I think the title spells out the basis of this post. I am a woman with a big butt and I have had it up to HERE with the obsession over big butts.
The zenith of my frustration was reached with PAPER’s cover featuring Kim Kardashian oiled up, showing her butt (and everything else) proudly to the world. Another showed her, more tamely, balancing a glass of champagne on her butt, while yet another went back into the NSFW route and showed her nearly full-frontal, breasts and stomach greased up, her mouth in an open, sex doll-esque smile.
Before I go any further, let me make some points clear:
- I don’t find showing yourself for the male gaze to be all that empowering, so if anyone feels like I’m attacking feminism, don’t even come for me with that. I’m not attacking feminism, or what it’s been made to mean nowadays. Feminism, to me, means living in a way that not only uplifts oneself, but uplifts all of the female gender and humanity itself. A lot of what is considered “feminism” nowadays–posing with your butt out solely for the male gaze and not for uplifting the spirits of women–is denigrating. Not everything a female superstar (or reality star) does is for some big feminist statement. Even if they think it is and has others out there to agree with her, it doesn’t mean I have to agree with it just because I’m a woman. I’ve got my own mind, and I can disagree with other women and even call them out on things, and vice versa.
- There’s an argument about whether mothers should bare their bums to the world. I’m not arguing for or against any of that in this post. Again, if you feel empowered getting naked, do it. It’s your body.
Now that that’s taken care of, what really burns me up is the fascination with the butt and how the bigger the butt someone has, the more exotic and sexualized they become. This particular point has been written about in various blogs now, including The Grio and Mic. If you’ve read their articles, then you already know about two things important to the discussion concerning the PAPER Magazine cover: photographer Jean-Paul Goude and Saartjie Baartman, otherwise known as the “Hottentot Venus.”
Apparently, according to Mic, Kardashian wanted to work with Goude, and if she did, then okay. But it’s clear that in Kardashian’s obsession with her own butt (or her obsession with showcasing it to the world because, apparently, she thinks the world wants to see it), she has failed to realize exactly why posing for an oiled-up butt shot is extremely troubling. Once again, here are some bullet points.
- Oiling up your backside looks pornographic. Even if we give the photo some grace and call it “art,” oiling up your butt removes artistic subjectivity from the picture. The use of oil means you want an objective opinion on your butt. In short–you want people to see it, ogle it, and get some kind of satisfaction from it. Whatever you deem satisfaction is up to you, as long as you get it.
If, in this analogy of art, we’re calling Kardashian a painting and Goude the painter, Goude is basically telling the audience that yes, all he wants you to get out of this piece is that there is a butt on the wall, and he’s proud of it and you should be, too. Never mind that there is a woman attached to that butt. Never mind that she has could have thoughts behind the eyes–as we see in variations of the cover magazine, she’s seemingly instructed to have no light behind the eyes–she’s just an oiled-up body, like a piece of chicken or ham, waiting for consumption. Greasing her up takes her out of the realm of “artistic subject” and completely in the realm of “vague, expressionless sex object.”
- Goude is rehashing the treatment of Saartjie Baartman through Kardashian. Goude is best known for his photography featuring black women in odd, subservient, sexually-laced poses. One of his most famous pieces is of Carolina Beaumont posing in “The Champagne Incident.” If I give the photo anything, it’s that Goude obviously knows his way around composition and color theory.
Photographer Jean-Paul Goude recreated his well-known Champagne Incident shot with Kim Kardashian! pic.twitter.com/r7gLjhm06X
— La Vida Magazine (@LaVidaMagazine) November 12, 2014
In fact, if you didn’t know Goude’s background–based solely on the bodies of black women–and his disturbing comment about black women’s butts being comparable to a horse’s, then you could actually probably make some arguments in favor of “The Champagne Incident,” saying that it could be analyzing the roles black women are forced to play in society and how they have to get by with a big, fake smile on their face while there’s a completely different story on the inside. She’s smiling as she’s acting as a human stool for this champagne flute, but the champagne spray itself is going above her head, possibly symbolizing her inward frown in the midst of the debauchery in which she’s complicit.
However, all of this–including Goude’s work–is just another way to prod at Saartjie Baartman, who was sold in London and became a freak show exhibition in England and France, her butt and the genetic differences she inherited from her native Khoikhoi people (such as an elongated labia minora) supposedly signs of African deformity, subhumanity, and, of course, savagery (which is often linked to sexuality).
Even in death, she was poked, prodded, and analyzed for ways “science” could declare Africans to be a primitive species. Her skeleton and body cast was on display in the Muséum d’histoire naturelle d’Angers and then the Musee de l’ Homme, until her skeleton and body cast were moved from between 1974 and 1976.
However, despite how society has painted her, and even in spite of naturalist Georges Cuvier, who wrote of her in Memoires du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle as being like an ape, Cuvier still had to give weight to Baartman’s intelligence –she had an outstanding memory, spoke three languages (her native language, adequate English and fluent Dutch) plus a little French and was skilled in music–and was charming and dynamic. Even through all of what life threw at her, her true essence still showed through.
