and has been gaining ground by addressing the public banning of topless women in the USA, including during breastfeeding. Across the world, women continue to fight for the right to breast feed in public and for this entirely natural act to be acceptable in the workplace. Certain governments – such as in Venezuela – have been more supportive of women feeding their children on the job alongside the more general promotion of breast feeding infants over the use of baby food (Pearson 2013). Meanwhile, on the other side of the world actress Alyssa Milano recently drew attention to the UK’s policies on public breastfeeding, when milk she had pumped was confiscated at London Heathrow Airport, despite claims that she followed the airport’s guidelines (Zeilinger 2015). This example of public violation and humiliation demonstrates a continued hyper-sexualisation of the female body in addition to how far we need to go to socially normalise breast feeding once and for all. Apparently the fight for women to own their bodies is still necessary 15 years into the 21st century if we literally need to ask how, when and where we can feed our children (Valeii 2014).
On the other hand, Monáe’s song expresses a sense of physical freedom, strength and pride for women, encompassing the way we dress and move, combating a male gaze that views women as merely the consumable counterpart to men rather than individuals in their own right. The very idea that women can dress how they want and go where they like without fear of chastisement or attack seems to be quite a radical one when we consider victim-blaming discourses in anti-rape policies, audible from the UK (Glosswitch 2015) to India:
As we can see, these attitudes towards how women should dress and behave in public, as well as the controlled road to motherhood, creates a social environment which poses serious hurdles for women and especially women of colour, for whom this becomes much more of a conversation about basic survival. This is not to take anything away from the enormous fight that women have engaged in for suffrage and enfranchisement – on a global scale – in order to obtain the faintest glimpses of equality, nor is it to dismiss the hard-won victories.
However, we cannot ignore the vast disparities in the rights afforded to white women compared to women of colour. At a very basic level, it is made easier for white women to fight for their rights than it is for women of colour, actress and comedian Mo’Nique discussed recently in a radio interview.
Black women and girls are considered to be so unusually difficult that they receive higher sentencing for the same crimes committed by white women and face harsher discipline in schools (Vega 2014). At the same time – on the diagonally opposite side of the socio-political spectrum – white men are free to exploit the image and public fascination of the black female to their own devises, as white, all-male, metal band “Black Pussy” are currently illustrating (Aplerku 2015), just as the Rolling Stones did with their 1971 song Brown Sugar.
Take also for instance the historical institutionalised sexual and physical assault of the black female body during slavery and imperialism, which also carries on today at the hands of the police (Batista 2015 and Fierce 2015). Having said this, whereas the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray (to name so few) in the USA have been met with a national as well as international fury (Woolf et al 2015), the deaths of African American women and little girls, such as Rekia Boyd, at the hands of police go largely unnoticed, failing to rally a sustained outcry (Foster 2015). As the black male body is policed on both sides of the Atlantic using stop and search policies, the female black body is policed through control of sexuality, motherhood and also hair. The TSA only recently declared that they would cease to single out black women with big hair at airports for additional checks (Dalrymple II 2015). This news can only be taken as a small victory when once considers that in 2013, a school in Ohio had banned afro hairstyles (BGLH 2013), in spite of their historical and global usage by people of African descent (BGLH 2015). Meanwhile, people of African descent in the West are marginalised, punished and demonised for their blackness, whites benefit via frameworks of cultural re-appropriation, especially within the music and fashion industries (Chang 2014 and Clifton 2015).
The black female body – in the white, Western, capitalist and hegemonic gaze – is merely a site for the production of labour; it does not exist for the pleasure or purpose of the woman herself. When black women deviate from this, they incite fierce punishment. This may come across as a rather radical or extreme statement to make, however the compelling evidence of a long-standing legacy that links back to the global European colonial era between the late 15th and early 20th centuries makes it difficult to argue against. The European consumption of the black female body has been viewed as both sampling the exotic and pursuing a smart business venture for centuries, as is alluded to in the Amma Asanta film Belle (2013) and explored vividly in literature, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (2010).
