How Nicki Minaj Stumbled Onto Black History

It had every stereotype of black womanhood one could think of: the prerequisite “crazy hair” passed off as the “real thing”; the sassy attitude coming from a “ho who didn’t know her place”; and, above all else, a “booty” that is a “masterpiece of modern science.”

For those who missed it, I am describing a skit that appeared on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, featuring guest rapper Nicki Minaj as the “bride” in the blaxploitation parody, “The Bride of Blackenstein.” The various comments on its YouTube video already indicate that the jokes are a hit–but at whose expense?

On the one hand, I will admit to finding certain parts humorous, precisely because the jokes rely on certain ideas about the black female body, which Minaj exploits shamelessy in her pastiche-hybrid mimicry of Lil’ Kim and Lady Gaga–part “monster” and part “Barbie Doll.” (See spoken-word poet Jasmine Mans’s deconstruction of this problematic hyper-feminine performance.) On the other hand, how long will a black woman’s booty continue to be the source for entertainment and comedy?

While SNL sought to recall the history of ’70s blaxploitation films in “Blackenstein,” I saw a deeper history in its connection between Frankenstein and the black female body. We may recall that Mary Shelley, the daughter of women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, penned the original Frankenstein, first published in 1818. Notably, a year earlier, the prominent scientist Georges Cuvier penned his own “masterpiece of modern science”–a thesis about the famed buttocks and genitalia of Sara (Saartjie) Baartman, a South African woman who was exhibited in England and in Paris as the “Hottentot Venus” between 1810 and 1815.

The premise of Baartman’s Hottentot Venus show focused on her supposedly too-large behind and the belief in her “missing link” status as a “Hottentot,” a now derogatory term used to describe the Khoisan ethnic group residing at the Cape of South Africa. That group was believed to be so “primitive,” straddling the line between human and animal, that only they would find someone like Baartman to be a “Venus.” Any white man who found Baartman desirable was in danger of “reverting” back to his “primitive” form (even though Victorian ladies donned bustles later in the century).

Shelley, who wrote her science fiction as a criticism of scientific violations of the natural world and the “mad” scientists who obsessed over “penetrating nature’s secrets,” may have had men like Cuvier in mind. Cuvier literally penetrated such secrets in his dissection and preservation of Baartman’s brain and genital organs. His thesis, which compared Baartman’s genitalia to those of orangutans, formed the basis for much of 19th-century scientific racism, which later evolved into eugenics.  Of course present-day science is quick to remind us that race is a social construct and not based in biology, but popular culture can keep this strain of thinking alive with its reductionist representations of black (and white) female sexuality.

I admit to being sensitive to such representations and to this particular history since I had my own encounter with Baartman back in 1999 while on a research trip to Paris–an encounter which shaped my dissertation and book, Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. I stood in front of her skeleton at the Musee de l’Homme, where her remains had been on public display as late as the 1980s, and witnessed the plaster cast that Cuvier molded from her cadaver, which he eagerly acquired because Baartman, when she was alive, refused to show him what was between her legs. There was a rumor circulating at this time that women like Baartman possessed a “Hottentot apron”–an extra flap in the vaginal lips–and the French scientists of this era just had to know if such a thing existed and if it were a natural occurrence or a cosmetic alteration.  In death, Cuvier could do what he wanted with Baartman’s body, so in effect he turned her into a specimen.

Baartman’s is quite a contentious history, since her remains became the subject of a postcolonial struggle between France and South Africa after Nelson Mandela demanded in 1994 that she be returned to her homeland. The French government resisted at first, fearing that such demands would open the floodgates, and European museums and institutions would have to turn over all the human remains they’d acquired throughout their colonies. However, the French finally relented in 2002, and as a result, Baartman became a national symbol when thousands attended her centuries-delayed funeral on August 9, 2002–South Africa’s National Women’s Day. She is now buried near the Gamtoos River in the Eastern Cape.

In the wake of Baartman’s return, articles, books, artworks and films have covered her story, including my own work. Nicki Minaj unwittingly stumbles upon her history in the SNL skit, with its hyper-emphasis on “booty.” Let’s not be similarly unwitting: Consider this an opportunity to purposefully recover Sara Baartman’s story for Black History Month. Check out Barbara Chase-Riboud’s fictional account in her novel The Hottentot Venus; a biography by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography; and the recently published anthology, Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot,” edited by Deborah Willis.  Finally, there is a new French film about Baartman, Venus Noire by Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche, which has yet to be released on this side of the Atlantic.

