Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Big, black booties "intrigue" Jezebel readership

Some folks (including me, sometimes) quibble over whether the blog Jezebel qualifies as "feminist." Having lurked around the joint for awhile, I would say it definitely has a third-wave feminist ethos. That means the site's bloggers regularly lay a smack down on media that exploits women. So, I was surprised to find an endorsement for "Straight Stuntin'" magazine among today's posts. For those who have blessedly not been exposed to the hip hop booty fest that is SS, click over to Jezebel for a gallery of images from the pub. (Probably NSFW--Be prepared for plenty of thonged asses, weaves and bling) Jezebel writer Dodai says of the pin-up rag:
 
Straight Stuntin is a hip-hop/pin-up magazine I stumbled on, and I probably should be completely offended by it, but I'm absolutely fascinated instead.
 
Most commenters to the post share the OP's fascination, marveling at the pneumatic gleuteus maximi rather than railing against exploitation. And that makes me uncomfortable. As I write this, I'm trying to parse exactly why.
 
Venue
 
I have to admit that I might not be so bothered by this post if it had, say, been posted by my blogsister Professor Tracey on Aunt Jemima's Revenge. Why? Because as a blog with a predominantly black readership, AJR feels like a place where "we" can discuss black pop culture without the judgment or generalizations of the mainstream. Something feels icky about a readership of mostly white women evaluating a black magazine that objectifies black women and, for the most part, deeming it acceptable. The amazed ogling of black behinds in a mainstream has shades of Sarah Bartmann:
 
Some of these women's asses seem to defy gravity. I am actually dumbstruck by them. I know, I know we aren't supposed to relegate a woman to her parts, but I just feel kind of humbled by the two asses in the third picture. Kind of like being in ass church. I feel reverence and awe.

Do these women have cellulite that was Photoshopped away? Or do darker skin women just not get cellulite the way my white ass does? Or is that one model onto an anti-cellulite secret with her cupcake diet?

Even among other women--among other so-called feminists--our physicality is deemed freakish, something to be weighed and pondered and questioned. And I do realize that the OP is a biracial/black woman and several black women, including a model who will appear in a future SS issue, participated in the comments thread. The fact remains that for the majority of readers, this post represented a bit of cultural tourism, as evidenced by the comments and questions about black beauty standards and black women's bodies that the piece elicited.

The Celebration of Exploitation

I mentioned that I might have been less bothered by the SS post if it has appeared on a black feminist blog. But the truth is, I'm fairly certain that Aunt Jemima's Revenge or Womanist Musings or What About Our Daughters or any of the myriad black women-run blogs would never write a positive post about "Straight Stuntin.'" Black feminists have long spoken out against hip hop's degradation and objectification of black women, and we have seen first hand the results of this brand of sexism on our communities, on black relationships, on young black girls' self-esteem, on sexual violence. Of course, the positioning of black women as sexual objects did not start with hip hop. The Sapphire stereotype is at least as old as the slave trade. This is the baggage--baggage that our white sisters don't share--that we bring to analysis of magazines like "Straight Stuntin.'" This is a know your history moment. How can you analyze "Straight Stuntin'" outside of the aforementioned context?

I should add that I believe in sex positive feminism (though I suspect that the Jezebel writers and I might disagree on what exactly that is) I am not zero-tolerance on pin-ups or porn. (Far from it.) But there is a difference between finding enjoyment in sexuality and the female (or male) form and viewing another human being as an inaminate receptacle--a "trick," "ho" or a "chickenhead." The SS view of women is not about celebration, but almost Biblical disdain and distrust of women as anything beyond sexual tools. Consider this advice from a SS article "10 Model Commandments:"

Ladies, one of the worst things in the whole wide world has to be a [sic] unsanitary female. Body odor or not being shaved at the right time in the right places are definitely not a go. Your parents should have taught you about hygiene when you were younger or you should've learned it in hygiene class when you were in school.

Ah...yes...I remember well when my mother and I had "the talk" about Brazilian waxing..."Unsanitary female?" WTF? Other "commandments" caution women not to steal, lie, have "attitudes," or use "your coochie with everyone who makes you a promise." How novel an idea--black women as dirty, tricky whores!

The Double Standard

This is what really rankled about the Jezebel post: The crimes against women that I mentioned above are almost always derided on the site, but in this case they are basically ignored. Many commenters praised "Straight Stuntin'" for showcasing thick women with big butts rather than the usual lithe, model types. But is that the point of criticism against the objectification of women--that the objectification isn't broad enough? One commenter pegged how I am feeling:

so, if it is a black magazine featuring a fetishized body part ( ass..) then ...IT IS OK? And the fact that the men are dressed and the woman reduced to their body image..that is ok?

I am speechless............This magazine is like many others of the same genre,...exploiting and degrading........regardless if the "ladies" are NOT white and/or size zero.

Indeed.

Why so little criticism of "Straight Stuntin'" on Jezebel? Is it because readers believe the magazine has been endorsed by the black OP? (In a reply to the above commenter's post, the OP said she does not endorse the magazine, but finds it "intriguing," which I think is kind of a hedge.) Is it because white feminists don't "get" objectification of black women? (Like how many black feminists were turned off by Hillary Clinton's embrace of BET founder and black woman exploiter Bob Johnson, while white feminists overlooked it?) Is my baggage coloring the way I respond to this post?

From the Vault: If we knew our history

Originally posted in December 2007

Recent posts here and over at Mes Deaux Cents and The Angry Black Woman clarified something I've been thinking for a while: Learning the history of our country and the world should be a major focus in homes and in schools. I know...I know...this is a techie world, where math and science rule. But here's the thing, all our new gadgets and conveniences won't mean a thing if our society lies in ruin, because we repeat the mistakes of our ancestors again and again.

I love learning about history. I read books about it. (A favorite is Lies my Teacher Taught Me by James W. Loewen. Check it out.) You can always find The History Channel on somewhere in my home. I love "American Experience" on PBS and the series "Pioneer House." I like touring historic homes, especially those that offer a peek into the lives of the former occupants--how they lived, loved and what they believed. (If you're ever down in Louisiana, visit the Laura Plantation, a sugar plantation run by generations of Creole women. You can also look inside a slave cabin and learn how those women exploited the expertise of skilled slave labor.)

I find learning about the past--politics, culture, wars and personalities--empowering. It puts the present in context for me and helps shape my views on modern challenges. It makes me a better citizen of my town, state, country and the world. Knowing the history of my family--what my forefathers and foremothers struggled through to succeed--makes me stand a little taller and not want to let them down.

These days, though, we suffer from a profound case of historus stupidus (that's Tami Latin). If we had learned the lessons of Vietnam, would we be in Iraq today? If we understood the insidious history of fascism in the world, would we be more vigilant about our freedoms? If white Americans knew more about The Tuskegee Experiment , the Indian Removal Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, would they understand why so many people of color are mistrustful of the government and the mainstream? If Melyssa Ford knew Sara Baartman's story, could she call exploiting her sexuality for public consumption "just a job." If Sherri Shephard had ever cracked a history book, learned about Constantine I, or, heck, read the Old Testament, would she have embarrassed women, black women and Christians everywhere on national television? Speaking of religion, if we understood what religious fundamentalism does to societies, would we be more concerned about growing fundamentalism in this country?

If we knew our history, I mean really knew it, wouldn't we all be better off?

James Baldwin has a great quote about this country's history that I think can be applied to history as a whole, "American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it."

He's right. Know your history.

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