By Rasna Warah
In 1810, Saartjie Baartman, a black woman from the Eastern Cape in South Africa, was smuggled into London, where her naked body was put on display for four years.
Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus”, had very large buttocks, which became the object of much scientific curiosity, amusement, and voyeuristic stares.
She was caged, mocked, and leered at by Europeans, whose fascination with black bodies, particularly black genitalia, would manifest itself over the centuries in various ways, including an unhealthy obsession with the African penis which, legend had it, could tempt the most prudish European woman to commit adultery.
Abolitionists were appalled by this blatant exploitation of an African woman. Their opposition did not prevent her from being sent to Paris, where she was subjected to further examination by an anatomist at the Museum of Natural History. She died from illness in 1815 at the age of 25.
However, even death did not spare her the humiliation she had suffered while alive. Her skeleton, genitals, and brain were preserved and put on display at the museum for 150 years; the display was only removed from public view 40 years ago, in 1974.
Ironically, 200 years after Baartman’s body was exhibited in London, Kim Kardashian, a white American woman with unusually large buttocks, voluntarily displayed her genitals in a magazine called The Paper.
Images of the nude reality TV star exploded on the Internet last week, causing a media sensation.
Viewers of her perfectly air-brushed body, including sexually starved Pakistani teenagers and pot-bellied men in Nebraska and Nigeria, were thrilled. Not too long ago, they would have had to buy their porn secretly over the counter in brown paper bags. Today it is available for free on the Internet.
How things have changed. Or have they?
The commodification and objectification of women’s bodies has been going on for centuries. For a brief moment in the 1960s and ’70s, feminists fought against this kind of commodification and objectification, but they were quickly subdued by male corporate interests, which put a value on women’s bodies and used them to promote their products.
This spawned a whole beauty industry where women were expected to have perfectly shaped breasts, lips, and buttocks. Plastic surgeons became the most sought-after medics.
In the old days, women who used their bodies to make money or to gain notoriety were called prostitutes or porn stars. Today they are known as celebrities.
Kim Kardashian, and her mind-numbing reality show, epitomise the commodification of women’s bodies for commercial gain.
Unlike Baartman, who was forced to strip and entertain people against her will, these modern-day exhibitionists are willingly degrading themselves in front of cameras.
They are not the victims of pimps or slave owners; they are the victims of a capitalist, misogynistic culture where women’s bodies are for sale to the highest bidder.
Nowadays, we do not associate this business with human trafficking or prostitution; we see it as a legitimate means of making money.
Dede Hunt, an African-American woman, recently put out a video that decried the Baartman-isation of the Black American woman in music videos and on the Internet.
EFFECTS OF SLAVERY
She wondered why African-American rappers constantly referred to Black women as “whores” and “bitches” and why they used images of Black women’s naked buttocks and breasts in their videos.
Is this what slavery had done to a people, she wondered, where descendants of former slaves now humiliate their own, all in the name of record sales?
At any other time in our history, when neo-liberalism was not the only philosophy and capitalism not the only mode of production, Kardashian would have been the object of pity.
Today, girls all over the world want to be just like her — porn stars but without the label. How else can you explain the bizarre “socialite” phenomenon in Kenya where women with no talent and no education, but with huge bottoms, put their genitals on display on the Internet for the whole world to see?
These women are willingly doing to themselves what men have forced them to do for centuries. This is not women’s liberation; it is sadomasochism of the highest order.
By Rasna Warah
Originally published in Sunday Nation, November 16, 2014