Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 7 August 2014

Big butts and blackface: Why we need more naked women in Sandton

This week, when two young white women students at the University of Pretoria popped up on Facebook, smiling crazily from underneath brown painted faces, their shirts stuffed with pillows and their butts padded to the extreme, I felt as though they were reasserting the dominant image of black women that is all-pervasive in the media.

To a great degree I write about white masculinity because it is so seldom interrogated. Whiteness is the default voice of authority. In our society white men are generally treated sympathetically and so, when they violate the rules of society, we are provided with layered and complex life histories about their lives, we are provided an empathetic basis through which to understand their actions. Their transgressions are not laid at the door of the white community – they are the actions of thinking – often sympathetic – human beings. One need look no further than the Oscar Pistorius trial as an example.

I increasingly find myself making the point – in lectures and in the articles I write – that this is the kind of treatment that all South Africans deserve. To be humanised and respected is indeed the mark of the society we are trying to create. Guilt or no guilt, we only learn when we are able to tell the truth about the complexity of the human experience.

This week, however, I have been thinking not about white men, but about black femininity. In particular of late it has been hard to ignore the fact that black women are treated as though we are the polar opposites of white men. We are afforded neither respect nor singularity; we are rarely complex or idiosyncratic. Most of the time we are depicted as one of two extremes – either supremely meek or outrageously corrupt. When we are meek, it is because we are the victims of horrendous acts. The things done to us are so heinous that we are either too dead to speak, or too uneducated to matter. We are rendered mute in our victimhood. When we are corrupt it is because we are the appendages of African men, who themselves are either power-hungry or morally depraved – politicians’ wives and tenderpreneurs’ daughters.

And yet in the last ten days or so, two interesting ‘stories’ about ‘black’ women have been circulating in the media. The first story was told through a set of lovely images of the woman whom many people on social media called Braveheart. Pictures showed her slowly disrobing and then standing naked in Sandton Square. She rested her head on Madiba’s brass leg, and she stood quietly there as though no one were watching. It was as though she were his child, as though she were remembering a moment they had shared, as though he were in fact, still alive. It was incredibly moving. Then – remarkably in an era of social media and instant fame, in a time when the desire to be famous has inspired technological innovation (The Selfie) and has spawned entire television channels – she disappeared just as mysteriously as she had appeared.

As the blogger Milisuthando Bongela suggested in a piece that appeared in Africasacountry, that the incident was important because it was about “A black African female body — something usually under duress in South Africa, constantly cleaning, carrying and wiping; the perpetual provider – caring, mothering, fathering, paying, praying; and always the recipient of various brands of a frightening South African masculinity.”

Bongela was right. In a society that largely frames black women as angry or meek, Braveheart’s motives were gloriously unclear. She complicated the storyline about who and what black women are. She was neither the heroic mother who raises her children against the odds, nor was she the rape victim who is maimed into submission. Instead she was a totally free being, a person who rejected any script out of which we can make sense. She was in fact, impervious to sense-making, but somehow not belligerent about this stance.

Braveheart is unlike any woman we have seen in the last twenty years. She may have been protesting but she did not bare her buttocks in an angry gesture. That is an act that has a cultural meaning we all understand. Because hers was a new signal, and because she is a woman in a society that doesn’t often try to understand the things that women wish to do, her gesture was mocked. ‘Disgusting, she wasn’t even sexy,’ said a waiter who had watched the whole thing unfold. ‘She didn’t even have good body, how dare she?’ said another bystander. ‘She must be mad’.

She must indeed.

In a society in which black women are murdered every day for simply being themselves, the kind of agency and fearlessness it takes to be vulnerable and unflinchingly naked is sort of breathtaking.

And so this week when two young white women students at the University of Pretoria popped up on Facebook, smiling crazily from underneath brown painted faces, their shirts stuffed with pillows and their butts padded to the extreme, I felt as though they were reasserting the dominant image that Braveheart had momentarily eclipsed.

Much has been made of the blackface aspect of the image, but theirs was a very particular kind of blackface – it was black-woman-face-and-body. The fact that the two young women at UP not only painted their faces in a racist manner, but that they also embodied the ugliness they see in black women, was at once startling and profoundly important for us to understand.

Under the paint and the pillows and padding as I look at these two they seem to be thin and pretty in the way that Western beauty standards tells us it matters. And perhaps because of this, I see them as curiously one-dimensional. I have to fight myself to understand that they are the products of a system that is trying to gather its strength in the face of growing black confidence and power.

This is difficult because all I see is that they have not chosen to be Bravehearts. They are not chart a new path; they are journeying on a road that is well trodden. They affirm what we think we know about silly white Afrikaans girls and their ancient hatreds and so they bore me.

Faced with a choice of pictures to admire, and Facebook posts to ‘like’, I choose Braveheart. I click and I click and I click. She is the future imperfect, and they – wan beneath the makeup – are the past tense struggling to make themselves present. DM

This column was inspired by the first Women’s month roundtable on disability and gender in the media, hosted by the Wits University school of Humanities. It includes the ideas of Nadia Bulbulia, Melissa Steyn, Nomonde Nyembe, Bonnie Meyersfield and many others.


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