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.

Latest piece from @NewBlackMan: “Shut Up and Play:” Racism, Sexism and “Unattractive” Realities of American Culture


“Shut Up and Play:” Racism, Sexism and “Unattractive” Realities of American Culture

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

My anger and frustration following yesterday’s tennis match has nothing to do with the match itself. While pulling for Serena Williams and disappointed by her defeat, the surprising loss did little to damper my spirits. What has inspired my ire has been the media’s yet again troubling treatment of Serena Williams.

Following the match and in response to her confrontation with the match umpire (see here for details and video), commentators have taken her to task, deploying racialized and gendered criticism. Described as “petulant,” going “bonkers,” as “a stereotypical Ugly American” and as someone whose “ego” led to a “tirade” the media tone has rendered what appeared to be a tame and minor confrontation into a spectacle that rehashes longstanding stereotypes about black women as childish, emotional, lacking self-control, and otherwise angry. In other instances, Williams has been demonized for her “outburst” and “menacing behavior,” for “losing her cool” during an “Ugly US Open meltdown” and the “the menacing tone of her remarks.” Mary Carillo referred to Serena’s behavior as that of an “ass clown.”

The references to her tone and demeanor as menacing, given the ways in which white supremacist discourse has pathologized and rendered African American as cultural, physical, and economic menaces are particularly revealing. “Racial logic has advanced a link between the legibility of black bodies, and a racial being,” argues Delia Douglas in “To be Young, Gifted, Black and Female: A Meditation on the Cultural Politics at Play in Representations of Venus and Serena Williams.” Noting, “that black bodies have historically been designated as the site and source of pathology,” Douglas makes clear that “behaviour and habits are seen as symptomatic of these racial distinctions.”

The hyperbolic and racially and gendered rhetoric is encapsulated by a column from George Vecesey in The New York Times

As she stormed at the chair umpire during a changeover, Williams was reverting to her vicious outburst at a line official that caused her to be disqualified at match point in a semifinal in 2009, the last time Williams was here.” “But at what point does comportment, sportsmanship, become part of the measure of a great champion?” “The tantrum early in the second set caused many in the crowd to boo the decision, delaying the next point. Stosur kept her cool, and Williams never showed a trace of those couple of hard hits. She could have gone out with dignity on an evening when she did not have her best game. Instead, she called the chair umpire a hater, and later professed not to remember a word of it.

Irrespective of the exaggerating and demonizing rhetoric, Serena Williams’ confrontation of the umpire was tame; while angry with a suspect call and unwilling to capitulate to authority merely because of custom, she was clearly composed, calm, and collective; there was no “outburst;” she did not “lose her cool” nor was anything about her behavior “menacing.”

Even the USTA has concluded that the “controversy” was much ado about nothing, fining Williams $2,000 dollars. Explaining the fine, it announced:

US Open Tournament Referee Brian Earley has fined Serena Williams $2,000 following the code violation issued for verbal abuse during the women’s singles final. This fine is consistent with similar offenses at Grand Slam events. As with all fines at the US Open, the monies levied are provided to the Grand Slam Development Fund which develops tennis programs around the world.

After independently reviewing the incident which served as the basis for the code violation, and taking into account the level of fine imposed by the US Open referee, the Grand Slam Committee Director has determined that Ms. Williams’ conduct, while verbally abusive, does not rise to the level of a major offense under the Grand Slam Code of Conduct.

Noting the existence of “similar offenses” during the course of all Grand Slam events, the USTA acknowledges the banality of the behavior from Serena Williams.

Williams has been positioned as yet another black athlete who may have the athletic talent, but lacks the mental toughness and commitment needed to excel on the biggest stages. More significantly, the post-match commentaries reveal the powerful ways that race and gender operate within American culture. Her blackness and femininity, especially in the context of the white world of tennis, overdetermines her positioning within a sporting context. This moment illustrates the profound impact of both race and gender on Serena Williams, a fact often erased by both popular and academic discourses. According to Delia Douglas, “The failure to consider the ways in which sport is both an engendering and racializing institution has lead to myriad distortions, as well as the marginalization and oversimplification of black women’s experiences in sport.” As such, her stardom, her success, and the specifics of the incident does not insulate her from criticism and condemnation, but in fact contributes to the acceptability in fans and commentators alike symbolically shouting and yelling, “Shut up and play.”

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: “Shut Up and Play:” Racism, Sexism and “Unattractive” Realities of American Culture.