How Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ Can Improve The Way We Address White Supremacist Beauty Standards Today

Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is widely regarded as a modern classic due to its compelling narrative and timeless social commentary. The novel was first published in 1970 and the story is set in 1940s post-Depression United States. The Bluest Eye is a story whose devastating subject matter and critical reflection of society, unfortunately, remain as relevant today as when it was written.

Toni Morrison is often challenging to read and The Bluest Eye, despite being a relatively short book, is a long, intense read. The fragmented writing style and the change in narrators and narration styles throughout the novel require the reader to slow down often in order to follow the story. The novel isn’t needlessly confusing to read but quite a bit of concentration is needed to piece together the overall events of the story through various characters’ streams of consciousness, dialogue and narration.

The novel centres around the lives of the Breedloves – parents Cholly and Pauline, their son Samuel and daughter Pecola. The Breedloves are a poor, black family who even by the standards of their community are extremely dysfunctional and thus marginalised. They are the kind of family which is viewed with strong disapproval, pity and even concealed shame by broader society because they are the embodiment of the most undesirable elements of their society. Cholly is a violent drunk, Pauline is an equally violent absentee mother, Samuel reacts to his dysfunctional parents by running away from home frequently while 11-year-old Pecola helplessly endures the abuse. The Breedlove family reflects poverty, violence, parental neglect, familial abuse, trauma and ugliness back at those who gaze at them and are thus the ideal vehicle for Morrison to provoke a sense of distress in the reader.

Pecola is a young, dark-skinned girl who prays to God for blue eyes because she believes that they will make her beautiful and stop the victimisation she endures at the hands of her colourist family and community. She is the focal character of the novel but, interestingly, it is through the narration of other characters and not her own that we learn about her and hear of the tragic events of her life. This means that we never hear describe herself, her own feelings and experiences outside of the dialogue which she has with the other charters. This dialogue is also limited due to Pecola being a demure character that is often spoken over and dominated by others in dialogue as she is in all other aspects of her life due to her timid nature. Pecola represents the vulnerable innocent,

Furthermore, Pecola’s lack of a voice serves to show how her view of herself is solely based on how her society views her. She is repeatedly described as black and ugly by the majority of the characters in the novel, this description of her is the only one both Pecola and the reader receive throughout much of the book and it is certainly the most dominant portrait of the character. For long stretches of the novel we see Pecola only through anti-black, anti-poor, colourist and misogynistic eyes of her family and her community. Morrison utilizes this writing technique brilliantly to make us understand, without a doubt, why Pecola has internalised the hatred directed towards her. As readers we can never wonder why Pecola prays for Blue Eyes, by setting out to describe the how Pecola came to be obsessed with having blue eyes, Morrison makes the why quite clear.

The most sympathetic account of Pecola’s story is that provided by her friend, Claudia MacTeer. Claudia is a little black girl who is like Pecola in many ways but whose experiences are far less devastating. She and her sister, Frieda, are the only characters with whom Pecola shares a relationship with. They are consistently friendly towards her and do not mistreat her – which is a relief for the reader as one can begin to feel that Morrison is just taking a hammer to Pecola with no reprieve – and they also display empathy and genuine concern for Pecola in a way that we would expect the adults in the story to. Of course, the tragedy of the story is that the only people who humanise Pecola are also poor, black, girls who do not have the social or material power to protect her.

Although this novel deals with many important themes, I think the theme of white beauty standards is an important one which I can analyse without spoiling the book. Claudia’s voice is particularly memorable to me as a reader due to her defiance against white standards of beauty. Although her family comes from the same socio-economic class as Pecola’s and everyone around her also suffers from internalised racism to varying degrees, Claudia is intuitively suspicious of the assumption of white supremacy and black inferiority. She becomes resentful of symbols of white beauty – such as a white, blue-eyed baby doll she is gifted by her parents and the child star Shirley Temple – due to how highly black adults around her value them.

A striking part in the novel is when Claudia interrogates why little white and light skinned girls, such as their school mate Maureen, are seen as more beautiful and therefore more valuable darker black girls like her and Pecola. Claudia comes to the profound conclusion that we have to fear isn’t the arrogance displayed by her light-skinned school mate but “the Thing” or the system of white supremacy that determined that Maureen was beautiful and not them. In her own way she comes to understands that the people light people wield over dark-skinned people comes from something bigger than both groups – white supremacy.

Through Claudia, Morrison is able to reflect how commercialised white beauty standards and the lack of positive black representation in media wears down the self-esteems of even otherwise confident black girls and women. Morrison also makes a point to highlight how Pecola’s mother, Pauline, develops a deeper inferiority complex the more she indulges in watching movies starring conventionally attractive white actresses such as Jean Harlow. The novel does a brilliant job of portraying, in a dramatic fashion, the psychological harm racist conditioning has on black people and how they go on to perpetuate the violence and degradation they experience.

