Wrote this for a first-year graduate course, and people found it interesting and asked that I post it. BEWARE: It’s 5,000 words. Read while listening to Beyoncé’s 7/11 on repeat for inspiration and motivation.
The black booty is a mechanism of power. Historically it has been constructed by the dominant culture as a marker of difference for black women in comparison to the “ethnocentric norm which was applied to Eurocentric women (Hall 1997).” Through discipline the black booty has been both oppressed and celebrated.
Recent media portrayals of the booty have focused on its “authenticity (Meltzer 2014).” Both Vogue and The New York Times published articles this year proclaiming the advent of the posterior, denoting several celebrities who have stamped the booty as an object of now. Although black celebrities are mentioned in these articles, they fail to be noted as the purveyors of the popularity that is currently attached to the big booty. Paradoxically, black celebrities, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, attempt to use their booty within their careers as a signifier of their power as women to both reclaim their sexuality, and most essential to them, rewriting the racially charged, subordinated semiotics of their black booty. Nevertheless, the two categories of them as black and as a woman, work against them in the rewriting of their black booty as powerful; thus, not even major media outlets credit them for being powerful enough to usher in what the dominant culture has claimed as “the era of the big booty (Garcia 2014).” Instead, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj’s performances of their sexuality through their identity as black and woman work to reify the roots of their black booty’s historical subordination, even alongside contemporary recognition, acceptance and appropriation of it by the dominant culture.
This essay situates the black booty in theories of social class, gender, racial representation and discipline. By recognizing both Vogue and The New York Times as representatives of the dominant culture and Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj as popular celebrities whose black booty is prevalent in their careers, I will elucidate how the black booty is spoken for and claimed by both the media and these celebrities, and how neither work the black booty, as an object or Black women as subject, out of its historical oppression.
In its most essentialist understanding, the black booty and its assignment to black women has always been objectified through a gaze and subjective in the way in which it is discussed. Hall (Hall 1997, 265), in his analysis of Sara Baartmen, quotes a November 1810 article in The Times in which someone remarked, “she could be known to carry her fortune behind her, for London may have never seen such a ‘heavy-arsed heathen.” A heathen is what Baartmen had been subjected to when she was brought from South Africa to England in the 1800s. Her black booty, or, steaopygia (the condition of a protruding backside), was objectified, as she was “produced on a raised stage like a wild beast, [and] came and went from her cage when ordered.” Even in her death, her racially charged and hypersexualized body was tamed through the power of the dominant gaze, which worked to discipline her black booty into a position of subordination.
In an article on Vogue’s website titled “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty,” Patricia Garcia (Garcia 2014) writes:
In music videos, in Instagram photos, and on today’s most popular celebrities, the measure of sex appeal is inextricably linked to the prominence of a woman’s behind.
For years it was exactly the opposite; a large butt was not something one aspired to, rather something one tried to tame in countless exercise classes.
While Garcia claims that the taming of the booty is done through exercise, she deactivates the historical taming of the black booty, as seen through the enslavement of Baartmen. Instead, she attempts to rewrite the black booty through the acceptance and appropriation of the booty at the hands of the dominant culture. Paradoxically, however she still participates in the gaze, compartmentalizing the booty and assigning it to a higher position. It is no longer an “Other,” as it has been historically marked, but rather an acceptable commonplace that becomes a site of power for the woman whose backside it rests on, as long as they are not black. Garcia goes on to write of Destiny’s Child’s 2005 single “Bootylicious:”
The song was a hit, of course, and the video, a fun dance party without a twerk in sight, brought a new kind of figure into the spotlight. Still, it would be another decade before people were “ready for this jelly” to become the ultimate standard of beauty.
She denotes Jennifer Lopez as “sparking the booty movement,” and goes on to thumb Kim Kardashian, Jen Selter, Miley Cyrus and Shakira as evidence of the booty era. Only in the last paragraph does she credit Beyoncé for her 2013 eponymous album and Nicki Minaj’s 2014 rendition of Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s, “Baby Got Back” in her single “Anaconda;” here, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj are positioned as followers of the trend, instead of the prominent site from which the booty has come to be constructed. Their identity as black and woman marginalizes them and their self-proclaimed power to speak for their black booty.
