31 Aug From Baartman to Chyna: Women’s Bodies as Vehicles for Misogyny and Racism
August is known as “Women’s Month” in South Africa, the month which commemorates the time when South African women united to trump apartheid. As such, it would only be fitting to muse on how far we, as women, have come in our battle against the oppressive racist and misogynistic forces at play and to unite together for the battles which are yet to be fought. One of our current battles is that of slut-shaming and the toxic sexualisation of women used as a weapon to portray women as inferior or unworthy of respect and common human decency. This is best shown in the instance of Sarah Baartman and Blac Chyna. Essentially, they seem as if they are worlds apart, and yet, they both face the same humiliation at the hands of the same oppressor.
When one mentions Sarah Baartman, ancient images of racism, abuse and ethnocentric imperialism is what might come to mind. But these are only secondary to what she is truly remembered for: her body. The image of Sarah Baartman is always conjured up first because it’s the part of her that is always emphasized. What made Sarah Baartman so captivating, especially to white middle class males, was her accessibility and her stark contrast to white femininities at the time. She was purposefully depicted in a sexually promiscuous, scantily clad manner to emphasize her ‘savage’ nature compared to that of white women at the time.
Fast forward to 2017: Rob Kardashian posted a series of explicit images of Blac Chyna on various forms of social media without her consent, which is essentially a form of ‘revenge porn’. This is sexual assault. Blac Chyna and Sarah Baartman’s situations may seem extremely different, but upon examination, are in actual fact, quite similar. Both of these instances involve the humiliation of women of colour at the hands of privileged white men.
In order to fully grasp the vast similarities between Baartman and Chyna, we should first understand the differences between them. The first and most obvious one is the fact that Baartman was alive during the height of eurocentric imperialism, while Chyna exists in the allegedly ‘modern’ 21st century. Furthermore, the sexuality of women is not as taboo as it was in Baartman’s time, yet it still holds the power to invoke a certain sense of shame in society today, as seen with Chyna. Women’s bodies, especially that of black women, still invoke a sense of shame, as if they should be covered up in fear of tempting colonialist attention. The female body is still seen as something which is to be possessed and exploited, a notion which allows for slut-shaming, ridicule and the epitome of misogyny.
Baartman was alive in a time where it was believed that women do not experience the same sexual urges as men do. Racist beliefs at the time, such as the notion that black people did not feel pain and were an ‘uncivilised’ race, became the foundation of freak shows, such as the one Baartman formed part of. By presenting Africans as “others”, it justifies the abuse and othering of that group. The freak shows in which Sarah Baartman’s body was shown off allowed the people of Europe to further the stance that Africans were “freaks”, which in turn spurred on racism, misogyny and discrimination. Black bodies were seen as “heathenish” and unworthy of common human decency. In the case of Rob Kardashian, the explicit images posted by him were intended to maliciously portray Chyna as a hypersexualised and irresponsible woman, incapable of being a mother and partner, all due to her sexuality.
Women are often judged and stereotyped based on their bodies and their sexuality. For example, it is often assumed a fat women is unhealthy and does not exercise nor have any self-control, as it is assumed thin women are the epitome of health and vitality. As such, when a women is scantily dressed, or has been shown to take nude pictures, she is suddenly deemed as a sub-par human being, unworthy of any respect. This is evident in both cases of Baartman and Chyna.
Even modern alleged ‘academics’ fell into the stereotype of associating Baartman with shameful ‘savagery’, especially due to her build. Some examples include Richard Altick who shamelessly and disgustingly refers to Baartman as a “heavy-arsed heathen” and Bernth Lindfor’s description of her as a “fat-arsed female”. Misogyny, racism and pure arrogance are extremely evident in these terms used to describe a young woman who was forcibly removed from her homeland, family and culture to be made into a sexualised freak show for foreigners to gawk at, and ridicule. This practice is unnaturally crude and outdated, and yet is reappearing in an even more potent form on social media today. Chyna’s body, like Baartman’s, was displayed without consent in order to create a false image and perception of her as a human being.
The irony of these false images are that they are often more imaginary than real. For example, the images we see of Baartman were generally of her naked, when she, in actual fact, never actually appeared fully naked. Thus, the common image of Sarah Baartman that we have come to know is actually a fabricated one, created by the imaginations of those who viewed her, which is once again occurring with Chyna. What is even more disturbing and problematic about these images are that they not only depict the hypersexualised ‘savage’ image, but that they have become cemented in the stereotypical way we view Sarah Baartman and black femininities as a whole group. This fabricated image is still often the one we envision in relation to black femininities, even today. Black women are still at the bottom of the gender and race hierarchy because of highly problematic and flawed representations such as these.
Not only was Baartman portrayed as a sexual freak, she also lived a life that was in no way her choice. She was being violently abused by the society who stole her from her land and forced her into showing off her body to strangers. She had no choice but to comply. Moreover, she did not gain financially from being exploited at all. The same has occurred with Chyna. Her body was displayed, without her consent, to millions of people all over the world, without her gaining anything besides the ridicule and judgement of others.
As such, both Sarah Baartman’s and Blac Chyna’s body were used as vehicles for racism and misogyny. This can be shown through the manner in which both these bodies were presented: in a barely-there dress for Baartman and in absolutely nothing for Chyna. This allows their bodies to be forcefully infiltrated by the white male coloniser.
In my opinion, this is the vilest form of intrusion on a woman’s body. Displaying a woman’s body against her consent is humiliating, derogatory and disrespectful to all women. Apart from the manner in which their bodies were presented, the medium through which it was presented is even more disturbing. Baartman was presented as a mere act in a show while Chyna was presented as nothing more than a sexualised gold-digger on social media. Subjectively, the thought repulses me. We need to stop this slut-shaming culture that perpetuates the belief that women should only be given respect if they are ‘chaste’ or ‘modest’.