Closer Look at the Butt: Appropriation and Exploitation of Black Female Sexuality

Ashley Relates
Nov 9, 2015 · 15 min read

Abstract

This article examines the appropriation of black female sexuality in contemporary American pop culture and media. It also assesses the fascination and hypersexualization of black female buttocks in history, the media and entertainment.

Keywords: sexuality, appropriation, hypersexualization

Introduction

From the beginning of time, black women have always been seen as subordinate to white women in all aspects of life. Black women were seen as inferior, dumb and incompetent. These traits were soon attributed to black female sexuality. Due to the typically curvaceous buttocks and body, the black woman has been objectified as strictly an object of sexual pleasure. Where and how has the emergence of the hyper sexualized black female butt come about?

Black women in modern society have seemed to be reduced to their large butts. It’s ironic how something so large can be used to reduce a group of people or culture. In this article, I examine the history of the hypersexualization as well as its effects on American society as a whole.

I decided to write this article in hopes of educating others as well as educating myself on the topic of black female sexuality and anatomy. In this article I seek to challenge myself and others to not bypass these concepts that are thrown at us on television and phone screens on a daily basis. This article compels us to critically analyze not only society’s views of black female sexuality but also to look within and analyze our own prejudices, assumptions and perceptions of a black woman’s body.

Method

First, I revisit the story of the Hottentot Venus in order to trace the arguably first most prominent grotesque assessment of the black female boy. Second, I analyze the agents of hypersexualized female bodies in American pop culture and society. Next, I criticize the literary devices used in two contemporary journalism publications (The New York Times and Vogue Magazine) to describe black female culture as it pertains to dance and anatomy. Lastly, I analyze black female public figures, their expression of their respective sexuality and how they are portrayed in media.

RQ1. What is the first prominent instant of the hypersexualized female body? (specifically the buttocks)

RQ2. How does popular black culture exploit black female sexuality within its native culture?

RQ3. How does media manipulate the portrayal of popular black female figures through literary journalism and cinematography?

History of Black Female Sexuality

In order to understand how the emergence of big butts became associated with black females, it is important to see the negative implications of black female sexuality as a whole. bell hooks’ Black looks: race and representation, describes black females’ sexuality traits and how they have been portrayed in society. In the “Selling Hot Pussy” chapter of the book, Hooks associates black female sexuality with sexual deviance and primitiveness. Hooks writes, “Undesirable in the conventional sense, which defines beauty and sexuality as desirable only to the extent that it is idealized and unattainable, the black female body gains attention only when it is synonymous with accessibility, availability, when it is sexually deviant.”

If a black woman’s body is not immediately ready to be used for sexual pleasure, then it essentially useless to men in today’s society. The notion that black female sexuality is one of concupiscence, primitiveness and deviance can be seen as early as the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, a Jewish traveler wrote about a kind of people that “go about naked and have not the intelligence ordinary men…They cohabit with anyone they can find…And these are the Black slaves.” By the eighteenth century, black women were labeled with a deviant sexuality. Leading into the 19th century black women’s and white women’s sexuality were constantly subjected to comparison and contrast. While white women’s sexuality was hidden and portrayed to be conservative, black women’s sexuality was put on display for society’s consumption.

The Hottentot Venus

Sarah Baartman is probably the earliest example of the hypersexualization of the black female body. She was taken from her homeland to England to be put on display for her enlarged hips and buttocks.

Big butts on black women can be traced all the way back to the motherland; Africa. The most famous story of the presentation of a big black female butt was the case of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman a.k.a the Hottentot Venus. The term “Hottenot Venus” derives from the term Europeans used to name the Khoi Khoi people of South Africa which Sarah belonged to. Venus is the Greek goddess of love which implies the adoration and infatuation men had for the Hottentot Venus’ oddly large butt. Although her body was “admired”, Sarah Baartman was seen as a sexually primitive being due to her genitalia that greatly differed from that of white women.