Ultimately, I think the cultural significance of this novel stems from this ability to show  the strong connection between the politics of beauty and the inhumane treatment of people. Critique of narrow beauty standards is often dismissed as trivial and even self-indulgent. In this novel Morrison shows how conventional beauty is a currency through which people can gain social acceptance, empathy, attention, dignity and love. Although Pecola experiences multiple forms of marginalization and disenfranchisement, the hatred and devaluing of the body she exists in is what internalise the most. Colourism and racism affect Pecola’s quality of life to the extent that she believes that if she could alter herself to appear whiter all her suffering could come to an end – and to an extent she is right.

In the introduction, Morrison points to the fact that Pecola is vulnerable because completely dependent on external validation for her sense of self and that is what makes her a tragic future. However, the question arises, can a person he expected to develop a good self esteem in conditions of consistent degradation. In addition, would it have mattered if Pecola had not internalized the colourism she experiences? As a child she is at the absolute mercy of the adults around her and their dysfunction and bigotry – the character is a perfect prism through which Morrison personifies victim-hood. Pecola’s circumstances are extreme but all black girls can relate to some aspect of her experience, the MacTeer girls, for example, have present and loving parents but this does not protect them from being insulted for their dark skin by their peers.

It can be very easy for us as readers to only identify with the victim or those who support the victim and never see some of ourselves in the aggressors and their destructive actions. Morrison sets out to make this extremely difficult by humanizing characters the who are responsible for destroying Pecola’s self image and ultimately her sanity. Cholly, Pauline and even the religious charlatan, Soaphead Church, all get detailed background stories. Pauline even narrates a large portion of hers – so the reader understand why they are what they are and how they themselves were socially isolated, emotionally neglected and victimized. Thus, it is not easy to distance ourselves from them. Morrison forces is to see how cycles of violence are perpetuated and, most importantly, makes us relate to the antagonists. This should not make us excuse their actions but reflect on our own bigotry and how there are Pecolas in our families, communities and societies who bare the brunt of it despite all the reasons behind why we’re dysfunctional.

The brilliance of The Bluest Eye stems from its ability to not only depict the injustice of anti-blackness but also the great tragedy of anti- blackness. In the foreword Morrison writes that often people are touched by literature but they are not moved. It is clear that The Bluest Eye was written to makes us uncomfortable and distressed in such a way that only confronting our own anti-blackness, colourism, misogyny and classism could bring us ease. It is a book that gives us a sense of the severe impact white supremacist beauty standards have on the quality of life of those they deem sub-human. As this conversation that should be about how our society uses white beauty as a measuring stick for humanity continuously gets steered towards red herring discussions about sexual attraction and romantic preferences, we need this rude awakening.

 

What We Lose – A Review

Zinzi Clemmons’ critically acclaimed debut novel is a beautiful and sorrowful journey through grief and finding a sense of belonging. With a clear and biting voice, the novel will have you enthralled while riding a roller-coaster of emotions.
In the beginning of the story we are introduced to Thandi, the narrator, following the death of her mother from cancer. In the chapters that follow Zinzi Clemmons knits together a captivating patchwork of various periods and spaces Thandi moves through preceding and following her mother’s death, as recounted by her through anecdotes in every chapter. The story is an account of her grief and the tragedy of parental loss but also centres around the turbulent relationship she has with her mother, the conflict she feels with her heritage and identity throughout her youth.
The themes of death, love, sex, identity and family are present throughout the story as Thandi transitions from the frenzy of young adulthood to becoming a grown woman confronted by the serious decisions surrounding romantic relationships, friendships, work and family. Thandi is a perceptive and frank narrator and Clemmons uses her voice to give honest and biting social commentary on both South African and American society. Within 200 pages, the author manages to tell a coming-of-age story, a story about the loss of a parent and one about the historical and contemporary injustices rooted in racial and gender hierarchies.
Clemmons makes amazing use of various images and excerpts throughout the book and its short, vivid chapters makes the novel read as though it were a person telling you various memorable stories about their life, so you can get to know them. Some parts of the book read like poetry and you can feel the heightened emotions of the narrator through the tempo of Clemmons’ writing – it is truly spectacular how much plot and emotion she was able fit into this short novel.
Race, class, gender and identity as a whole are prominent motifs in the book and they are closely linked with the idea of belonging which is at the centre of Thandi’s internal conflict and external struggle as a character. Thandi’s racial ambiguity and her lack of identification with her African American and Coloured South African heritage and culture fuel her internal conflict and allow Clemmons to explore the questions of race and class. However, it would be dishonest to claim that this book is representative of the racial experience of the average black woman in the United States or South Africa, Thandi’s otherness is not a consequence of being marginalised for her blackness but one of feeling isolated due to her lack racial and cultural belonging. The depiction of the struggles of unambiguous black womanhood through secondary characters in the book were also not deeply explored.
As a black South African woman, I can say I was touched by the book and could relate to the overarching themes of love, loss, exploration and belonging. However, I did not see characters which represented the black South African woman in the story despite how the book was marketed. The story speaks about black South Africans in general terms and speaks to some of our experiences, but we do not speak in it. This, in my view, was the most disappointing aspect of the book.
Overall, What We Lose is a product of beautiful storytelling and a book I would recommend for reading these holidays. You can expect to be gripped by it and likely won’t be able to take yourself out of the story mentally and emotionally until you have finished it – you may not be able to leave it behind even once you have.

