In the past week, Vogue Magazine declared in an article headline, “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty.” Patricia Garcia, the article’s author, credits first Jennifer Lopez for introducing us to big booty appreciation, then Kim Kardashian for helping us become more comfortable with full curvy bottoms, and then Jennifer Lopez again as our era’s preeminent big booty pioneer. Garcia also cites Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” as a gateway track of sorts – getting us ready for when big butts finally become a mainstream thing and wotnot – but swiftly dismisses the song and video since “it would be another decade before people were ‘ready for this jelly’ to become the ultimate standard of beauty.”
Who are these “people” who needed the decade after 2001 to get ready for the bootylicious jelly? That women (and not only ones of colour) have long reveled in their possession of this particular asset seems conspicuously immaterial in the article. Also immaterial is that Sir Mix A Lot sang praises of the big butt, despite derision, in the hallowed halls of mainstream culture a little over a decade before Jenny From the Block appeared in the same sphere. This popular homage to buns also predates by two decades the moment when Kim Kardashian started facing us with her behind in selfies. I won’t talk about Iggy Azalea’s unreal proportions, because, as with Nikki Minaj, I can’t substantiate any of that, and puzzling the difficult subjects is not about throwing shade. Suffice it to say, I am thinking about how something African descended women have worn naturally for centuries – with varying degrees of swagger and shame – does not become “a thing” until white women begin flaunting their own equally naturally occurring derrieres. This isn’t about who wore it best or made it popular or acceptable, though. That is too simple and we do difficult subjects over here. Stick with me; I’m going somewhere.
Which brings me to the next stop on this journey. Also, this past week, on September 11, Danièle Watts, an African American actress best known for her role as Coco in Django Unchained, was handcuffed and roughly handled by a police officer for canoodling publicly with her boyfriend. By canoodling, I mean witnesses say she was straddling her boyfriend in a car, fully clothed in broad daylight. The officer said he received a call that folks were performing lewd acts in public, and insisted on Ms. Watts showing him her ID, a request she refused. I’m sure some would say there would be nothing to write about if she had simply shown her ID as requested. Given the too-many-to-wrap-your-mind-around incidences of racial profiling – too many recent ones ending fatally – I can understand why she refused and why she asked the officer if it was a race thing. But let us be clear, asking why she didn’t just show her ID is akin to asking why Janay Rice married a man who physically abuses her or why she stays with him. All of these are the very wrong questions that displace culpability unto the injured party and leave a destructively violent patriarchal status quo unchecked.
If you are also still hung up on questions of indecency and pubic lewdness – things like why she was straddling the man in public in the first place – permit me to cite another related incident involving three other black women who were perceived as behaving “inappropriately” in public. These women, a lawyer and two educators, in late last month were hanging out at The Standard Hotel in Manhattan. Their professional affiliation, I think, should be immaterial here, but as with the ID, various versions of “papers” are often required. The women spent some time in the hotel’s club and then settled in the lobby for drinks, where they were approached by an African American man who introduced himself to them. Shortly after a security guard approached, whispered something in the man’s ear and ushered him away. One of the women, Kantaki Washington, said the following of the incident: “After the security guard ushers the brotha away, he comes over to me and my friends and says, ‘Come on, ladies. You can buy a drink but you can’t be soliciting,’ … ‘We were like, soliciting?’ He said, “Don’t act stupid with me, ladies. You know what you’re doing. Stop soliciting in here.” If you missed it, the guard, seeing three African American women talking to a man in a bar, was unable to imagine any other logic for this scenario beyond prostitution. These women had to be selling their bodies. Let’s bring this back to Ms. Watts and whatever this adult woman was doing in a car, fully clothed, with another adult. The police, and perhaps whoever called in the report, seem to have made assumptions about Ms. Watts similar to those that The Standard’s security guard made about Ms. Washington and her companions. Black female sexuality is not only automatically equated with the clandestine; in these two instances it is also criminalized.