Sarah Baartman was a young Khoisan woman living in South America during the early 1800’s. Like other women in her tribe, Baartman had a very large buttocks and wide hips. Baartman was “diagnosed” with a condition called “steatopygia” which was a term referring to a “protruded buttocks”. In 1810, she was taken from her hometown in South Africa during the early 1800’s by Scottish doctor Alexander Dunlop and showman Hendrik Cesars to be put on display as a freak show in multiple exhibitions. Roughly after 5 years of exhibition, Baartman died from infections in her late 20’s. Sarah Baartman’s genitalia were put on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, France until 1971.

The tragic story of the Hottentot Venus shows how scientific racism played a big role in the development of stereotypical traits of black women. A big butt was seen to be primitive and subhuman. By dehumanizing the black female body, whites were able to conduct experiments on black women by justifying their actions. Sarah Baartman was adored for her unique body parts but was treated like a play thing. Instead of having a respectful death, she continued to be displayed as a freak in her after-life. Black women can be reminded by her story by raising their awareness of similar exploitations in popular culture today.

Agents of the Hypersexualized Black Female Body

Before discussing the appropriation of black female sexuality, it is important to identify the agents that contribute in deeming it deviant and animalistic.

Hip Hop

Music videos, musical artists and performers, and song lyrics all show the black female body as a mere sex object. Both male and female elites in Hip-Hop culture contribute to the objectification of black females. In male Hip-Hop culture, there are many media outlets that promote the supposed sexual deviance of black female sexuality. Songs such as “Rump Shaker” by WrecknEffect, “Too Much Booty in the Pants” by 2 Live Crew, “Donk” by Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, “Back That Ass Up” by Juvenille, and “Ms. Fat Booty” by Mos Def all highlight the importance of a big butt in Black popular culture and to black men.

In 1992, Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was essentially the first ‘ode’ to the black female butt. Both the song and the music video emphasize the obsession black men have with big butts. The song’s first lyrics, “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, set the tone for the whole message of the song. Sir Mix A Lot continuously asks his “fellas” to reaffirm the significance of having a partner with a big butt. Although criticizing the praise of ‘flat butts’, primarily seen on white women, Sir Mix A Lot does not show much respect for the black female butt by displaying it as toy to be played with.

The music video for “Baby Got Back” gives a perfect illustration of the stereotypical notions associated with the black female butt. The video begins with two white women having a conversation about a black girl with a large butt. The women say “they only talk to her ’cause she looks like a total prostitute.” By referring to the black woman as prostitute, the white women imply the idea that a black female’s sexuality is not pure and normal. It is a form of sexual deviance that is looked down upon in white America. The white women go on to call the black female’s butt “gross” and “so black.” This extremely stereotypical comment exposes white Americans’ perceptions of the black female sexuality/butt, reinforcing the idea that a big butt is only attributed to black women.

Aside from the grotesque attitudes toward black women, the video goes on to call attention to the black female butt. The video showcased a group of dancers in tight yellow jumpsuits accentuating their round butts. The dancers’ choreography consisted of hip thrusts, ‘booty popping’, and butt gyration. Sir Mix A Lot is seen standing on top of a huge ‘monument’ of a butt. Miniature butts were also placed on DJ turntables and below the DJ booth and keyboardist’s area. The video never neglected to show an image or symbol of the black female butt in any scene.

Although Sir Mix A Lot brings a satirical look into the stereotypes concerning black female sexuality and white America’s perception of the black butt, he does not necessarily critically challenge these ideas. “Baby Got Back” praises the black women’s body for being different than the dominant cultural norm associated with white women’s slim bodies. Sir Mix A Lot reinforces the “binary opposition between whiteness and blackness, while reducing black women to one essential body part.”

Rapper Nelly’s music video for “Tip Drill” was frowned upon by the women of Spelman College. In the music video, Nelly is seen swiping a credit card down a black woman’s butt crack while she’s gyrating in a golden thong bikini.