Women’s Month has only made South Africa more complacent about sexist oppression

As we look back at another Women’s Month the nation is reflecting on the events and discussions which took place in August 2018. However, with the conclusion of the 23rd National Women’s Month in South Africa, perhaps it is time to analyse what the contemporary function of National Women’s Day and Women’s Month are. Particularly how National Women’s Month shapes the discourse of women’s rights and advancement in South Africa.

9 August 1956 is the day twenty thousand South African women, under the organisation of the Federation of South African Women, marched to the Union Buildings in protest against the Apartheid regime’s extension of pass laws to women. National Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1995 and while it is still centred around the commemoration of the 1956 protest it has taken on a broader cultural significance and purpose than celebrating the women’s struggle heroes of the past.

A popular criticism which feminists have of women’s month is that it is a time for performative campaigns against rape and domestic violence by government departments and NGOs that don’t really affect the incidents of gender-based violence or even prompt meaningful reflective discussions about it. This is a valid critique of Women’s Month, but it misses the mark by assuming that the problem is that the campaigns and programmes fail to fulfil their purpose rather than seeing the far more insidious truth – that they fulfil their purpose just fine. The purpose of Women’s Month programmes is not to effect any social change, it is to pacify the oppressed and sooth the conscience of the oppressor.

Kwaito artist and record label owner Arthur Mafokate personified the hypocrisy and shallowness of male-centred Women’s Month marches and protests this July when he pledged that he would be participating in the #100ManMarch protest while is undergoing a court case for physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend Busisiwe Cici Thwala. The #100ManMarch is an event against women and child abuse in which at least 100 prominent men from various sectors of society march. Mafokate claimed he had been invited to the event by RiSA, SAMRO and SAACYF. However, the Government Communications and Information System issued a statement denying that such an invitation was extended to him.

While some were shocked at Mafokate’s apparent lack of self-awareness, was it truly surprising that a man accused of abuse would assume the position of a women’s rights advocate in an attempt to delegitimise the allegations against him? After withdrawing from the event Mafokate went on to say that being accused of abuse against a woman should not exclude him from protesting against violence against women. Events and campaigns which serve as virtue signalling platforms for men are a women’s month staple and it is not unimaginable that abusers and enablers of abuse would use them in order to keep up the appearances while treating women in deplorable ways in their personal lives.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not brave or challenging for a man to get onto a public platform and say he opposes sexual abuse, sexual harassment, physical violence towards children and partners and femicide – it is beneficial for one’s image and does not require consistent effort. What does require consistent effort and investment is firstly, practicing what you preach and secondly, providing needed funding and platforms to victims and full-time activists against gender-based. Genuine solidarity with women would begin within families, communities and social circles and impactful activism would be supporting the underfunded grass-root NGOs which provide counselling, housing and legal advice to victims of abuse.

This feel-good activism is not a grand conspiracy which government, media, retail and civil society have orchestrated but it a natural pattern of human behaviour that extends to society as a whole. The need to feel unburdened of our wrongs and absolve ourselves in our part in the chaos and misery we see around us leads us to create mechanisms of absolution. We create rituals which, through symbolic and performative acts, make us feel as though we have changed ourselves and our circumstances even when materially nothing has changed. This symbolic transformation is easier to achieve than material change because it only depends on us going through a process and believing we have accomplished something by virtue of undertaking the process, rather than the material change which requires our efforts to be fruitful in order to be valuable.

