The Shadow
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The Shadow

The Voyeur and the Derriere

I like big butts and I cannot lie — Sir Mix-A-lot

Buttocks, History and Art

The buttocks, bum, ass, backside, rump, hindquarters, money-maker — whatever the reference to the rounded anatomy, it has been a focal point throughout the history of sexual pleasure. The obsession with the posterior of the pelvic region has carried through to the modern world. In western popular culture, a fixation on this particular body part is evident in fashion styles, sex symbols and song lyrics, Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-A-Lot an iconic example. This fixation is rooted in imperialism and a product of colonial voyeurism. The story of Sarah Baartman provides a lens into the sexualization of the buttocks that has influenced the western fetish for large butts commonplace for the past two hundred years.

Colonization spread thousands of Europeans across the globe. The contact between western colonists and indigenous people marked the first documented examples of otherness Europeans used to categorize the people of foreign territories. Encounters were often recorded by white male Europeans, and their descriptions of the indigenous people, specifically women, were sexually charged. The superiority Europeans felt towards the indigenous people influenced their opinions and labeled natives as inferior and inhuman. Often gender was the vehicle to convey racial difference to people back home in Europe. The colonizers distinguished themselves as superior by highlighting practices that differed from their own. Explorers conveyed racial inferiority and difference using gender, depicting the female body with exaggerated physiognomy to reveal that the other woman was different than a woman back home in Europe. Although framed with gross, exaggerated traits, at once the othered female was sexualized and aspects of the body, like the buttocks, fetishized. Sarah Baartman’s story demonstrates this as her body was commodified by her European captor and placed on display.

One of the most dominant features used to perpetuate difference with Africans was the enlarged buttocks. The exploitation of Sarah Baartman highlights how colonial voyeurism exploited her as an object that exemplified the sexualized otherness of the new worlds. Colonial voyeurism is key to understanding her story and how her body, specifically her buttocks, shaped modern notions of sexual pleasure.

Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baartman was a South African woman born in 1789. She belonged to the Khoisan (named Hottentots) people during Dutch colonization of the region. She was sold to a white farmer and brought to Cape Town. Her large buttocks and genital features were fascinating to the Europeans, and she quickly became a spectacle in Cape Town. Her body caught the eye of Dr. William Dunlop, an English surgeon, who agreed to take Baartman to work in London as a domestic servant. Rather than working in servitude, she spent the years performing under Dunlop as an object of taboo, curiosity and desire for Europeans attending freak shows. She was typically displayed nude or partly dressed and was paraded around as the “Hottentot Venus” (Magubane).

Her African origin and extremely large buttocks distinguished her otherness that was then sexualized by the European voyeurs. Consequently, she could not separate herself from the sexualization of her butt, therefore her butt defined who she was (Gilman). This is evident through depictions of her body through freak show advertisements and propaganda ads. In each of these promotions, her butt dominated the scene and perpetuated the otherness through the hyperbolized distinction made between Baartman and Europeans. Ultimately, her large buttocks became a sex symbol, and the fixation on her large butt transformed the body part into a sexualized trait that is evident in modern fashion, sex symbols and music.

Sarah Baartman entered the European stage as the Hottentot Venus in the early nineteenth century. At this time western fashion for women focused on the silhouette and small waist (Museum). However, as the century evolved, so did the shape of the desired silhouette. A transformation from rather a-line silhouettes to increasingly voluminous curves unveiled the changing standards in female body types. The bell shaped skirts were domed and created the illusion of extremely large buttocks.

Bustles and Crinoline

It is hard to deny the influence colonial voyeurism had on this fetishized preference and the role Sarah Baartman played in this infatuation with the woman’s behind.

Additionally, the fixation with the female buttock as a symbol of sexual desire and pleasure is seen through popular culture’s sex symbols. Kim Kardashian is one of the most influential women today. Despite having no education, she is a celebrity who has influence through her ability to sell her looks and sex appeal mainly focused on her buttocks. As the sex symbol of today, she highlights the continuation of sexual desire for large buttocks that can be directly traced back to the Hottentot Venus and colonial voyeurism.

The proof that the historic sexualization of the buttocks has influenced modern notions of what is fetishized is seen through pop music. Several of Rihanna’s music videos, specifically “Work ft. Drake”, illustrate the importance the butt plays in sexual desire. Rihanna is depicted twerking, and close ups of her rear dominate the majority of the video. This is a common depiction in most modern rap videos, and discourse on the desire of a large butt is commonly found in rap and hip hop music (Natelege Whaley). Cardi B and many other popular musical artists embody the legacy effects of colonial voyeurism and exemplify the lasting impact it has had on modern sexual desire in the west.

Sarah Baartman died in 1815 at age 26. Naturalist Georges Cuvier dissected her body after making a plaster cast and preserved her remains- skull, skeleton and genitals (in jars)- that stayed on display at the Paris Museum of Man until 1974. She was buried in South Africa in 2002. It is important to see her life as a lens to the exploitation and commodification of the black body by Europeans during the eras of colonialism and later imperialism and the way the Hottentot Venus shaped western notions of sexual desire.

The burial of Sarah Baartman, 2002

References: Gilman, Sander L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 204. located at https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/docview/1297339444?accountid=10598; Magubane, Zine. “WHICH BODIES MATTER?: Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretical Odyssey of the ‘Hottentot Venus.’” Gender & Society, vol. 15, no. 6, Dec. 2001, pp. 816–834, doi:10.1177/089124301015006003; Museum, Albert, and Digital Media. “Victoria and Albert Museum.” Introduction to 20th-Century Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL. Telephone +44 (0)20 7942 2000. Email Vanda@Vam.ac.uk, 11 July 2013, www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/history-of-fashion-1840-1900; Natelegewhaley. “25 Best Booty Songs.” TheDrop.fm, 8 Oct. 2013,thedrop.fm/25-best-songs-celebrating-booty; SIGAL, PETE. “Latin America and the Challenge of Globalizing the History of Sexuality;” Eprecht, Marc.“Sexuality, Africa, History.” The American Historical Review, vol. 114, no. 5, 2009, 1258–1272.

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Mary Mac Ogden

Mary Mac Ogden

Historian-Writer-Advocate Women are divided into two classes- those who are doing things and those who are not- Do something that makes you proud!