Whether in jest or in serious contemplation, Baartman continues to haunt us, perhaps because her story has yet to be fully told. This is a difficult task when one is constantly reduced to T&A spectacle, and so many bodies exist (then and now) to perpetuate this legacy.

Photo of Nicki Minaj from Flickr user She So under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. I saw the SNL sketch last week. Although I thought it was hilarious, I do know that many folks might not find funny, especially parts about the Bride's black female stereotypes like the confrontational attitude and her mystical "booty." There is a question that wasn't put in the article, that ironically was expressed on the SNL skit: "Is it worth it to take that 'attitude' in order to get to (her) 'booty?'"

    Here's another question, I apologize if it sounds like a "chicken or the egg" question: What was more exploited? The body (particularly her behind) or the attitude?

  2. dolores sandoval says:

    I am so pleased to read this blog because a colleague, an anthropologist raised in Namibia, decades ago told me this story in brief. My remembrance was that she ended up in Germany rather than France but i correctly recalled the emergence of the bustle as a result, likely due to my side research interest in clothing and adornment.

    Not only have garments been designed to enhance the backside curve and "physiological adjustments" in
    the operating room occurring, but I think there may also be a move to add to male silhouettes. Perhaps it will
    lead to an end to those horrible flapping skirts the basketball players wear.

  3. krystalimage says:

    Thanks for posting this! When I watched the SNL skit I couldn't figure out if it was making fun of racism or actively being racist, and I think the background and history you've given definitely helps. Thanks!

  4. krystalimage says:

    This also reminds me of the story of Henrietta Lacks and how the birth control pill was tested on women in Puerto Rico with deadly consequences–another piece in the puzzle demonstrating how "impartial" science has been used as a weapon against women of color.

  5. Michelle Mathis says:

    I understand how the historical context can bring shame to the exaggerated female anatomy such as the "booty" but why should the ignorance of racist 19th century "scientists" allow for this particular area to be shamed in ethnic women. The booty like the rest of the female anatomy deserves to be given the popularity it has today in a more positive light instead of being abnormal as it was seen in the past. Can we really argue against the fact that a once negative body part associated with women of color is now something even mainstream media is praising??! I think Nicki Minaj's artificial buttocks does not make me think any less of her as an artist as Janet Jackson's multiple surgeries hasn't destroyed her image.

    • Janell Hobson says:

      I think it's great that you were able to discern "praise" for a black woman's curves in that SNL skit. I myself did not find it praiseworthy; it triggered a certain history for me, hence this blog post.

      Thanks for your comments!

  6. Thanks for the article, but I was bothered by your headline on Facebook: "Is Nicki Minaj the 21st Century's Hottentot Venus?" Nicki Minaj is successful, self-aware, and smart. She's in control of her body and understands irony. There are some historical connections, but that doesn't make Minaj a victim or even a symbol. I wonder if she heard a comparison like this, if she'd laugh or be angry.

    • Janell Hobson says:

      I certainly would not call Nicki Minaj a 21st century Hottentot Venus (first of all, there are so many women who’ve capitalized on their bodies that Minaj is not the first from this century), and I did not choose such a title on Facebook or anywhere else.

      Just wanted to clarify that so that you can see what my article title declares vs. what someone else’s Facebook says.

    • Janell Hobson says:

      I did not write such a title on Facebook. Perhaps someone else wrote that title while linking back to this post?

      Nicki Minaj is neither the first or the last woman to capitalize on the various stereotypes about women with big butts. She's part of a long history, from Sara Baartman to Josephine Baker to J-Lo to Beyonce to Buffie the Body.

      What my article addresses is the way that a certain SNL punchline – the black woman's "booty" as a "masterpiece of modern science" – stumbles on real history in which such booties WERE instrumental in "modern science," hence the recollection of Baartman and her encounter with one George Cuvier.

    • This person you call "self-aware" and "smart" is the same woman who refers to herself as a cunt, bitch, hoe, etc in her rap songs. Minaj is simple the "Lil' Kim" of this generation or better yet, the female lil' wayne.

