In American history, Black women have been marginalized and stereotyped by society for a long period of time. They were often labeled as “grotesque,” “savage like,” and “unfeminine” due to their “differences.” Most people never seem to question why black women are the only ones wearing a maid’s outfit. This explains how natural it is to see African American women as “the other” or the subordinate figure in society. According to Patricia Hill Collins, a scholar in the field of feminism and gender studies in the African American community, the ideology of the slave era invented the image of Black womanhood, reflecting the dominant whites’ perspectives of black woman as an inferior character. As the 19th century gender ideology of the cult of true womanhood suggested that true women possessed piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity, white middle class women were expected to qualify such womanhood because whiteness was an indication of power in the dominant world. On the other hand, black women were expected to work as laborers for the white families. Because of the economic subordination to the whites, there was no getaway from hard work which gave them more of a masculine image than a pure fragile image.
It is important to keep in mind that the role of the black female body has not changed since the slavery era in terms of commodification. At the same time, it can be argued that black women are achieving economic power as well as fame by taking advantage of the popular perceptions of their body. For example, Beyoncé sold 600,000 copies of the new album, Lemonade and boosted the iTunes sales records by graphically showing the racial hierarchy the black race is facing. In fact, shifting back to the 19th century when slavery was still at its height in the Old South, black women were enjoying their bodies by dancing, singing, and expressing themselves in their own secret plantation community. Stephanie Camp, a feminist historian, supports this by saying that the black female body was an “important site of suffering but also of resistance, enjoyment, and potentially transcendence”. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to discover the cultural dynamics of the black female body and the usage of their bodies as a means of resistance or power.
Chapter 1. The Original Image of the Black Female Body
In viewing black female body as a material culture, the image of black woman with large buttocks can be explained as a popular feature. Readers brought up in the 21st century may associate black women with “booty” as Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj, both highly paid black artists. This comes from the popular dance moves of black women often including hip-shaking and grinding which emphasize their behinds. There are also non-black women who desire to have the buttocks which tend to be “gifted” to black women. Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, and other famous celebrities are rumored to have plastic surgery on their buttocks. Why? Because black booty is thought to be the symbol of eroticism. This means that the image of black female body as “sexual” lingers in the present 21st century. The question is, when did this image emerge? This chapter will reveal the original image of the black female body and discover how the image is passed on in current American society.
First of all, the Africans were the original human beings to be “found” by the Europeans. It shifts back to the history of the Atlantic slave trade when African enslavement by the Europeans were prominent. When Barbados became England’s first colony committed to slave labor, male travelers marked black women as “a reproductive value that was both dependent on their sex and evidence of their lack of femininity.” Travel accounts produced in Europe, particularly from England, gave popular examples of black women as monstrous and reproductive. By the 18th century, more than fifty new works spread through Europe and both writers and readers were embedded of this over-exaggerated idea of African women. Peter Kolb’s 1731 The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope, challenged the stereotypes of “Hottentot” women, who were labeled as beastly women of all Africans, by attempting to redeem this group by marking their modest behavior. “Hottentot” means “to stammer” and it has been used as the name of the ethnic group, Khoikhoi. They were called Hottentots by the Dutch founders because they were using an unfamiliar language that the “civilized” human could not understand. These graphic visuals recorded by European voyagers resulted in creating the image of the “monstrous hyper-woman”. Considering that white Europeans were publishing these records, it can be analyzed that the black female body was a major focus of interest among the white culture. These visual impacts became embedded in the Europeans’ minds and had been carried on for generations.
In the research of the black female body, one South African woman is said to be the original subject publicly exhibited in England and France from 1810 to 1815. Her name was Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a Khoisan woman who was namely called the Hottentot Venus. She is one of the key subjects to discuss in this paper because she was the first recorded African woman identified with the image of black woman of heightened sexuality and grotesqueness. Baartman worked as a slave in Cape Town, South Africa while she was discovered by a British doctor, William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel to England with him. He told her that she could earn a fortune by letting other foreigners examine her body. It is evident that Dunlop wanted to make money by putting Baartman on display as a “scientific curiosity”. She was often exhibited at parties in Paris to provide entertainment and this stimulated the audience to think black female body as an object of display. Especially her buttocks were portrayed in an exaggerated way and the image of black women with large buttocks became the features of black body. As Sander Gilman explains,
This was the steatopygia, protruding buttocks, the other physical characteristics of the Hottentot female which captured the eye of early European travelers…The figure of Sarah Baartman was reduced to her sexual parts. The audience which had paid to see her buttocks and had fantasized about the uniqueness of her genitalia when she was alive could, after her death and dissection, examine both.
