Saartjie Baartman is not 'the original booty queen'
"It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies - it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it." - Zadie Smith, On Beauty
The picture did as intended. It broke the internet. It launched 1,000 think pieces. And just as predicted, it ushered in the familiar narratives that accompany women's bodies in the public space, and haunt our most private, intimate spaces. There were choruses of body shaming, flagrant expressions of masculine entitlement, cacophonies of slut shaming and refrains that resuscitated the Madonna/whore complex, amidst discussions about complicated female agency, modern beauty standards and their complex relationship with particular bodies. Women's bodies are at the centre of a sophisticated war, and as Zadie Smith writes, there is no way to escape it, it seeps into every conversation, it dominates our narratives, even as we try to direct them down other avenues. It is in the air, or so it seems.
Last Friday, a piece appeared on Jezebel, a site that is often accused as being the centre of mainstream feminist privilege, under the thoughtless headline: 'Saartjie Baartman: The Original Booty Queen'. What masquerades as an attempt to "historicise" the black female body, in fact does violence to the memory of Saartjie Baartman in multiple ways. It reproduces racist colonial tropes, attributing the same kind of agency Kim Kardashian has to Baartman, and making her complicit in her oppression in an uncomplicated manner. There is no attention to context and very little nuance. Under this dramatic reimagining, her story becomes a rags-to-riches tale of a talented young woman who sought fame and fortune abroad, with an unfortunately melancholic ending. It is pure distortion.
This revisionist history in the services of white imperialism reimagines Baartman as a willing, free participant in her own oppression by manipulating the concept of "agency". By attributing the kind of agency that Kardashian has to Baartman, it seeks to argue that she was a willing participant in her oppression and does not question the terms and conditions of Baartman's existence. Problematic claims abound. Baartman is referred to as an illegal immigrant in a time before immigration laws apply, but the most astounding claim seeks to argue that she "was not a slave, which is a common misconception", but rather "agreed to the terms of her own subjugation". Oppression appears glamourous in this reading that remakes Baartman in the image of a Josephine Baker-like performer, and glosses over the inhumanity of human zoos and "freak shows" by providing no sense of context that would lend a multidimensional reading of place, time and history.
The comparison of Baartman, her life, legacy and agency with Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj is historically reckless. It is a problematic conflation that is unthinkable when one considers the importance of context, class, race and other factors in determining how we live our lives. One of the most banal lines of the article reads: "When it comes to her contemporary booty-sisters, she is less Kim Kardashian, more Nicki Minaj" The reason given for this is steeped in racism, on one level the author argues this comparison because "on the stages of London and Paris, she regaled packed audiences with singing, dancing and instrumental routines", which glamourises Baartman's performances, and on another, the author unquestionably puts what Minaj and Baartman do in the context of performing "savage femininity" (Jezebel captions a screenshot of Minaj's anaconda video as "performing 'savage' femininity"), even going so far as to use the term "jungle fever" in relation to Minaj's VMA performance. It is a racist colonial trope that is frequently attributed to black women's bodies, always followed by the shadow of lasciviousness and sexual objectification. It is in the air, or so it seems. As a reflection of this, there was a profoundly different reception to Nicki Minaj's Anaconda video cover being released and the photograph of Kim Kardashian in question.
One also wonders how the author managed to manufacture such clear ideas about agency, when academic Pumla Gqola notes that "her paradoxical hypervisibility has meant that although volumes have been written about her, very little is recoverable from these records about her subjectivity". As a result, Gqola refers to Baartman as embodying an 'absent presence' which leads to an '(im)possibility of representing' her. One wonders how such profound agency can be afforded to Bartmann (sic) by the author in the face of little information about her subjectivity. As such she remains an object in the project of illuminating some fact about sexual and racial difference, and is not afforded any degree of complex humanity.
Owning our bodies within oppressive systems is complex and difficult. As Zadie Smith writes, "this hatred of women and their bodies" defines many aspects of how we live our lives, the directions we take and the limits we face. The question of agency is fraught because it always has a tense relationship with this system. We do not live in a vacuum. Context, therefore, is everything. Context was what this article lacked in spades. The author argues: "Within the framework she [Baartman] was given, she was always an agent in her own path." However, the framework defined everything about Baartman's life and path, and therefore cannot be excluded, distorted, manipulated or discounted. The framework is central. This was not a matter of agency. This was a matter of a life defined by its context, and one that cannot be done justice by framing it in simple, glamourous terms. That is violence.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler