Sexualization, Exploitation, And Black Female Celebrities: Exploring Pop's Womanism

Sexualization, Exploitation, And Black Female Celebrities: Exploring Pop's Womanism

I've been thinking about writing this post for a while. It was originally conceived as an examination of the "Stripper Anthem" as presented by Nicki Minaj and Rihanna in Beez In The Trap and Pour It Up, as it related to the sexuality and sexualization of black women, but after last week's post on Lily Allen, and some of the... ill-informed responses it received, I realized that there is a different conversation that needs to be had first.

That conversation is about the distinction between the exploitation of black women's sexuality for the (white) male consumerist gaze, and a black female celebrity's reclamation of her own sexuality on her own terms. For whatever reason, there seems to some difficulty in grasping the concept that the most significant difference between these two scenarios is agency, and the way in which the presence or lack of agency determines how a display of sexuality is to be perceived and received.

To that end, I want to examine the images presented in the aforementioned videos, deconstruct them, and demonstrate why despite popular belief, their respective "stripper anthems" are anything but demeaning. Let's start with Rihanna's Pour It Up video:

In this video, Rihanna sits on a throne, minimally clothed and singing about her wealth, while shots of dancing strippers are interspersed throughout. The most significant thing about the positioning of this video to me, is that the dancers are never fetishized. There is no slapping of asses or pandering to the male gaze. Instead, the strippers are given their own scenes, and allowed to show their skills, independent of a specific sexual context.

Additionally, there is a concentrated effort to equalize Rihanna with her dancers. Rihanna is in a similar state of undress to the other women, (removing the dynamic of power that would exist by virtue of being more clothed) and she also participates in the twerking. At no point in the video are the other women used as dancing decoration to her person.

Noticeably, large sections of the video are shot in a way as to obscure the identity of the woman onscreen, almost literally morphing Rihanna into one of the strippers, and removing the dividing line between them. The viewer is tasked with determining where the blurring of the lines begins and ends, as Rihanna places herself on identical footing with her dancers. She acknowledges here that they are all black women, and that they exist in the same racialiazed social space. Here, the sexualization of black women is participatory, not derogatory.

For much of the video, Rihanna is also seated on a gold-plated throne. She also "makes it rain" with dollar bills printed with her face on it. To me, this, coupled with the rest of the video indicate that Rihanna acknowledges her power, independence and wealth, but uses that wealth and power not to exploit other women, but to participate in their activities. Rather than have other women dance for her, she dances with other women.

Lastly, notice that isn't a single man in the entire video. In Pour It Up, Rihanna deprioritizes the male gaze not by replacing it, but by disregarding it entirely. This video is a celebration of black female sexuality in and of itself; its relationship to other contexts is completely ignored. Here, Rihanna explores the way in which black female sexuality exists independently of outside pressures, expectations and codifiers. The women in this video are being sexual for themselves and are not performing for the gratification of men.

And now, Nicki Minaj's Beez In The Trap:

In Beez In The Trap,  Nicki Minaj is presumably at a strip club endorsing the strippers. Like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj is also in a similar state of undress as the other women (in the scenes where they are together), which goes a long way in equalizing them.

Additionally, while there are men in this video, you will notice that they are rarely in scenes that Nicki is not also in. Nicki is shown not only as equal to the strippers, but also as sexy and sexualized, and yet still equal to her male peers. (While said peers remain mostly removed from the circumstances of sexualizing the women.)

I also think it significant that even though Nicki is scantily clad for most of the video, her agency is never in question. Even in scenes where she is in a bikini while the men are fully clothed, she is still very obviously dominating the "conversation". She is still in charge. She stands ahead of the men in turn, and there is no question that she is the one with the overt power in the equation.

In this video, there are also many many shots of women simply enjoying themselves in the club. Not necessarily being sexy or sexualized, but simply dancing and having fun without men by their sides. In addition, while there are several close-ups of women's body parts, I think that contrary to my first reading, that these shots are not for male titillation, but for female titillation. The men are so sparse in the video and the women so plentiful that I think those shots were a specific nod to the sexual context of women with other women.

Following that, there is a lot of overt woman on woman sexualization. Nicki is seen engaging sexually with the other women in the video in a way that the men are not. Again, the expressions of sexuality are participatory. Here, the video subverts the male gaze, not by having Nicki take the place of men, but by having her and the women engaging in and enjoying their own and each other's sexuality. It is an acknowledgement of the fluidity of sexuality and the sexual attraction that can exist between women. Once again, black female sexuality exists outside the context of third party sexualization, and is presented as something desirable in and of itself.

There is very important difference between having your sexuality exploited for the appeasement of a third party (who is profiting off that exploitation), and engaging with your sexuality on your own terms. For black women, (whose bodies have historically been the scene of violent sexual abuse in the face of a denial of their very humanity) to reclaim their sexuality on their own terms is a revolutionary act.

