By Sherronda Brown
Kim Kardashian’s name is in no way synonymous with the sexual exploitation of Black women or the scientific racism that has been used to justify the abuses we continually experience, but The New York Times recently drew these connections nonetheless in their review of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, a play which retells the abominable experiences of Sarah Baartman, an enslaved Black woman.
The review was posted on Twitter with two different accompanying captions, the second being tweeted after the first received rightful backlash:
In “Fat and the Un-Civilized Body,” Amy Farrell explains:
“[K]nown more popularly as the ‘Venus Hottentot,’ [h]istorians speculate that Baartman was either a slave or an indentured servant in Cape Town, who fell into the hands of a Dutch trader, Alexander Dunlop. (Indeed, Saartjie Baartman is her Dutch name; we have no evidence of her real name.) Dunlop brought her to England in 1810, where he sold her to Hendrick Cezar, who exhibited her for nearly four years. The public could pay a few shillings to see Baartman, who was presented as one of many exotic specimens and curiosities on display in London at the time… According to Sadiah Qureshi, Baartman was one of many Khoisan women who were brought to Europe, exhibited, and studied. Baartman herself was shown on a ‘stage two feet high, along which she was led by her keeper, and exhibited like a wild beast; being obliged to walk, stand, or sit as he ordered.’ These popular shows eventually caused a public outcry, as abolitionists in England (where the slave trade had been banned since 1807) doubted the veracity of her “signed” acknowledgment that she was working of her own will and being fairly paid. Cezar then moved her to Paris, where he continued exhibiting her until 1815, when she died, still a young woman.”¹
Ironically, how Baartman was probed, examined, and marveled at by white intellectuals for their colonial knowledge production is represented in the photo chosen for the New York Times article. Yet both captions perpetuate the very same violence against Black women that has served to define white womanhood against the deviance of Black female sexuality.
The first epitomizes how the Kardashian-Jenner clan amasses fame and social capital from pirating Black women’s aesthetics, and the world’s willingness to give them so much credit for appropriation. The second does the work of minimizing Baartman’s traumatizing experiences by situating her body as something that afforded her affluence, rather than something that was used to dehumanize and fetishize her.
Though the Twitter caption was changed from a reference to Kardashian in order to pacify dissenting readers, the first line of Ben Brantley’s review still reads: “Attention, please, those of you whose greatest ambition is to acquire the traffic-stopping body of Kim Kardashian. There is a less drastic alternative to costly and dangerous buttocks implants.”
This declaration includes a link directing the reader to a Rolling Stone article about Kardashian’s 2014 appearance in Paper Magazine which was met with much scrutiny from those who recognize her as a cultural appropriator.
The Kardashian-Jenner clan’s obsession with Blackness and with the colonization of the Black female body is nothing other than negrophilia, a compulsory preoccupation with and desire to indulge in the perceived exoticisms of Blackness. Essentially, it is a lustful appetite for Black culture alongside a simultaneous disdain for Black people.
Kim has used her figure to gain celebrity and has rested on the size of her buttocks as a way to garner attention, as well as social and financial capital. Indeed, her appearance in Paper Magazine was intended to “Break the Internet” due to its focus on and exposure of her much-talked about rear end.
The Paper Magazine shoot was a re-creation of one of Jean-Paul Goude’s earlier visions which was executed with a Black model balancing a glass of champagne on her buttocks. In a 1979 interview with People Magazine, the French photographer admitted to his own negrophilia while speaking of his relationship with Grace Jones, and the fetishistic underpinnings of his work that would later be published in Jungle Fever are evident. Goude spoke of being bewitched by “ethnic minorities — Black girls” in his youth, and credited “Blacks” with being “the premise of [his] work.”
With his derivative photography for Paper Magazine, Goude reimagines Kim as inhabiting the subject of his life-long obsession; the Black female form. In doing so, he contributes to a culture that allows women like Kim to be applauded for the same figure that Black women are devalued and fetishized for. This figure caused Baartman to be viewed as a scientific oddity and inhuman subject, and her body was used as evidence for the animality of Blackness even in death.
“After she died, Cuvier and his colleagues had her body transposed immediately to the museum for an autopsy, bypassing all the normal laws of the city regarding cadavers, in the name of important scientific inquiry. He dissected her body, focusing on her brain, her genitals, her breasts, and her buttocks, writing up the results in an essay that provided “definitive” evidence of her low-level status on the scale of civilization. Visitors to Paris could see a plaster cast of Baartman (in profile to emphasize her buttocks), her skeleton, and her labia (preserved in a jar of formaldehyde) at the Musée de l’Homme until the 1970s.”¹
Black women’s bodies are automatically rendered as vulgar, shameful, and unacceptable in the white imagination. The story of Sarah Baartman is foundational to the simultaneous disdain for and fascination with Black women’s bodies, in that both the displaying of her body as a freak show spectacle and the dissecting her corpse were used to bolster the scientific racism in which misogynoir is rooted. There is a persistent desire to commodify and consume us while still reviling our existence and denying our humanity.
Baartman is not a Kim Kardashian of another era, nor did her figure afford her the same fortune. She is a significant fixture in our history, and the retelling of her story should be used to acknowledge how the Kardashians of the world are able to make their own fortunes by mining Blackness and profiting off of the same aspects which have been cited as reason enough to dehumanize us.
¹Farrell, Amy E. “Fat and the Un-Civilized Body” from Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture, NYU Press, 2011.
Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies. You can support her work at https://www.paypal.me/SherrondaJBrown and https://www.patreon.com/SherrondaJBrown.