Question of the Month
Q: I read your article on the Jezebel stereotype and I must take exception to your assertion that the Jezebel stereotype is "the dominant image of Black women in American popular culture." The image of Black women as hypersexual beings is not as common as you argue. Your mention of Black women's representations in the pornography industry (used to support your point) ignores the fact that the pornography industry is a niche industry devoted almost wholly to the objectification of White women.
-- Bevins Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota
A: I will begin by conceding your first point. When I wrote the Jezebel Stereotype essay in 2002, I was trying to compare and contrast the Jezebel portrayal -- the seductive, hypersexual Black woman -- with the Mammy Caricature -- the asexual, physically unattractive Black woman. In recent years I have gained a deeper understanding of other racial caricatures of African American women, most notably, the Sapphire -- an angry, loud, man-hater -- and what might be seen as the female version of the Coon -- a lazy, conniving, Welfare Queen. All of these caricatures debase and demean real Black women. They are vulgar and unfair depictions. If I were writing the Jezebel essay today, I would say, "The Jezebel, the Sapphire, and the Female Coon are the dominant caricatures of African American women today."
I disagree with your assertion that the representation of Black women as hypersexual deviants is not common. One need look no further than the music videos that are shown on television, for example, Music Television (MTV) and Black Entertainment Television (BET). In many of these videos young, nearly-naked African American women are used as visual, sexual props. These women are portrayed as seductive, beguiling, and lewd; in other words, they are portrayed as Jezebels whose only value is as sexual commodities.
In some instances the sexual objectification is, in a word, raw. BET Uncut, which ran from September 2000 to July 2006, showed videos that not only bordered on being pornographic but pandered to historical racial stereotypes. The show, rated TV-MA, reinforced the stereotype of Black women as one-dimensional sexual vamps. One particularly galling example was rap musician Nelly's video Tip Drill. In the video Nelly swiped a credit card through a woman's buttocks. In another scene, men threw money on a woman who lay with her legs spread. The symbolism is stark and unambiguous. Black women's bodies were treated as merchandise: laughing, grinning, butt-shaking commodities. Throughout the video, full-figured Black women, wearing little or no clothing, simulated sexual acts as fully clothed Black men insulted and demeaned them. This is the African American woman as whore. William Jelani Cobb, a History Professor from Spelman College, speaking about hip hop artists generally and Nelly specifically, said:"It would be easy to assume that sexist music videos are simple entertainment -- not the equivalent of a body of myths that have been used to oppress black women, were it not for the fact that the lines between culture and politics are not always that easily distinguishable. Hip hop is now the prevailing global youth culture and, in many instances, the only vision people have of African American life. In a twisted testament to the ubiquity of black culture, a student who spent a semester in China reported back that some of the town residents were fearful of the black male exchange students, having met very few black people, but viewed a great many black-thug music videos. . .Regardless of Nelly's intentions, videos like "Tip Drill" are viewed as yet another confirmation of the long-standing ideas about black women."1
Professor Cobb ignores the fact that much of hip hop is redemptive, a testimony to the creativity and resiliency of African American youths; however, he is right to claim that the representations of Black women as Jezebels are central to the "myths that have been used to oppress Black women." From the slavery era through the Jim Crow period, the sexual victimization of African American women was rationalized by the malevolent claim that "Black women are sexual temptresses, and, therefore, cannot be raped." Jennifer McLune, a Black Feminist writer, argued:"The links between Black women and illicit sexuality began in the antebellum south. White men justified the sexual terror they inflicted on Black people by creating the image of the wanton Black whore who could not be raped or defiled because her sexuality was insatiable and impure by nature. We had no claim to womanhood, motherhood, or humanity. We are the original "dirty girls," the first sex radicals without the sanctuary of gender. We were used for our wombs and still worked like our men. There was no sanctuary to be found in the way our bodies were branded and exploited. They systematically raped Black women and branded us whores even as they'd lynch a Black man for even glancing in the direction of a white woman. In the image of the Black whore and Black rapist white men had found their authority to terrorize and punish others for the very acts only they committed."2
In the Jezebel essay I briefly mentioned the role that the pornography industry plays in perpetuating the representation of African American women as whores. The pornography industry in the United States is not a "niche" industry. In 2006, this country ranked fourth in pornography revenues, with $13.33 billion. In that same year, the United States accounted for 89 percent of all the pornographic web pages, an astounding 244,661,900 pages. Adult video sales and rentals in America generate $3.62 billion annually. On average, a new pornography video is created every 39 minutes in the United States. Worldwide, on average, 28,258 Internet users view pornography every second.3 The pornography industry in the United States (and much of the world) has become mainstreamed, and one consequence is that its depictions of marginalized groups -- in this case, African American women -- are brought into homes, offices, parlors, hotels, and other spaces where people are safe to view it and internalize its messages.