- The picture and others like is saying that it’s okay to dehumanize women–particularly black women–with big butts. It’s assumed that the bigger your butt, the more sexual you are. This idea is laced with sexism and racism, since, again, black women were demonized and exoticized for their bodies. Interestingly enough, Goude has placed Kardashian as a black body i.e., it’s a body that he feels he has the right to exploit, especially if the woman is complicit in the act. While Kardashian might have been completely complicit with the picture, there’s an assumption that all women who are shaped like this would be complicit, especially if the someone asking for compliance is world renowned for some talent or skill. But compliance, as discussed in the book, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne, doesn’t have to mean a willing agreement has been reached.
The book, which tells the circumstances surrounding Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race adopted daughter of 18th century judge William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (the judge who helped make slavery illegal in Britain), some of the horrors slave women were met with while on slave ships is written in detail.
From the moment the female slaves set manacled foot on ship, they were marked out as sexual fodder. Their naked flesh incited the lust of the sailors, who groped them and made choices as to their favourites. The slaver turned abolitionist John Newton recalled how, ‘naked, trembling, terrified, perhaps almost exhausted with cold, fatigue and hunger,’ the women and girls were ‘exposed to the wanton rudeness of white savages.’ ‘The poor creatures,’ he saw, ‘cannot understand the language they hear, but the looks and manners of the speakers are sufficiently intelligible. In imagination, the prey is divided, upon the spot, and only reserved until opportunity offers.’
The sailors and captains aboard these ships knew somewhere in their hearts they were doing wrong, but justified their sins by putting the blame entirely on the women and their bodies.
Rape was used as a means by which to humiliate African men, who were powerless to protect their wives, mothers and daughters. Women were treated as property by sailors and captains. Sexual compliance was expected of them, and they conformed to expectations. The while males justified their abuse by expressing their belief that black women were promiscuous. If they refused sexual advances they would be flogged, or their children would be punished. Female slaves had to deal with the repercussions of their harassment, and many ‘mulatto’ children were born aboard the slave ships.
Also against black women was the media, which perpetuated these stereotypes of sexual debauchery:
Caricatures of the late eighteenth century conform to racial stereotypes. African women are almost invariably drawn with large, pendulous, naked breasts, protruding bottoms, thick lips. On the one hand African women were dehumanized, herded naked like animals. But on the other they were clearly also sexually desirable, the objects of unbridled lust.
Unfortunately, those stereotypes have continued into the 21st century. Now, more than ever, women are looking to get big butts in order to appear sexually viable. Women are killing themselves to have butt injections, and young girls, most importantly, are looking to today’s pop stars like Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and Iggy Azalea for guidance on how to attract the guys. Whether these pop stars realize it or not, some of the messages they are putting out are very dangerous not only for young girls, but to women and men.
Women of any age are internalizing the stereotype that getting a “black” butt or a “Brazilian” butt will make them more attractive, once again assuming that black women are naturally more sexual just because of the size of their behinds. Men are internalizing the idea that they can sexualize and exoticize not only women in general, but especially women with big butts and/or African features, which also stems from the antiquated idea that black women are natural sirens, seeking out sexual advances from men who “fall victim” to their lustful ways. The backwards logic is that somehow, it’s the fault of those of us with big butts that men look at us with horrible intent. Somehow, we asked for such treatment with our butt size.
Of course, it’s horrible for any man to dehumanize any woman. I’m not saying other women are completely exempt from sexual harassment or sexual crimes. What I am saying in this piece, though, is that while Iggy Azalea might be playing into the fantasy that she’s a black woman by rapping with smack in her voice and parading her protruding butt around (whether it’s fake or, as she claims, “real,” it doesn’t matter), she’s never going to be thought of as an insatiable sexual creature. For someone like her, being thought of as “black” and “thuggish” and dabbling in those sexual stereotypes are hobbies. It’s a way to make money and get people to buy albums. She still can fall back on her white identity for clout in the industry and in life.
What makes it problematic for Nicki Minaj to do the same exact thing is that she’s got way more melanin in her skin. It’s not that she can’t show off her butt like how she did in the Anaconda promo picture. In a perfect world without stereotypes, she’d be welcomed to do it. What I think people have missed in their knee-jerk reactions to Minaj’s imagery actually has nothing to do with antiquated ideas of womanhood or decorum.
What’s really at the root of some people’s irritation with Minaj is that she, as a representative of the Black Diaspora, can’t parade her butt without carrying the weight of Hottentot Venus on her back. Iggy Azalea shouldn’t be doing it either, but she also comes from a place of race privilege. She doesn’t the carry the weight other black women carry, the weight which makes someone like Daniel Holtzclaw–a police officer–believe they can rape 13 women–at least eight of them black–and get away with it. No matter how much Minaj might say she’s empowering women by showing her butt, she’s really giving men and women another reason to fall back on Hottentot imagery and outdated sexual fantasies.
So, what am I saying with all of this? I suppose what I’m saying simply boils down to this: I want people to quit focusing on butts and learn some history. If we actually learn from the past instead of thinking we’re past racism and sexism, then perhaps images like Kardashian’s oiled butt and champagne would actually come to an end.
Photo credits: Jean-Paul Goude for PAPER, Jean Paul Goude for his book Jungle Fever, public domain 19th century drawing of Saartjie Baartman, “La Belle Hottentot” (artist unknown). Promo art for Nicki Minaj’s single “Anaconda”