An interesting example of absolution-centred social commentary is the way in which rape, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence are discussed during women’s month. Unless we are being absolutely cynical, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of South Africans do not want to live in a country plagued by violent crime towards women and children. Even the most steadfast of patriarchs will assert that they are disgusted by our alarming rape and domestic violence statistics. Thus, it is very easy for the discourse around gender-based violence to be simply one of how we are generally good people who are horrified by the conditions of violence, particularly sexual violence, which South African women and girls are subjected to. This expression of horror and disgust is usually followed by the humanisation of women through personally relating them to men as “mothers, sisters and partners” and concessions of how all men need to pledge themselves to not being aggressors but protectors of “our women”. These sentiments, however well-meant, do not manifest into critical examinations of how gender-based violence is simply a symptom of the patriarchal system on which our society functions and how we all uphold patriarchal attitudes, norms and values – ultimately buying into a system of domination whose extreme consequences horrify us.

Despite long-standing evidence in the studies of criminology and psychology indicating that rape is an exercise of power and impunity of an aggressor over a victim and not a reaction to provocation, popular discourse denounces rape but strongly uphold elements of victim-blaming. The long-held tradition of cautioning women on acts and behaviours of their own which invite rape continues to flourish. Victim-blaming and outright misogyny masked as concern for women is a Women’s month staple.

This Woman’s Month, radio-veteran and popular Lesedi FM radio show host Thuso Motaung went on a tirade about rape in which he advised women to avoid sitting on a man’s bed with the door closed as that invites men to rape them. This incident caused outrage amongst listeners on Twitter with some listeners, such as EFF researcher Tokelo Nhlapo, threatening to submit complaints to the BCCSA. LesdiFM is one of the largest media platforms in the country, boasting an audience of 4 million listeners. Motaung has been on the radio station for over a decade and if there is one thing a seasoned host like him knows well it is how to pander to the moral sensibilities of his loyal audience. It is unlikely Motaung will be punished for his utterances because the view that women provoke sexual assault is a normalized and popular one in our misogynistic society and the majority of his listeners probably agree.

It is clear that women’s month is an echo chamber for non-radical positions on oppression we can all agree with. Discussions on the evil of domestic violence against women are abundant while discussion on how our society produces men who have aggression problems, lack of empathy for others and use physical assault as a way to control the people in their lives.  The research which suggests that raising children with beating as a form of discipline correlates to them growing up to be violent and aggressive adults is rarely discussed.

 

Every year government campaigns encourage women to report their abusers to policemen and women who often shame and dismiss victim – no Women’s Month programmes on gender sensitivity, victim-blaming and secondary trauma are directed towards members of our police force who need them dearly. The Department of Health’s reproductive justice and family planning initiatives which emphasize women’s autonomy over their bodies are so contradictory to the culture of slut-shaming and misogynistic sadism in public health care facilities that it leads one to wonder if nurses are aware of reproductive rights. It is clear that a good amount of advocacy and education need to be directed into the state itself if any of the government’s policies on women empowerment, safety and development are to have any practical consequences. A Department of Women worth its salt could drive the necessary bureaucratic and cultural reform within the state but we do not have one. From our Department of Women, we get distractions in the form of women’s day celebrations – only God knows what there is to celebrate.

An effective education on not only women’s rights but also the nature of systematic gender oppression and how it causes social and economic dysfunction in societies would require a consistent social re-engineering programme by the state and a will to see all oppression and violence end by citizens – even the forms we are comfortable with. Women’s Month in its current form is a placeholder, a pacifier, an imitation of activism and social progress. For one month in the year, there is a pseudo-progressive performance of “taking action” against issues such as gender-based violence, the gendered lack of access to health care and sanitation, economic exclusion of women and denial of equal education opportunities to girls. There is some self-flagellation by men, a promise to “do better” by women and children. For a month, women are given platforms to lay their grievances bare.  Then the curtains of August close and the tragedy of South Africa continues as before.

The radical notion that we need a social, cultural, political and economic revolution in order to end the violence and suffering we are witnessing, would not allow us to walk away from talk shows, gala dinners, summits, press conferences and daily discussions feeling absolved and accomplished – therefore it will not be popular. It will certainly not be the central idea of Women’s Month in South Africa.

Why inclusive beauty ideals alone can’t save us

In our globalist, patricahal, capitalist, white supremacist society white, cis, able-bodied and have made the standard of beauty – with anyone who doesn’t have those characteristics being placed positioned further and further on the margins of what is considered attractive. It may vary slightly from culture to culture, region to region but virtually no modern societies remain untouched by Eurocentric and patricahal beauty ideals to some degree. The dominant discourse and cultural norms of our societies tend to reflect the white-supremacist, ableist, sexist, fatphobic, cis-heteronormative place our world is.

However, the oppressive nature of beauty ideals does not simply end at who is generally regarded as attractive. What I refer to as the “Cult of Beauty” is the belief system that white is beautiful or attractive us is inherently positive and more valuable with what is ugly or unattractive to us being characterised as inherently negative and less valuable. It is important to point out the cult of beauty because it is the bridge between aesthetic appreciation or attraction and aesthetic-based marginalization. Oppressive systems do not only create a hierarchy of what and who is beautiful but they instil in us ideas of treating people according to this perception of beauty.

