Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Hidden Pin Up #6 - The Black Fetish

Fetish - the pathological displacement of erotic interest and satisfaction to an object or bodily part whose real or fantasised presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Throughout my investigation into the history of the black Pin Up, it's been difficult not to notice a trend; The notion of claiming black females to be hyper-sexual and primitive because of their anatomy, and those ideas sticking as they have been represented through discourse and the media over the ages. From Sarah Baartman of the 19th Century, the earliest example I could find of a black woman being on display, through to the Afro Pin Up's of the 1970's, a similar narrative keeps being told and it relates to the white male audience...

 'They'll dazzle you... they'll stir your senses... luscious beauties of every shade'

It's the preconceived ideas and ideals based on centuries of racial bias and white privilege that set the black woman firmly apart from the white male making her a complete mystery and totally un-relatable to him. Through the white male gaze she becomes feisty, angry, primitive, uneducated and overtly erotic, she becomes a fetish.

These projected notions robbed the black sitter of her identity, her voice, and her agency in order to make her the acceptable version of the black ideal. There is an argument that all women are typecast to some degree in this fashion, but it is fair to say that when discussing issues of gender roles that mostly in this case, black Pin Up's have a different story to tell from their white counterparts.

While all Pin Ups, dancers, performers and models from the vintage era had to fit a prescriptive formula of safe Western feminine ideals in order to be admired for their beauty and talent (to a large extent this is still true), the black Pin Up also had the added hurdle of her skin colour, meaning that a further set of notions and margins were then (and to a large extent still can be) pasted onto her image setting the real women, and what she truly represented into an abstract that mostly never got considered.

In my last post I mentioned a 1940's actress by the name of Acquanetta who actively denied her black heritage in order to get film roles which wouldn't stereotype her despite her colour. She instead chose to take on the persona of a mysterious 'exotic', that while still typecast to some degree, didn't have the same negative stigma attached to it from a Western point of view.

Even though white women from the vintage era still had to compete with male dominance over their image they had somewhat more freedom to speak out about their thoughts and needs in the real world. The way the black Pin Up was characterised to a white audience meant she was subdued and marginalised by jokey and lazy stereotypes that took away her power. This lack of control on how she was represented was justified by making her more marketable to a mainstream audience. Take the example of 1930's performer Jeni LeGon from my first post. Despite her incredible talent for dancing, she was soon cast as the goony savage shimmying in feathers and a grass skirt before only ever getting roles as housemaids.

Black model with an angry expression teamed with leopard print and an African mask.

 This isn't to say ALL black Pin Up's were treated the same and mildly went about their business bowing to social pressure. As we have seen from past posts there are many examples of black women who succeeded in pin up careers despite racial prejudice or even using racial fetishes to their own ends by playing to stereotype and taking back control of their images.

Josephine Baker is the ultimate example of this as we have previously discussed in other posts. Her ability to give the audience what they wanted,becoming a symbol for black fetish,while being the architect of her own destiny makes her a massively important figure in the history of the black Pin Up and an icon to other black performer throughout the years. 

The boundaries of fetishisation of the black Pin Up began to blur in the 1970's when Blaxploitaion, a sub genre to exploitation films, exploded onto the scene. Blaxploitation films were made primarily for a black audience but its appeal soon spread to other races and ethnicity. In this case black culture took back control of the monikers that had been used to control it, much like Josephine Baker had previoulsy. Afro hair, large hoop earrings and voluptuous bodies became a form of self identity and reclamation of race.

Afro model. See more @gemma_parker_artist

However the movement began to suffer from the strong messages it was projecting alongside it's image. For some, the movement only perpetuated the black stereotypes held by white people and rather than giving empowerment, held the black community back. In an essay about Blaxploitation films Joanne Allen comments,

'Most of the women in blaxploitation films were reduced down to insignificant prostitutes or curvaceous women who flaunted all they had. Even while the movies main characters were women, they were still objectified and reduced down to loose, sexual and insatiable "hot mamas"'

The subject of black fetishism is a very complex one, in fact the positive and negative effects of Blaxploitation films are still being discussed to this day and the everyday fetishisation of colour continues in popular culture. Both Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus have been accused of fetishising black hip hop culture through their performances using cultural appropriation in costume and dance choices. Can anyone unsee Miley 'twerking' at the 2013 MTV awards or Katy doing this in her video for This Is How We Do?...

Interestingly, it does seem acceptable for white women to take on black cultural styles like cornrows and baby hair in the mainstream, but when black women do it, popular culture is divided, see my post about this HERE

In everyday life, racial fetishisation continues on a smaller stage and this is in most part, because of the stereotypes perpetuated throughout history and the lack of respect black culture is given on a wider platform which leads to ignorance and false presumptions. A quick search on the internet will bring up hundreds of sites discussing incidents where black women have been approached by or even dated men with a racial fetish. That isn't to say a 'preference' for black women, but men who have actively seeked and singled out a person because of her race and then unaware used micro-aggressions which demeaned, alienated or marginalised the women they were with. For example, 'You're [insert positiive adjective] for a black girl, or 'You're not like other black people'. One account I read said, 'He kept touching my hair without my consent, was legitimately disappointed that I could not twerk, and called me “sassy” whenever I voiced an opinion that was different from his'. Presuming she was feisty and overtly sexual, does this sound familiar? 

Out of all the posts I've done about the history of the black Pin Up, this one has by far been the hardest to write and the longest to put down into words. While I have always been aware of race and the issues it can bring up, writing as a white female I have had to really learn and think as I type, putting my findings down so that I would understand them and so that they hit the right note. It has also made me question cultural appropriation, and when does taking inspiration from a culture become a negative thing? Does it depend on the tone, sensitivity or context and is it always wrong to do it no matter what race you are? Maybe these are things to discuss in another post.

I know that the subject of racial fetishisation goes WAY deeper than the things I've discussed, covering different races and all genders, but for this project I have tried to keep it focused on the vintage Pin Up and the things I have discovered along the way. I hope that although basic, this post still manages to convey some of the difficulties that arose during the era and how they weave into the historic and ongoing prejudices that black women still face today.

Here are some of the websites I have used in my research (the ones I can remember), which give a much fuller picture on the subject:

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