In its mission statement, Vogue (Condé Nast 2014) writes:
Vogue places fashion in the context of culture and the world we live in — how we dress, live and socialize; what we eat, listen to and watch; who leads and inspires us. Vogue immerses itself in fashion, always leading readers to what will happen next. Thought-provoking, relevant and always influential, Vogue defines the culture of fashion.
I argue that Vogue’s ability to “define” makes it a representative of the dominant culture. Garcia writes of the big booty era from her position of power, creating a space that permits a redefining of the booty, but makes it inaccessible (unacceptable) for the racialized black booty of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj to be influential. By speaking for the black booty, Garcia actually tames it herself by exercising her positions of power, silencing the historical oppression of the Black booty.
In her New York Times article, “For Posterior’s Sake,” Marisa Meltzer (Meltzer 2014) writes of the big booty as a thing of “authenticity.” Unlike Garcia, she writes in the history of the booty as a mechanism of the Other:
Not that this is exactly new. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Jessica Biel, Rihanna, Serena Williams, Pippa Middleton and Beyoncé (who, on her tour that just ended, wore a bodysuit with the tush cutout) have all been praised for their behinds. But perhaps no one has been more celebrated than Jennifer Lopez, whose buttocks were called “in and of themselves, a cultural icon” in Vanity Fair.
Tina Fey cited Ms. Lopez’s influence in “Bossypants.” “The first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style,” she wrote. “That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American Beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them.”
Like Vogue and The New York Times, Vanity Fair also represents the dominant culture through popular media. Tina Fey is also a representative of privilege via not only her identity as white, but also through her influence as a popular celebrity. Therefore, Meltzer’s inclusion of their voices to outline the Eurocentric perspectives of the big booty— which elucidate how its trajectory from being something that women did not aspire after to now being a trend—represents how the dominant culture redefines racialized messages on their terms. Similar to Garcia’s article, Meltzer also includes that Jennifer Lopez’s booty is the purveyor of the big booty trend, and deters away from the subordinate and oppressive language that has historically been attached to the big booty, such as in The Times article that speaks of Sara Baartmen.
Mercer (Mercer 1994, 194) encapsulates this notion of the black woman not being able to speak for her own black booty. In his analysis of Robert Mapplethrope’s Big Black Book, in which he photographs black gay men, he considers the problems of the dominant culture speaking for marginalized groups. He argues:
“It is the problematic enunciation that circumscribes the marginalized positions of subjects historically misrepresented or underrepresented in the dominant culture, for to be marginalized is to have no place from which to speak.”
In Mercer’s argument, Robert Mapplethrope photographs black gay men from his position as a white gay man—a position of privilege when compared against his subjects. Mapplethrope speaks for the voiceless black gay men in his photographs and uses his privilege as “power to turn you [the black subject] into a work of art (Mercer 1994, 77).” Position, and having a place from which to speak, is conceptualized by Bourdieu’s construction of social class via space and power.
Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1987, 4) outlines three fundamental social powers—economic capital, cultural capital and social capital—that are distributed in social space based on volume, composition and trajectory. According to Bourdieu, that space is divided into class systems that “are only analytical constructs, but well-founded in reality.” Thus in the same way that Mapplethrope perpetuates the black gay male as marginalized based off his subjects’ identity as both black and gay (which does not equate to privileged), so too does he follow along the trajectory of speaking for his subjects and constructing them back into positions of subordination. The same can be said for the black booty.
In her analysis of Beyoncé’s “Check On It” video, Durham (Durham 2012, 45) concludes that the black booty, specifically the one belonging to Beyoncé, “shapes how we read her iconic Black female body and her celebrity persona as the belle of hip hop culture.” In order for it to be read, it has to be both disciplined and spoken for not by Beyoncé, but who Durham argues are those who perpetuate the construction of her rear end—MTV and Hype Williams, which are considered to be in positions of power as either white or male or both.