The cult of beauty is what makes morally justifiable for us to dehumanize those who we have been socialized to see as anything from unpalatable to repulsive. It is why even though we do not have the health information of a fat person we immediately associate their bodies will illness and therefore feel that we can make judgements on their character, intelligence and lifestyle. In reality all fatphobic people see when they see fat bodies is something they register as aesthetically repulsive, but due to the cult of beauty this very subjective feeling of repulse or unattraction is moralised. Suddenly it is not merely about you just not being attracted to the othered body, it is about the othered body being inherently bad and the character and personhood of whoever that body belongs to being brought into question.

Many cultural movements of the marginalized rightly seek to disrupt the pervasive rigid and discriminatory standards of beauty by making those who have been othered the objects of beauty and challenging normative ideas regarding who is considered beautiful by society. From the Black Is Beautiful movement started by African Americans in the 1960s to the contemporary online body positive movement where fat, disabled, gender non-conforming and dark-skinned bodies (amongst many others) are made visible and celebrated – the act of turning beauty norms on their heads has been one of resistance for many marginalized groups.

When the dominant discourse in society is that your body is unattractive or defective in some way and you are therefore less valuable as a human being the most intuitive act of resistance is to redefine that definition that has been imposed on you. When you have been made to feel that your body should be hidden, and you should be invisible the most natural act of defiance is to be visible and visibly love yourself and your body. The culmination of these acts of resistance have dealt many blows to the system of psychological control over the marginalized. Common criticism of the standards of beauty have also caused a paradigm shift by making people, marginalized and not, widely question where their ideas about beauty come from and who benefits from monopolising of beauty. However, an important and radical idea is often missing from body positivity movement – this is the idea that people should not be valued according to beauty at all.

Beauty should not be the yardstick with which we measure whether people are worthy of what we consider to be basic rights. The right to have your medical practitioner act in your best interest without negative bias, the right to not be subjected to hate speech or have your dignity infringed upon by other are what we would regard as basic human rights or at least civil rights. However, fat people and disabled people have these rights infringed on as a norm. Studies have revealed that in the US dark skinned people have higher rates of prosecution and are given longer prison sentences than their light skinned counterparts for the same crimes. In fact research also suggests that conventionally attractive people in generally are given preference by the courts.  Even the judiciary, what should be an institution where people are judged in the fairest way, according to the highest standards of reason and objectivity, is influenced by the cult of beauty.

The laws and institutional protocol are not the primary rules which we base our actions upon. Everyday behaviour is governed by social norms and unspoken codes of conduct which we learn through socialisation. We also behave according to a set of personal values and morals which are shaped by society and our social position but which we customize and hold dearly as our own.

Activism seeks to reform institutions but also to largely reform the actions of the individual through moral and ideological influence. We need to return back to basics and propagate the message of how the cult of beauty is morally and rationally unjustifiable. We need to speak about how granting personhood and basic rights based on subjective feelings of attraction ultimately affects oppressed people the most. It is an important political principal and one which can’t be opposed with the argument that even if beauty is a social construct people can’t change what they fund attractive. It sets a moral and ethical standard of harm-reduction that all people acting in good faith can be expected to follow regardless of their personal aesthetic preference.

Currently we are entering a dangerous territory where marginalised people are seeking to be represented in the paradigm that grants rights, respect, visibility, love, kindness and ultimately personhood based on aesthetic acceptability. People on the margins, their allies and frankly all sensible human beings need to reform the social system that uses beauty as a currency to access to basic decency and fair treatment, basic human rights, workers’ rights and socio-economic needs.

The fat-acceptance movement is a great example of a movement that primarily advocates for fatness to be destigmatized and for systematic discrimination against fat people in areas such as health and employment to end. Many fat activist reject sentiments such as “big girls are beautiful” as a rallying cry for pro-fat politics because they co-op a radical message about fat peoples rights and personhood into a slogan that centres the gaze of whoever is looking at a fat body.

Finding bodies aesthetically pleasing and attractive does not mean we respect them. In fact, the simultaneous desire and degradation of othered bodies is one of the primary ways in which they are disrespected publicly and privately. Partners of transgender women obviously desire them but also abuse and murder them at horrifying rates due to transgender women being marginalized and violence towards them being normalised and promoted.

The way that dark skinned women are fetishized when they are in bikinis and slathered in baby oil online but it is still widely socially acceptable to declare that dark skin is undesirable and colourist language is a norm both within our families and mass media.

