She was an eleven-year-old African American girl ostracized by her small Midwestern World War II era community after she had been raped and impregnated by her father. Demeaned for her dark skin and “ugly” features, she became a repository for all of the community’s fears and anxieties about the status of black people in Jim Crow America. Perhaps no other book in contemporary American literature has captured the ontology of black female childhood experience and imagination as devastatingly as Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye. In the novel, Morrison’s preteen female protagonists bear fierce witness to the psychological disfigurements of racism, sexism, and segregation. They comment on the mystery of adulthood and the savagery of being dehumanized as young black girls in a culture that exalts the blue-eyed Barbie ideal. Speaking from an era in which racial progress was equated with the enfranchisement of black men, the female voices of The Bluest Eye quietly historicize the trials of black women in apartheid America.
Yet, twenty-seven years later, Morrison’s portrayal is just as searingly relevant as it was when it was published at the height of the black power movement in the seventies. In its attention to the role media (as represented by 1940s Dick and Jane grade school primers and Hollywood film) play in shaping black adolescent female self-esteem, Morrison’s novel almost anticipates the intersection between the rise of 24/7 video and Internet media and the codification of racist/sexist imagery.
During a recent screening of a video on girls’ perspectives of media images in the high school class I work with, I was rudely reawakened to the resonance of The Bluest Eye, and the intensity of internalized racism and sexism among young black female students. Entitled What a Girl Wants, the video was a relatively tame portrayal of the effects of dominant images of sexuality in pop music videos and advertising upon middle school and high school age young women. Focusing on such overexposed mainstream artists as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore, the video attempted to elicit candid reflections from girls on the connection between these media images and their own sense of self esteem, identity and future aspirations.
In post video discussion the girls in my class responded intelligently about the media’s impact on normalizing casual sex for younger audiences. However, like modern day Pecolas, some of the young women bought into the belief that the booty shaking, thong wearing, weave sporting “vixens” of hip hop media are symbols of authentic black culture. Most disturbingly, when they commented on the sole African American girl who participated in the interviews, they raised a hue and a cry about her “unfitness” as an interview subject. The class’s real objection was that the girl was not conventionally attractive; her dark skin and short hair making some of them refuse to identify with her as representing a genuine African American female viewpoint. The discussion then devolved into vigorous denials of their own black heritage. “I’m barely black,” one brown-skinned young girl declared, while another asked, “Why must we all be called African Americans even though we’re mixed with different races in us?”
Far from being a relic of a bygone less enlightened era of black cultural identity, the skin color caste system among blacks remains rampant yet largely unaddressed by educators and youth advocates. These views are especially devastating for young women, who are disproportionately affected by the color regime in film, TV, video and print advertising, where depictions of black couples typically feature a black woman who is several shades lighter than her male counterpart.
Consequently, searching for media that deal with the authentic lived experiences of young women of color is a frustrating enterprise. Although there are a good crop of independent black female-oriented websites (sistahs.org, blackwomenshealth.com, whataboutourdaughters.org) that open up new vistas for authentic expression, the Web continues to be catnip for an epidemic of adult voyeurism that has transformed childhood and adolescence into sexualized spectator sport. Young girls, sexualized at ever earlier ages, are constantly confronted by the funhouse mirror of normative femininity—the tighter and more revealing the clothes, the more provocative the sexual behavior and innuendo, the more desirable, and hence feminine, a girl is deemed to be.
This trend mirrors the way in which the sexuality of women of color has become a global fetish object. Global images of black femininity range from the suggestive symbols of black women with large Afros on hip hop t-shirts from Japan to such stereotypical depictions of the black woman as tacky prostitute trotted out in the 2006 film Borat. In this much-lauded “satire” of Americana, an overweight bleached blond black woman is parodied as the grotesque antithesis of normative desirable white femininity (represented by the silicone addicted Pamela Anderson). While the portrayal of this character, in a vehicle rife with scatological sexual references and over the top stunts, was framed as just another example of the movie’s irreverence, it gamely traffics in the recycling of the Jezebel/Mammy figure (perfected as of late by Queen Latifah) in contemporary mainstream media.
A traveling journalist from Kazakh, Borat’s fleeting encounter with the prostitute is played for tragicomic relief as the antidote to his despair over the revelation of Pamela Anderson’s decidedly unchaste behavior in her pornographic wedding video. Later on in the film he commits the ultimate racial/social faux pas when he brings the woman to a society dinner at a Southern belle’s home and is swiftly ejected. He repairs to a local country and western dive where his lust interest climbs onto a mechanical bull and displays her “assets.” This interlude completes the Kazahk innocent’s voyage into the American heart of darkness, the travelogue of American blackness mapped through illicit sex, buffoonery and idleness. When Borat takes his paramour back to his native country as his wife at the end of the film, she fits in perfectly with the cultural pathology and primitive folkways of this Eastern European backwater.
It is not surprising that these images have gone unaddressed by many mainstream and so-called progressive critics, who’ve scrambled to out-drool one another hailing the film’s comic genius. Yet the ecstatic embrace of the film, and, by extension, its indictment of the black image (as a less than subtle caveat on cultural diversity and the vaunted freedoms of America), underscores how the media regime utilizes race and gender as powerful vehicles for repressive public policies. Increasing rates of STD and HIV/AIDS infection, the absence of culturally relevant sex education or the overemphasis on abstinence-only sex education, coupled with the cancerous global reach of misogynistic hip hop, have brought caricatures of black femininity back to the international fore as symptoms of American dysfunctionality.
It is no wonder then that many middle and high school age black women struggle to achieve self worth and agency in their lives. The challenge for socially conscious educators and adults is to put the same emphasis on black female image formation as for black male image formation, and to help young women develop media literacy to fight back against the insidious assumptions that the global media regime imposes on their lives.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.