  7. Brenda Paris says:

    I did not see the skit but I know the story about Hottentot Venus. The very sad thing is what you bring out in your blog that that era in the 1800s denegrated black women and that this attitude prevails today only aided and abetted by the victims themselves. They (black women) are not even aware of the damage they are perpetuating. And the “damage“ plays out in a systemic way in all areas of life, not just in the videos, not just in music or theatres, but in the workplace with regards not getting hired or once hired not promoted, which is just one example of how the sterotype negative racist image is carried out in the society as a whole…and it spills over to our men because they are the other part of the equation of this conjured up image (real and surreal) of the black women. So we all have to take responsibility to let it be known far and wide, to our own black women (and men) as well as to the wider community that this has got to stop.

    • Norleen Koponen says:

      Brenda Paris: You are so right on with your comments, smart observations, and THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER. Thank you for providing hope that the denegration of black women (and all women for that matter) will be acknowledged and consciousness raising enough to stop the racist, misogynous, sexually denegrating portrayals and wrongful perpetuation of such.

    • Ms. Paris, I cannot agree that “victims” now “abet” their oppressors. The very definition of prejudice (from the “pre”) is that the judgments *precede* meeting the person. I realize that the dress, speech, and demeanor of some black women does not match a middle-class standard, but the reason this is punished is because it comports with an already-existing image. If middle-class white men were punished for drug use, boorish behavior, and sexual violence… well, Congress and corporate American would lose a few members, for starters! However, they have the presumption that they are good, law-abiding persons who will make a contribution to society. I certainly believe that people should have access to skills for their social advancement and personal growth, but prejudice is the problem–not behavior.

  8. Lately i have been *really* disappointed with Ms. choice of titles. This article has almost nothing to do with Nicki Minaj and frankly the vague relationship to this article is insulting. Minaj's videos flip gender stereotypes without being novel (Cinderella with no sacrifice, a samurai battle where the women are the warriors). She plays with the big boys, but doesn't sacrifice her sense of humor to do so. Yet, rather than introduce any of the amazing empowering things she does to the Ms. audience you reduce her to the stereotype that I only seem to hear womens forums use. You've just added to the degradation.

  9. i also appreciate your sussing out of the clear connections to the problematic history of black women's bodies (the butt in particular). i think the skit was quite incisive, however, because it also excavated all of the problems and attractions blaxploitation films in general offer. there is eyecandy, yet many women are beaten and raped. there are intense and pleasurable sex scenes (which were groundbreaking for black folks in cinema) yet much of the dialogue pushes slang to new lows of buffoonery. yeah, we "off the man," but we manage to take out many of our brothers and sisters too. many of these problems (and pleasures) seem to find their uneasy meeting bounded in the female form. it's amazing what a focus on a black woman's butt can do (and continues to do, as your butt lineage bears out). and as your great analysis bears witness, it doesn't really matter whether or not one likes the skit (i found it hilarious, btw), rather, that we understand the myriad ways the skit can signify, and what those significations can mean for the politics of black representation. thanks for illuminating a vital part of this debate.

  10. For those who want to address Nicki Minaj's performance (some who find her complex, some who find her tedious), and whether or not she has agency or is a victim (which the same could be asked about Sara Baartman as well), that's not the focus of this article. Rather, I'm addressing how her particular performance on SNL fed into a stereotypical and historical lineage.

    Let's look at the issue from another angle (through a historical lens to be specific).

    The year is 1811. Somewhere in the English countryside, Sara Baartman is entertaining the masses (she has to eat, you know).

    Her audience remarks, "Look at that big butt! Isn't that funny? hahaha!"

    Fast forward 200 years later…

    The year is 2011. Somewhere in TV land, SNL to be exact, Nicki Minaj is entertaining the masses (she has to eat, you know).

    Her audience remarks, "Look at that big butt! Isn't that funny? hahaha!"

    My main point? This joke is 200 years old. It's not just a tired joke, it's a withering and decaying joke. It's time it got buried, the way South Africa finally buried Baartman.

    Nicki Minaj may be doing something "complex" or "ironic" or "flipping gender scripts" or flaunting her sexy self or what have you in her music and videos, but in my opinion, none of that was on display in the SNL skit she participated in. Then again, it's hard to do something innovative with a 200-year-old joke, isn't it?

  11. Black ppl have been the butt of jokes since the beginning of our history. White ppl see us as nothing…but a circus entertainment, so what is the news there??? Ladies do your thang, real action….not fuckery, lol.

  12. I find it interesting that no one has even mentioned the fact that the skit also made fun of white women and their lack of booty. the "angry mob", all of whom were white, expressed displeasure at the flatness of kristen wiig's butt as opposed to that of nicki's.

    honestly, i found the skit hilarious and well-written. it did not cross the line into racism and was clearly meant to be both a criticism of dated attitudes and a hyperbole of modern culture. plus, i just love nicki minaj. i feel that she is a very intelligent, strong woman and she must have seen the relevance of the skit to involve herself with the project.