Pornography is a mainstream industry, comprised of many niches, one of which is Black themed pornography. I do not dispute that White actors and actresses make up the vast majority of performers; however, when African Americans are shown, especially in videos, their representations rely heavily on racist stereotyping. Black skin is sexualized. Black men are portrayed as "Bucks" -- hypersexual deviants with oversized genitalia -- and "Brutes" -- sexually aggressive and violent thugs. Compared to White women, Black women are rarely represented as victims; instead, Black women are presented as "sexual animals" or "impoverished whores." As with most racial stereotypes, the "flaw" is attributed not to the person (as is the case with Whites, "That woman is a whore.") but is attributed to the person's race ("Black women are whores"). There are hundreds of pornographic movies that portray Black women as racialized Jezebels. Videos with titles like Black Chicks in Heat, Black Bitches, Hoochie Mamas, Video Sto' Ho, Black and Nasty, Bound Black Beauties, Fat Ghetto Whores, South Central Hookers, Jungle Sluts, and Git Yo' Ass On Da Bus! validate the belief that Black women are sexual deviants. These videos and hundreds of others (including many whose titles are too graphic to be included here) are watched by Americans who have little real-world contact with African American women; and, these videos validate the racial stereotype of Blacks as oversexed, sexual deviants.
Pornographic representations objectify and dehumanize women regardless of the race and ethnicity of the actresses. However, when women of color are portrayed notions and beliefs about their race are intertwined with their sexual depictions. The representations of African American women in pornographic magazines, films, and web pages both reflect and shape beliefs about Blacks in general and Black women in particular. Vednita Carter, a Black writer, stated:"Racist stereotypes in the mainstream media and in porn portray Black women as wild animals who are ready for any kind of sex, anytime, with anybody. Additionally, strip joints and massage parlors are typically zoned in Black neighborhoods which give the message to white men that it is okay to solicit Black women and girls for sex; that we are all prostitutes. On almost any night, you can see them slowly cruising around our neighborhoods, rolling down their windows, and calling out to women and girls. We got the message growing up, just like our daughters are getting the message today; this is how it is, this is who you are, this is what you are good for."4
I want to thank you for visiting the Jim Crow Museum website and reading the Jezebel article closely -- and for writing us. As an educator I believe in the triumph of dialogue. The Jezebel essay was not meant to be a definitive statement; rather, it was meant as a brief description of the social and cultural contexts which produced material objects that defamed African American women as one-dimensional, hypersexual whores. For those who want a deeper understanding please read the following:
Amorah, Jewel D. "Back on the Auction Block: A Discussion of Black Women and Pornography." National Black Law Journal 14, no. 2 (1997): 204-221.
Austin, Regina. "Black Women, Sisterhood, and the Difference/Deviance Divide." In Critical Race Feminism: A Reader, ed. Adrien Katherine Wing. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Collins, Patricia Hill. (1990). The Sexual Politics of Black Womanhood. In Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Collins, Patricia Hill (2004). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York & London: Routledge.
Cowan, Gloria, and Robin Campbell. (1994). Racism and sexism in interracial pornography: A content analysis. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18:323-338.
Mayall, Alice, and Diana E. Russell. (1993). Racism in pornography. Feminism and Psychology, 3: 275-81.
McBride, Dwight A. (2005). Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality. New York: New York University Press.
Williams, Linda. Ed. (2004). "Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and Interracial Lust." Porn Studies (2004): 271-308.
1 Jelani Cobb, "The Hoodrat Theory," Creative Ink, 28 December 2007 http://jelanicobb.com/portfolio/hoodrat.html.
2 Jennifer McLune, "When White Males Attack: Larry Flynt, Racism and the Left," copyrighted 2005, accessed 22 February 2008 http://www.hustlingtheleft.com/mclune.html.
3 Jerry Ropelato, "Internet Pornography Statistics," Top Ten Reviews, accessed 11 January 2007 http://internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com/internet-pornography-statistics.html?.
4 Vednita Carter, "Black Women and Porn," accessed 12 February 2008 http://s100980402.onlinehome.us/porn.pdf. This article also describes Carter's experiences in a pornography store.
March 2008 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum