Fat, Intersectionality, Pop Culture, Reading, Self-Image, Writing

Yes Means Yes! Virtual Tour: Q&A with Kimberly Springer

OK, so nobody who reads this blog can be unaware that Yes Means Yes! is out, and I’m in it, and you should buy it, and I FELL DOWN FOUR TIMES FOR YOU PEOPLE. But we haven’t talked much about the other contributors so far. Because, you know, I really like to talk about myself.

Today, I would like you all to give a warm Shapeling welcome to Kimberly Springer, author of the essay “Queering Black Female Heterosexuality,” who was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her contribution below. Huge thanks to Kimberly for sharing her time, wisdom, and awesome with us.

Commenters, a few extra notes for today:

  1. Please pay special attention to rules number 10 and 11 in the comments policy.
  2. Although we do get into comparing depictions of fat white women and both fat and thin black women onscreen (and I got rather long-winded on the subject, not suprisingly), I would like to keep such comparisons in the background of this discussion as much as possible. When in doubt, please keep in mind that today’s topic is what Kimberly has to say about black female sexuality, not (for once) what white fat women think about being white fat women.
  3. If you’re commenting for the first time, welcome, but please be aware that all first-time comments automatically go into moderation — and Fillyjonk, Sweet Machine and I might not be able to check the queue and release them right away. Please be patient with us.

One last note before we get to it: Don’t forget to check out the next stop on the tour, Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman guest-blogging at Bitch Ph.D. this coming Monday, Feb. 16!

Kate Harding: I’d like to give the readers a bit of 101 on some of the terms you use — specifically, the “Jezebel,” “Mammy” and “black lady” stereotypes, as well as “queer” as a political stance and a verb.

Kimberly Springer: What’s important to note about stereotypes is that, as some people maintain, there may be a grain of truth in them. But also key is to observe the historical continuity. In other words, the more representations change, the more they stay the same. While the icon of the Mammy may be rooted in slavery and the role of black women as caregivers to white families, that role is replicated in popular culture endlessly with black women caring for or teaching white folks something about themselves. Jennifer Hudson, bless her beautiful, talented soul, was relegated to a Mammy role in the Sex and the City film. Usually the Mammy is asexual, so while Hudson’s character did find love for herself, that’s different than being a well-rounded person who’s romantically and sexually fulfilled. Would I have rather not seen any black faces in that film? Absolutely. Carrie Bradshaw can wipe her own damn nose and get Miranda to straighten out her dayplanner.

The Jezebel would be the other end of the spectrum. Why do I always return to Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball? Because this Academy Award-winning performance was so bloody offensive. Is it Berry’s fault that all the YouTube clips are of her “sex scene” in the film? Not entirely. But this fact is indicative of how the general public views black women’s sexuality. It is Jezebel cinema 101: needy, groveling, desperate for white cock, no self-worth.

Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Sexual Politics, does a much better and more exhaustive outlining of the evolution of these stereotypes. I’d really recommend checking out her book for her take on how these stereotypes are updated and reverberate in characters like the black female TV judge, i.e. the black lady. Black women are allowed to enter the frame as judge, teacher, or Oracle carrying out the dominant culture’s laws and edicts as if those are determined ahistorically.

The stereotypes raise the question, can we ever win? Will there ever be representations of black women that outruns these specters of history? For example, in the new trailer for He’s Just Not That Into You, L.A.-based comedy team Frangela (Frances Collier and Angela Shelton) are featured sitting on a park bench dispensing wisdom, ostensibly, to the film’s white female protagonists. Latoya Peterson (also featured in Yes Means Yes) blogged about the spot for Racialicious and her friend nailed the exasperation with this particular representation of black women perfectly, “They always do that to us, don’t they?” Yes, cripes, they really do! But what struck me were the comments to the post about “fat black women.” What demands do we make on Hollywood to give us depictions we can get with? Let’s examine our uncritical pegging of the “fat black woman”. Can she speak her mind without being the Mammy or, yet another stereotype, the black bitch/Sapphire?

Queering, as a verb, is meant to encourage us to take risks in how we identify and interact with our sexuality as black women. My basic point is that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in looking at how queer theory questions gender categories and applying that to questioning racial and gender categories as they intersect. I’m also thinking about black women and our sexuality as always “queer,” already “queer” whether we want that or not. Back to my Frangela example, I’ve got some personal connection to them and so know that, for instance, they made a pilot of a too-smart-for-television sitcom. I also know that they, like everyone else, have to pay the bills. But, yet, I always question black folks who take roles that make me cringe. So, are there ways to queer these representations? To make them something other than capitulations to mass culture? Is it self-delusion to try and see subversiveness when there may not be any? What kind of queering can we do, if allowed the space and resources, of stale stereotypes? Professor Rebecca Wanzo (Ohio State) put a concept to the questions I’ve been contemplating with her notion of “complex personhood.”

KH: Queen Latifah is an icon in the fat acceptance community (or was, before she started shilling for Jenny Craig), and it never really occurred to me before  reading your essay that most of her roles are so asexual. I was just so happy for the crumb of seeing a fat leading lady whose body is not (always) an object of derision — seeing a fat woman’s sexuality played for something other than laughs almost seems like too much to hope for. But as you discuss in the essay, taking those representational crumbs is not enough — we need to recognize that even superficially positive stereotypes, e.g., the “black lady,” are still dangerously reductive. Can you expand on this here?

KS: At this stage, in 2009, I remain uncharacteristically optimistic that we could hope for something more than crumbs from the big house table in terms of how black women are represented. And that word is key: re-presented. I don’t want yet another presentation of a black female stereotype that we’ve already seen a million times before.

So, while I’m all for calling Hollywood on their lack of creativity, I would agree with you that we should highlight positive stereotypes…and then demand complexity in that so-called positive view. I mean, dang, the very idea that Queen Latifah isn’t getting play left and right is absurd. And the default to depicting her sexually in a film would have to be played for laughs or related to assumed insecurities she has about her body. Can you imagine the number of scripts she turns down that do just that?

But, then, maybe we need to do a 360 critique. You say that Latifah is/was an icon in the fat acceptance community, but does her mere presence make her deserving of icon status? It’s probably best to make this more general than about Queen Latifah in particular, but I would question our impulse to uncritically embrace those who, really, only see us a potential audience. Most celebs lose me when they go out of their way to deny feminism as a factor in their art or who they’ve achieved success.

KH: One thing that really resonated with me as a fat, white woman was the false dichotomy of hypersexuality/asexuality. Though fat women who aren’t black don’t have the Jezebel/Mammy history driving that, I think all fat women are subjected to a version of the same stereotypes. We’re portrayed as either insatiably horny (which of course goes along with the stereotype of fat women as insatiable, period), or as the best friends/secretaries/teachers/etc. with no apparent romantic lives of our own. Horny fat women are portrayed as clowns, not temptresses — a fat woman’s sexual desire is seen as intrinsically humorous, and 99 times out of 100, she’ll be shown pursuing a guy who’s disgusted by her, with absolutely no clue that he feels that way. And asexual fat white women are usually portrayed as pathetic and lonely because of the fat, even if they’re simply in a supporting role with no romantic storyline — gratuitous shots of these women eating junk food at their desks or looking forlornly/jealously at a happy couple invite assumptions about the characters’ romantic lives. Whereas (at least this is my impression — please tell me if I’m missing something) the asexual black woman on screen isn’t meant to be seen as lonely or having any desire at all — she’s just a 2-dimensional human being who doesn’t “need” that aspect to her character, because her primary function is to further the white people’s story.

Writing it out like that makes me realize that, as profoundly offensive as I find that portrayal (implicit or explicit) of fat white women as lonely and unlovable, it’s still humanizing — in a really crude way — as compared to black women’s on-screen asexuality. The fat woman might actually have desires, we’re just meant to understand that she can never meet them as long as she’s fat. The black woman doesn’t even have enough humanity to feel loneliness. And please note that I’m deliberately separating the categories of “fat woman” and “black woman” here not because I’ve forgotten fat, black women exist, but because I think blackness trumps* fatness in this case: a fat black woman in that asexual role is still primarily defined by her relationship/usefulness to the white characters, rather than by her own body.

Going back to the other stereotype, though, I guess I’d say fatness more often trumps blackness, turning the Jezebel/”ho” from a desirable-in-a-dirty-way figure into a clown. (Especially when that fat, black “woman” is played by a man, which adds a whole other level.)

*”Trumps” is obviously a simplistic way to put it, and I certainly don’t mean the person’s fatness or blackness is obscured in either case. But it seems to me there are two different but related hypersexual/asexual dichotomies here, and whether fat black women are defined first by fat stereotypes or black stereotypes onscreen depends on which half of the dichotomy we’re talking about.

So, uh, got anything to say about all that? :)

KS: Yes, I get you! And, if I can use a UK-based example here: on Eastenders, the long-running English soap opera about the working class, they’ve featured for a while now a fat white women named “Heather.” It’s been on my mind to start a campaign about her depiction which is, as you note, insatiably horny, always eating, a failure in love, and just generally pathetic. She does have an abiding love for George Michael, but we might question the motives of having Heather lust after George who is out and proud about his gayness.