But I’ve really cited these two seemingly unrelated things, the Vogue piece on bottoms and the harassment of black women by the security and law enforcement, to think about how to process something else that’s been on my mind: Lifetime’s new reality show Girlfriend Intervention. Briefly, the show features four black women, who each week stage an intervention for a white woman the show dubs a “BW” or “Basic Woman.” The basic here is meant to be derogatory; as one of the show’s hosts explains, it is how women who are unable to keep up with themselves and those around are described “in our culture.” Think about this show as TLC’s What Not To Wear meets Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but with four black women who will tell you, bluntly but with love, what all the other suburban moms (read white women) are thinking but won’t say. There is a platform/runway where the individual being helped via fashion intervention is critiqued by the show’s hosts for her wardrobe choices, and there are four areas (fashion, design, hair/makeup, and soul) in which the four differently skilled individuals help dig some poorly dressed schlub’s confidence out of the trenches. In Queer Eye the style mentors were gay men; in GI they are black women. Those being helped on GI are always white women, because as the show’s tagline suggests “trapped inside every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out.” Shall we linger briefly on the “girl” versus “woman” here, and all the attendant implications for maturity and capability to function? I’m going to put the Mammy card on the table now, to signal that this show does deal heavily in problematically essentialized racial and gendered stereotypes, particularly ones that determine how women of different races are situated culturally in relation to each other. But again, like the matter of who wore big butts first and best, binaried and hackneyed frames will only get us so far in thinking about what is going on in this show. So let the Mammy card sit in the corner for a little bit.
You see, it is too simple to say this show is all bad. Its reclamation of non-traditional standards of beauty – full figures, post-baby and mommy bodies, for example – through black female bodies and sexuality, is a powerful thing. When Tracy (hair and make up) tells a young wife and mother, whose confidence has flatlined and who disparages what she calls her “baby area,” to look at herself in a mirror sans extensions and makeup, and then asks her “do you understand how beautiful you are,” it is a powerful and countercultural thing. It is a gesture that forces the BW to recognize herself as beautiful before any of the make-up brushes and hair extensions come out. The show is also body positive in ways I can completely appreciate. In the premiere, when Tiffiny and Tanisha say a size zero androgynous mannequin that is prominently placed in a store’s window is not “equal opportunity,” it speaks an emotional truth about the struggles the many women who cannot wear mannequin clothes have with dressing and feeling comfortable with themselves. There are real feel good moments here, especially when the BW seems to begin experiencing very real and life-changing confidence boosts. The four girlfriends are good at what they do. All four also have different body types, none more or even less fabulous for their variation. This also sends a powerful message about standards of beauty, reclaiming glamour as a space of equal opportunity.
Ultimately, though, the show’s overly simplistic version of sisterhood, which is marshaled via thickly laid references to the hip-hop gods, what white women do versus what black women do, and girl talk over pink drinks in martini glasses, traffics too heavily in the same problematic stereotypes that overshadow the good the women do for their BWs. The positive affect associated with offering counter-narratives to traditional standards of beauty does not automatically equate to good politics. So, while Tanisha, Tracy, Tiffiny, and Nikki are teaching white women to reclaim their sexuality and become more confortable with their bodies through burlesque or salsa dancing, what has last week’s example of Ms. Watts and Ms. Washington taught us about the lived reality of black women who publicly express varying degrees of their own sexuality? What these events have taught us is that black women’s sexuality – when expressed by black women – continues to be cast as lewd and indecent. When looked at alongside GI, however, a commodified version of black women’s sassy sexuality is raced as a “sista thing” available to white women who get inducted into the sisterhood. It does so, moreover, in a void that renders this raced sense of confident sexuality as an entirely unproblematic thing. Black women in America are safe in their public expression of no-nonsense confidence and sexuality, right? Wrong. What happened to Ms. Watts and to Ms. Washington and her friends is evidence of a very real lack of safety.
What does it mean then for white women – like the show’s BW’s, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and now even Taylor Swift – to mobilize elements associated with black femininity for their own benefit and commercial success? What does it mean to put black women in charge of facilitating this phenomenon? Further, what does the successful mobilization of black culture by white women mean when compared to the criminalization of black women who are simply trying to exist, publicly, in their own skin? What does it mean to render white-girl problems as fixable by equally essentialized black-woman solutions? Why is a show in 2014 rendering white women as children that only black women can take care of? Do I need to make the connection between the infantilizing of women and the paternalistic ways women’s bodies continue to be treated in political and economic policy? Moreover, what does it mean to make feminine salvation/transformation contingent on the acquisition of consumer goods – a home makeover, new clothes, hair extensions?
Over at Girlfriend Intervention, they did get the memo that African descended women have proudly worn prominent behinds as “the ultimate standard of beauty.” Nonetheless, this knowledge only seems to matter when it is pressed in the service of white female self-improvement – who um, surprise (!), also come well endowed, posteriorly.