A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé | The Feminist Wire

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.

Continue reading @ A Fly Girl: Black Sexual Politics and Beyoncé | The Feminist Wire.

NewBlackMan: Sampling Again: Shawn Carter and the Moynihan Report Remix

Sampling Again: Shawn Carter and the Moynihan Report Remix

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

I have resisted the temptation to write about the media spectacle surrounding the recent birth of Blue Ivy Carter. The obsession has been striking on so many levels: (1) it seems to reflect a desire to represent Shawn Carter and Beyoncé as royalty. Their cultural visibility and power reaffirms a narrative about the American Dream and post racialness. Blue Ivey Carter becomes evidence of multi-generational wealth; her arrival in the world affirms the American Dream as Beyoncé and Shawn Carter now have millions of dollars AND the prescribed family structure (not sure about dog and picket fence). (2) There also seems an investment in constructing hip-hop as growing up as evident by a politics of respectability and through a patriarchal nuclear family. The media discourse has imagined a family (or children) as the necessary step toward becoming an adult.

Mark Anthony Neal brilliantly reflects on this particular aspect, noting how the media has constructed Carter as ushering in a new era for hip-hop. “There are of course other examples of rappers who do take parenting seriously.” More importantly, Neal works to disentangle lyrical flow from parenting:

To be sure, writing a song about your daughter is the easy part. Fathers are often lauded for the more celebrated aspects of parenting: playing on the floor, piggyback rides, the warm embraces after a long day at the job. Mothers, on the other hand, are often faced with the drudgery of parenting, like changing soiled diapers, nursing, giving up their careers to be stay-at-home moms, and the criticism that comes if they don’t live up to societal notions of what “good” mothering is.

The celebration of Shawn Carter’s fatherhood and the lack of commentaries regarding Beyoncé as a mother are telling on so many levels. At one level, it reflects the erasure of mother’s labor, as noted by Neal. Yet, at another level it reflects the desire to stage yet another referendum on black fathers and mothers within the public discourse. For example, Joanna Mallory recently penned: “Jay-Z anthem to fatherhood is music to the ears of black leaders and family advocates.” Arguing that, “72% of African-American kids are raised without a dad,” Mallory celebrates the birth of Blue Ivey Carter because she inspired her dad to write “Glory:

“But she is also rich in love, as Jay-Z exults in his song “Glory.” The best part? A lot of other babies are going to benefit. Because Jay-Z’s ecstatic reaction to being a dad will be the strongest boost yet to a growing movement in the black community encouraging responsible fatherhood.

Concluding that the song is a necessary remedy for absent black fathers is emblematic of the media discourse here: sensationalistic, simplistic, and wrapped up in a narrative of distortions, misinformation, and stereotypes. It is yet another reminder those critics should not wax sociological.

Having already written about this in regards to Colin Cowherd and Touré, I thought I might just recycle part of the “Blaming Black Families” piece, albeit with a little remix (I swapped out Cowherd’s name for Mallory). The fact that critics, politicians, and the public discourse continually recycles the same fallacious and troubling argument mandates that I merely recycle my work as well.

The efforts to recycle the Moynihan report, to define father as natural disciplinarian and mother’s nurturing, to link cultural values to family structures, and to otherwise play upon longstanding racial stereotypes, is striking.

Continue reading at NewBlackMan: Sampling Again: Shawn Carter and the Moynihan Report Remix.