Attacking the Black Woman
By David J. Leonard and James Braxton Peterson
With FLOTUS and Rhianna targeted, 2011 ends with more racist and sexist language
Within the span of about 10 days, a little-known congressional representative and an even lesser known magazine emerged into the public by deliberately disrespecting two of the most popular black women in the world: the first lady of the United States Michelle Obama, and mega-pop-star Rihanna. Each of these instances are distinctly despicable in that they attempt to degrade women’s bodies generally by reaffirming a societal gaze that assigns value to a woman’s humanity based almost exclusively on the size and shape of her body. What may be more sinister here though is the deployment of this tragically common assault at two exceptionally popular and powerful black women with one unfortunate outcome being the fact that the ‘representative’ and the ‘magazine’ enhanced their ‘brands’ via an assortment of name checks in the media-sphere. Sadly we will have to (yet again) mention those (brand) names here.
During a recent Christmas bazaar at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Hartford, Wisconsin, Rep Jim Sensenbrenner (R – WI) criticized Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity given the size of her lower posterior.. Daniel Bice, in “Sensenbrenner apologizes to first lady over ‘big butt’ remark,” described the incident in the following way:
Perhaps Sensenbrenner – who was accompanied by an aide – assumed it was safe to crack wise about the first lady’s posterior in such a heavily Republican area. But, as the old saying goes, this is what happens when you assume.
Ann Marsh-Meigs, a church member who heard Sensenbrenner’s remarks, said he took several swipes at the first lady on Dec. 10. . . .“He then talked about how different first ladies have had different projects – Laura Bush and literacy – and he named two or three others,” Marsh-Meigs said in an interview last week. “And then he said, ‘And Michelle Obama, her project is obesity. And look at her big butt.’”
“That’s basically what he said,” she continued. “It was a combination of her work on obesity and her shape.”
When confronted by a woman in attendance, who sought to highlight Mrs. Obama’s wonderful qualities, Rep Sensenbrenner responded by noting that “Michelle should practice what she preaches – ‘she lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.’”
History reveals that the unmasking and over-sexualization of black bodies is a longstanding practice central to American popular culture. As Bobo (1995) states: “Representations of black women in mainstream media constitute a venerable tradition of distorted and limited imagery” (p. 33). Rather than constituting black women as “specific victims of the lust of [white] brutes,” dominant representations have posited black women as sexually deviant, aggressive, domineering or wretched victims – as mammies or jezebels (Hansberry, 1960).
Black women’s bodies have historically garnered negative attention in the public sphere; the black female form has posed as both a threat and a cheap, yet addictive, commodity within American culture. Within the realm of popular culture Janet Jackson’s breasts, like Jennifer López’s and Beyonce’s behinds, have elicited incredibly prurient commentary highlighting both the exotic determination and demonization of female bodies of color. This history endures through these comments that rely on the fragmentation of Michelle Obama’s body.
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