Black women and femininity

imageModeled in a pose often seen in 18th century portraits, photographer Renee Cox sits on a silk, yellow, day bed with her back to the camera. Her head is turned to the side showing off her strong profile and a head full of dark brown and golden dreadlocks. Her posture is graceful, but strong and showcases her taught muscular back. Cox is nude and her rich caramel skin contrasts with the pale yellow cushions. She is wearing red heels and her slightly bent knees exaggerate her ample derrière.

Cox’s photograph Baby Back is from her collection of work called American Family and is one of the pieces that was included in “Posing Beauty in African American Culture,” an exhibit which ran at the USC Fisher Museum from September 7 to December 3, 2011.

Cox is known for her controversial work using her own body, as she says, “both nude and clothed, to celebrate black womanhood and criticize a society she often views as racist and sexist.”

Deborah Willis, a contemporary African-American artist, photographer and professor at New York University curated the exhibit that is being shown across the country.

“I was interested in looking at a story about beauty through photographs,” Willis said. “My main interest was to find images that were previously inaccessible that documented a race of African Americans that were largely ignored by American culture.”

The exhibit featured a diverse range of media that included photography, film, fashion and music to demonstrate the relationship between beauty and art. There were images of notable black celebrities such as actor Denzel Washington, rapper Lil’ Kim and model Susan Taylor next to historical photographs of African-American children dressed for Easter Sunday church services.

Willis’ purpose for putting together the exhibit wasn’t to define beauty, but instead show the ways in which beauty has been posed. She said she hopes the traveling exhibit, which will be on display at the Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania from February 2nd to April 1st 2012, will spark a new dialogue around black women and beauty from a historical and contemporary perspective.

“This exhibit creates a way for people who are writing about black women to have a broader concept,” Willis added. “Black women in the media have begun to fight back and take control of how women should be seen. It is happening more and more, but it isn’t enough.”

As Willis implied, there have been other cases of African American artists like Cox who challenged black beauty and femininity in the media. Singer Erykah Badu appeared in headlines for her controversial music video “Window Seat.”

The video was shot in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November. Badu strips her clothes as she walks through the city until she is completely nude. As the video ends, a gunshot is heard and Badu falls to the ground. Many in the public were outraged by the public nudity displayed in her video and the allusions to the death of President Kennedy.

Badu defended her video in interviews and on Twitter. In a music mix review from Entertainment Weekly, reporter Simon Vozick-Levinson writes “she was trying to make a point about how social conformity punishes those who transgress its rules.”

imageBaby Back by Renee Cox

Nicole Fleetwood, an American Studies professor at Rutgers University and author of Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness, defended Badu’s artistic license and challenged the American public and media. “If a white man had done that it would have gathered a response, but since it was a black woman it questioned her access to public art,” Fleetwood said. “People questioned if Erykah Badu was doing this to revive her career as if her career needed to be revived.”

Viewers and commentators alike have also been critical of the representation of black women in reality television. VH1 shows such as “Basketball Wives” and “Love and Hip Hop” feature a predominantly African American cast. The women on each of the shows are typically affluent and dressed in high-fashion designer duds. The reality TV stars reached their level of fame either through their NBA significant others or through their own businesses.

The season opener of “Basketball Wives LA,” a spinoff of the original Miami show “Basketball Wives,” ended with the ladies getting kicked out of a restaurant. Tensions rose between Malaysia Pargo, wife of the Chicago Bulls’ Janerro Pargo, and Laura Govan, fiancée of the Orlando Magic’s Gilbert Arenas, when the two ladies made rude comments about each other’s upbringing. After exchanging insults, both women stood up from the table, yelled in each other’s faces and attempted to swing at one another. At the time of the taping, Pargo had an 8-month old child and Govan had given birth three weeks before.

Dr. Terrion Williamson, a Michigan State University English professor is currently researching black culture and media studies. Williamson is critical of audience members and commentators who judge African American women through the lens of reality TV alone.

“The angry black woman is part of reality television,” Williamson explained. “I understand the trouble folks have with it, but I want them to understand that this is what reality TV does. Everyone is type cast.”

Williamson said that other races are also stereotyped by reality TV. These characters include the dumb jock, blonde bimbo and the spicy Latina.

Williamson is quick to point out that positive images of African American women do exist on TV. For example, in the 17th season of “America’s Next Top Model,” supermodel Tyra Banks’ competition show, had four different African American contestants.

University of Southern California professor and linguistic anthropologist, Dr. Lanita Jacobs agreed with Williamson’s assessment of both the positive and negative images of African American women on TV. Jacobs said she believes that it’s too easy for viewers to wag their fingers at the negative images because some of the shows have a positive impact.

“I think that black women’s behavior on some of these shows corroborate some of black women’s behavior [in real life], but also challenge the expectations of what constitutes feminity,” Jacobs said.

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