The Brown copy and paste
Stereotypical representations of Black female sexuality
One of the crucial parts of sexuality representation is the study of the people it actually includes. Black women being portrayed as hypersexual beings has been part of the White imaginary for a long time, this belief spreading onto many stereotypes such as the Jezebel. While those are old, they persist in our society, including films, through a remolding of those racist and misogynistic ideas. This essay will touch on the ways that, due to the limited representation of Black female sexuality in cinema, the few examples available could hold more weight, including the stereotypical ideas they contain, such as the resemblance to the Jezebel stereotype and how their ‘‘promiscuous’’ sexuality affects the rest of their life.
The Jezebel, or the trope of the promiscuous Black woman, can be retraced to before North American slavery. ‘‘Words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd’’ (Pilgrim, 2002) and this trope has not been left in the Jim Crow era, in fact, it is still present in our imaginary and in contemporary films. Portrayals of Black people as hypersexual and even predatory are not new. When it comes to Black women, this stereotype has led to them being seen as predatory, sexually available and as having an ‘‘insatiable appetite for sex’’ that could not be satisfied by Black men; ‘‘the slavery-era Jezebel (…) desired sexual relations with White men’’ (Pilgrim, 2002). Angela Davis in Women, Race, & Class talked about how statements like ‘‘the simple, promiscuous unmorality of the Black people’’ (1983, p.176) and the description of the ‘negro woman’ as ‘‘promiscuous and loose’’ (1983, p.182) were normalized, just like the violence and judgments cast upon them. During slavery, Black women often did not have the right to refuse the sexual advances of White men, ‘‘thereby reinforcing the belief that black women were lustful and available’’ (Pilgrim, 2002).
Erotic movies, as we have seen throughout this course, can be used to reinforce or challenge gender roles and racial stereotypes. The Hypnotist is a stag films from the 1930s staring ‘‘an attractive black woman in her twenties, with a light-¬ skinned complexion’’ (Miller-Young, 2014, p.24), and two White actors, a man and a woman. Elements of race fetishization and exotification are present through the film and it promotes this image of the Black woman as a hypersexual being who is highly knowledgeable on sex due to her sexual experiences. From what we can deduct, a White couple comes in to see a hypnotist who is a Black woman. She performs a séance (which has an exotic connotation, using stereotypical and almost cartoonish hand movements), first on the woman. Once she is ‘‘unconscious’’, the White woman is brought to perform oral sex on the Black woman. Then she hypnotizes the man and performs oral sex on him before having intercourse, and then they all engage in intercourse. It is unclear if she is a sex worker or even a sexologist with out of the ordinary practices, but she is the sexual initiator, initiating all the sexual contacts in the film. The camera focuses on the pleasure of the Black woman receiving oral sex, at first, and then on the pleasure of the Black woman as she is pleasuring the White man. As explained by Miller-Young in her book A taste for brown sugar, the film surely had in mind White men as the main audience (Miller-young, 2014) which is not uncommon for the time.
The film Addicted, based off a novel by Zane, is a 2014 film about a wife and mother, Zoe, who ‘‘develops an insatiable hunger for sex with other men’’ (Netflix). She is said to have a perfect domestic and professional life but the void she feels inside can only be filled by ‘‘large amounts of sex’’. Zoe is later diagnosed with sex addiction and her desire for sex clearly affects her duties as a mother, wife, and employer because instead of being at work during the day, and at home with her husband and children at night, she is pursuing affairs with men and going to sex clubs. The book was written by a Black woman and the movie directed by a Black man which means the colonial gaze as we know it was not necessarily the main eye of this work.
I chose these films because of their ideological similarities, meaning they convey similar ideas about race, gender and sexuality. Though about 80 years have passed in between these two bodies of work, they both portray Black women as promiscuous, tempting to men, as less fit for domestic life and as sex being a main part of their life and identity. The earlier work did this through the White male gaze but the latter one rather through a repackaging of those ideas and through what we could call a Black feminist gaze. This repackaging occurs considering we live in an era that accords women more sexual freedom, freedom to exist as sexual beings but also to share this sexual freedom through art, meaning those ideas once delivered by White men can and are now delivered by all kinds of people. Some argue that the Jezebel as been repackaged with more contemporary frames, translating it into words like ‘‘thot’’ and ‘‘hoe’’ (Lundy, 2018, p.59), describing her as ‘‘an individual with a number of concurrent sex partners that is well above the established cultural norm’’ (Lundy, 2018, p.59) but also as a woman who has ‘‘coitus for the purpose of sexual pleasure, approval, or to fill an emotional void’’ (Lundy, 2018, p.59) which fits very well with the description of Zoe. Furthermore, the ideas about Black women’s sexuality shared through movies are especially heavy because of the limited representation Black women get. In other words, considering most movies produced in North America do not feature Black female leads, the ones who do end up individually speaking louder and collectively forming the image we have of Black female sexuality.