Another controversial music video demeaning black female sexuality is “Tip Drill” by Nelly. The Black Entertainment Television network (BET) showed Nelly’s hyper-sexualized music video on a late night program called “BET Uncut”. If the video was not vulgar and sexist enough, the song’s hook says “It must be your ass, ’cause it ain’t your face.” The video shows half-naked women of color gyrating around “thugs” for money and attention. The most controversial scene in the music video is where Nelly is seen swiping a credit card down a woman’s butt.

Nelly’s video caused outraged in the black female community across the nation. Spelman College, an all female Historically Black college, had organized a bone marrow drive on campus and invited Nelly to be a special guest. After watching the obscene music video, Spelman uninvited Nelly and requested him to listen to the students’ opinions on the video. Nelly declined and was instantly seen as a shady individual. Since black women have been viewed as sex objects in popular culture, men have internalized this view and have treated women as such. Women are seen as commodities and play things rather than respectable individuals.

Black Female Sexuality is also very negatively portrayed in today’s fashion world. Byron Hurt’s film Beyond Beats and Rhymes, addresses the negative traits associated within American Hip Hop culture such as fashion, sexuality and masculinity. At BET’s Spring Bling, Hurt interviewed black men and women about what a woman’s clothing choice may imply about her sexuality and sexual prowess. Many men implied that if a woman is wearing tight or short clothes, she is “asking for it”. Women complained about sexual harassment at the event where several men grabbed women by their butt and squeezed their backsides. Issues of slut-shaming revolve around black women’s expression of their sexuality through the clothes they choose to wear.

Twerking

Twerking has become an art form that portrays the socially constructed negative perceptions of black female sexuality in today’s American society. Twerking has been a genre of dance for a long time but has only now recently been acknowledged through rap music’s appreciation of the “booty.” Strip culture has also influenced the growing phenomenon of twerking. Twerking has been used as a means of getting attention. The YouTube sensational duo the official “Twerk Team” has made a fortune and career from their video posts of them twerking. Many women subject themselves to this form of sexual exploitation for acceptance and attention.

Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke made headlines after their 2013 MTV VMA performance. Cyrus twerked on Thicke while making sexually suggestive moves throughout her performance.

The misrepresentation of black female sexuality in today’s society has many affects in all aspects in American culture. Appropriation is one of the main issues facing black female sexuality today. The most apparent case of black female sexuality appropriation can be seen in Miley Cyrus’ MTV Video Music Awards Show performance. “Playing with the desirability of black female bodies as a wink-wink joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women.” During the performance, Cyrus was seen in the spotlight gyrating and twerking while her larger black Although Miley Cyrus highlighted twerking and the black female body in her performance, she only further promoted the notion of sexual deviance and primitiveness associated with black female sexuality.

Literary Journalism

“In the 19th century, news readers were treated to immersive, engaging narratives about subjects as divergent as war and everyday life. This kind of journalism was not just informative, but interpretive, and filled with description, characters, and storylines that appealed to readers’ emotions.” (Gutsche, 2015)

Literary devices are used to convey the author’s perception of a story to his/her audience. To show how the media, specifically journalism, perpetuates the negative perceptions of black female sexuality I’ve analyzed two articles by American journalists, one a New York Times columnist, the other a culture writer for Vogue Magazine.

Following Miley Cyrus’ 2013 VMA performances, multiple news outlets reported on the “new” dance “thread” called twerking. New York Times opinion writer, Teddy Wayne, wrote an op ed about the dance style, describing what the dance consists of and who usually partakes in the activity. This op ed served as an open letter to (white) parents about the new dance craze.

“Explain that twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women that involves the rapid gyration of the hips in a fashion that prominently exhibits the elasticity of the gluteal musculature.” (Wayne, 2013)

The literary devices used in the article, denounced twerking as a dance move associated with lower socioeconomic class and was riddled with language making the dance “phenomenon” to be perceived as dangerous and improper.