I bring Heather up because, again, heavens forfend, she should be a multi-facted character, someone not just in scenes for comic relief. Yet, it’s that question of desire that you raise so cogently in the distinctions you draw between a hypersexual, fat white femininity and an asexual black femininity. I think we can make the further distinction that at the root of the white woman’s sexuality is that she’s insatiable because she’s never had sex before and, unless she loses weight, will forever be horny. There is a solution to her “problem,” according to the dominant neo-liberal narrative and it is one rooted in self-help and willpower.

On the other hand, the fat black woman doesn’t need sex. Taking care of others fulfills her needs and desires. That said, the fat black woman as portrayed by black men in drag is, basically, an insatiable freak that plays into heterosexist male fantasies of a hypersexual jezebel who is “two tons of fun” and is definitely insatiable because she has had lots of sex and can’t get enough. This man in drag portrays fat black women as unending appetite and just like they might eat up everything in the kitchen, they will eat up a man—mama dentata.

In both cases, for black and white fat women, we might want to look a bit deeper into the representation of insatiability and key into the roots of their desire. We’re going wayyy beyond the script here, but if we consider that most actors create a life for their characters other than what we see on screen, we can track the nuances and better critique both motivation and consequences.

All that said, I’d ask readers to comment on Sherri Shepherd’s character Angie in “30 Rock.” Is this another stereotype that gives a larger black woman some sexual agency since a running gag on the show is how she and Tracy Jordan like to roleplay? Is there some dimensionality to Angie—though we pretty much only see her in relationship to sex and Tracy’s fears of not meeting her demands for sex and money?

KH: Can you talk more about how that dichotomy is “a huge obstacle in getting to yes” — how when women are painted as either insatiable or asexual, either way, there’s no aspect of choice or (specific)desire in their romantic lives. In both cases, you’re left taking “what you can get,” whether that’s every willing man you find or no men at all.

KS: It’s a bit like cable TV: tons of channels, but nothing on worth watching. What would a real choice look like? Like the recognition that people, in general, and black women, in particular, are not all one way or the other all the time. No one’s easily pegged as Samantha or Charlotte. That’s why I came to enjoy the show “Girlfriends.” All of the characters had their quirks or were annoying in their own way (read: Joan), but I thought they did have some dimensionality over the run of the show, which was unusual for a sitcom where the genre demands that its characters never learn their lessons. If we try to live our lives according to the scripts of pop culture, we, too, will never learn and simply feel like we’re stuck between Mammy and Jezebel or whatever current incarnations of those stereotypes are.

I know it sounds really corny, and Margaret Cho actually says it quite nicely in the Yes Means Yes intro, but I’ve gotta be able to say yes to me. And that’s not a one-time deal, but an on-going process.

KH: What are some of the steps you think black women can take toward queering their sexuality, in both the short and long term?

KS: What I’m suggesting, initially doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, which is a request to over-think sex. Yes, sex should be something that has spontaneity and is enjoyable—by all mean, engage in the freak-a-deak! Yet, in flirting, masturbating, moving through the streets, writing a dating profile on line, who are you as a black woman? What are you putting out there?

This isn’t a 19th century call for respectability, but just the idea that one might think while in the process of being a sexual black woman, “what stereotypes am I playing into? Why? Does this feel like me? Am I enjoying this?” I think that we, as black women, spend a lot of time running away from representations that, frankly, suck and that we don’t want to be associated with. The result is a lot of silence and reading trash novels like Zane’s where we live vicariously sexual lives through fiction and self-help books that tells us that our end goal in monogamy.

Yet, there may be times that you want to play with ideas about black women as exotic and be that sexy jezebel with tricks your partner’s never seen. Just be aware of when it’s play, when it’s not, and how that play reverberates in your daily life. If we all live in the panopticon and surveil ourselves, I would vote for doing that in ways that raise awareness of our inner sexual lives, improve our enjoyment, and create pleasure for our outer lives.

KH: You write about the need for both individual and community attitude shifts. Will you talk more about getting the message out both in terms of personal empowerment and broader reaching awareness-raising?

KS: The individual and societal/community transformation go hand in hand. I think it’s great if individual black women can find their sexual pleasure and security in who they are on their own terms, but let’s not forget our tradition of racial uplift. Does this mean changing what we think of as “good for the race”? Absolutely. To my knowledge, black women in the 19th century who were advocating for anti-lynching campaigns and suffrage weren’t necessarily also advocating sexual freedom (though there were definitely feminists of the era doing so), but they paved the way for us to continue to push forward a progressive agenda for individual freedoms, as well as nation building.

Ultimately, seeking and embracing black women’s sexuality in ways that are beneficial to black women is uncharted territory and will have to take place at all levels simultaneously. For those black women who are involved in the church, challenging dispersions cast on other women’s sexuality are moments of intervention, as are discussing popular religious, male-centered sermons that continue to place the all the responsibility for sexuality onto women.