Messages such as “Black is beautiful” or “Trans is beautiful” change with context, a cisgender person declaring that they find transgender people attractive and a transgender man or woman declaring that they and other trans people are beautiful are fundamentally different. The latter is an act of resistance while the later can be anything from a message of support to outright fetishism. What is most important is not our lip-service talking about how much we find people from marginalized groups attractive and centring ourselves and our gaze but the inherent support of their existence as people, their rights and liberties and their entitlement to social justice and fair treatment in every aspect of their lives.

While we deconstruct narrow beauty ideals we need to avoid the trappings of aesthetics and attraction centred value systems as they cannot be the foundation of truly radical politics.

 

Nicki Minaj and why even sluts shame sex workers

A month ago, Twitter was in a frenzy over comments made by Nicki Minaj in a then-recent ELLE magazine interview. In the interview, Minaj discussed her recoil at the realisation that many “strippers and Instagram girls” engaged in transactional sex.

Minaj went on an unsolicited tirade about what she termed ‘modern-day prostitution’ stating, “Maybe I was naïve, but I didn’t realize how many girls were modern-day prostitutes,”[1] she said in the interview. She further contended, “Whether you’re a stripper, or whether you’re an Instagram girl—these girls are so beautiful and they have so much to offer. But I started finding out that you give them a couple thousand dollars, and you can have sex with them. I was like, Yikes. It’s just sad that they don’t know their worth.”

While many seemed to be surprised by her condemnation of transactional sex considering her sexual image as an artist, sex-positive lyrics and the fact that she has been on the receiving end of slut-shaming her whole career – I was not. When you analyse her statement, it is clear that what offends Nicki about transactional sex is not the sex element but the exchange of money. And she is not alone.

I thought Nicki Minaj’s comments would be an interesting way to lead into an analysis of respectability, sexual freedom, subversion and money because she is a fascinating case study. Minaj is a musician and performer who has used sexuality to gain public attention but more importantly to gain a fanbase of mostly femmes who find her rejection of respectability politics empowering. The music industry has ridden the idea of sexual liberation down to a nub. With the rise of sex positivity “sex sells” no longer refers only to catering to the male gaze but to selling sexual empowerment to women. Fans felt betrayed by her comments because they recognised the contradiction between the message she was selling them – the message she has profited on for a decade – and what she truly believes.

The historical condemnation of sex work has been based on two things – sex and money.  While the sex-positive movement in feminism addresses one it does not address the other. Sex workers, especially those who have transactional sex, are slut-shamed as all women who are considered promiscuous. However, the reason why full-service sex work is characterised as the worst kind of harlotry is that these women are monetarily benefited by having sex. They are not merely sexual deviants, but they are women who throughout history have subverted the economic systems and social institutions of their time by using their sexuality – something which under patriarchy is considered to be the property of men – to earn a living.

Prostitution is characterised as being so immoral that women who engage in it receive the highest form of moral punishment through criminalisation and social marginalization. Prostitutes are who society punishes the most, one could even argue that they are made an example of so that all other women tow the line of sexual respectability and economic subservience to men.

Historically, prostitutes were women who did not marry and become the property of a man. Harlotry subverted and undermined marriage as a financial institution. In times and societies in which girls were born the property of their fathers and as young women were married away to be property of their husbands, prostitutes were the first independent women. Throughout much of history in most societies women could only have their basic economic needs met by being part of a household lead by a man. It is important to note that even within the family unit these women were not just property but economic tools which subsidised household income – in rural agrarian societies wives and children were farm labourers, wool-spinners, seamstresses, weavers and a large contributor to the income earned by the patriarch of a family.

Our modern globalised world may allow, encourage and even force women into labour outside of the home but it still largely marginalizes sex workers and outlaw prostitution. Even the most sexually progressive countries outlaw independent full-service sex work. The USA is an interesting example because stripping and performing in adult films are largely legal from state to state but independent full-service sex work is criminalized in all states. South Africa has a similar model which currently criminalises the buying and selling of sex.

I argue that porn and stripping did not gain legality through the change of social mores but through the lobbying of politicians and policy-makers by billion-dollar capitalist industries which profit from the labour of sex workers such as porn stars and strippers. The social acceptance or normalization of these trades that has occurred did so after legalization. Sexual morality is dictated from the top down and not the top up. Media, education institutions, religious institutions and political structures socially engineer what is moral through their voice of authority – all of them are funded and therefore influenced by big business.

Nicki Minaj’s comments become far for interesting when viewed in the broader scope of her function in society as an artist. Popular musicians can create art which when read at face value seems subversive of the dominant political and social order but due to being products of capitalism themselves they cannot encourage attitudes which subvert it wholly. That is why the message can be “shake your ass, sleep around, get money, do whatever you want” but still exclude full-service independent sex work.