Notably, the lead characters of both Beloved and The Long Song are women, based in the USA and Jamaica respectively during slavery, who were not raised by their mothers due to the institution of slavery. This same institution prevents both characters from raising their own children with Beloved’s Sethe (based on the real tale of Margaret Garner) killing her daughter to prevent her from being taken back into slavery and The Long Song’s July (herself the product of slave rape) losing both of her children to the perversities slave trade. As Levy almost comically describes July’s forced conception, one cannot find even a hint of humour in Morrisons accounts, which depict the brutal mutilation of Sethe’s mother and the horrific study carried out on Sethe herself by Schoolteacher and his nephews. In short, white societies have consistently attempted to restrict black sexuality and motherhood while exploiting both that their will for poli-pleasure principles and cheap labour forces respectively. The body of the black woman has also been the site of prolonged scientific experimentation, such as that foisted upon Sara Baartman (1790-1815) in life as well as in death and that which is depicted by Morrison when Sethe proclaims “And they took my milk!” (pg. 20).
The legacy of these dark times is carried into the present day by the systems of control of black female reproductive rights in the US with the mass incarceration of African American mothers accused of drug abuse, lack of continued support for mothers on welfare who choose to have additional children and coerced long-term contraception methods, as written about by Dorothy Roberts (1997). Nikolas Rose noted that 21st century epistemological concepts of illnesses make claims regarding the prevalence of certain conditions within certain groups (2006: 19). Alana (Helberg-)Proctor advances this argument within the intersectional discipline of medicine and race, stating that in the Dutch context ethnicity is a highly constructed concept but is used as a factual variable in scientific inquiry, leading to knowledge production on ethnic minority groups and the public conceptualisation of problem groups that need to be controlled and saved from themselves (Proctor et all 2011: 1844-1845).*
Moreover, health policies especially refuse to acknowledge alternative perceptions and/or constructions of the female body that would otherwise recognise female agency. The British National Health Service recently announced that it would begin to record all (female) patients with genital piercings and incisions as ‘suffering female genital mutilation’ from this month forward (Saul 2015). This categorisation of mutilation in itself demonstrates an unwillingness to give women complete control of their bodies and also refers to Western attitudes towards non-Western body-making practices. If white Western normality rests upon ideas of general black deviance (Collins 2004: 120), the whole concept of female genital cutting is considered an abomination that needs to be stopped at all cost, conveniently ignoring the ritual role it may play in certain socio-cultural settings (Khazan 2015). As Western activists build a platform against FGC it is at times unclear if they wish to aid the women who are speaking out against the practice throughout Africa and Middle East, or if they are more cynically merely furthering their own feminist agendas based on cultural specific ideas of what and how the female body should be. Also, the fact that FGC might actually be as much of a choice for some women as it is a horror to others is obscured in a manner that is inconceivable within discourses around piercings or even the body-hair waxing industry. The same can be said with regard to European political discourses, which have (in some cases successfully) argued for the banning of the burqa. This further illustrates how non-white bodies are not afforded even a theoretical claim or interpretation over themselves.
Monáe’s stance against racialised sexualisation echoes the movement of the late 1990s, which saw artists such as Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu lyrically defend their right to own their sex alongside their statuses as mothers, without one comprising the other (Collins 2004: 133-134). More contemporary examples of this include singer-songwriter Teedra Moses, whose independence, motherhood, sexuality and creativity is consistently placed at the forefront of her music (Punjabi 2015), as well as Jhené Aiko whose music has been noted as being inclusive of these themes.
Most famously in recent times, global superstar Beyoncé Knowles released her fifth and self-titled album to critical acclaim and feminist praise as she lyrically and visually grappled with marriage, death, motherhood in addition to a lot of sex. Knowles demands listeners and viewers recognise her equal roles as wife, mother and diva in a combination of moving and yet problematic ways. As cultural critic bell hooks discusses the career of Knowles’ so-called spiritual mentor Tina Turner, she urged caution to women of colour who attempt to subvert white, male gazes by exploiting them for notoriety and financial gain, for the risk of the re-perpetuation of long-standing racist stereotypes about black female sexualities. hooks elaborates that Turner’s hot, black woman reputation was the result of her husband’s ‘pornographic fantasy’ of the (white patriarchal) wild and animalistic black woman who also looks white (1992: 67-70). hooks muses over the contradiction between this image with the reality of the abuse Tina suffered at the hands of her husband, and the continued use of her stage persona following her divorce from Ike. Knowles and her husband, Jay-Z (Sean Carter), have their own musical partnership of sorts and even famously (if some-what tastelessly) compared themselves to Ike and Tina Turner in their song Drunk in Love, referencing the abuse instead of the talent.