Concerning Bourdieu’s (Bourdieu 1987, 8) claim that constructs are founded in reality, the same can be considered for the black booty’s assignment to the black woman. Although it holds some realistic truth in its voluptuousness and unprecedented visibility on black women from Sara Baartmen to Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, it is not until it comes to be recognized and disciplined that the black booty becomes constructed into an “Other.” As with the aforementioned history of Baartmen, until recently being accepted by the dominant culture, the black booty was a marker of difference.
Hall (Hall 1997, 239) writes of this type of recognition when he outlines the three major moments when the West encountered black people:
The first began with the sixteenth century contact between European traders and the West African kingdoms, which provided a source of black slaves for three centuries. Its effects were to be found in slavery and in the post-slave societies of the New World. The second was the European colonization of Africa the ‘scramble’ between the European powers for the control of colonial territory, markets and raw materials in the period of ‘high Imperialism.’ The third was the post-World War II migrations from the ‘Third World’ into Europe and North America.
Through these contacts, “popular representations” of black people were created to fix them into oppression. Overarching representations included that of the Uncle Tom, blackface often seen in minstrel shows, exaggerated physical features of the black body such as large lips and course hair, cartoons featuring dialogue of black servants speaking in subordinate dialects. Included in these images was the history of Baartmen, whose body was marked as different in both life and death, and oppressive categories such as the mammy, the black matriarch, the welfare mother and the jezebel (Collins 2000), which came to position Black women in positions of servitude, anger and bitterness, dependency and racialized hypersexuality. Even when “racialization of imagery” was altered (Hall 1997, 250), Hall argues that images such as these persisted through stereotyping. As Hall (Hall 1997, 257) writes, stereotyping “works to reduce people to a few essential characteristics based on Nature.”
It was only in 1974 that Vogue (Vogue Magazine 1974) began featuring black models on the cover of their magazine (Beverly Johnson became the first black model to cover that publication). Their inclusion of blackness on its covers and inside its pages definitely alludes to the modification of racialized imagery, in the publication’s recognition of blackness as beautiful and representative of the dominant culture. However, the publication still perpetuates the stereotypes of blackness, as seen 40 years later in its “booty era” article, by appropriating the cultural semiotics of the black booty.
As Garcia writes that the booty was not something that was aspired after, but instead something tamed through exercising, I argue that the booty was tamed and disciplined through stereotypes attached to black women that did not allow the black booty to be seen as an “ultimate standard of beauty (Garcia 2014).” Only by negotiations with the dominant culture can the black booty, which was once marginalized, become visible (Mercer 1994). Even Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj are subjected to these negotiations, despite their economic capital which one would assume, thrusts them into positions of power that should allow them to reclaim and redefine the oppression of their black booty.
In “Rocket,” a single from Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled album (Beyoncé 2013), she sings the lyrics: “Let me sit this ass on you.” The lyrics insinuate her ownership of her posterior, and that she is control of its actions and messages. Nicki Minaj exposed her bare butt cheeks for the cover art (Minaj 2014) for her 2014 single, “Anaconda.” Known for consciously promoting her posterior, she concludes the song with the lyrics, “Yeah, I got a big fat ass come on.” She, too, appears to be claiming her black booty. Both music artists have net worth well into the millions, and are influential based on their music, dance moves, clothing and cosmetics lines, and more. Their bodies are a business for their entrepreneurial gain.
In her analysis of Beyoncé’s 2005 single and accompanying video, “Check On It,” Durham (Durham 2012, 36) writes that the pop star’s “celebration of her voluptuous figure has incrementally transformed beauty industries that unapologetically favored the wasp-like waif bodies.” Both Vogue and The New York Times write of similar trajectories. While Garcia (Garcia 2014) writes that women tamed their bodies through exercise, Meltzer (Meltzer 2014) quotes Instagram celebrity, Jen Selter, who states that when she was growing up “everyone wanted to look like skinny, bony girls. Over time, butts have become a thing.” Durham, Vogue and The New York Times agree that, concerning the black booty, Jennifer Lopez precedes both Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. What is now a “thing” for the dominant culture displays how it exists as a mechanism of disciplined oppression and a mechanism of power relations.