Independent sex work will never receive the capitalist and political backing that industries like the porn industry have because it would allow millions of people (largely women) to earn a living in a way that doesn’t allow businesses to profit from their sexual labour. Or – traditional labour sectors – require them to get higher education debt, join the military, earn minimum wage to benefit a large corporation or any of the other limited choices the majority of people are given under capitalism. Independent sex work continues to subvert the capitalist economic system even in neo-liberal societies that claim to value personal freedoms, so it will always be heavily regulated if it can be profited from by capital and completely criminalised if it cannot.

Prostitutes will never have respectability because respectability is a currency which is given to those who operate within the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system on which the globalised world functions.

Ultimately, we cannot look to popular music churned out by artists who belong to major record labels for revolutionary messages. We also cannot think that these artists use their hypervisibility to defend those who are most marginalized. Artists like Nicki Minaj will have strippers in their music videos as props but not discuss the working conditions of strippers, they will use the idea of sexual freedom to seem edgy and rebellious – but they will not support those who exercise the sexual freedom in the most subversive ways. The role of popular artists with a billion-dollar corporate machine backing them is to be pacifiers, not feminist revolutionaries.

To conclude, Nicki Minaj’s comments were not contradictory to her brand or purpose as a popular artist. You need to realise that her role is only to create music which makes you feel sexually liberated as an individual. The music industry has a license to sell sexual messages and imagery to a broader audience than any other and through more mediums than any other.

However, Nicki cannot use her brand to challenge the status quo in a way that could change the social order as she is the product of an industry that benefits from the systematic control and monopolisation of sex as a commodity.

Ultimately, not all those who preach sexual liberation or even sell sex themselves will support the most subversive form of sex work.

 

*Note: In this piece I use the word “prostitute” in some places to specifically refer to people who sell sex (full service sex workers) rather than the general umbrella of “sex worker” – strippers, cam girls, porn stars, professional BDSM performers, sugar babies, phone sex operators and many others fall into that umbrella term. I chose not to use the descriptors “escort” or “courtesan” as these are palatable terms more classed mid to high end sex workers refer to themselves as and they are not inclusive of street sex workers. The term “prostitute” can be used pejoratively but it is the only one that is understood by most, and it is one which should be destigmatized.

[1] ELLE Magazine July 2018 issue

Slay queens, sugar babies and blessees: South Africa’s obsession with the urban black Jezebel

Jezebel is a biblical figure who became a cultural and literary symbol representing wicked women. The symbol encompasses vices such power-lust, sexual deviance, low-cunning and seduction.  In the context of racial stereotyping, the Jezebel archetype can be summarized as a hypersexual characterization of black women. This stereotype is invoked whenever black female characters and real black women are reduced to being sex-crazed, cunning and manipulative – as beasts lacking control over their own carnal desire and simultaneously seducing men into disregarding their sexual morals. An obvious contradiction – but it stuck regardless.

The Jezebel archetype was conceptualized centuries ago, the moment white colonists, slavers and missionaries encountered Africans. It was essential to narratives used to justify the sexual violation and degradation of black women during colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow and Apartheid. It prevails in modern media globally. Now we need to question why it’s so prevalent in narratives about black women in South Africa today. It’s time we talk about why this country is obsessed with the mythology of the urban black Jezebel in particular.

If you are someone who is active on social media or engages traditional media, you have already met the Urban Black Jezebel. You’ve met her through TV shows such as Skeem Saam, Generations, Uzalo and The Queen. You’ve met her through discussions on radio, talk shows and investigative journalism shows like check point or 3rd Degree. She comes packaged in different women, real and fictional but aside from a few minor details her story is the same: The Jezebel is a young black woman, probably between the ages of 16 and 30. She is beautiful and ambitious, comes from a working class or middle-class background and she wants something— anything from alcohol at parties to a car to marriage for socio-economic mobility.

It doesn’t matter what it is that she wants, what matters is that she uses men’s attraction to her to get it. Her body is an economic tool in some capacity. What matters even more is that this pursuit of wealth, success or fame ends in disaster for The Jezebel. This failure and suffering of The Jezebel to obtain what she wants is central to our cultural and societal mythology.

We’ve been obsessed with the elusive lives of sugar babies and daddies since the early 2000s. I recall Hummer Man the urban legend that circulated in the mid to late 2000s. The story went that a wealthy man who drove a hummer went around spreading an STI to young women who were willing to sleep with him for money, he had worm infested genitalia and would infect you if you were so taken by his wealth that you would sleep with him. The young women would be unware of this affliction (worms crawling from his penis) until the morning after. When he would leave them diseased – with worms crawling out of their vaginas. To add to the horror, the infected women would have to wear diapers for the rest of their lives and feed the worms cow liver, so they wouldn’t consume their flesh.