We could on the one hand argue that Knowles should be free to express her sexuality however she chooses. However, even the most blatant of these expressions (such as in Blow and Partition) cater strongly towards male heteronormative desires and a literal thirst for the black woman. This thirst is not a harmless concept, implying a taste for an exotic adventure, using the black female body as its vessel, as suggested by Lambs Spiced Rum with the characterisation of Aurea in a recent publicity campaign:
“London, 1828. Population: over a million – many of them living in poverty. The populace marvelled at the strange wonders in the capital’s soon-to-be-famous zoo for the first time…And down in the docklands, Alfred Lamb was born…Having reached the heights of urban respectability, with a house and a handful of servants to protect and care for wife and children, something stopped Alfred from settling into the life his father could only have dreamt of. The Londoner knew there were fresh worlds to conquer, and they lay across the sea…in the vaults deep beneath the Thames where the Lambs stored and aged their barrels of rum, some brief fragments of Alfred’s Caribbean journal were found…They speak of a golden-eyed lady called Aurea, a beautiful enchantress who seems to have bewitched the straight-laced Victorian…Travelling from island to island, deep into the hot night-time darkness, she took him to places no respectable European would ever go…The chains of the rigid bounds of propriety that London life enforced were shattered, his mind opened to new thinking, fresh ideas, wild inspiration…The inspiration for the exotic, golden-amber, excitingly aromatic spirit that we know today as Lamb’s Spiced.”
Here Aurea is presented as not only exotic but also potentially dangerous as she “bewitched the straight-laced” Alfred taking him “to places no respectable European would ever go.” This quote from Lambs Spiced’s campaign reminds me of the routine Othering of non-whites in order to create an idea of European (in this case Victorian) normality. Alfred is so inspired by his adventures with this spicy, brown woman that her very essence is embodied by the rum that the Lamb family would produce and sell for European consumption. Given Jamaica’s tortured racial history, it is curious that Lambs Spiced would choose to use the image of a Jamaican black woman to sell rum. There doesn’t appear to be any irony in the message of their campaign, which openly traffics the concept of a brown temptress, who can be bought, sold, consumed and enjoyed as easily as an alcoholic drink.
Of course, Knowles’ album in and of itself is still a valuable artefact in the road towards women of colour truly owning themselves in every sense (especially with songs like Blue), which is why black women have been so defensive of the album in the face of any criticism. All the same, Beyoncé is not the be all and end all: as black women we need so much more. After all, within the Brazilian multi-racial and socio-historical context (which Knowles attempts to evoke with the accompanying music video for Blue), what good is the legend of Xica da Silva given the present-day treatment of women of colour (cf. Batista 2015)? This is not to rest that responsibility on the shoulders of Knowles or even Monáe even as the latter artist fulfils the paradigm of “radical body love” as set forth by Radio Redmond in greater ways than the former.
Beyond fully owning our own bodies and sexualities, we need to reach the political position where our bodies and lives mean more than merely the pleasure or pay check of another, generally a white man. We should be working towards breaking out of the existing racialised moulds that we know so well in order to create new opportunities and possibilities for future generations to take advantage of. It is a scary prospect and given the tortured history black women have had in confronting the stereotypes applied to them in all facets of their being, it is understandable why so many of us do not speak out. As shown in the Mo’Nique clip above, simply standing up for one’s self can be viewed as speaking out of turn for black women and therefore in its own way, survival is indeed its own counter-narrative, especially given that punishments for black and white women are not balanced. All the same, Monáe is not afraid to break that mould as she refuses to be consumed by white culture or male intention. We should commend her everyday for that.
* The view of the racialised other as a being a menace to society plays a role in the devaluation of non-white lives both in the way we produce history and in the way that people from certain groups are treated in social and foreign policies. While this particular example of the degradation and ultimate control of non-white bodies deserves further expansion and analysis within it’s own blog piece, for now consider the following examples: the lack of international attention paid to the German occupation and extermination of the Herero people in Namibia; the lack of attention paid to the five million non-Jewish individuals who were contained and exterminated by the Germans during the Third Reich, including black French and German citizens; the lack of attention or political intervention given to the ongoing oppression and land and resource grabbing tactics of indigenous people across the world by the descendants of white colonisers; the nonchalance regarding modern-day extradition policies aiding the mass incarceration of Muslim men; the ongoing political silence regarding the blatant racial hierarchy in employed in saving and drowning would be immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into your Europe.
** General web resources have been cited with the use of in text hyperlinks only and will not appear in the reference list above.
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