[Op Ed] Attacking the Black Woman
With FLOTUS and Rhianna targeted, 2011 ends with more racist and sexist language
The views expressed in this Op-Ed do not reflect that of Loop 21.
Within the span of about 10 days, a little-known congressional representative and an even lesser known magazine emerged into the public by deliberately disrespecting two of the most popular black women in the world: the first lady of the United States Michelle Obama, and mega-pop-star Rihanna. Each of these instances are distinctly despicable in that they attempt to degrade women’s bodies generally by reaffirming a societal gaze that assigns value to a woman’s humanity based almost exclusively on the size and shape of her body. What may be more sinister here though is the deployment of this tragically common assault at two exceptionally popular and powerful black women with one unfortunate outcome being the fact that the ‘representative’ and the ‘magazine’ enhanced their ‘brands’ via an assortment of name checks in the media-sphere. Sadly we will have to (yet again) mention those (brand) names here.
During a recent Christmas bazaar at St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Hartford, Wisconsin, Rep Jim Sensenbrenner (R – WI) criticized Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity given the size of her lower posterior.. Daniel Bice, in “Sensenbrenner apologizes to first lady over ‘big butt’ remark,” described the incident in the following way:
Perhaps Sensenbrenner - who was accompanied by an aide - assumed it was safe to crack wise about the first lady's posterior in such a heavily Republican area. But, as the old saying goes, this is what happens when you assume.
Ann Marsh-Meigs, a church member who heard Sensenbrenner's remarks, said he took several swipes at the first lady on Dec. 10. . . .“He then talked about how different first ladies have had different projects - Laura Bush and literacy - and he named two or three others,” Marsh-Meigs said in an interview last week. “And then he said, 'And Michelle Obama, her project is obesity. And look at her big butt.'”
“That's basically what he said," she continued. "It was a combination of her work on obesity and her shape.”
When confronted by a woman in attendance, who sought to highlight Mrs. Obama’s wonderful qualities, Rep Sensenbrenner responded by noting that “Michelle should practice what she preaches - 'she lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.'”
History reveals that the unmasking and over-sexualization of black bodies is a longstanding practice central to American popular culture. As Bobo (1995) states: “Representations of black women in mainstream media constitute a venerable tradition of distorted and limited imagery” (p. 33). Rather than constituting black women as “specific victims of the lust of [white] brutes,” dominant representations have posited black women as sexually deviant, aggressive, domineering or wretched victims – as mammies or jezebels (Hansberry, 1960).
Black women's bodies have historically garnered negative attention in the public sphere; the black female form has posed as both a threat and a cheap, yet addictive, commodity within American culture. Within the realm of popular culture Janet Jackson’s breasts, like Jennifer López’s and Beyonce’s behinds, have elicited incredibly prurient commentary highlighting both the exotic determination and demonization of female bodies of color. This history endures through these comments that rely on the fragmentation of Michelle Obama’s body. “There is a long history of discourses regarding harmfully reductive views of black women's "backs." Black women have been pathologized and objectified because of their ‘backs,’ which, by the way, come in all shapes and sizes just like those of other men and women,” writes Tamara Lomax in “Is It Wrong to Talk About Michelle Obama's Body?” “So, if Michelle Obama's body makes us proud, why not shape our enthusiasm with a critique of the status quo, which continues to treat her as an object by fragmenting her to her parts? Obama is a subject -- more than a body, and, more than a butt. Inscribing her with words without carefully evaluating their operation first is beyond distressing. It is death dealing. Not just to her, but to all women.”
The Representative’s comments are not simply an extension of the white supremacist project that has historically dehumanized and objectified the black woman's body. Nor is it simply a continuation of a longer history of detailing and demeaning black women's bodies. These comments embody a level of control and power, an effort to silence Michelle Obama, to rhetorically “put her in her place.” Evident in this logic, and given her body, and her blackness, she doesn’t deserve the opportunity to speak out, or to fulfill the traditional duties of a first lady. Her commitment to social justice and her dedication to combating health inequalities, are disqualified in the comments of Rep Sensenbrenner. In calling her a hypocrite, and claiming that her body precludes her from having a voice, the Rep.’s rhetoric polices Michelle Obama’s activities and her desire to challenge the ways in which access to quality and healthy food is a fundamental issue. By commenting on her body, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner seems to deny her right to engage in the food justice fight. His off-color remarks are about confining, defining, and limiting the acceptable identity available to black women within contemporary society. And as outraged as many folk may be about this, note well that too many others will agree with the Representative’s maniacal reasoning.
Unfortunately the recent comments about Michelle Obama are predicated on the same twisted ideology as those directed at Rihanna in a story ‘written’ about her in a Dutch magazine called Jackie. The title of the piece, “De Niggabitch” raised the ire of more than a few internet pundits and Rihanna herself replied on Twitter: “[w]ell with all respect, on behalf of my race, here are my two words for you … F— YOU!!!” If you think Rihanna’s response is overly dramatic, here is an excerpt of what the story said about her: “[s]he has street cred, she has a ghetto ass and she has a golden throat. Rihanna, the good girl gone bad, is the ultimate niggabitch . . .” The writer and the publisher (much like the Rep.) feel free to define Rihanna via her “ass” and her “throat” without the slightest sense of the disrespect inherent in these words. Of course, if they are ignorant of the ways in which they fragment Rihanna’s body (and attempt to do the same with her very humanity), then there is no way that they can possibly appreciate the nuances of either the N-word or the B-word and the extensive inside-outside/gender-race dynamics that each word (and each utterance of them) entails. The morphological fusion of the words may belie the gravest ignorance of the piece and any attempt on their parts to apologize or to spin the piece as an edgy depiction of Rihanna’s popular appeal. In fact, soon after the writer resigned, the magazine essentially retracted it’s apology – in yet another attempt to keep their name in the virtual public sphere.
Each of these cases remind us yet again of the troubled ways in which Black women’s humanity is depicted and discoursed in the public sphere. When congressional representatives and magazine editors have yet to get the “Humanity: Black Women Have it Too” memo, the war for gender and racial equality seems much too far from being over.
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