Hottentot sensationalism is our generation’s blackface.
What is it about the black female body that frequently means that it is an object of sex? Object, really. I watched, horrified, women’s bodies, their glutes shaking, placed around Miley as props and I could only think: Hottentot.
Unlike blackface, however, there isn’t even the representation of faces, because it is only the body that is displayed. Also, its not all that new. If you aren’t familiar with the term “Hottentot”, or especially “Hottentot Venus” that was the stage name of Saartjie Baartman, an African slave that was repeatedly put on display in London around 1808 as a freakshow specimen because she had large hips and rotund rear. It was also reported that she had very long labia, though she did not give any public showings of this. She was bought by an animal trainer, who showed her for 15 months in France.
All throughout her “exhibitions” she was coerced into claiming that she was a free woman, doing this of her own free will, and receiving payment from the people who were “showing” her. Reportedly after the public novelty worn off, she was forced to support herself with prostitution. After she died, it was a full 187 years before her remains were taken out of a museum and returned to her homeland in 2002.
The VMA show that has everyone in an uproar was just a symptom of the same “hottentot” display that started in 1808 or earlier. Actually, there were TWO “Hottentot Venus” performers at the time, Saartjie was only the most famous of them. This situation of depersonalizing a woman’s body and making it sensational is nothing new.The curvaceous body of a full figured black woman symbolizes wanton sexuality in our culture, regardless of the personality, agency and goals of the person living in that body.
Don’t believe me? I challenge you, watch Miley Cyrus’ now infamous performance again and count how many black female eyes make contact with the camera. Nevermind, the answer of course is ZERO. Throughout the performance, which is supposed to be celebrating “urban sound” and have a “black feel” to it, every single black female had their faces obscured by either the teddy bears or the sunglasses they wore. They gyrated around Miley, but didn’t touch her, despite miming smacking her ass, they never made contact, they pretty obviously weren’t allowed to.
So we already have a problem, these women have no personalities, no connection with the audience, but hey, they are backup dancers, that happens. Right? It was problematic that all of them were black, but it doesn’t necessarily throw Miley (actually her handlers, I doubt Miley picked her backup dancers and choreographed them personally, hell, she didn’t even write the song herself) under the bus.
But then something different happened. Watch from 1:30 to 2:02 as a woman in striped leggings with an especially zaftig form, who had previously been throwing T-Shirts to the crowd (not dancing), realized that Miley was coming over to her and began shaking her ass (aka, twerking) so that Miley could use her as a prop. Unlike how the black women couldn’t touch Miley, apparently the white woman is more than welcome to mime licking the black woman’s ass, then smack it once, twice, three times. Then the woman in the zebra tights was sent on her way, to finish throwing the last t-shirt and then head off the stage.
This performance was the perfect representation of body sensationalism. During the shot of Miley using the woman’s body as a drum, the camera stayed low, and never even showed part of the woman’s face. As far as the world knows, she is just one zebra printed ass that placed itself there to be smacked by a white woman.