Sexism in hip hop and how we’re portrayed isn’t a one-time battle and we have to be consistent in calling people out on their shit. But, at the same time, we seriously need to give more credit to people and artists that are advocating for a new way of envisioning and enacting black sexuality in popular culture and in the bedroom.

And the last step I’d recommend is: don’t have sex with anyone who says, “I’ve never had sex with a black girl before.” There’s a reason why they haven’t: ‘cause they’re an idiot who says shit like, “I’ve never had sex with a [insert race] girl before.” [Sorry, pet peeve. Had to get that out there!]

KH: Will you talk about some of the obstacles you see standing in the way of black women having open and honest conversations about sexuality?

KS: Our mommas. Yeah, I said it: our mommas are a big obstacle in talking openly about sexuality. And before anyone wants to go off about blaming mothers and scapegoating the matriarch, tell me this, “when was the last time you talked to your mother about sex, black girlchild?” Yesterday? Good for you. You are in the minority. Of course, the inability to talk about sexuality across generations outside of sex ed classes is endemic to all races, but while we’re telling one another what not to do, we need to recognize the times and talk about what to.

Just as always pointing out the stereotypes can be no fun and tiring, isn’t it just as exhausting elaborating a list of don’ts without ever getting to the do’s? Albeit, standards of acceptability around sexual practices change over time (i.e. I will never discuss anal sex with my mum), but I hear a lot of women claiming a close relationship with their daughters, but it’s close on the mother’s terms and not the daughter’s.

Returning to the black church, I would say this is a huge obstacle in discussing sexuality openly. If sex is discussed at all, it’s in terms of negative consequences. It would be amazing to see black church congregations decide that it’s time to approach new millennium problems with new millennium solutions and attitudes. Otherwise, we’re destined to repeat the same mistakes from generation to generation.

KH: What would you like to elaborate on that didn’t make it into the essay?

KS: Less than what didn’t make it into the essay, I’d like to raise how this essay made it into a Seal Press book. Before the Yes Means Yes call went out, I’d pitched a book idea to Seal about black women’s sexuality. Having taught Seal books for years in women’s studies courses, I thought they would be the right publisher for a book that wanted to point out the ways that black women could both challenge racialized sexism and highlight the work of people like Sarah Jones, Renee Cox, and even Janet Jackson in bringing to the fore new expressions of black female sexuality.

Seal’s response was that the topic, black women’s sexuality, was too narrowly defined. Huh. Interesting coming from a publisher that purports to publish books about the wide spectrum of women’s experiences. Presumably, books about weight loss, one’s cleaning habits, infertility, etc. are concerns of Everywoman?

Far from sour grapes, and glad that the chapter I wrote is included in Yes Means Yes, I question when the tokenizing of women of color experience ends? The assumption that women of different races, particularly those adhering to feminist principles, wouldn’t be interested or learn anything from the experiences of women unlike themselves undercuts the forward advancement of a feminist agenda. How is the assumption that books about women, that are actually about white women’s experiences and attempt to make whiteness as race invisible, any different than not making films about diverse audiences and claiming that white people (the only moviegoers?) would never go to see films that feature black characters? Unfortunately, it seems that the only perspectives allowed are ones that blame sexist and racist portrayals of black women on hip hop, painting the entire genre with the same brush, and only seeing black women as oppressed and lacking agency. The result is a limit on opportunities to talk about efforts to expand depictions of black women’s sexuality.

KH: Are there any other essays in YMY that struck a chord with you? Recommendations, criticism, thoughts?

KS: (I thought our essays worked well together, situated as they are one after another. I’m really into manifestos. We need more of them. I DEMAND MORE MANIFESTOS. That was my meta-manifesto.)

There are a couple of things about the volume that make it a deeply moving experience. First, I love the thematic set-up. Maybe I’m a mere tool of The Man, but I actually needed permission to jump around with the order of reading, to choose my own Yes Mean Yes adventure. Being ensconced in academia, despite teaching about new media and new ways of thinking, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach the book from a non-linear perspective. As such, it’s made me see how many ways we can concretely transform rape culture.

One of those ways that transformation can happen, and perhaps this has been happening in the U.S. for a while, is through the idea of enthusiastic consent. Some of the essays use this concept as a given, but I think it’s worth picking out and defining more forcefully. My rudimentary Googling reveals raging debates about it, which is a good thing. So, I’m trying to figure out how enthusiastic consent to sexual contact might translate to issues of consent around representation. This is another iteration of not only critiquing the stereotypes, but also recognizing what works practice.

40 thoughts on “Yes Means Yes! Virtual Tour: Q&A with Kimberly Springer”

  1. You guys, please forgive me for the formatting issues. I am already late for a conference I’m supposed to be at this morning, and there’s just WAY too much hidden formatting I’d need to pick through to fix it.