After Baartman’s death, her body was displayed in the exhibition entitled the Musée de l’Homme, held in Paris. It symbolized the brutal slavery behind Baartman and highlighted the difference of “race” between white and black. Even after her death she was examined by the Europeans only to produce the image of an animalistic black woman.
The over exaggerated image of black females reinforced the objectification of women. While white women were “culturally mature” objects, black women were thought as more of a wild animal far from the word “cultured”. This image had been carried on to North America where slavery and segregation was the theme from the 17th to 19th century. Slavery started in America when African slaves were sent to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Slaves were a major labor force in American colonies from the 17th to 18th centuries. Unlike Europe where the images of black women were spread through travel accounts, films played a central role in America in depicting black women as mammies or the exotic “Other”. After World War I, the U.S. film industry became the most powerful cultural commodity in the world. It did not lose power even after World War Ⅱ and Hollywood continued to expand its economic power. This powerful industry cultivated the stereotypical image of black women. The next chapter will discuss the portrayals of black women in film to show how the black aesthetic was captured by the industry and the different mindsets black actresses had in acting as a black woman.
How Popular Culture Portrays Black Women
Hip-hop culture is a crucial element in the representation of the black female body. According to Gwendolyn D. Pough, a scholar in feminism and gender studies, hip-hop is the culture and a youth movement which started in the mid-1970s South Bronx. It hits the same era when Blaxploitation was on the rise. To distinguish rap and hip-hop which tends to be explained as a music genre, this paper will use Pough’s definition; hip-hop as a culture and rap as the music included in this culture. Rap music was an outlet for the marginalized groups in America such as Blacks and Hispanics to speak out against poverty, police brutality, racism, feminism, and many more issues. It was not merely a popular music but a highly political statement against white supremacy.
The background of containment is the power relations between the money-making music industry and black artists who want to sell well. Women’s exclusion from the popular music industry comes from the notion that following the dominant ideologies of race, class, and gender would become the most profitable business. This leads to the creation of black women’s image as commodities to be sold and displayed as sexual products. To be clear, white female artists such as Lady Gaga or Christina Aguilera can be interpreted as artists who use their deviant sexuality but a white hip-hop artist is rare in the popular culture. One of the few well-known artists is Iggy Azalea but rankings show that the majority of the hip-hop artists are black. Since hip-hop was originally from blacks, there are few white artists who invaded the culture. Black women on the other hand, are sold by their performance on music videos and the ghetto sound of hip-hop culture. This fits the meaning of containment, in which the images of black female body as the “exotic other” and the social class of blacks as underclass were produced.
As sociologist Rana Emerson noted, music videos contain imagery that reproduce the dominant ideology of the industry and they are permeated by controlling images of Black womanhood. One of the most successful black and interracial film production companies, Video Team, produced a television series called My Baby Got Back (1992-2007) which was named after a Sir Mix-a-Lot rap song. Lyrics like “I like big butts,” celebrate black women’s behinds as symbols of desirability and beauty. Miller-Young states that this was the trope of the “Hottentot Venus”. Indeed, this song’s music video provides visuals of black female dancers and enormous sculptures of brown butts. This explains how powerful the impact of black buttocks had in popular media. These sexualized contents have been promoted for mass consumption, especially for youth, and the popular media became the central producers of the African American image. From the early 1970s, however, black female artists were already battling against their underrepresentation. They were resisting against the popular media portrayals by writing strong lyrics and gaining fame in the male-dominated world. This can be explained as a form of resistance in the white-male dominant field.
