Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Self-Objectification and Power

 I was as shocked as anyone to see a gorgeous, black woman strip down to nothing, and go running down the streets of France painted gold. However, my interpretation Celia Cruz’s music video for “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” strayed from what seemed to be the general classroom consensus. For example, many seemed to be disgusted or offended by the fact that the woman turned to overt sexuality to access power. I feel it is very much within a woman’s right to own her sexuality, particularly, when society forces her to choose between two equally unfavorable social roles. Here, I refer to the idea, described by Frances Aparicio, that women are often cast as saint or sinner, as conservative wife and mother or whore. Since the woman in question was young, beautiful, and black, chances are that no matter what she were to wear, the stereotypes about her would be somewhat sexualized; that is, considering the dominant depictions of Afro-Latinas. If she is to be sexually objectified, then why shouldn’t she possess the power that her own sexuality emits? She was beautiful, and powerful, and men were struck dumb in her presence. She did not cower or submit to the intrusive catcalls or curses that followed her; she just smiled and enjoyed the wonder that surrounded her intense presence.
I found the sexuality exhibited in this video to differ greatly from the majority of ‘video-hoe’-style videos in the U.S., where multiple women shake their butts for the benefit of some ‘playa.’ Rather, Celia Cruz, another woman, is paying tribute to the natural right of women to be sexual on their own terms and for no one in particular. Perhaps, getting completely naked was a little much, but in doing so, the woman asserted her right to leave nothing to the imagination. She left nothing to be coveted and secretly fantasized about, essentially she said “this is all of me, but it’s all mine; I will do with it as I see fit.” Frances Aparicio reminds us that, “the self-eroticizing of many Latinas and Latin American women may not indicate exclusively an internalization of patriarchal codes and expectations” and assuming so is somewhat ethno-centric. Aparicio also explains that we must look within each culture’s histories and realities before distorting other feminist practices as inferior to the “Anglo feminist paradigm” in the U.S. For example, in Catholic cultures it is often the male who is seen as controller of a woman’s body and sexuality, first her father then her husband. La Negra in Celia Cruz’s video let it be known that only she would be master of her body.
However, I do not deny that the self-objectification done by La Negra can be somewhat detrimental, as Frances Aparicio says, it may “unwittingly naturalize the objectification of the female body in the eyes of a misogynist audience.” I have not meant to say that explicit shows of sexuality are the way to go when women want power. What I have hoped to convey is my support for, rather than judgment of, women who have few options or equally unfavorable options, and especially women who have no options but, rather, a stereotype attached to them whether they want it or not. For such women, I support the right to make use of what little power their position provides, when and how they see fit.


  1. This is such a thoughtful and provocative post. Thanks Yemaya! I really love how you emphasize that feminine agency is about being able to decide what YOU want to do with your body, and your form of sexual and personal expression. And ten there is that scne at the end with the blues dress, which suggest that maybe "bad-ass woman running naked in the streets of Paris" is only ONE of the many ways this woman chooses to express her sexuality. As I was rereading today's piece on ChaBela Vargas, I also wondered if we could read that video as Celia's desire and admiration for this woman. There is also a lot in the lyrics that suggests that this song was written specifically for Celia, almost as a homage to her, so that tumbao and feminine power is not just sexual, even as it suggests that 70 year old women also possess sexual power and agency. And in my opinion Celia has more tumbao than any other person I know!

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  4. Yes, it is true that negative stereotypes haunt Black women, whether Black women like it or not. The fact that negative stereotypes of Black women exist at all is a problem that deserves attention; an even bigger problem is the perpetuation of these negative stereotypes through self-eroticizing acts performed by Black women. Black women’s identities have been slandered with stereotypical images of the hyper sexualized, wanton jezebel – a stereotype rooted in slavery that situated Black women as naturally promiscuous, and thus deserving of sexual violence (see Pilgrim). Images of the hyper sexual Black woman have become so naturalized that even in the absence of a white slave master to debase and objectify Black women’s bodies these images prevail. These stereotypes are so naturalized that we objectify ourselves, and call it liberation. I believe that is the goal of hegemony.

    Frances Aparicio suggests that minorities, specifically Latinos/as, might benefit from utilizing the "processes of subjectification" to rewrite stereotypes with “newly invested meaning,” albeit Aparicio admits that these practices can be just as liberating as they are oppressive (p11 of the reader). There is a great difference between rewriting stereotypes and injecting them with positives meanings and erasing stereotypes all together, and though the former has positive implications it does not remove the markings of dominate cultural beliefs on “subordinate” bodies.

