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:
- Please pay special attention to rules number 10 and 11 in the comments policy.
- 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.
- 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.