Stereotypical representations of Black women
As mentioned earlier, the portrayal of Black women as promiscuous is everything but new. We cannot be blind to the consequences of these types of judgements on women, especially Black women. In The Hypnotist, this is done by the Black actress being potentially a sex worker which obviously alludes to her having many sex partners. Furthermore, Black women being portrayed as sex workers is a phenomenon of its own, meaning it is quite frequent, as mentioned by the literature on the Jezebel trope provided by the Jim Crow museum of memorabilia (Pilgrim, 2002). In Addicted, this portrayal is achieved by the way the main character pursues sexual relationships outside of her marriage repeatedly with two different men. It is also depicted in the scene where she pressures her husband to give her a ‘‘third round’’, which he refuses, and that is then followed by her masturbating, alone, while watching pornography. Finally, there is the aspect of shame. The beginning credits of the movie appear on screen with white letters that turn into dark red, almost like blood. The symbolic of those colors are clear: her life goes from pure (white) to dark red which could be linked to passion and sexuality. She also looks at the ground the whole time as she is walking into a building, looking ashamed. She is ashamed of her sexuality which makes us obviously question her choices, almost inviting us to judge her sexuality which reinforces that her sexuality is wrong, precisely because it is framed as excessive. Black women being portrayed as promiscuous reinforces the idea that they want sex at all times of the day and this has dangerous consequences on the way they are approached by people, specifically men. The idea that Black women cannot be raped because they are always craving sex is a belief that has travelled through time and this is apparent in Addicted when Zoe tells Quinton, who will then become her main lover, that she is not interested but he closes the door in her face, stopping her from leaving before whispering in her ear ‘‘I know you want it’’(Woodruff, 2014), as he presses against her back, her front pressed against the door. She is called a ‘‘bitch’’ and a ‘‘whore’’ (Woodruff, 2014), the latter having a significant link with sexuality, considering this term has been used derogatively towards sex workers but also to shame all types of women for having a sexuality considered out of the norm. This argument ties into this thesis because the assumption that Black women have many sex partners because they have a libido ‘‘higher than average’’, is represented in the second film purely through the main premise of the movie: this is a film about a woman cheating on her husband because she has a libido higher than what most would consider average.
Black women being tempting to men is the second characteristic that can be depicted in the main characters of both films. In The Hypnotist, it is mostly portrayed through the seductive looks of the actress to the man as they meet in the first scene but also in the way she seductively looks at the camera when she gives him oral sex. She is winking and offering flirtatious smiles to the viewer, destroying the fourth wall. The camera, often placed where the man would be in those moment, reinforces the power of the White male gaze in the sense that the spectator shares eyes with a White man. Addicted brings this idea of the Black woman as seductive to men in many ways. The beginning of the movie shows her being looked at by men walking by, hinting at her sensuality even if she is completely covered and not doing anything other than standing outside of her car. Quinton also tells her ‘‘you made me want you’’ (Woodruff, 2014) once she tells him she wants to stop seeing him, blaming her for the violent situation she is in as he follows her with a painting knife. A big part of erotic movies with a female lead lies in the concept that a man (in the case of a heterosexual romance) is attracted to her. However, in both films, this is done extramaritally, in the first because the man is married and in the second because the woman is married, which has the added weight of this attraction being morally wrong, under the premise that cheating is wrong. The desire that men have for these Black women has a negative connotation which comes back to our initial thesis that Black female sexuality is often portrayed as negative, the same way it was years ago, it is simply repackaged with a more ‘‘empowering’’ arch.