Reality TV star Kim Kardashian posts a selfie after a gym workout with friend and former Miami stripper Blac Chyna. The Vogue magazine article diminished Blac Chyna as Kardashian’s ‘sidekick’ and focused on Kardashian’s ‘glamorous’ butt instead.

Vogue Magazine’s culture writer Patrica Garcia, wrote an article on the
new era of big booties after the release of Jennifer Lopez and Australian female rapper Iggy Azalea’s music video for their single “Booty.” The article titled “the Dawn of the Butt”, discusses the emergence of big booties in contemporary pop culture and nearly places more significance on non-black booties. For example, Garcia describes reality TV star Kim Kardashian as having a “singular figure” that propelled her family to stardom.

After briefly listing black female figures with famous derrieres like Beyonce and ex-stripper Blac Chyna, Garcia brings back the big booty significance to a nonblack woman.

“Which brings us full circle to J. Lo — the original trailblazing butt girl — and the imminent video for “Booty,” which she teased last week with the clip below. It features the 45-year-old doused in what looks like Vaseline or honey, prompting listeners to “Throw up your hands if you love a big booty.” It’s safe to say that, this time around, the world is thoroughly ready for the jelly.” (Garcia, 2014)

J. Lo teamed up with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea for a provocative single, “Booty.” Azalea and Lopez squat, drop and show off their assets in the steamy music video.

Garcia’s glorification of J. Lo as the original famous female figure with a big butt is not only inaccurate but shows the implications of the fascination of black female anatomy seen on nonblack women. In the last line of the article, Garcia refers to Destiny’s Child song “Bootylicious” by saying that the world is now ready for “the jelly.” The same jelly that Beyonce Knowles was singing about nearly 20 years prior, is now only acceptable because it is seen on a nonblack woman.

Cinematography

Taylor Swift’s popular music video for her hit single “Shake It Off” shows the singer dancing with different dance genre groups. From techno, lyrical to ballet dancing, the video shows Swift attempting to imitate each respective dance move. One section of the video, Taylor is seen with black and racially ambiguous dancers dressed in short denim shorts, cheetah print hooded jackets and wearing big hoop earrings and long gold chains around their necks. The outfits worn by the dancers and Swift are perceived to be ghetto and “ratchet.”

Taylor Swift’s music video for “Shake it Off”showcased different dancers representing various dance styles and genres. Taylor made headlines after her scenes with twerking background dancers, highlighting their butt cheeks and crotch areas.

One scene in particular, Swift is seen crawling through her dancers legs as they twerked looking up in both awe and horror. Swift seems to be looking directly at the dancers’ crotches while she crawls to “safety.”

Appropriation by Other Minorities

Jennifer Lopez is a Puerto Rican-American pop star who had her claim to fame with her R&B infused music and soulful dance moves. The artist is famously known for her big butt.

Although Jennifer Lopez is not a black female, she is a woman of color who has always been famous for her body; especially her large butt. Lopez’s “exotic” Latina body gave both black and white men the desire for her body; calling her the “racial Other.” Being of Puerto Rican descent, J-LO was perceived as “more sexual than white women but less obscene than black women.” While she is still hyper sexualized, Lopez is not seen to be primitive or whore-like because she is not a black female. Ironically enough, Jennifer Lopez slimmed down her size later in her career to fit into what white America saw to be beautiful and desirable.

Famous Black Hypersexualized Female Bodies

Rapper Nicki Minaj posted a risque single cover for her provocative single “Anaconda.” Minaj felt “snubbed” of a MTV VMA award nomination for “Video of the Year” because of the lack of appreciation of black female bodies in the music industry.