Because of the lingering stereotypes that exist about black womanhood and the way in which it supposedly goes hand in hand with "crass" and "demeaning" sexuality, black women are often left fighting for the right to not be seen as sexual beings. The expectation that our bodies are inherently available for sexual consumption means that we are denied the individuality to disengage from the sexual conversation should we choose to do so. It means that our bodies are expected to always be accessible to whomever feels entitled to them. It means that we are presumed to be promiscuous sluts and whores, regardless of our actual level of sexual activity.

This expectation is so ingrained, that many black women are left to self police their actions or deny themselves access to their own sexuality as a means to be seen as human first, and have their sexuality be seen as a function of that humanity. For a black women, reclaiming her sexuality is often a luxury she cannot afford; there will always be consequences, both personal and professional.

For Rihanna and Nicki Minaj to essentially say in turn with these videos, "Fuck you. I'm black AND I am a sexual being who enjoys her body and her sex, and I don't give a shit what you think about it." is a big fucking deal. And even in their celebrity they are not immune to the slut-shaming that the average black woman who did the same would face. Rihanna was famously the subject of a Daily Mail article that accused her of being a bad role model to young girls because of her frequent public displays of her sexuality. The caveat of course is that both women have the class privilege to remain fairly insulated from the criticism, and are able to incorporate this perception into their respective popular images. That is a luxury that the average black woman likely doesn't have.

When it comes to Lily Allen and Miley Cyrus, and their exploitation of black female bodies comes down to the power dynamic that is borne out of their whiteness in relation to their dancers' blackness. In both cases, Lily and Miley tried to make a point about their own sexual agency by creating a dichotomy between their "good"sex and black women's "bad" sex, and playing into existing racist tropes about black sexuality for their own benefit. The issue isn't that either woman tried to lay claim to female sexuality; it's that by consciously distinguishing themselves from black womanhood and sexuality, they purposefully excluded black woman from that same claim to agency. It is not okay for white women to relegate black bodies to the background and reduce them to props as a ploy to elevate their own sexuality.

And no, it's not as simple as saying "black women should just stop taking those jobs". It is unfair to try to make a victim complicit in their own oppression, when in reality they are simply navigating a system that disadvantages them in the best way they know how. For an aspiring WoC in the entertainment industry there are a severely limited number of jobs available. On top of that, they are held to an unfair higher standard in order to be considered qualified. On top of that, often the only roles that they are even considered for are the ones that require them to portray stereotypically negative caricatures of black women. It's no wonder that recent study found that there are more negative depictions of black women in popular media than positive ones.

Due to the myth of scarcity, competition for opportunities is fierce, which means that even if one woman takes a stand, there is always someone who is willing to do the same job, for less, just to be able to get their foot in the door. In the meantime, WoC #1 is now blackballed from the industry for being a "troublemaker." There's no way to win. Either you take less than savory positions now, with the possibility of a payoff later, or you take no jobs, and shut yourself out of industry opportunities altogether.

Conversely, to say that a black woman being sexual or expressing sexuality in public is automatically equal  to "exploiting themselves" is to deny them agency. White women reclaiming their sexuality has always been accepted as revolutionary (see: Madonna, Lady Gaga). People (and white feminists) hail that act as progressive. But for a black woman (and all WoC) to do the same, it is treated as dirty and crass. There is a very distinct racialized reaction to the two scenarios.

Take for example the constant juxtaposition between Lena Dunham and Beyoncé as feminist. White feminists love Lena and continue to support and praise her even in the face of her multiple intersectionality fails. Her decision to be fully naked on her show, in almost every episode, while not being rail thin, is hailed as a step forward for women everywhere. And yet, Beyoncé's tour costumes are deemed to be too skimpy, or too slutty. Beyoncé IN CLOTHING is deemed more provocative and "indecent" than Lena Dunham, fully naked and simulating sex onscreen, by nature of her being in a black body. And for this, Beyoncé's "feminist credentials" are threatened if not revoked. Never mind that Lena Dunham set a show in contemporary New York and failed to include even one regular character of colour. Meanwhile, 90% Beyoncé's tour staff are WoC, (even her concert photographer!) showing that she is committed to using her influence as one of the world's biggest pop stars to open up opportunities in show business to the WoC who come after her. But Lena Dunham is a better feminist.

Women of colour are consistently held to higher standard of respectability when it comes to their public displays of sexuality than white women. Take JLo's costume during her performance on The X-Factor, and the ensuing outrage, and contrast that with Miley's outfit during her performance at that EMA's, and the reaction that followed. Let's not even get into the fact that Lily Allen's reference to women as "bitches" constitutes a "pop feminist anthem you can play at parties" while Beyoncé's Bow Down is "degrading to women."

To wrap things up, I personally consider Rihanna and Nicki Minaj (and Beyoncé!) to be much better at transmitting feminist/womanist values through their music than most white high profile female celebrities who are considered to be feminist. Their music and imagery recognizes, embraces and deconstructs the way in which BW have a different relationship to sexuality than WW because of historical context, while reclaiming that sexuality through a narrative that is both widely empowering and personal. To me, their work does an excellent job of presenting black female sexuality as something that can be enjoyed, experienced and celebrated without denigration.