Even though black female artists raised voices through their music, there were many backlashes and contradictions in the portrayal of black women in music videos. According to a feminist scholar, Mireille Miller-Young, hip-hop music videos have been the principle location for spreading pornography that functions to make profit by marketing black female bodies, aesthetics, and culture. When looking at popular culture such as movies and music, making money is inevitable. Media will most likely follow the needs of a powerful group which leads to the one-sided depiction of black women. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, pornography became a trend in mainstream media and in hip-hop as well. These portrayals brought controversy to black women in the same hip-hop genre and also women who do not engage in any type of music. There were many black women rejecting the music videos that explicitly show black female bodies, saying that it would give the audience an image of a “bad” black woman. To ordinary black women, the hip-hop artists’ sex appeal was their huge concern because “black women are judged as a group” and many people believe in the images provided by the popular media. This reveals that not all black women were appreciative of the black women succeeding in the popular culture because hip-hop’s portrayals lacked in black “femininity”. According to Reid-Brinkley, “the dichotomy between the ‘good’ black woman and the ‘bad’ black woman functions such that the poor and the working-class women became scapegoats of these representations of black women”. Thus, hip-hop artists who present the bad ghetto image were not fully accepted in the African American culture. It can be explained that black female hip-hop artists were self-exploiting or objectifying their bodies to sell well.
In fact, black female hip-hop artists themselves stood in different positions. While the early Hip-Hop artists such as Queen Latifah and MC Lyte started to rebel against the male-dominated music trend by talking back to the demeaning lyrics, other rappers such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown have embodied tropes of black female sexuality by using her body as a commodity in the music videos. These rappers, however, were aware that they would get a backlash from their expression of sexuality. They were also aware that sex sells. As Emerson asserts, Black womanhood is the result of the negotiation in which objectification of the black female body must be present for the artists to gain autonomy. It can be analyzed that they were aware of their containment but they chose to use the power of the industry to promote themselves to gain authority. Thus, to conclude, both the producers and the performers were using their position. The music industries such as the MTV were producing the dominant portrayal of black women to make profit while black hip-hop artists were promoting themselves on the popular media to gain economic power and fame. It is evident that both containment and resistance exist in the relation of black female body portrayals in the popular culture.
Beyoncé is officially one of the highest paid African American women. Born in Houston, Texas in 1981, she has possessed numerous careers from hip-hop artist to actress by playing the role of Blaxploitation caricature, Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and another successful film Pink Panther (2006). Furthermore, she has voiced and expressed her black aesthetics in public through her music and performance. It is true that she has countless fans and supporters for her open expression of black discontent. According to Durham, “Beyoncé is a key figure for contemporary feminist media studies because she represents the production of celebrity, gender politics presently defined by hip hop, and the complex negotiations of self-image and sexuality for young women coming of age during post feminism”. She is also the iconic figure who redefined the beauty of black bodies. Coining the word, “bootylicious,” body with curves became the image of an ideal body. In fact, Durham insists, “Hip-Hop has rearticulated this body type, which is made commonsense through Beyoncé’s iconic body”.
This body image was distributed through MTV, a national 24-hour cable station devoted to airing music videos of popular artists. Containment becomes apparent in MTV. It had a powerful function of producing stars and creating celebrities by promoting them through an industrial power system of sexual imagery. Music videos became a new means of distributing aesthetic possibilities of the avant-garde independent film-making, a new mixture of music and images, and a new means of marketing records, or even a new source of violent sexist images. It is similar to the film industry in that music videos have multi-purposes in money-making. There are various money-flows including the record company, the artists, designers, directors, producers, MTV, and many more to list. Along with many artists, Beyoncé was one of the artists who gained fame in her music videos, especially Check On It, released in 2005 which was awarded the MTV prize. It is a music video that advertises the film The Pink Panther (2006), thus the featured color is pink. Beyoncé wears different variations of pink outfits and expresses her femininity in every scene.
The lyrics express her sexuality and the man that consumes it:
Oh boy you looking like you like what you see
Won’t you come over and check up on it, I’m gon’ let you work up on it
Ladies let em check up on it, watch it while he check up on it
Dip it, pop it, twerk it, stop it, check on me tonight
It captures descriptions of a woman who takes pleasure from watching her man watching her booty dance. Here is another example of black buttocks as a powerful object. Durham notes that Check On It music video reproduced the ideas about hypersexuality by her booty dance. She performed “classed Black femininities in the hip hop dreamworld while fulfilling her ultimate role as the exotic other in US popular culture”. Regarding the fact that she was controlled by the music industry that has a global marketplace, she reinforced the Black female image as a sexual icon. She is contained by MTV and the dominant ideal image of how a black woman should look like. When investigating her new album Lemonade released in April 2016, however, everything seems to be reversed.