In his analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault writes:
The panoptic mechanism is not simply a hinge, a point of exchange between a mechanism of power and a function, it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations.
Historically, the black booty has been disciplined to function within the site of its oppression, which was initiated by the dominant culture. While Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj claim their black booty, their performances appear as spectacles, attracting the gaze of white and black males, which work to reify them into their oppression. Durham (Durham 2012, 43) writes that though Beyoncé expresses sexual agency in her video and song lyrics in “Check On It,” the camera shots “strip her (sexual) subjectivity.” She writes that when shots neglect to “reflect her point of view, and do not show her face in scenes that emphasize her backside, the agency she expresses lyrically is overshadowed by visual objectification.” While it appears that she is claiming her own booty, Durham argues that it is really being claimed by MTV, a representative of the dominant culture, and Hype Williams, a video producer who’s surface identity is black and male–both are in positions of power and/or privilege.
Gill (Gill 2007) argues that this type of power—in this case in which Black celebrities who consciously claim their black booty—“represents a higher or deeper form of exploitation than objectification.” She writes that while women “are invited to become a particular kind of self” they must construct their identity in a way that reifies “the heterosexual male fantasy,” which I extrapolate to the hypersexualization and racialization that has always persisted in the speaking and claiming of the black female body.
Concerning the male gaze, I would also like to consider discourses of feminism, which have been attached to Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé performed songs from her 2013 eponymous album. During her performance of her single FLAWLESS*** she stood in front of a large screen that read feminist in all capital letters. Before “feminist” was shown on the screen, the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s (Adichie 2013) 2013 TED talk titled “We Should All Be Feminists,” appeared swiftly on and off of the screen. The words from the speech are also used in Beyoncé’s song FLAWLESS***, however, it is Adichie who uses the word feminist and Beyoncé never actually says it for herself. Instead, she concludes the song with the verse, “My man makes me feel so god damn fine,” which could be considered a nod to post-feminism, in which she has embodied her “objectification to empower [her] own sexual desires (Gill 2007, 152).”
Adichie’s speech runs thirty minutes during her TED talk, but Beyoncé only uses a fragment of it to position herself within feminist discourses. From Adichie’s speech, she includes:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors –not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
While these notions align with the lyrics of FLAWLESS***, what’s left out is the solutions that Adichie proposes in order to achieve gender equality. During her speech, Adichie states that girls and boys have to be “raised differently,” in ways that will dismantle microagressions toward girls and women (she evidences this by considering the assignment of domestic labor to that of women). However, Durham (Durham 2012, 45) argues that while Beyoncé’s career and agency perpetuates certain notions of postfeminist discourse, “her body traverses mediascapes,” calling attention to the ways in which Beyoncé’s particular position of power influences the ways in which black girls are presented with a limited amount of definitions (and images) that “account for the full expression of black women’s humanity.”
Nicki Minaj’s performance during the awards show was much like Beyoncé’s. She wore a revealing bikini, danced with a group of women, and slapped and grabbed her booty countless times. While, Durham argues that Beyoncé performs within the realms of hip hop, Nicki Minaj is more relatable to the hip hop/rap genre, as she identifies as a female rapper. This identifier puts her in a unique position because she is a part of a genre of music that is widely dominated by black males. Therefore, her negotiations concerning her black booty and femininity cause her to reclaim her black booty from the dominant culture, which both originated its oppression and subverts her body through appropriation, and also the black male gaze, which is most prevalent in hip-hop videos; Durham uses the example of the St. Lunatics 2003 video “Tip Drill,” as an example of this. Although Nicki Minaj has never made a statement as obvious as Beyoncé’s of being a feminist, her dominance of the rap music genre and hip-hop world puts her into discourses of postfeminism, such as agency. However, she still fits within a similar position as Beyoncé of limiting representations of black femininity in popular culture.
