A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé
January 23, 2012
By David J. Leonard and Kristal Moore Clemons
A newly discovered horse fly by Australian scientist Bryan Lessard has become global media fodder. While usually not a source of news, Lessard’s entry into the public square has little to do with the scientific importance of his “discovery,” but rather the chosen name he’s given this new species: Beyoncé. Describing this new species as “bootylicious” because of its “golden-haired bum,” Lessard, a 24-year-old researcher at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization writes, Beyoncé would be “in the nature history books forever…[the fly now bearing her name is] pretty bootylicious [with its] golden backside.” He further explained that his name choice came about because the fly was the “all time diva of flies.”
Why would Lessard hope Beyoncé would take this particular scientific discovery as a kind gesture? Does he really think this is a compliment? While we cannot talk about intent, nor are we interested in the reasons behind the naming, we do think it is important to reflect on the larger history at work.
Popular media has covered the story as cute, as an odd story–one that “honors her”–and as evidence of the global popularity of Beyoncé. For example, Jennifer Walsh, a science writer on MSNBC, discussed naming as a common practice within the science world, noting “Beyoncé’s” arrival with a pantheon of other famous people:
Beyoncé isn’t the first celebrity to be honored with her own species. Traditionally named after scientists involved in their discovery, organisms have also been linked to the likes of Harrison Ford, Matt Groening (creator of “The Simpsons”), Mick Jagger and other celebrities, including a beetle named after Roy Orbison.
Considering the lack of media attention to these other named organisms, the comparison is limited at best. More importantly, the very situations and very different histories behind each further highlights the problematic comparison. Did the names of the other organisms reinforce, reduce or play upon longstanding racial fantasies and stereotypes that have been used to dehumanize, mock and ‘color’ black women? Worse yet, did the stories about those other celebrities come with pictures that further reduced their namesakes to a singular body part as a source of juxtaposition?
Several websites paired the story with a picture of Beyoncé that fixated the gaze on to her body, thus further sexualizing her through the juxtaposition of her body and that of the fly. Did these other “celebrity names” elicit racist and sexist commentary that included conversations about their breasts and backside; that compare Beyoncé to Michelle Obama through troubling language? Did any of them offer anything close to the the following:
Probably the most accurate animal named description. A feces eating horsefly thats golden abdomen (lower part or the A$$end) reflects on the nature of Beyonce’s true trademark..the golden arse! Someone give that scientist a grant!
These comments point to an embedded history and a multiplicity of signified meanings, which are in operation here. Thus, while others may say this is innocuous or a celebration of Beyoncé, we don’t view this as complementary or something playful. Rather, it is little more than a continuation of the larger historical narrative. It is the embodiment of Imani Perry’s insightful discussion of the simultaneity of racism and commodification: “The love of black culture with the simultaneous suspicion and punishment of black bodies is not unusual” (Perry, p.28).
And whether or not Lessard is a fan, loves Beyoncé or black culture, is irrelevant considering the larger context. Read against history, and read through a prism of the persistent demonization of black women’s bodies, this is yet another instance where representations of black female bodies are under attack. Lessard’s inclination to name this “golden-haired bum” insect after Beyoncé is a throwback or a longing for a racist past when bodies of black women were commodities; available to anyone white who could afford to pay the price. It reminds us of the perverse reality of our society’s obsession with black women’s buttocks and makes us wonder, “is this a perpetuation or reenactment of Sarah Bartmann’s troubling story in the twenty-first century?”
Bartmann, know as “Hottentot Venus,” was a South African woman whose body was put on display in London and Paris in 1816. While in Europe, she was locked in a cage and forced to rock back and forth to emphasize her “wild and dangerous nature”–and “big” black behind (Collins 2004). To onlookers, Bartmann’s body was a sign of racial differences, which supported ideas of black inferiority. While “performing,” she was forced to endure prodding and poking as people tried to understand for themselves, up close and personally, whether or not her buttocks was “normal” or a freak of nature. From Bartmann to Josephine Baker to contemporary video women, it is important to read the scientific hearing (and cultural production) within a larger history. None of this is innocent. Think about the recent comments about Michelle Obama, the fixation on Serena Williams’ body, the national panic over Janet Jackson breast, and the racist demonization of black women in Psychology Today.
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