  2. Dr Springer, thank you so much for joining us on Shapely Prose! I enjoyed your essay, and this Q&A enriches my understanding of it. This statement in particular resonates for me in terms of “queering” heterosexuality: Just be aware of when it’s play, when it’s not, and how that play reverberates in your daily life.

    (As for formatting issues, increasing the text size in my browser helped me read this. FF users, the shortcut is ctrl – plus.)

  3. It’s okay, I fixed the formatting. I didn’t change color or font between Kate and Kimberly, though — readers, let me know if that’s harder to read, but I felt it would be easier.

    Also, having now gone through the interview several times (first to fix the formatting and then to read it for real) I feel qualified to say that this interview is amazing! I haven’t read Yes Means Yes yet, but the interview brings up very thought-provoking points about how black culture and racism both overlay black women’s experiences of sexuality and the ways that sexuality is perceived.

    I want to add something to Kate’s notes:

    When in doubt, please keep in mind that today’s topic is what Kimberly has to say about black female sexuality, not (for once) what white fat women think about being white fat women.

    It’s also not about what white fat women think about what it must be like to be black women (fat or otherwise). If you’re a white woman and you feel you’ve learned something, that is awesome. But keep in mind that the topic of Kimberly’s essay is black women’s sexuality, not white women and how they relate to black women’s sexuality. There can be a tendency in discussions of race in primarily-white spaces to make it all about your attitudes towards race; it’s not.

  4. Usually the Mammy is asexual, so while Hudson’s character did find love for herself, that’s different than being a well-rounded person who’s romantically and sexually fulfilled. Would I have rather not seen any black faces in that film? Absolutely. Carrie Bradshaw can wipe her own damn nose and get Miranda to straighten out her dayplanner.

    Marvelously-put. By a curious coincidence, I happened to be reading this while listening to “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray — a song that I think subverts on some levels while being such awful same-old-shit on others — and noticed how… well, I mean, for example:

    First the cute boy and the fat white girl with a heart of gold come out and sing romantically to each other. And then the best white girlfriend and the attractively-dangerous and seductive black boy come out and she sings “If they try to stop us… I’ll call the NAACP.”

    And then a man in drag sings a love song to his fake fat female body and his character’s voracious appetite: “You can’t stop my happiness because I like the way I am/And you just can’t stop my knife and fork when I see a Christmas ham.”

    And then Queen Latifah’s character comes out and sings, NOT about her own sexual feelings OR her appetites, OR her *ACTUAL* fat body… Instead she offers oracular wisdom about integration: “Yesterday is history and it’s never coming back. ‘Cause tomorrow is a brand new day and it don’t know white from black.”

    Anyway, I don’t have some new insight, but this post helped me get traction on how screwed-up that is in many ways.

  5. I feel qualified to say that this interview is amazing!

    Mind-blowingly so. I very much look forward to reading the whole volume, and again, Dr. Springer (and Kate), thank you for providing so much food for thought.

  6. Great post. I’m sure I fall into the ‘Mammy’ caricature myself, especially as I live in the whitest state in the Nation. I think when I was living in the UK, though, I was classified as American first, Fat, and then Black, in that order. Hmm, definitely food* for thought.

    as for steretypes on Eastenders, well, isn’t it the home of the Most Miserable People On Earth ™ anyway?


    * baby flavored donuts, natch.

  7. Thanks for the interview! (I’m about half-way through the book.) Dr. Springer’s essay gave me a lot to think about and this piece has added even more.

    The assumption that women of different races, particularly those adhering to feminist principles, wouldn’t be interested or learn anything from the experiences of women unlike themselves undercuts the forward advancement of a feminist agenda.

    Seriously — so much love for this sentence.

  8. angela, i know exactly how you feel.

    Dr. Springer, thank you for this. i can’t figure out a way to express the why of the thank you that isn’t a meme-privledged-white-girl-thanking-the-smart-black-lady… and i thank you for that too.

  9. Have any of you awesome SP edtiors reached out to Carmen or Latoya at Racialicious about this?

    I wonder if they’d like to see this interview?

  10. Wow, as a white woman, I was completely oblivious to the stereotyping of black female sexuality. Thanks so much for breaking through (a little bit of) my obliviousness!

