Last year I wrote a post about Miley Cyrus’ use of the trope of large black female buttocks in her stage performances and the way it referenced earlier images of the “Female Hottentot” in deeply problematic ways. Because it seems we have learned nothing, we again have another white female unknowingly invoking this trope in the interest of furthering her own image of fashion and transgression. I write of course about Kim Kardashian’s latest hijinks in Paper magazine. Because others have written about this, I will simply share their thoughts, which are pretty much my own.
When I saw Kardashian’s cover, I immediately thought of Saartjie Baartman, and the inspiration photograph made her participation in this egregious history perfectly clear. This time, however, commentary about the historical association actually bubbled up into the mainstream media. I wonder why? Is it because Kardashian, married to Kanye West, is some kind of racial surrogate? Even then, her image still reinscribes her whiteness, given the salient differences between her clothed (in a shiny black dress no less) image juxtaposed with the original photograph of a nude black woman.
I know I’m a little late to the party here on this, but it took me some time to find the time to write this!
Much has been made of Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs in September–most of it hand wringing and pearl clutching over the spectacle of a young woman, a former Disney performer, expressing explicit sexuality in public. I am the last to join in such hysterical slut-shaming. Some more reasoned responses point to Cyrus’ problematic appropriation of black culture to elevate her own cultural visibility, or as a marker of imagined transgression, racial or otherwise. As one professor interviewed put it, “she needs to take an African American studies class.” My reaction to Cyrus’ escapades is similar but it is not the appropriation alone that I find problematic. The story of white performers appropriating the music, gestures, and culture of black performers to line their pockets has a long history. But more troubling for me was Cyrus’ appropriation of black bodies, specifically black women’s bodies, to further her agenda of self expression, and the terms within which she did so.
At the VMAs, Cyrus performed with a background group of exclusively black female dancers. This bevy of teddy bear Hottentots danced and twerked with Cyrus, emphasizing their larger buttocks and thighs. At one point in the performance, Cyrus leans over and smacks the butt of one of the twerking dancers. Surrounded by large bottomed black women, Cyrus mimicked their movements, drew attention to their lower bodies, displayed them as a spectacle that in some way embodies her new identity. In doing so, she drew on a much older iconography and vocabulary of transgression, through the grotesque black body, that ultimately reproduced the racial boundaries she claims to transgress or blur.
The juxtaposition of her slender white body with these larger black bodies presumably rendered her performance shocking or transgressive. Cyrus drew on long standing cultural associations between black women’s bodies and active or deviant sexuality to give her own body its transgressive value. But while she claims a corporeal affinity with these black women whom she calls her “peeps,” her performance in a flesh colored bikini only served to underscore and highlight her own whiteness.
Cyrus’s preoccupation with the black female body, particularly the buttocks, references a historical preoccupation with black women as symbols of sexual savagery and corporeal deviance, embodied by the life of Saartjie Baartman, known as the “Venus Hottentot. “Baartman was a Khoisan woman who was enslaved and carried from Southern Africa in 1810, and subsequently exhibited as an exotic museum object around Europe until her death in 1815. Baartman was a sensation, and most of the period images of her portray the obsessive preoccupation with her lower body as an object of fascination and horror.
Bartman’s impact was not confined to the world of the museum or carnival sideshow. The image of black women as grotesque bodies, often juxtaposed with normative, non-grotesque white women, permeated Victorian visual culture. In advertisements for stove polish or soap, for example, black servants were displayed side by side with their white mistresses. In many cases, black women were portrayed as corporeally grotesque – unbounded, overly large, deviantly gendered. Often the black woman was physically larger than the white woman, with large feet, broad shoulders, and dark skin. This portrayal of black women treated their bodies as indexical of their fundamental, and inferior difference.
In the anti-fashion satire, The Grecian Bend from 1868, a fashionable white womans’ body, unnaturally distorted by the use of corset and bustle, is mirrored in the grotesque black body who gleefully pats her own naturally large posterior. The implication is that the tightly laced and bustled body is a grotesque vision of artificiality, that it resembles in some way the savage body, even as its very artificiality emphasizes that it is not the same. Cyrus’ representations do something similar in that the juxtaposition of her own body with Others ultimately reveals how different she is.
My suspicions about Cyrus’ flirtation with the grotesque were confirmed when a week later, she was reported to have performed with a dwarf in Berlin, perpetuating her own flirtation with the carnivalesque, yet still in ways that highlight her own normativity. Cyrus claims to want to “be black,” does she also identify with being a dwarf? Her attraction to such difference may express her sense of her self as a freak, her desire to transgress the norms of her own Disneyfied upbringing. Yet in drawing on the corporeal vocabulary of the grotesque, all she really does is reinscribed the difference of those whose bodies do not conform to those norms, ultimately reinforcing a sense of their otherness.