While Beyoncé has been expressing black discontent or women’s empowerment through her songs such as, Run the World (Girls) (2009) and Diva (2011), Lemonade was a controversial yet the most outspoken album to present herself as a powerful independent black woman. This is an example of resistance against the society by taking control of her own body and music. It can be explained as one of the most groundbreaking albums that had a huge effect all over the United States. This album revealed her complex relationship between her family and especially her husband, Jay Z. The album title, Lemonade comes from her husband, Jay Z’s grandmother Hattie White’s direct quote which Beyoncé inserted in her video album. It was a speech she gave at her 90th birthday party saying, “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” This implies that she had experienced brutal treatments by white people but she forgave them and turned that lemon into something sweet, like lemonade. The one-hour visual album is not simply just pieces of music video connected together. It has several different cinematic modes and connections among all songs so that they imply an overarching idea. She expresses rage, struggle, power, and forgiveness and the whole story of her album can be followed only by those who saw the entire album. In expressing rage and struggles, she used sharp, fierce lyrics and challenged the past troubles of Jay Z cheating on her singing, “you can taste the dishonesty / It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier” in Pray You Catch Me or “keep your money, I got my own” in Don’t Hurt Yourself indicating that she is independent and economically successful. At the same time, the music video implies her strength to forgive her partner’s sin. In Love Drought, which is the latter song of the album, Beyoncé sings, “ten times out of nine I know you’re lying / but nine times outta ten, I know you’re trying / so I’m trying to be fair.” This shows how she works toward forgiving Jay Z.
In terms of visuals, it can be analyzed that she wanted to express all kinds of black style to show variety but at the same time show her black pride. Beyoncé and other black female dancers wear various kinds of clothes such as Southern gothic taste dress to impose the political aspect for African Americans. There are also ghetto style Beyoncé, her hair in dreadlocks wearing a fur coat and sportswear. Even though the album focuses on the marital struggles of herself and Jay Z, she was also trying to represent a black feminist combating white supremacy. While a large portion of the audience was struck by her graphic portrayals of black female body, bell hooks, a black feminist critic, reviews Lemonade saying that the purpose of this album is to seduce, celebrate, and to challenge the ongoing devaluation and dehumanization of black female body. She critiques the visuals, asserting that the album still portrays the stereotypical black female body image. It is true that Beyoncé is using the stereotypical imagery that has been familiar with black women; however, it can be refuted that Beyoncé was surely aware of the redundant image. She was portraying the black female body image on purpose to impose a political statement. In her video, she inserts a quote of Malcom X stating, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman”. Thus, Beyoncé was not reproducing the black female stereotype but was trying to speak out for all black women who have been neglected and devalued by America by showing the historical context such as slavery to rebel against the dominant group.
Furthermore, Beyoncé’s resistance is apparent in another point in which she takes part in producing and directing this visual album in all songs. It is important to note, however, that she collaborated with many other artists and film makers, including both white and black. For example, she collaborates with The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, both a famous black producer and musician. At the same time, Diplo, a DJ and Mike Dean, a hip-hop producer who are both white, also take part in producing Beyoncé’s songs. By looking at the co-producers and directors, it implies how “money-making has no color”. It can be analyzed that visuals in Lemonade focus on race or black pride but the making of this album goes beyond race. The most important, however, is that she has had her hands on every song. Co-producer of the song Freedom, Just Blaze says in an interview,
She is one of those artists who is very involved［sic］every step of the way when it comes to the record, her overall vision for a project, the direction and how it should be rolled out. She gave me the direction in terms of how she wanted it to feel, what she wanted it to sound like, the feeling she wanted the music to deliver, and she’s the one who had the idea to come get me. That’s production in itself.
This shows how Beyoncé had control over her music to produce her black aesthetic. Economic power can be seen in her release of this visual album. As bell hooks critiques that Lemonade is the business of capitalist money making, it is apparent to the audience too that Beyoncé is a powerful black celebrity. From these reasons, Beyoncé is the icon of black popular culture who was contained by the dominant power structure, then made a breakthrough by becoming one of the most famous black Queens who possesses the authority to empower and represent black women.
As demonstrated, black women have been dehumanized since slavery, thus it is natural to think that black women are still in control of the dominant ideology of beauty or sexuality. This paper, however, evoked a more complex dimension of the controlling images of black female body. Black women were fighting toward their marginalization by using their body as a weapon at one time and at another time, they were taking advantage of the industry’s power to promote themselves for empowerment and to achieve economic success.
Looking at the origin of black female body image, it became clear that Sarah Baartman, “Hottentot Venus” was the icon that produced the stereotype of black women. Her over-exaggerated depiction of the body, especially her buttocks, was the dominant image that has been passed on for generations and still has impact in the 21st century. This means that black female body has been the object of display for about 300 years. Creation of the black female body image has its origin in Sarah Baartman and it is reproduced in the hands of the dominant group. At the same time, black women themselves are reproducing their body image as well by taking advantage of the perceptions that the black body is exotic. This explains that the image of the black female body is not only consumed and communicated by whites but also by blacks.
Music videos were a medium that affected black hip-hop artists. The portrayals of the black female body in music videos had many backlashes and criticism. At the same time, it was a powerful strategy for them to promote themselves and be a representative of black women. Beyoncé was one of those artists who made a breakthrough to become one of the most well-known black female representative of the 21st century. Her album, Lemonade contained a striking message showing her black pride and strength. She was appraised and criticized at the same time but this was her form of expressing her black aesthetic.
Being the marginalized group in America, these racial and gender conflicts may still be persistent for many years. Criticism will continue and it is difficult to identify the black female body image in a simple model of the oppressor and the oppressed. It has complex roles and connections among industries, audience, and black women. If oppression comes in different forms and directions, the form of resistance and empowerment comes in various ways as well. Thus, using their body image as a weapon, making money by using the industry’s power of promotion, and making a political statement in music videos can all be forms of resistance and black empowerment. It is important to acknowledge the fact that the black female body image will continue to be challenged in American society. Therefore, when we look at the image years later, there may be another form of portrayal. I would like to conclude this thesis by leaving a message that the studies of the black female body image will variate and it is important to observe it in a wider perspective of resistance.
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 Barbara Welter, The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966), 152.
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 Stephanie M. H. Camp, “The Pleasures of Resistance: Enslaved Women and Body Politics in the Plantation South, 1830-1861,” The Journal of Southern History 68, no. 3 (2002): 90.
 Edward E. Baptist and Stephanie M. H. Camp, New Studies in the History of American Slavery (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 23.
 Ibid., 24.
 Janell Hobson, Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, 29.
 Ibid., 29.
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 Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 31.
 Gwendolyn D. Pough, Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-hop Culture, and the Public Sphere (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004), 3.
 Ibid, 4.
 Janell Hobson and R. Dianne Bartlow, “Introduction: Representin’: Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8, no. 1 (2008): 2.
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 Rana. A. Emerson, “”Where My Girls At?”: Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos,” Gender & Society 16, no. 1 (2002): 120.
 Ibid., 269
 Hobson and Bartlow, “Introduction,” 3.
 Mireille Miller-Young, “Hip-Hop Honeys and Da Hustlaz: Black Sexualities in the New Hip-Hop Pornography,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8, no. 1 (2008): 262
 Ibid., 268
 Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley, “The Essence of Res(ex)pectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Black Femininity in Rap Music and Music Video,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8, no. 1 (2008): 252.
 Ibid., 253.
 Ibid., 251.
 Hobson and Bartlow, “Introduction,” 4.
 Emerson, “Where My Girls At?”, 130.
 Emerson, “Where My Girls At?”, 36.
 Aisha Durham, ““Check On It”,” Feminist Media Studies 12, no. 1 (2012): 36.
 Ibid., 37.
 Marsha Kinder, “Music Video and the Spectator: Television, Ideology and Dream,” Film Quarterly 38, no. 1 (1984): 2.
 Durham, “Check On It”, 35.
 Beyoncé Knowles, “Check on It,” December 13, 2005.
 Durham, “Check On It”, 42.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 44.
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 An activist who belonged to the Nation of Islam (NOI). He aggressively spoken out for blacks and is compared with Martin Luther King Jr.
 hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain”.
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 hooks, “Moving Beyond Pain”.