Nicki Minaj is the most recent example of hyper sexualized pop stars in today’s society. If she is not known for her vulgar lyrics, her humongous butt has help skyrocket her publicity and fame. In her verse on rapper Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$) Remix”, Nicki raps “Ass so fat, all these bitches’ pussies is throbbin.’” This lyric suggests that Minaj’s butt is so large that even women would be sexually aroused by its appearance. Nicki Minaj is also a very controversial figure in black popular culture due to rumors surrounding the authenticity of her butt. Many have said that Nicki Minaj had silicone injections placed in her butt to enlarge its size and roundness. If, in fact, Nicki Minaj’s butt is fake, she ironically altered her appearance to conform to the deviant black female sexuality rather than the white standard of beauty.

Beyoncé made her debut as a single artist with her song “Crazy in Love.” The music video touts a booty shaking Knowles and background dancers with a dance move later to be called the “Uh Oh.”

Beyonce Knowles Carter is also another pop star known around the world for her extremely desirable body. Although her butt is not the biggest of the three artists I have discussed, she is responsible for bringing black female sexuality to the fore front in the music industry. In the music video for her debut single of her solo career, “Crazy in Love”, Beyonce creates a new fascination with gyration. Her famous “Uh-Oh” dance started a worldwide dance craze that in turn brought attention to her voluptuous body.

Before Beyonce’s solo career, Destiny’s Child also brought attention to black female sexuality coining a term heard all around the world. Dictionary.com defines “bootylicious” as sexually attractive, esp. with curvaceous buttocks. The lyrics of the song “Bootylicious” continuously challenge the availability of the black female body. “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly cause my body too bootylicious for you babe.” This lyric suggests that a black woman’s body is too sexy for a man to handle. Although they are provocatively displaying their bodies in an erotic manner, they are not giving men the ability to use their bodies for their own sexual pleasures at their own wit.

Destiny’s Child released a colorful video filled with booty shaking, sass and provocative dance moves for the trio’s hit song “Bootylicious” in 2001. The song had a great impact on American culture and society when it was entered in the Oxford dictionary.

Although many may view “Bootylicious” as a great song in helping black women embrace their sexuality and curvaceous bodies, others may argue that this further objectifies the black female body by black women themselves. Carlyle Van Thompson suggests that in the music video the “black female’s “booty” becomes equated with jelly as the Black female dancers shake their bodies in a spasmodic frenzy of sexual desire.” By referring to the black female butt as jelly, one may see this to be objectifying the butt as something to be disrespectfully played with and not taken seriously.

Conclusion

Black female sexuality is a complex concept. While it certainly receives a lot of attention, not all of it is positive and uplifting the women to whom it is attributed to. Based on the analysis of different cases of the perceptions of black female sexuality, the notion still stands that while black female bodies (butts) are desired, they are only desired when seen on nonblack bodies.

References

Cottum, T. (2013, November 24). What It Feels Like When Miley Cyrus Uses Your Body as a Punch … Retrieved November 2015, from http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/08/miley_cyrus_vma_performance_white_appropriation

Garcia, P. (2014, September 9). We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.vogue.com/1342927/booty-in-pop-culture-jennifer-lopez-iggy-azalea/

Gutsche, R. (2015). The Digital Animation of Literary Journalism.

Hobson, J. (2013). Venus in the Dark Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

Hobson, J. (2009). The “Batty” Politic: Toward an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body. Hypatia, 87–105.

Hooks, B. (1992). Selling Hot Pussy. In Black looks: Race and representation.

Hurt, B. (Director). (2007). Hip-hop: Beyond beats & rhymes [Motion picture]. ITVS.

Thompson, C. (2006). Eating the Black body: Miscegenation as sexual consumption in African American literature and culture. New York: Peter Lang.

Wayne, T. (2013, August 31). Explaining Twerking to Your Parents. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/opinion/sunday/explaining-twerking-to-your-parents.html?_r=0

Williams, K. (2013, March). A Declaration: Toward A New Politics of Black Female … Retrieved November 2015, from http://www.thefeministwire.com/2013/03/a-declaration-toward-a-new-politics-of-black-female-sexuality/

Ashley Relates

Written by

Content Creator. Opinionated Millennial. Progressing Urban Culture. University of Florida: Social Media Marketing Grad Student.

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