The Sexualization of Black Women (and Men)
Posted by Ambra at December 8, 2004 11:05 AM
Many may December 08, 2004 remember 2002, the history-making year when both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscars for best actors. Washington won for playing a crooked cop, but Halle Berry made history as not only the first black woman to win an Academy Award for "Best Actress" but also the first woman to do so having lost all of her dignity in one of the raunchiest and self-degrading sex-scenes of that year. The mini-celebration that broke out when Berry won the award for her role in "Monster's Ball" came to a screeching halt when some came to realize that she had won the award for whoring herself, something hardly worth applauding. Even more telling was that the "who's who's" in Hollywood made perhaps the most obvious yet subliminal statement about how exactly it is they view black actresses. If you want to get ahead in this business (no pun intended), you have to take off your clothes. History was made alright. That day marked the day that the we gave the highest accolade to someone who displayed one of the lowest forms of human behavior.
Maybe this issue isn't significant to many, but when black people are already underrepresented in so many aspects of life, it's no aid to the culture when the majority of our representation is embarrassing and degrading.
There was once a day when black slave women that were put up on the auction block would have their blouses ripped open by their owners for prospective buyers to see the suppleness of their breasts. How interesting that now, although the auction block looks a bit different, women are ripping their own blouses open and selling themselves down the river. The raping and using of black women solely for sexual purposes during slavery ultimately led to the sexualization of black women in all forms of media. But as the pattern of history shows us, the representation of black people in media has a direct correlation with how we are viewed by society. A study out of Duke University by Cheraine Stanford called "Advertising in Black and White: How and Why Perceptions of Difference Shape Magazine Advertising", states the following:
Representations of African Americans within various media underwent very similar processes of change. Their existence in visual and audio media outlets often reflected their societal status and the way in which white people envisioned their importance. During slavery times and segregation, African Americans were almost invisible within the advertising industry. It was almost as though America was composed of only white people. When blacks began to make their first appearances, they were shown as a number of different racist images being subservient to whites or representing some form of entertainment for white people. Images of people like the faithful, smiling, black servant Rastus (who would later grace the pages of magazines and products as the Cream of Wheat man) and the faithful Mammy figure used to advertise Aunt Jemima pancake mixes and syrup are two infamous examples. These pervasive icons all had similar racist traits and showed "black men and women with bulging eyes, thick red lips, and expressions of stupidity" (Dates and Barlow 433). These images were used to include blacks into the white American society while ignoring their status as people. The black people presented in these advertisements were carefully selected not only to confirm existing stereotypes but also to soothe white people. Whites could see in all the ads that included blacks that they were still subservient and docile. They never appeared as threats, but rather a group of happy, ignorant, partial human beings who only existed to serve whites.
So today it still stands, the images we see portrayed in media regarding black peoples' sexuality is exactly how society as a whole views us. Perhaps the biggest guffaw of this whole nauseating fraud is the current self-perpetuating nature of black images in media. Even on what was once a black-owned television network (BET), there is 24-hour self-devaluation going on, with no plans to stop it.
Last week, I linked to a personal narrative by Duane Brayboy at the Black Informant called "Can a Black Man Be Abstinent?". The portrayal of black men is equally vexing. Brayboy's question particularly struck me because there is a general media portrayal of the sexuality of black men especially that would lead the indoctrinated masses to think otherwise. Whether it's on the big screen, primetime, or music videos, black people in general are most commonly portrayed as sexually animalistic in varying degrees.
Were I to line up four men, one black, the remaining three white, and say that one of those men was a rape suspect, chances are, the black man, no matter how clean-cut and put together, would be one of the top two suspects. Even I myself as a black woman may be inclined to think so because quite simply, we've been indoctrinated to think that black men are sexually primal and aggressive.
For a black person to make a statement of abstinence today is especially counter-culture because we are not thought of in that light. Picture in your mind, the image of the typical "American Virgin". Betcha that person isn't black. This country has yet to release the historical baggage of the black race being portrayed as sexually perverse, deviant, and dirty. And regretfully, I say that white and black people alike are now equally guilty of allowing such a myth to be perpetuated for so long. I've said it many times before: black people cannot afford improper representations. We also can no longer continue to sit by passively as false images are portrayed as real.
I find the words at the beginning of Halle Berry's acceptance speech to be particularly perplexing:
"This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow."
Color me haughty, but I almost think it a slap in the faces of the black actresses that have attempted to build a clean career in this business. For all the black women that spent years playing the maid, this is what we have to offer them? I think not. And to quote Berry, we're being used as vessels alright, but for God's blessing? That notion is highly debatable.