In considering other representations of black femininity in music, “Q.U.E.E.N,” a song from Janelle Monaé’s 2013 album, The Electric Lady, included a feature from Erykah Badu. In the song, Badu sings, “We gotta testify/Because the booty don’t lie.” The intention of “Q.U.E.E.N.” was to be an empowering song for black women to embrace their individuality, a notion that both Monaé and Erykah Badu have been known to promote throughout their careers.
Erykah Badu, often glorified for her black booty, released the video to her song “Window Seat” in 2010. In the video, she took off layers of her clothes while walking down a street in her hometown of Dallas, Texas. By the end of the video, Badu is completely nude and she is assassinated in the same spot that John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963.
In these instances of black femininity, the black booty is read as a literal form of political and social messages, much like Beyoncé attempts to do in using Adichie’s words in FLAWLESS***. Yet, while Monaé and Badu are well-known artists, their positions of power aren’t seen as forceful as the “dream world” (Durham 2012) Beyoncé has been constructed in and where she and her black booty are permitted to live and perform. Both Monaé and Badu are of darker complexions, often wear hairstyles representative of black culture (i.e. the Afro) and don’t use their black booty as the site of their performance. Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj however, fit within the “standards” (Hall 1997, 253) of the dominant cultures’ claiming of their black booty; they are both of lighter complexions, often wear their hair straightened, and through several lyrics and performances direct attention to their “out-of-control” (Durham 2012) black booty.
Adichie (Adichie 2013) argues that women who perform within the realms of male microaggressions are doing so out of “pretense,” which becomes an “art form,” in which women feel like they should perform their proscribed identities and oppression. In this case, Beyoncé performs within what Durham calls a “dreamworld,” that allows for classed femininities. However her identity as a black female persists in marking her as an Other in the dominant culture, as seen through both Vogue and The New York Times.
When Garcia (Garcia 2014) writes that Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” was not seen as the ultimate standard of beauty, she alludes to the marking of difference of the Black female body. Upon its acceptance in 2014, the black booty is now as Selter (Meltzer 2014) stated “a thing,” allowing it to be claimed. Through objectification, the black booty becomes detached from the black female in both its oppression and glorification, and its otherness becomes “visible within the codes of convention of the dominant culture (Mercer 1994, 201).”
In arguing that Foucault’s analysis of surveillance and discipline fails to explore gendered bodies, Bartky (Bartky 1997, 80) extrapolates his concept of discipline to consider how women’s disciplinary techniques reify their subjectivity to patriarchal powers. Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj claiming of their black booty becomes a mechanism of power relations, in which they perform “disciplined techniques on themselves” that greatly resemble the way in which their black booty have historically been subordinated, allowing for their oppressors to go unnoticed, or in this case, claim the black booty. When Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj attempt to reclaim their black booty and subvert its racialized and gendered messages via their economic power and postfeminist discourses, they instead perform within their oppression through spectacle, reifying the festishization of the black booty, and allowing for the permeability of their black booty to be claimed via the appropriation of the dominant culture. Through its position of power, the dominant culture attempts to subvert the black booty as a marker of difference to an item worthy of glorification and celebration.
Mercer (Mercer 1994, 216) asks, “What is going on when whites assimilate and internalize the degraded and devalorized signifiers of racial otherness into the cultural construction of their own identity”? Through activation of race, class, discipline and feminist discourses, the black booty is a site of perpetual appropriation when whites internalize racial otherness. bell hooks (hooks 1992, 153) writes of this appropriation when analyzing how filmmaker Jenny Livingston appropriated black gay males in her documentary, Paris Is Burning. She considers “a current trend in producing colorful ethnicity,” much like the one seen in the advent of the black booty. hooks writes that this trend saturates the “white consumer appetite,” which allows:
…blackness to be commodified in unprecedented ways, and for whites to appropriate black culture without interrogating whiteness or showing concern for the displeasure of blacks … it allows white audiences to applaud representations of black culture, if they are satisfied with the images and habits of being represented.