The third argument is the one saying that Black women are not fit for domestic life. A point brought up by Miller-Young about the ‘‘two women fantasy’’ (2014) portrayed in The Hypnotist is very pertinent as she described the White woman as ‘‘domestic’’ and the Black woman as ‘‘exotic’’ (2014, p.24). This idea comes from the White male gaze. Male because at that time, only men could logistically have wives and White because the Black body is exotic for people who are not seen as foreigners in America, which means White people. The idea behind the ‘‘domestic/exotic’’ dichotomy is that once the ‘‘White family is magically restored’’ (Miller-Young, 2014, p.24), they will go back to their domestic life, life that the Black woman is not a part of and in fact, the film seems to take place in her own home (Miller-Young, 2014) which makes us question whether or not she has a domestic life at all. There are also the many preconceived ideas about sex workers and the assumption that this profession is incompatible with domestic life. The film brings up those ideas without proving them wrong or inviting us to question them, and therefore they are reinforced. As for the second movie, Zoe’s presumed incapacity to have a domestic life is shown first in how she is obviously cheating on her monogamous husband. She cheats on him many times with two different men, sneaking out at night instead of being with him. Secondly, she is painted as a questionable mother, especially when her son lets her know how much he wants her to come to his last soccer game and instead of going, she goes to Quinton’s house to have sex. Quinton himself also shares that he wants to have a family with her, he wants to build a domestic life, however, she refuses saying that she already has that, but it is clear by that point of the movie that Zoe misses on a lot of her domestic life because she is either with Quinton or Corey, her second lover. In other words, she distances herself from domestic life from both sides. As explained by Davis, people have looked into the reasons as to why the ‘‘Negro family’’ appeared to be dysfunctional even back in the sixties (1983), the existence of this conversation alone proving that people already assume there is something wrong with the way Black people perform domesticity and family life. In 1965, the Moynihan Report was writing that Black folks’ family life being different from the American standard retarded their progress as a community (Davis, 1983) and clearly, adultery fits this idea of the dysfunctional Black family. This idea that the Black family cannot work is not new, but it was repackaged in the movie Addicted, this time blaming it on Zoe’s detachment to domestic life due to her preference for sex with other men.
The final argument is that in both of them the main characters’ sexuality represents a major part of their life and identity. The hypnotist, in the film titled after her, does not get much of an arch outside of her profession. We know nothing about her relationships, even her true profession is unclear. Granted, the short length of the movie may be to blame however, as Miller-Young said it, the vision we have of the character is one presenting the ‘‘black woman’s exotic, sexual, supernatural abilities’’ (2014, p.24) which alludes to her out of the norm knowledge about sex being linked to her Blackness and specific to her as an individual. Finally, in Addicted, Zoe’s sexuality is the main focus of the movie but also of her identity. She talks about a ‘‘void’’ (Woodruff, 2014) in her life which can only speak more on the importance of sex in her life. Zoe is also shown paying less attention to her work. She is rarely at the office and instead she is having sex with Quinton or Corey and she even forgets important job meetings. Her prioritizing sex over work even leads to her company going bankrupt because she did not have enough money to pay her employees. As Lundy (2018) points out when talking about television shows such as Love & Hip Hop and Basketball Wives which she describes as featuring women who embody the remolded versions of the Jezebel, those women’s ‘‘sexual labor eclipses the labor exercised by any job or career’’ (p.62) which is also the case of Zoe as she sees her business slip from her fingers due to her sexual habits. She is shown laying on her office desk, masturbating instead of working, dreaming, and daydreaming about her lovers. This argument ties into this thesis because in both cases, but especially the second, the Black female lead is reduced to her sexual relationships, making them the main thing about her. Furthermore, in Addicted specifically, we see how Zoe goes out of her way to make sex the main part of her life as she leaves behind family, friends and work. This idea of Black women (and over all Black people) being sexual beings first and humans second has been repackaged in this post sexually liberated era. Her having passionate sex with a ‘‘Latin’’ artistic man, surrounded by paintings is seemingly an appealing image to a few since the book was turned into a movie. I will not be the judge of whether this storyline is empowering but I could see how for some it might be. Black women being sexually desired by men who are deemed conventionally attractive is not something we see that frequently, and especially when the man in question is White. Storylines with interracial relationships usually bring up race or race related matters in one way or another but this is not the case here which could add to the empowering factor: A Black woman is desired for who she is. Furthermore, Zoe starting as a woman with a ‘‘perfect life’’ who then succumbs to her true desires could also seem like an empowering arch. With that being said, we must look at what those desires are and deconstruct who Zoe is, who does she represent, and in this case, it is Black, most likely heterosexual women, a group that is too underrepresented in the media for us to underestimate the weight of this specific film.
Created from the inside
As mentioned earlier, Addicted is based off a novel of the same name that was written by a Black woman and the movie was produced by a Black man, featuring a mostly Black cast. Some could argue the book and movie was thus made for a Black audience, but we must keep in mind that not only Black people will interact with it. For this reason, even if Black people, and in this case specifically Black women, do not see themselves that way (meaning promiscuous, overly tempting to men, unfit for domestic life and as sexual beings before anything else), these beliefs could be reinforced in others. Furthermore, it is important to point out that being part of a minority does not stop one from having distorted views of that group or even of perpetuating them, meaning, Black women can write books that tap in stereotypes about Black women. Lundy talks about the ways that she, a Black woman, through her work in videography, has ‘‘participated in dehumanizing these women’’ (2018, p.57) with whom she shares a racial identity, like she ‘‘had internalized the normalization of the objectification of women by the media; particularly Black women’’ (p.57), meaning this was subconscious.
