Photo: BBC Magazine- Science Photo Library
Sarah (Saarjie) Baartman is widely regarded as the world’s first “video vixen.” At the turn of the 18th century, a time where Black female sexuality was anything but studied and examined, Baartman became the unofficial symbol of both racial voyeurism and sexual exploitation.
Captured from South Africa and brought to Europe, Baartman was the object of fascination to colonialists for her distinct features- large buttocks and full-figured body frame. Many Europeans at the time had not been exposed to Black female anatomy. Given the name “Hottentot Venus,” Baartman was exhibited all over France and England and marveled for her “exotic” looks. Many of the exhibitions involved her in a cage in little to no clothing while onlookers prodded her.
After her death, scientists took her remains and continued to study them. Culminating in the arrival of “eugenics,” Baartman’s life is a page often found erased or unacknowledged in history books. However, her unintended legacy is salient all over pop culture regarding Black women.
There is much to be said about the connection between cultural examination of the female body and sexual violence against women. Feminist writer and media educator Jean Kilbourne, renown for her work on women in advertising, argues that despite many whom say advertisements are innocent and has no influence on human behavior, it does the opposite. Reducing women in advertisements to close shots of female breasts and camera tricks emphasizing legs, neck-line, and buttocks, what film theorist Laura Mulvey coins the “male gaze,” diminishes them of their humanity. Believing to blur the line and in fact, encourage sexual ownership and violence against women.
Two hundred years after Baartman’s death, in the wake of the R. Kelly scandal, Black female sexuality has long been sustained in popular culture. The infamous “video vixen” phenomenon became popular in the 80’s and 90’s become a cornerstone among male R&B and Rap artists alike. Well known “video vixens” such as Amber Rose and Melyssa Ford became household names due to their appearances in videos by rappers Lil Wayne and Jay-Z. Reimagining Sarah Baartman and reemphasizing Kilbourne’s theory, the “video vixen” has become a staple in the music industry as many journalists and pop culture commenters have observed the evolution from a mere marketing strategy to now a way of life.
R. Kelly was no exception.
Beyond the unimaginable and unconscionable circumstances surrounding the 52-year-old Grammy Award- winning R&B singer-songwriter and self-proclaimed “pied piper of R&B,” it still begs the question of where does that leave the role of Black women?
How else do we explain R. Kelly’s rise and reign to music royalty amidst all the sex scandals of the 1990’s and 2000’s? Do these women being black have anything to do with the media disregard of their stories?
Writer Soraya McDonald, in her 2017 article for The Undefeated, states many claims about how the R. Kelly scandal affects how society views Black women. She writes, “as Zora Neale Hurston puts it in Their Eyes Are Watching God: ‘De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see’…black women and girls are continually pressured to keep their mouths shut to protect Black men who commit violence, sexual or otherwise, against them because of the warped definition of racial solidarity.”
In the context of the cautionary tail that is Sarah Baarteman and Jean Kilbourne’s theory, Black women in popular culture continues to be examined. Regarding the ongoing R. Kelly scandal, many media outlets have pointed out the recurring theme of the fact that these numerous women, survivors and captives, have gone largely ignored because they are Black.
Only time will tell what will become the role of Black women after R. Kelly.