    • "it did not cross the line into racism and was clearly meant to be both a criticism of dated attitudes and a hyperbole of modern culture."

      Interesting read, though I tend to disagree that this was "clearly" meant in the way that you found it. Good point about how white women were part of the punch line, but doesn't that racial spectacle also lend itself to the idea that race is somehow "embodied" – which was pretty much the point of what race scientists were saying all along?

  13. Sharmin Hossain says:

    I feel the connection this article made between the humor behind someone as modern as Nicki Minaj with a woman who isn't as mainstream, Sarah Baartman is very enlightening. The aspects of our present day system and/or values aren't ideals that just popped up randomly or out of the blue, they all started somewhere. The exploitation of women is something that goes back to the beginning of time, where the female body parts are scrutinized and seen as experiments instead of a woman's identity. I feel like the same women who are in this misogynistic culture that are there to "leave a mark" and get respect in the game, are the same ones that feed into the fetishes and desires of men. It's more than just confidence, comfortability and/or sexual appeal in my eyes; I feel like it's an oppressive system that desensitizes women from being a woman to being a body. And the manner in which humor is used makes the whole issue a distraction, diverting people's attention from the mistreatment of a woman to her assets which are 'unusual.'

  14. Nicki Minaj makes me want to cry, she could be such a positive model for girls and just isn't. I wrote an article that mentions her for my blog http://starofdavida.blogspot.com/2011/01/black-ho….

  15. POGUS CAESAR’S MUZIK KINDA SWEET AT LONDON O2

    The British Music Experience at O2, London presented by the Co-operative, in association with OOM Gallery will be showcasing an exclusive exhibition of 38 rare archive photographs celebrating legendary black musicians.

    Using a simple 1980′s Canon camera photographer Pogus Caesar followed the musicians and singers around the famous venues producing a collection that celebrates a style of black music that brings together the UK, the US and the Caribbean.

    Explaining his motivation for Muzik Kinda Sweet, Caesar said: “As a child growing up in Sparkbrook and Aston in Birmingham I was inspired by the record sleeves of the day. Years later I had the honour of being the company of these great performers, in Birmingham and beyond. I wanted to contribute to the musical legacy of Birmingham through my imagery. The book is dedicated to those who remember seeing the stars like Curtis Mayfield walking through the Bull Ring or watching Ike and Tina Turner performing at the Top Rank Club on Dale End. It’s also for the younger generation who can still hear the influence of older musical artists through the sounds of today”.

    From Stevie Wonder in 1989, Grace Jones in 2009 and Big Youth in 2011, this unique exhibition documents how black music, in its Reggae, Soul, Jazz and R&B tributaries of sound, has changed and renewed itself over the decades.

    Journeying from Jimmy Cliff to Jay-Z via Mica Paris and Mary Wilson of The Supremes to David Bowie’s bass player Gail Ann Dorsey, these images conjure up an alphabet of the music of the Black Atlantic.

    The photographs selected from OOM Gallery Archive are also as much about the clubs and venues in Birmingham, as it is about the singers, producers and musicians. The Wailers at The Tower Ballroom, Sly Dunbar at The Hummingbird Club, Courtney Pine at Ronnie Scott’s, Cameo at the Odeon Cinema, Ben E. King at the Hippodrome and Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B at BBC Pebble Mill, many venues now lost to regeneration or renewal, and only recalled through memory and imagery. Author and historian Paul Gilroy who wrote the foreword for the book Muzik Kinda Sweet remarks “Pogus Caesar’s emphatically analog art is rough and full of insight. He conveys the transition between generations, mentalities and economies. These images record a unique period in what would come to be called black British life.” Other photographs include Dennis Brown, Lynden David Hall, Maxi Priest and Mighty Diamonds.

    In addition to the exhibition, Pogus Caesar will be launching his book Muzik Kinda Sweet and conducting a Q&A session at the BME on the 12th October 2011.

    This is a free event supported by Ahmet Ertegun and is bookable by e-mail sign up.

    Please e-mailevents@britishmusicexperience.com and include your full name and address.

    Muzik Kinda Sweet is presented as part of Black History Month UK.

    http://www.britishmusicexperience.com/muzik-kinda

    http://www.oomgallery.co.uk

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