There comes a time when a line must be drawn between a reasonable critique of harmful media portrayals and outright, discriminatory slut shaming. For the African-American female on any platform in the 21st century, this line is often crossed and poorly understood.. The Guardian, a daily British news publication, published an article in August 2014 in which author Michelle Lhooq discussed and debunked the controversy surrounding female rap-artist Nicki Minaj’s music video for her song “Anaconda,” which was released that same month (Lhooq). Due to the video’s erotic choreography, in conjunction with lyrics highlighting the sexual merits of a women having a large buttocks, Nicki Minaj found herself the subject of massive criticism and judgment from feminists, parents, and black social advocates alike. The article “Shocked and outraged by Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda video? Perhaps you should butt out,” defends Nicki Minaj, claiming that her attackers are misguided in their quest to solve problems bigger than a woman’s butt on YouTube (Lhooq). She asserts that the solution to the perceived hypersexuality of black women is not the abandonment of their sexuality in media but rather to present a more diverse spectrum of black female sexuality so that it is not left to be characterized by the music industry and other sectors of pop culture alone (Lhooq).
Nicki Minaj is receiving flack for choreography and content not so novel to the music industry as her attackers receive them to be. In that very same month, white female artist Taylor Swift released a music video for her song “Shake It Off,” which incorporated choreography highlighting women’s buttocks in a manner not very different from Nicki Minaj. Dozens of other hypersexualized music videos have been released by other non-black artists over the last few decades by artists such as Miley Cyrus, Shakira, Britney Spears, and even as far back as Madonna – and yet none of them have received nearly as much criticism for capitalizing on their sexuality as Nicki Minaj has. This discrepancy in media response raises questions regarding what is truly causing the extensive outrage surrounding a black woman unapologetically asserting her sexuality. It can be argued that Nicki Minaj is merely a victim of the institutionalized stigma that white America has placed on black female sexuality since colonization. Depending upon what was necessary of them at the time, black women have received many labels throughout American history that have either amplified or nullified their sexual appeal. It is this pervasive stigma and scrutiny placed against the African-American woman’s sexuality by white American constructs that has resulted in its most recent demonization in the 21st century.
Historically it has not been unusual for white America to permit certain behaviors from certain racial groups when it is convenient for them. It was by this fulfillment of historical convenience that the construct of a black race was even conceived of in the U.S., as white Americans sought to explain their purported values of liberty and freedom (post-revolution) while keeping intact their crutch on an institution so opposite to these ideals as slavery (Fields). Throughout American history, societal perceptions of black female sexuality have transformed time and time again, though never seeming to actually evolve into the kind of acceptance granted to Caucasian or even racially ambiguous women. When black males stood as a threat to white masculinity, black women were labeled as “Sapphires.” The contemporary version of a “Sapphire” is the “Angry Black Woman” trope, which depicts a domineering, assertive female that works alongside the black man, consuming men and usurping their power. Then, when white men needed to justify their sexual exploitation of black female slaves, there came the need for the “Jezebel,” the promiscuous, insatiably lustful black women who, as a result of her sexual appetite, could not be raped in a legal context. And of course, when the white slaveholders of the south needed to paint slavery as an amicable, domestic institution, the “Mammy” figure, as portrayed in the film “Ethnic Notions,” was introduced as a stout, jolly, docile, happy-to-serve maternal figure, entirely void of any sexual connotation (Riggs). Furthermore, in parallel to the evolving spans of what white beauty has been socially allowed to encompass, and arguably appropriate, it seems that black beauty has only become more and more socially confined, if not, demonized to an extent. Headlining black female media figures of the 21st century such as Nicki Minaj, who not only maximize but also capitalize on their own sexuality, are unsurprisingly the subject of public critique because the way in which they present their sexuality unapologetically rejects the sexuality norms historically prescribed to them by white men. Since the sexuality of black women is what white America decides it to be based on its own needs and desires, it is only natural for there to be resistance towards the black woman’s attempts to reclaim her sexuality in its entirety.
The sexuality of the black woman has never belonged to her alone; how she may use it and its connotations has been dictated by white America, both in the social and civic arenas. As early as 1643, colonial Virginia declared black women as “tithables,” meaning that they were subject to taxation equivalent to that of any man, while white women were expunged from these encumbrances so as not to be nearly as much a burden to a household as a black woman. This law, which was the first law addressing race in American history, required that black women be taxed for their labor, and if they did not work, taxed nonetheless for the labor they would have done. This law was likely enacted to preserve white familial structures at the time by disincentivizing interracial marriage, which had not yet been blatantly outlawed. Although this law has nothing to do with the sexual exploits of black women at the time, it indirectly affected their social bearings by transforming them into an unattractive financial burden if wed. In a subtle way, this first law addressing race stripped black women of their feminine luxury, thereby indirectly taking a jab at their perceived femininity as a whole. What the law was really implying is that if black women can work like men, then they can be taxed as men. Through this logic, black women were robbed of their femininity by locating them closer to traditionally masculine traits than feminine ones. But the legislation stripping any form of femininity from black women’s sexuality did not stop there in the Virginia colony.
By 1662, laws mandating that the social and civic status of children be based on their birth mother’s race placed black women once again in an unfavorable position (Peiss). “Negro women’s children to serve according to the condition of the mother,” reads the 1662 law, thereby declaring that the child of a black women, regardless of its father’s race, be subjected to a life of servitude parallel to their birth mother’s, while the children of white women were not left to the same fate (Peiss). In many ways this law solved the problems that arose from white male masters impregnating black slaves, and in turn developed a means of attaining new labor. Black women’s reproductive capabilities, one of the most natural, integral components of femininity, had begun to be exploited and dehumanized in ways largely similar to the treatment of cattle. Once again, with the stripping away of feminine luxury, black women lost their sexual humanity. Through the loss of their femininity, black women’s sexuality was left open to be reconstructed as unromantic, unjustified, and even primal.
The development of white beauty ideals has left beauty as an unattainable feat for the black woman. According to Western culture, it is the absence or presence of white features that characterizes a woman as beautiful and feminine, which ultimately glorifies or dehumanizes her sexuality. In “Ways of Seeing,” John Berger discusses his assertions about beauty, the significance of the male gaze, and the concept of the surveyor and surveyed, among other things, surrounding 18th century European nude art (Berger). The role of black women in nude art was completely ignored in “Ways of Seeing,” specifically with regards to Manet, Olympia (1863), for which Berger did not even acknowledge the presence of the black women in his analysis of the piece (Berger). This instance of black female omittance is in no way unique; left in the background, black women in 18th century European art were often shown serving as maids, completely non-sexual beings accessorizing a white mistress, perhaps to exalt white female beauty and sexuality in contrast. The white women presented in 18th century European art represented a pillar of western beauty ideals, referred to as Circassian or Caucasian beauty, that still permeate the beauty standards of the 21st century.
It is no coincidence that the art that so characteristically omitted black sexuality was created at a time when the race hierarchy placed white, Circassian/Caucasian women above all other races. These ideas were promulgated by German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach whose five races (which consisted of Caucasian, the white race; Mongolian, the yellow race; Malayan, the brown race; Ethiopian, the black race; and American, the red race) explicitly named Caucasians or whites the pinnacle of beauty due to his belief in the unequivocal, supreme beauty of humans originating from the Caucasus mountain region of Europe. By the end of the 18th century, beauty became synonymous with whiteness, thereby leaving blackness nowhere near what it means to be beautiful. It is this characteristic of beauty that makes the nudity of the women in the painting Berger comments on art and not pornography, and it is this same beauty withheld from black women’s access that results in the taboo, unnatural, inappropriate connotations with their sexuality.
Having gone from inconvenient, to nonexistent, to animalistic, and eventually making its way back to being associated with immorality in the 21st century, black female sexuality has never had the luxury of going under the radar, let alone being admired. While Nicki Minaj’s portrayals of women in her music video for “Anaconda” are in no way appropriate for children, they are not unusual to the music industry. And yet, in the wake of its release, the artist received criminalizing labels as a hypersexual deviant insensitive to the black female body image and the feminine image as a whole. Despite being a member of a genre that specializes in sexuality and the capitalization of it, Nicki Minaj, an African-American female artist, received no leniency. As Lahooq states in her article, “the real problem is not that women of color are over-sexualized in music videos, but rather how absent they usually are in the dominant culture.” It is clear that the sexuality of a black woman is impermissible if not regulated and defined by white America, which is the “dominant culture,” and its judgment of her necessity (Lahooq). With the ever-changing societal stance on black female sexuality, it will be a long time until black women can explore and display their sexuality without excessive push-back as they reclaim what is naturally their own.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting :, 1973. Print.
Lhooq, Michelle. “Shocked and Outraged by Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda Video? Perhaps You Should Butt out.” The Guardian. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.
Peiss, Kathy Lee. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality: Documents and Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.
Ethnic Notions. Dir. Marlon T. Riggs. Film.