    It is not far fetched to assume that the self-eroticizing of Black female bodies (Latin or otherwise) is a direct by-product of “an internalization of patriarchal codes and expectations,” and Aparicio does not seem to think so either as she chose her words carefully by stating that these acts “may not indicate exclusively an internalization of patriarchal codes and expectations.” There may very well be other reasons, however, when examining Black women’s histories it is not hard to see the connection here. Moreover, the same patriarchal beliefs surrounding race and gender in the U.S. also pervade Latin American culture, so it should not be difficult to find similarities in the experiences of Afro-American women and Afro-Latin women.

    Anglo-feminism emphasized the sexual oppression of women, becoming the antithesis to the passive, non-sexual housewife. The product of such feminism is the development of shows like Sex in the City, and images of the wild, untamed, sexually aggressive woman who has full control over her body. “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” is no different, therefore to argue that one might judge this “feminist practice as inferior to the ‘Anglo feminist paradigm’” is an understatement. The real problem is that this feminist practice is still working under the same Anglo framework that is not considerate of Black women’s histories and realities.

    La Negra in “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” is not to blame, or at least not exclusively so. Patriarchal beliefs have reduced women to their sexuality, whether chaste or wanton. Those same beliefs have hoodwinked women to believe that their sexuality is the only power they possess. Women’s participation in their own objectification not only dis-empowers women, but also undermines women’s agency to challenge and reshape existing Anglo-patriarchal beliefs.

    Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology, Ferris State University. “Jezebel Stereotype.” Jim Crow. July 2002. Web. 17 Sept. 2010. < http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/>

  5. What distresses me most about the violent entry of white slave masters into the African bloodline was the loss of the female slave’s power to choose when, how and with whom she wanted to be sexual. This is precisely why I, personally, find it somewhat exciting to see an Afro-Latina steal back her right to sexual agency. Here is where the ‘controversy,’ or at least differences in perspectives, seem to arise, which is fine, because what natural human right is there if not the right to freedom of thought? I, for example, choose not to interpret La Negra’s decision to be sexual, flirty, and desired as her somehow falling into the white man’s plan for the self-destruction of her respect. I would also like to restate that I am talking about the music video at hand, not every display of black sexuality executed by the modern and historical media. In the present video there are two generations of black women being depicted, Celia Cruz and her ode to a young, sexual, and self-confident Afro-Latina. If anything I would say that this video displays two black women joining forces and saying, “screw you and your historical hold on my sexuality,” to all the men that La Negra mesmerizes, yet walks on past. Why shouldn’t she be sexy? Because the white man has forever tarnished any concept of black women being sexual? I think that gives him far too much power.

    What I would find particularly depressing would be the idea that because the concept of black female’s sexuality is tied to a terrible past of rape and violence, that her own sexuality is now off-limits to her. In other words, is it not also oppressive that because La Negra’s sexuality brings up a painful history of white man’s control over black women’s bodies, that she is forever not allowed to be a sexual and desired being? To me, this in and of itself sounds quite a bit like hegemony.

    Also, while I do not deny that there are many parallels to be drawn between the histories of slavery, sexism, and racism between the US and Latin America, or any other country that has a history of slavery for that matter, I also know the importance of altering one’s perspective while traveling around the globe. For example, this music video was filmed in France, where nude beaches abound and nudity is not nearly as taboo and scandalized as it is in the US. Also, in Latin America there is quite a different take on sexuality than in the US. When I first saw La Negra’s nude and golden body, though shocked I was, I was transported to the scantily clad costumes that fill the streets during Carnival. I believe this is what Frances Aparicio is referring to when she cautions against judging other feminist practices as inferior to the “Anglo feminist paradigm” in the US before considering the customs in those countries. For example, in the US many see the hijab worn by some women as a sign of male dominance, as if a woman couldn’t possibly have elected to wear it on her own as an act of modesty before the eyes of God. And then, with the same breath, US feminists will denounce the idea that a black woman could want to be sexy, or even naked, for herself, no this too must be just another form of male domination. What is a woman to do when she can’t be too conservative or too sexual? I’ve always been amazed at how efficiently women focus on each other and self-discipline their fellow sisterhood before saying “Maybe it’s not Her, but The System of interpretation and Ideology that needs changing.” It seems to me that many feminists in the US are only happy and comfortable with the way women behave in other countries if it fits their personal designation of norms, practices and values. Perhaps it is perspectives that need changing, not women.