    Going back to what Kate said about portrayals of the sexuality of fat white women, I was wondering if any of you had thoughts of the character of Suki on Gilmore Girls. Maybe this isn’t the right thread for this–and if not, feel free to set me right–but Kate’s comments made me think of her, and now I’m trying to decide I how I feel. I haven’t watched the show in years, since long before I discovered FA, but my memories of her role as an unapologetic fat woman are fairly positive. She’s the best friend character, but she does enter into a serious romantic (and sexual) relationship, and while she’s portrayed as insecure and comparatively inexperienced with dating, she’s also portrayed as beautiful and worthy of love. I can’t recall any implications that her size is unacceptable or that she should/wants to lose weight. The only memory that’s ringing alarm bells is the fact that she’s a chef, but (I think) she’s never portrayed as overeating or having a bad relationship to food. Actually, it’s the two very thin main characters who are continually portrayed as having astronomical appetites and stuffing themselves with junk food.

    Again, this may not be the right thread for this, but it does tie into non-mainstream portrayals of female sexuality, and I feel myself inadequate to the task of analyzing this. Do we actually have a more-or-less FA-friendly TV show character, with a normal human sex life? What flaws am I still too new to this to see?

  11. Seal’s response was that the topic, black women’s sexuality, was too narrowly defined.

    You are fucking kidding me. I just read my first Seal Press book in a long time (because I had been boycotting them after the way the management publicly disrespected brownfemipower and others), and it was a woman’s memoir of growing up in the only Japanese family in a small Indiana town.

    Now, it was a beautifully written memoir, and I learned a lot from it. But talk about “narrowly defined”!!!

    I look forward to reading a whole book by you on this far-from-narrowly-defined topic, Dr. Springer. Thanks for joining us here with this discussion, and for sharing your hard work.

  12. Well… that seals it (heh) I’m buying the book. I’ll walk my fat (white) ass down to Powell’s with haste. Everything I’ve been reading during this virtual tour is awesome.

    Thank you, Dr. Springer, for joining us.

  13. Well, gosh and shucks: thanks for the kind words. I think Kate, with her great questions, and I could have gone on and on. In fact, I could go on about how the ridiculous Eastenders/Heather plotline is thoroughly outta control…!

  14. Usually the Mammy is asexual, so while Hudson’s character did find love for herself, that’s different than being a well-rounded person who’s romantically and sexually fulfilled. Would I have rather not seen any black faces in that film? Absolutely. Carrie Bradshaw can wipe her own damn nose and get Miranda to straighten out her dayplanner.

    Thanks for making clear of what I couldn’t put my finger on….what was wrong with Jennifer Hudson’s role. She was great, but could have been amazing. And awesome post….lots to think about.

  15. Again, this may not be the right thread for this

    Jenny, you’re right on both counts: Suki’s character is an interesting example of a fat white woman on mainstream TV, and this is probably not the thread to get into that. As always, feel free to start (and link to) a conversation on the community site if you want to have an OT conversation. Thanks.

  16. Thanks, SM, did not know about the community site! That link isn’t linking to anything for me, though; where can I find it?

  17. I really am interested in your statement about queering roles. I’ve found the times when a character is ‘behaving’ in their stereotyped role and then suddenly they’re off script very powerful. There was a Whoopie Goldberg film … Corinna? … and it was on TV … and I was reading. I often don’t pay much attention. But suddenly I realized actually there WAS a woman there, a character with dreams and interests, held back by racism, she wasn’t just magical maid blown in out from the ether — and there was a romance, too, I think.

    The film as a whole didn’t stay with me, but Whoopie’s performance did.

    And sometimes, it’s the actor. For me, Latifah’s been a model of a sexual woman with agency, although that might be somewhat from her lyrics and I’m just assuming it. I’m not even sure how she’s doing it in some of the movies; she’s felt real, even in claustrophobic boxes of roles she’s worked in. But she’s always there in a way that has felt to me somewhat subversive of the paradigm.

    Of course, kick ass roles that don’t have shit to do with stereotype would be the best; but sometimes, that surprise of same-ohmy-god-not same shakes up the stereotype itself.

  18. And sometimes, it’s the actor

    I too wonder about how my idiosyncratic positive reactions to certain actors may let me ignore certain stereotypes that their roles embody. In Dr Springer’s essay, she mentions the character of Renee from Ally McBeal as an embodiment of the nonsexual “black lady” type. Now, I only watched the first season or two of that show, so I don’t know where they took her character, but I remembered her as fairly sexual. In retrospect, I don’t know if that’s because that’s how I remember the character, or because I thought the actor who played her was very sexy (Lisa Nicole Carson). In light of the discussion of Queen Latifah above, I am wondering about when my own happiness at seeing certain kinds of actors getting roles might shut down my desire to analyze the roles they actually get offered.

  19. SM, totally. And it’s funny – after I realize that’s what’s going on, even if I still like the performance, I get really angry – like, if they could do that with a problematic or stereotypical role, what could they have done with a good one?