In the case of Addicted, I think it is fair to say that harming Black women was not the goal and perhaps, maybe empowering them was the original intent which is the second part of this point. Erotic movies with female leads are seen by some as empowering to women. For a long time, women have been portrayed as non autonomous sexual beings, meaning their sexual desires or even libido was seen as inexistent unless it was used to pleasure a man. However, this idea was mostly attached to White women while Black women were seen as promiscuous, sexually insatiable beings. Women seeing their sexual development and pleasure be the focus of movies is something that is more and more common these days but most of these movies, like most films with female leads, feature White actresses. The idea that White women, specifically, embody ‘‘self-respect, self-control, and modesty - even sexual purity’’ (Pilgrim, 2002), has been used as a tool in films for a very long time. However, Black women are rarely presented in such ways, and that is when they are represented at all. Therefore, while some might see this type of representation of Black women as empowering because in a lot of ways it contrasts the idea we have of ‘‘women’’, I cannot help but notice how the image of a Black woman, cheating many times on her husband because she cannot help it is not new, alongside the perception of them as bad mothers, bad wives, bad employees, and overall, bad women who should be ashamed of their sexuality, due to their insatiable libido or due to other factors. Lundy talks about ‘‘degrading, stereotypical imagery of Black women’’ (2018, p.57), in the context of music videos referring to visuals of them ‘‘twerking on the hood of cars’’ (p.57) but I will argue that this term can englobe so many more images. Images of Black women as unsatiable, tempting, promiscuous and hypersexual engaging in behaviours like cheating also fit that description and are still present even though the question of whether these characteristics are degrading, or empowering can be subjective. The way that non-Black women are portrayed, and especially White women, tend to form the norm we have when we talk about sexual and gender stereotypes, meaning what we associate with female empowerment usually corresponds to what White, cisgender, straight women consider empowering. We are still witnessing ‘‘the maintenance of the status quo by defining Black women’s sexuality in White terms’’ (Lundy, 2018, p.58) that look like ‘‘a jezebel or mulatto’’ (Lundy, 2018, p.58). Lundy’s point in her text Caught between a thot and a hard place is that there has been an evolution of this stereotypical imagery, it has been adapted to fit popular culture and discourses, but those images are still on our screens (2018). This is a shift from the male gaze to the self-policing (Lundy, 2018) because Black women have more say in the ways in which they are represented, however, it is often done through a recreation of those same ideas of hypersexuality, lewdness and through her being conniving (Lundy, 2018), in Addicted specifically in the ways Zoe lies and is lust driven. We must keep in mind that Black women’s relationship with gender and sexuality is different due to their racial oppression and therefore we must look at this history specifically and be careful when we compare it to others. Empowerment cannot look the same for everyone and not all images and narratives are equally challenging for the simple reason that the characters featured in those narratives, once translated into real life, do not have the same history of oppressions. One of the ways to make sure this is done is by making Black women tell their own stories and to have those stories be diverse, and diversity can only exist through number, through plenitude.
To conclude, we can affirm that we might have not walked as far away as we thought from those stereotypical ideas about Black female sexuality. We are still producing images of Black women where they are portrayed as promiscuous, tempting to men, as unfit for domestic life and as sexual beings before anything else. Now that we are more familiar with the way those old stereotypes have been repackaged, we can ask ourselves what would a more challenging narrative for Black women look like when it comes to their sexuality? Would it look more like the ones usually associated with White women since it has been established that those narratives are almost oppositional? Ultimately, we need more stories, and we need those stories to be authentically different.
Davis, A. Y. (1983). Women, race & class (1st Vintage books). Vintage Books.
Lundy, A. D. (2018). Caught between a thot and a hard place: the politics of black female sexuality at the intersection of cinema and reality television. The Black Scholar, 48(1), 56–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/00064246.2018.1402256
Miller-Young, M. (2014). A taste for brown sugar: Black women in pornography. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.lib-ezproxy.concordia.ca
Netflix. 2014. Addicted. Retrieved November 26, 2020 from https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/70294663
Pilgrim, D., (July 2002. Edited in 2012). The Jezebel Stereotype. Retrieved November 2, 2020 from https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/
Woodruff, B. (Director), (2014). Addicted [Film]. Lionsgate.