I recently attended a screening of a film called Venus Noire, which portrayed the life of an infamous South African woman’s life as the star of a 19th century freakshow in Europe, attracting attention because of her unique and “exotic” sexual features. The story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman is one of racial power dynamics and the implications of display which still hold very real consequences today. In fact, recent cases of people going out in blackface for Halloween are perfect examples of this process of marginalization and oppression through body politics, and draws reference to a period of history which attempted to cultivate specific stereotypes and problematic ideas about blackness.
Now the movie itself opens pretty powerfully: to put it bluntly, a vagina in a jar. A large part of Sarah Baartman’s infamy were her erotic features which mainly included her elongated labia minora and an extremely large buttocks, which were obviously uncommon in the part of Europe where she came to reside with a male companion who was also rumored to be her former slave master. The film mainly detailed her inner struggle in essentially selling her body for spectacle in a society that was still getting used to the abolishment of slavery.
The film begins with a group of doctors examining her genitals, which have been preserved after she has died, and they also use the science of phrenology to determine a lack of intelligence and suspected savagery. Put another way, these privileged white men attempt to use the study of her skull and sex organs to compare her to a primate that is undeserving of human recognition because alas, she does not have the same characteristics that other normal human beings do.
I think the most interesting facet of this case is the intersection of Baartman’s identities as female and black co-opting the misogyny she faces and how the abolishment of slavery also implicates her exploitation. White Europeans had contempt for black women’s sexuality because their perceptions of it was that it was beastly and worthy of crude display. The repeated examination of her body and genitals was essentially a lewd, misogynistic science project that dehumanized her.
In relation to blackface, “Sarah Baartman” the performer was artificially and stereotypically conceived of for the purpose of profitable entertainment. Although various documents–and the movie–point out that she perhaps also profited from her own display, she sold herself into a different sort of slavery. Her image was hypersexualized and perpetuated incorrect assumptions about black women as sexual beings that has managed to live on through time. At the film screening, a conversation I had with one of the organizers actually led to a discussion of modern day video vixens and Miley Cyrus twerking, and indeed this is evident in the movie as Baartman bends over and shakes it for an audience who finds her body enchantingly disturbing.
Part of the whole debate about video vixens and the actors who would dress up in blackface is whether or not this exaggerated performance is given willingly, and Venus Noire does illustrate this problem. One scene in the movie actually includes a group of abolitionists who grapple with Baartman’s “boss” over the ethics of featuring her in a cage, pretending she is a savage woman-animal from the depths of uncivilized and menacing Africa.
Although blackface is a bit different, the whole reason why it is so disrespectful and problematic is because it is dismissive of an oppressive history and nullifies the whole idea of exploitation associated with blackface. Sarah Baartman ultimately died having to cover up who she really was in order to perform up to par with expectations that white Europeans had of her race. Unlike those who get to choose to dress up in something demeaning, she did not have that luxury, nor even that of a proper burial as her body was plastered into a cast. Her genitals remained on display in a French museum right up until 1974.
For more info on Sarah Baartman’s story, this website has a complete chronology of what is known about her life. Too bad what little is known about her is told through the eyes of those who oppressed and exploited her.