The other night I had occasion to re-view James Whale’s 1936 film version of the classic American musical “Show Boat.” Unlike the much more inferior 1951 MGM film, this version is considered highly faithful to the original Broadway show, first produced in 1927 at the Ziegfield Theater. Based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 bestselling novel of the same name, Show Boat chronicles the fates of a collection of performers on the Cotton Blossom, Cap’n Andy’s show boat, which travels up and down the Mississippi in the 1890s offering cheap entertainment to the small towns along the river.
James Whale is perhaps best known a the director of “Frankenstein,” and perhaps it is fitting that a horror director would produce a film depicting the post-Reconstruction South. Show Boat is filled with stereotypical representations of African Americans (a tragic mulatto, mammy, shiftless buck and more) and blackface performances by whites. Yet, Show Boat, which was largely anti-racist in the context of the nadir of race relations, is also notable for its frank portrayal of race, both the racial relations it seeks to critique, and those it inevitably reproduces.
The Show Boat is originally in trouble because one of the performers, Julie, is a mixed race woman passing as white, who is married to a white man and performing on the stage with him. Cornered by the local sheriff, her husband Stephen, surreptitiously cuts her finger and drinks her blood, allowing him to claim he has more than a drop of black blood in him, a declaration that reveals the constructedness of race in the social and legal code. Julie and Steve evade the law, but are forced to leave the showboat since “local folks won’t tolerate the races mixing on the stage.”
Yet the races seem to continue mixing. Filling in for Julie, Magnolia (played by Irene Dunne) performs a minstrel number in blackface, “Gallivantin’ Around,” which underscores the film’s proximity to this era of popular entertainment. Apparently this was a conscious choice of Whale to include the number, which by 1937 was already controversial. It functions as a kind of window into another time. Irene Dunne, who was born in Kentucky in 1898 (and whose father, coincidentally, was a steamboat inspector), was clearly no stranger to these traditions. Whale interestingly breaks the camera away from Magnolia’s performance for a shot of the audience, including a stoic collection of African Americans at the back of the theater, contrasting Magnolia’s artificial blackness with the presence of actual black folks.
Magnolia is the racial boundary crosser in the show boat family, she is like a little sister to biracial Julie, and portrayed hanging out in the kitchen, performing traditional African American songs and minstrel dances. “Look at that girl shuck!” exclaims one of the black onlookers, as delighted as Magnolia’s mother is horrified. The black actors suspect appreciation aside, again we have a moment in which the films breaks into a strange kind of authenticity vis a vis period cultural representation.
The performances of the African American actors are likewise ambivalent. The film retains and insists on the prominence of black people in the show boat world. The formidable talents of Hattie McDaniel as Queenie and Paul Robeson, as Joe, transcend the material, particularly Robeson’s rendition of “Ol Man River,” which Whale elevates to dramatic grandeur. Robeson is dignified, epic, in his vocal performance, only lapsing into a broad smile at the conclusion of the song like a reflexive concession to the white gaze. This mask characterizes all the black performances in the film, which inevitably collapse into eye rolling, broad smiles, and exagerrated gestures of the minstrel mask. “Show Boat” interrogates race as a cultural construct, but contains its black characters within this racial essentialism.
Another interesting ambivalence lies in the depiction of the the white characters.
As a symbol of the Southern gentleman of honor, Gaylord Ravenal is an embodiment of the falsity of the Old South code of honor. A two-bit gambler, he passes himself off as Southern aristocracy in florid speech and manners, yet his shoes are cracked and he is down on his luck, fleeing his debts. His is a facade of gentility whose specialty is “Make Believe,” a game he indulges in with the ingenue Magnolia. Gaylord proves a faithless and cowardly husband, abandoning Magnolia and their daughter when he is down on his luck. Magnolia survives by marketing her talents as a “coon shouter,” performing the song she learned from Julie, and becomes a major stage star.
Gaylord and Magnolia are reunited at the premier of a new show starring their daughter, Kim. Kim’s big musical number is a grand plantation fantasy, set to the tune of “Gallivantin’,” transformed through new orchestration and into a lilting, genteel waltz. African Americans are relegated to the background, literally a cluster of onlookers cast aside by the swirling white skirts of the dancing southern belles. Here the Old South can only be resurrected or reclaimed through deracinated nostalgia that effaces the presence of blackness that lay at its historic foundation.