 

As absurd as the story sounds today, many people (including a primary-schooling me) believed that urban legend to be true. The moral panic about the Hummer Man spread to the point where the Department of Health in Limpopo and the Free State had to issue statements denying the existence of the Hummer Man and that there was a genital worm epidemic which was sending young women to clinics and hospitals in droves. In the end it did not matter that the story was a hoax, its cultural impact is on par with the Satanic Panic that took place at around the same time.

 

It remains in our collective memory, you might have shuddered as you read me recounting it, I know I shudder as retold it. This urban legend served as a cautionary tale to young black women to beware sex/promiscuity and to especially beware using their bodies as economic tools – or suffer the most horrific and shameful consequences. This is important because punishment is always part of these stories about slay queens. Fast forward to 2018: The Hummer Man myth has been dispelled but the mythology of the black Jezebel continues to thrive. The machine of moral panic and sexual policing is slightly more sophisticated than an urban legend spread by word of mouth. However, the stories that now reach people via the internet, print, television and radio have only advanced the speed at which sensationalised, sexually moralistic narratives can reach people. The quality of storytelling remains primitive – without nuance or originality – and you can see this in the repetitiveness of the stories. We are consuming the same trite stories through characters that only differ in name. As a result, general discourse on sex, the sex trade, materialism and wealth in South African remain as base as they were a decade ago.

 

‘The danger of the Jezebel mythology is that it has become the primary narrative for discussing young black women and sex’

 

The strong reactions the Hummer Man urban legend provokes to this day gets to the heart of sugar baby mythology and mythology in general. It does not matter if the stories are based in reality. They provoke such a strong emotional response that our suspension of disbelief will allow us to internalise extreme, inaccurate and dangerous messages. Messages that encourage fear and moral panic more than they encourage honest and rational discourse about poverty, sex work, STIs and power dynamics.

 

The danger of the Jezebel mythology is that it has become the primary narrative for discussing young black women and sex. Whether it be when a young woman is falsely accused of being organised sexual entertainment for famous rappers or numerous young women who are accused of being the president’s mistresses in real life and the topic trends nationally for days. Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Danger of A Single Story’ has never been more evident than in how young black women, as sexual beings, are discussed in South Africa.

 

The stories that a society tells are reflective of its fears, vices, hopes, bigotry and consciousness. This is particularly true of the mythology we construct, which is why mythological stories written thousands of years ago are still being retold and adapted in media today. They live on because they are stories that are thematically relatable but, emotionally provocative and, most importantly, narratively simplistic. From the dawn of humanity myth and folklore have been our way of creating simple explanations for the complex phenomena we see around us.

 

Ultimately, this is why it doesn’t matter whether the Jezebel is a real woman or a fictional character, whether she is truly guilty of sexual subversion or not. Because the story of the urban black Jezebel is not about lustful and materialistic women, it is about South Africans.  It is about what perplexes us and the easy answers we reach to in order to make sense of complex issues.

 

Unfortunately, this mythology leads to us discussing fictional STIs instead of real ones. It leads to society characterizing high school girls as harlots who chase after older men for money instead being angered at the fact that older men prey on poor underage girls in townships, villages and cities. We speak more about Slay Queens than we do about the reality of sexual exploitation in the work place and the reality that in government departments nation-wide the only way for qualified female graduates to get employment is by blood relation or laying on their backs.

 

The state broadcaster claims to use the mediums of TV and radio to tell stories that reflect our society and shed light on social issues. However, on SABC more stories are told about the Urban Black Jezebel than about the rapist – even though a young black woman in South Africa is more likely to experience sexual violence than she is to engage in consensual sex trade. Watching SABC TV shows you would believe there is an epidemic of sugar babies and not one of rape in this country. Every month there is a headline about how a female celebrity slept her way to the top while exposes the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse in the entertainment industry are few and far in between.

 

South Africans are more disgusted when black women use their agency to enter transactional relationships than when we are molested as young girls in our families, raped at educational institutions, sexually harassed and exploited at work. Our reactionary script writers, novelists, talk show hosts and journalists pander to the misogynistic and racist beliefs that already exist about black women and the public consumes these stories uncritically due to confirmation bias – so they sell. It is a harmful feedback loop where neither content producer or consumer is willing to choose what is subversive and though-provoking over what is simply salacious. So, we get the same story told repeatedly with different characters where there was an opportunity to tell tales that hold up a mirror to society and tell us the uncomfortable truths about our society, communities, families and ourselves. That is the moral crisis of our time.

 

South Africa, you incessantly look for social decay and sexual immorality between the legs of black women and ignore it all around you. The problem isn’t slay queens, sugar babies and blesses – the problem is you.