  20. this interview is such a fantastic read; thank you both!

    regarding Sherri Shepard on 30 Rock, I do sort of want to claim some dimensionality for that character, though I’m not sure how well I can ground that claim. one thing is that her body isn’t treated as a punchline on that show–in the valentine’s day episode where she and tracy roleplay, it was striking to me how she was dressed sexy and not presented as a fool, but rather as desirable and desiring. and there’s a really sweet, realistic moment where they get interrupted and she breaks sexy role playing character for a second and admits that she doesn’t want to have to do the whole thing again (i.e. get dressed up and go through all the trouble.) it’s a small thing, of course; her role itself is small auxiliary to tracy’s as you point out, but it does sort of feel like a glimmer of possibility.

  21. This was very interesting. Thank you for enabling me to read it.

    I recently re-watched ‘Taxi’, which I enjoy rather more than the plot would suggest, because Queen Latifah’s character gets to have a hot boyfriend who finds her attractive, but this isn’t the point of the whole movie.

  22. Re: Monster’s Ball.

    I now feel much better about hating that movie, especially that scene. Sometimes I’ll see something like that and I’m not sure what squicks me out about it. It could just be the ugliness of the scene (and movie), but reading that analysis reminded me of my first reaction as I was watching it: the grossness of Berry’s character begging a white guy (Billy Bob Thornton, no less) for sex.

  23. In light of the discussion of Queen Latifah above, I am wondering about when my own happiness at seeing certain kinds of actors getting roles might shut down my desire to analyze the roles they actually get offered.

    Yeah, totally.

  24. It’s funny, I always thought of Queen Latifah’s role in Chicago as a sexy role, since that “When You’re Good to Mama” song she sings in it just oozes sex and her costume is very hot.

    But after reading your chat, I’m starting to think that the reason they could have her do that in the film is that it’s only one song (although she might have gotten a line or two in other numbers, and I know one other number was cut for theatrical release and restored to the DVD release and soundtrack). She’s not a main character in the film; in fact, she really doesn’t get a lot of screen time at all. And she’s seen as kind of mean and intimidating and scary. It actually was a lot like the Tina Turner part in Tommy, the Acid Queen, although musically very different. Both of them made an indelible impression with the one featured song they got, but it was presumed that you really didn’t want to know them as people. (Although *I* would.)

    What’s interesting about Latifah’s role, too, is that it was conceived for a white actress. In the 1920s, it would have been pretty much inconceivable for a jail warden to be a black woman. But the show and the film were highly stylized anyway, and talent won out, for once.

  25. I know nothing about publishing houses, but I am shocked that black female sexuality was considered too narrow an area! How many black women are there in the world today? Billions? And do they not all have a sexuality? sheesh.

  26. ps I meant to say how much I enjoyed the Q&A, and I for one really really really want to read more about Dr Springer’s take on Heather from Eastenders!

  27. This is an absolutely fascinating interview. Well done Shapely Prose.

    Really thought-provoking responses from Dr Springer, I had to stop several times along the way to think all my thoughts through to completion, and seriously well managed interview on the part of Ms Harding.


  28. I am working my way through “Yes Means Yes!” somewhat slowly, and this interview prompted me to read Dr. Springer’s essay very closely last night. I also re-read Kate’s.
    The book overall is opening my eyes and brain more than they have been in a long time. I was a women’s studies (now Feminist Studies) major at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1980 (before some of the readers here were born, I’m sure) and it’s prompting me to think about stuff I haven’t thought about in a long time. It is prompting me to think even more intersectionally.
    There were a few things in Dr. Springer’s essay that made my brain particularly pop:
    * Applying Foucault’s ideas of surveillance to how we control ourselves in order to avoid punishment. I had explored this in my senior thesis with regard to weight and body image, and it’s fascinating to think about in terms of how “out” we are allowed to be about sexuality. Being a white woman, I don’t operate in the same social confines as women of color do, and black women in particular do. But it was very helpful to see how white women’s sexuality is also policed by how black women’s sexuality is constructed and enforced.
    * I think that in Kate’s essay, the hypersexual/asexual construct of fat women’s sexuality was in parallel to how black women’s sexuality is dichotomized in U.S. society. And of course, for fat women of color, the effects would be compounded. What very little room to move there is in one’s own brain — “If I wear that, I’ll be a fat ho?” — “I need to feel sexy, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m fast.” White privilege appears to work in my favor to have ONLY the confines of being a fat woman, not the extra added layers of having to navigate what my community thinks of me, being subject to more violence because women of color’s bodies are treated by some (many? most?) men as public property, and trying to figure out how to be sexual where every turn is met with judgement. Add class analysis into this, and I can see I’ve been very privileged.
    * The idea of “queering” is something that has actually come up in therapy. My therapist has been using the language of the gay rights movement to encourage me to “fly my flag” about being fat. To be “out” as a fat person. To stop the inner policing and surveillance and allow myself to freely experience and share myself in the world as I am, in my entirety. Intentionally being queer — different, strange, unusual, in tune with my own needs and wants. I hadn’t thought of it quite in this way until reading Dr. Springer’s essay, but it’s coming together now. Intentionally queering is a subversive act of empowerment.
    * Although I don’t think I’m someone who has been part of the bandwagon of “but black men think fat women are sexy” — in the context of Dr. Springer’s essay, I can see how that presumption would cause hurt, anger and a feeling of being completely misunderstood.
    And if there’s something I’ve said here that is too presumptive, assumptive or is offensive, please let me know.

