Spectacles of Nature
It's about the representations of black women in two Spike Lee films
A perfect example of the objectification and sexualization of women of color is Saartjie Baartman also known as The Hottentot Venus. “She became the main attraction and a thriving business for the London showmen who exhibited her. Baartman’s genitalia and the “abnormal” protuberance of her buttocks, or what was termed steatopygia, served as the central model for Black female “otherness” in the nineteenth century. To this day, Baartman’s preserved buttocks and genitalia are in a jar at the Musee de l’homme in Paris” (Young 699). It was the curiosity of the Europeans that drew them to this “main attraction” with the natural “protuberance of her buttocks” that was so unnatural to viewers. The African woman and the European woman were placed on opposite ends of the spectrum with white women representing purity and goodness. While “Saartjie Baartman draws on the cultural images and stereotypes commonly used to represent Black woman in demeaning and sexually debased roles” (Young 699). Sadly, these “cultural images and stereotypes” have not been dismantled and they continue to shadow the black woman in society.
Before analyzing the perspective of an author, artist or filmmaker it is necessary to assess the social and cultural legacy that have preceded them. Although Spike Lee is not one of the European men dehumanizing Saartjie Baartman, he is a part of her legacy. Her body was treated like an oddity that somehow fueled misconceptions that haunt black women in the present day. The curiosity they felt, and maybe even inadequacy, became a way to “other” the black woman and play up the natural proportions of her body as part of her overtly sexual nature. Lee takes these misconceptions and places them in modern film for the viewer to accept or question. Nola is held under a microscope by each surrounding character as they try to figure out why she’s gotta have it from different men every night. They treat her like is a cancer to society that may lead to the promiscuity of women all over. She is not individualized, but grouped into societal images of hyper-sexual black women. Judy the aspiring actor yearns to break free of Hollywood’s sexual objectification, but falls into the fantasy of phone sex. She loses herself in the midst of her journey until a male brings her back to reality, just like Jamie forces Nola to submit. It is not about the definition of rape nor is it about the dangers of phone sex. The issue lies in lack of education, stereotypes and the allure of sex. Lee does not try to teach the audience a lesson, but places a mirror in front of the audience to reflect the inadequacy of societal images.
Hooks, Bell. Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Massood, Paula J. ""Whose Pussy Is This": a Feminist Comment." The Spike Lee Reader. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2008. Print.
Young, Jean. "The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus." African American Review 31.4 (1997): 699-708. Print.