Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nothing but a Piece of Ass: Cultural Representations of Black Women

This summer my 13 year old and I took a trip to France and London. She left with a list of sites that she wanted to visit. One of which was Madame Tussauds in London. Like good tourists we secured our tickets, waited on line and once we entered made a bee line to see the One Direction exhibit (well at least she made a bee line, I was a tad slower). After standing in line, with a group of teen and preteen girls who waited patiently to take their picture with One Direction, we meandered to the other figures.

Source: http://www.layoutsparks.com/1/244916/three-women-black-shadow.html
In a sea of predominately White wax figures stood J-Lo. I watched as some stood by “her” taking pictures. And then this group of teen girls came in. Squealing in delight they ran to J-Lo and started to strike their poses. Interestingly the posing involved grouping/touching/cupping J-Lo’s derrière. So I stood and watched. It happened again when another group of girls entered the exhibition room. Interestingly enough none of the other figures were treated in this manner.

We left this room and slowly made our way to the other exhibits. We saw the Queen and her family, Princess Dianna, Pelé, and the list goes one. At each stop, I would stand back and observer how others interacted with the statues. No one groped the Queen. Pelé was over looked as folk tended to flock to David Beckham. Then we got to a room with figures such as Adele and Amy Winehouse. Also in her element was a statue of Beyonce. Again, I watched as others took pictures. I even took a few myself with the likes of Bob Marley. Then I heard the squeals and laughter. I looked around and there was a group of girls standing next to Beyonce. As was the case with J-Lo they positioned themselves to take pictures with her and once again there was the cupping of the behind. There was much giggling and oohing as they did their best to ensure that Beyonce’s behind would be captured in their memories.

At that moment I could feel deep within me what Sara Bartman must have felt as she stood there for others to giggle and stare are her naked body. Unlike J-Lo and Beyonce she was displayed live (and even in death she was not shielded). Although it was not my daughter or my body that was grouped, I felt violated and trivialized. I was reduced to simply my ass.  I became commodified at that moment in a way that I had never experienced before.

As noted by Jacqueline Bobo (1995, p. 36), “fictionalized creations of black women are not innocent; they do not lack the effect of ideological force in the lives of those represented in that black women are rendered as objects and useful commodities in a very serious power struggle” (emphasis in original). Scripts, such as the piece of ass script, are ascribed to Black women’s bodies as way of making meaning and determining the order of society. The scripts and the meanings they assign to the Black female body have a long and multifaceted history. Europeans’ early gaze on Black women’s bodies resulted in particular scripts of not only her total body, but also its individual parts. The Black woman’s lips, nose, buttocks, and other body parts were scripted to result in the narrative of the Black woman as “other” and “non-woman.”

The physical ass script, which I argue in the manuscript Shadow Bodies, is part of the larger Ass metanarrative ascribed to Black women’s bodies. As I argue this metanarrative consist of at least three sub-narratives: ‘piece of ass’, the physical ass, and the ass question.  

For the young women at Madame Tussauds, they relied on the physical ass script to contextualize and respond to the bodies of these minoritized women (I’m not suggesting that the Latina and the Black female body is scripted in the same manner. However, there are some similarities in terms of how parts of the body are scripted). In this gaze of Black women’s behinds, there is an implicit and sometimes explicit notion of an alien body—something to be stared at and giggled over. While viewed as an alien body, primarily by Whites, it is simultaneously used to evoke erotic pleasure—a chance to look at the “forbidden fruit” of Black flesh.

Since our return, I periodically thought of my experience at the museum. However it was brought front and center as a result of the so-called “sex-tape” produced by the (in)famous Russell Simmons. While I have not seen the tape and have no interest in seeing such, as a result of the commentary, I would argue that the ideology that led to the production of this tape and the treatment of Black women in other cultural productions is a result of the physical ass and piece of ass scripts that are ascribed to Black women’s bodies. While I treat these two scripts are separate, they are related and intertwined.

The Black woman, through the Ass script, is read as a sexual object. She becomes a simple possession to create desire, entertain, and serve as a source of pleasure and as a means of managing/exerting racialized patriarchy.

Read as objects to be used, as signified in terms like “booty call,” the Black woman has been reduced to a “piece of ass.” It is next to impossible to recognize Black women as human when they are scripted as a “piece of ass”—readily available for sexual conquest. These power relations operate at both the microstructure and the macrostructure levels of the family and nation.

While I recognize that the Ass script can be used and inverted by Black women, and others, in a way that is celebratory, it’s use is generally harmful. I make this claim because of the ability of the scripts to make Black women shadow images. Scripts create a particular identity of Black womanhood. Scripting the Black woman as an ass, that is, reducing her to her derrière, as a piece of ass, and as a troubling “ass” question embodies her value to society. Such scripts influence how her body is treated and affected, particularly by those in power. This script does not always allow for the reading of Black women’s bodies as a site that can be victimized, hurt or damaged. As such, the Black woman’s body, and consequently the Black woman in totality, can never truly be a seen and or appreciated.

Excerpt taken from the author’s manuscript Shadow Bodies.