Grotesque bodies redux

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.

“Kim Kardashian doesn’t realize she’s the butt of an old racial joke” —  http://thegrio.com/2014/11/12/kim-kardashian-butt/

“The Big Problem With Kim Kardashian’s Butt Photos Nobody Is Talking About” — http://mic.com/articles/104188/the-big-problem-with-kim-kardashian-s-photos-nobody-is-talking-about

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.

Kim Kardashian and the original inspiration, both by Jean-Paul Goude.
Kim Kardashian and the original inspiration, both by Jean-Paul Goude.

It still reminds me of this:

19th century fashion mirrors the grotesque: "The Grecian Bend," 1868.
19th century fashion mirrors the grotesque: “The Grecian Bend,” 1868.
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Miley Cyrus’ Grotesque Bodies

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Miley Cyrus, 2013. Sticking out her tongue or revealing her mons pubis, Cyrus highlights the orifices of her body.

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.

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Spanking the Hottentot, VMAs, 2013

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.

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Cyrus’ costume highlights her whiteness, VMAs, 2013.

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.

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“Les Curieux en extase, ou les cordons de souliers,” 1815. Satire of the Hottentot Venus (Saartjie Baartman) exhibited in Paris naked except for a loin-cloth, with two Scots soldiers in kilts, a young Parisienne and a well-dressed gentleman admiring her from different angles. September 1815 Hand-coloured etching . British Museum

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.

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Fashion mirrors the black grotesque: “The Grecian Bend” 1868

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.

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Dancing with a dwarf in Berlin, September 2013.

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How can murals help the urban landscape and its history?

“Putting a Good Face on Street Art, to Upgrade Atlanta” in Friday’s New York Times, profiled the activities of Living Wall’s 2012 program. The project creates murals around Atlanta in blighted areas.  This year, LW focused exclusively on female artists, and invited 28 artists from around the world to contribute artwork.  In addition to the art-making, there are lectures, a street fair, and other related activities. It sounds like a lot of fun. I like that LW not only makes murals but also programs around the art for larger impact and meaning.

I can’t help but think of Philly’s Mural Arts Project, which has created hundreds of murals around the city, many of them in the neighborhoods. And unlike LW’s murals, from what I can tell, most of these murals were designed collaboratively with neighbors and their visual content often linked to the identity of those neighborhoods. That doesn’t seem to be the case for Living Walls.

I would love to see Living Walls undertake a history-related set of activities that illustrated and commemorated some of the lost histories of Atlanta, like those documented in the Edgewood-Candler Park Bi-Racial History Project, places and people that the current landscape, whether blighted or gentrified, effaces.

Murals have a tremendous power not only to communicate ideas, but to activate historical imagination and create and mark a sense of place.

More on murals and history soon!