What’s currently happening in popular media is the approval and commodification of the black booty. As representatives of the dominant culture, Vogue and The New York Times act as spokespersons (Bourdieu 1987, 12) for the satisfaction of the racially charged black booty. Although this approval allows for the modification of the demeaning, racialized imagery of the black booty (i.e. Sara Baartmen), it still perpetuates stereotypes of the black woman (Hall 1997, 250). Neither Vogue nor The New York Times article mention the race and/or ethnicity of Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj. However, they do illegitimate their historicity as black women, which attaches the black booty to a trajectory of oppression, from which these two popular women in music have attempted to redefine, rewrite and reclaim. Hall (Hall 1997, 258) argues, however, that stereotyping allows for “the maintenance of social and symbolic order.” Therefore, while it is true that Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj portray an element of control over their black booty through performances and song lyrics, those same dance moves and lyrics are relational to markers of difference that have historically been attached to their surface identity as black and woman. The black booty is slightly permissible in the dominant culture only because their performances maintain the stereotypes of their “out-of-control,” “hypersexualized,” semiotics (Durham 2012). While Vogue attempts to usher in a new era for the big booty, it is instead following along in an era and trend of appropriation that appears due to its, and other popular media sources’, positions of power.
In October, Elle magazine published an article titled “Timberlands are the New Birkenstocks,” and noted that they were to be the trendy shoe must-have of fall 2014. However, what the article failed to do was denote the way in which the shoe has often been worn by and associated with rappers in the music industry. Although the article wasn’t intended to be a history lesson on the Timberland boot, the way in which it was promoted as a “thing” of now, poses an interesting question on the proper time and place to insert historical trajectories of what popular media outlets are positioned to speak about and claim.
The same is considered in Mercer’s (Mercer 1994, 198) dissatisfaction with Mapplethrope’s images of Black gay men. In his analysis, Mercer includes a quote from Mapplethrope in which the photographer considers why he chose to create the Big Black Book:
At some point I started photographing black men. It was an area that hadn’t been explored intensively. If you went through the history of male nude photography, there were very few black subjects. I found that I could take pictures of black men that were so subtle, and the form was so photographical.
In the same way that the black booty comes to be reified into its subordinate stance via enunciation, Mapplethrope does the same by stating the need to “explore” the black body. In an effort that, on the surface, appears to celebrate the bodies of black males, they are instead silenced, put on pedestals (similar to Sara Baartmen being put on a stage), and stereotypes of their genitalia, naturalization and objectification persists.
When Garcia writes that Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” as a hit, but not quite ready to be accepted as an ultimate standard of beauty, it speaks volumes to what is not being said: that as long as the big booty rests on the backside of black women, it will always be an Other as long as Eurocentric hegemonic ideals exist as the norm. This type of writing allows the black booty to be compartmentalized into a trend that goes in and out of style, instead of a site of oppression that the black woman has always attempted to live through and subvert. While we might argue that it is not necessary to include the gory details of Sara Baartmen’s life in contemporary conversations of the black booty, we must also ask in what ways can we achieve balanced bodies through discourses of race relations, class, gender and discipline through popular media. We must also ask how we can recognize popular media’s privilege and hold them accountable for historicizing what they wish to purvey. While we can’t rewrite history we have to ask if we can rewrite what that history means, and who is allowed to rewrite that meaning. Does it lie in the hands of Garcia and Meltzer, through the dominance of Vogue and The New York Times, to use their power and privilege to transgress the black booty? Do Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj need to move beyond the reclaiming of their black booty, in ways that allows them to speak for their posteriors beyond their song lyrics and dance moves? And last, is there an opportunity for the black booty to transgress in a way that we can still recognize the historicity of Sara Baartmen, all that she represented and all that we’ve moved on from, while still celebrating the bodies on which the black booty exists?