  29. I concur with most of the posts about the brain popping. Is this the so-called “discourse”? Much more fun than the word sounds!

    @wellroundedtype2: This is peripheral, but just the fact that your women’s studies alma mater is now “Feminist Studies” instead of Gender Studies or Sexuality Studies is incredible. Particularly in light of attempts to shut down women’s studies department, that they can claim political ideology as their focus of study, is envious. And it kind of leaves no room for “women who happen to study women.” Women, oppression, and resistance studies shouldn’t be incidental.

    @A Random Claire: a remake of Taxi?! At first, I thought it was the sitcom, but looked it up and it actually looks even better. Can’t wait to check it out.

    @HollyGAzam: Oh my. Part of my problem is that BBC makes it so difficult to respond to their nonsense, which is scandalous for an institution that we must pay a license fee to support. In any case, Heather’s bio: http://www.bbc.co.uk/eastenders/characters_cast/characters/character_heather_t.shtml

    Note how she doesn’t have the complete bio of other characters and since the central conceit of Eastenders is family, she’s listed along with “Other Family” along with as-yet-to-be-discovered children, orphans, the eternal bachelors, the as-yet-assimilated ex-con black preacher man, and…a dog.

    This week’s storyline which included her clambering on top of her friend’s head to get over George Michael’s garden wall, wearing fuzzy fairy antennae in a tiny pink backpack, and her best mate hiring a date for her for Valentine’s Day have tipped me over the edge. It’s war ladies! The campaign to get this actress some decent material is on like DONKEY KONG!

  30. This is a much needed discussion. I’m currently teaching a class on the history of African American women’s history of the 20th century, and we go over these exact stereotypes in our discussion. I talk about the Jezebel, the Mammy, the Loud Ghetto Black woman, and the Sophisticated Bitch. The class definitely aims to connect these popular culture images to public policy – how images of black women as lazy and immoral translate into policy for changing the welfare queen; or how images of the sophisticated bitch do inform our views of Condi Rice and Michelle Obama.

    At any rate, my class is having atouch time wrapping thier minds around the fact that these stereotypes are very common and very subtle. It’s hard to identify them, let alone scrutinize them. We go one movie at a time, and it seems to be helping. We’re looking at films like “Bringin’ Down the House” and “Deliver Us from Eva” to help the discussion along.

    I loved the discussion. I’m glad it’s here, and it’s something that my mostly white class should know and hear. I have a syllabus if anyone wants to check it out.

  31. I would pre-order a book on media representations of African American women’s sexuality — or maybe a DVD/lecture series would be better.

    I saw “She’s Gotta Have It” when it was in theatrical release — 1986 — and it made a huge impression on me in terms of female sexuality. I haven’t seen it since — maybe a glimpse or two on cable TV in the 90s, so that was before the tools I learned in Women’s Studies to examine such things. For those who have watched it again recently with a more critical eye — what are your thoughts?

  32. I really enjoyed this interview, which reminded me of some of the great articles by Dr. Pilgrim that I’ve read at the Jim Crow Museum – go here: http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/menu.htm, and scroll down to the various caricatures.

    It seems that from the moment I read through all of these (about a year ago), when I went on to observe black women in the films I watched, every single one was written as one or a combination of the stereotypes!

    I cringe a bit when I see a fat black woman being all sassy in some movie. I don’t cringe because I don’t like fat black sassy women. I cringe because A. it seems this archetype is nearly *always* played out that way and with predictable writing, and B. we are relying on her to provide us with something for us. She is not her own agent; she is the Judge Lady or whatever, merely a caricature, not a person of her own.

    I wonder why are we so “comforted” by the idea of the “fat Mammy” dispensing wisdom, or yelling at her man (or anyone)… or the tragic, sexually lascivious Jezebel / black hooker (like the example mentioned of Halle Berry in Monsters Ball). To quote Dr. Pilgrim, “The Jezebel images which defame African women may be viewed in two broad categories: pathetic others and exotic others.”

    The main point, being, I guess “Others”.

  33. Oh heck! I don’t watch Eastenders regularly for various reasons, but I’ve seen enough of Heather to back your campaign to the hilt!

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