Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Fanon, black female sexuality and representations of black beauty in popular culture

by Efemia Chela, 2012

Frantz Fanon’s works are all very personal. Black Skins, White Masks, a treatise on the lived experience of being black is based on his experiences in Martinican society, being a student and then a black doctor in France. A Dying Colonialism is the Algerian War through the prism of his work with the FLN and The Wretched of The Earth arises from his experiences visiting post-colonial African countries, interacting with future African leaders and observing colonial and native elites. Even though Fanon was a man his oeuvre have great relevance to women and this piece will focus on the representation of black women in Fanon’s works and how his observations can be used to analyse contemporary depictions of black beauty in popular culture and hip-hop. This essay will also address the dimensions of black female sexuality and the similarities between sexism and racism.

Of the woman of colour and her psychosexuality, Fanon writes, “I know nothing about her” (Fanon, 1986: 138) but here he sells himself short. Babha (1986) recognises that Fanon can be used to “site the quest of sexual difference within the problematic of cultural differences” (Babha,1986: xxiv).

For centuries, black women have been exoticised and viewed as hypersexual beings. Sara Baartmann was exhibited across Europe for this reason. Her large buttocks were displayed during what was termed a cultural exposition but was really a exploitation and more of a zoo viewing with audience gasping and “prodding at her” (Collins, 2005: 10) . Her supposed wild sexuality was manifest in her large bottom and her entire act was used as a tool to other her and black women, while upholding white superiority and contrasting Sarah Baartman to the ideals of white beauty. It was assumed that black people’s inability to subdue their rampant sexuality and sublimate their desire into civilisation, progress and decency was seen as justification for their subjugation.

Using Fanon this essay will argue that this idea continues to the present day and is somewhat perpetuated by hip-hop culture, the precarious nature of black masculinity and the unchallenged pre-eminence of white female beauty.

Beauty and Inadequacy

Fanon describes the black man as suffering “from an inadequacy” and a “feeling of insignificance” (Fanon, 1986: 35). He describes how black men want to be “powerful like the white man” (Fanon, 1986: 36) and while women undoubtably want power too, they are particularly prone to wanting to be beautiful like white women who are held up as paragons of beauty. Black women look for themselves in the mirror of popular culture and never see themselves reflected accurately or at all. So they endeavour to make themselves look more like the white characters they see portrayed. They are subtly taught to hate themselves. This hate is “constantly cultivated” (Fanon, 1986: 37) and the black woman becomes her own abuser. As Fanon says:

“Hate demands existence, and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate.” (Fanon, 1986: 37)

In The Wretched of The Earth, Fanon speaks about the colonial elite who leave the country after liberation and the black elite who fill the existing social vacuum. This “native elite” (Fanon, 1963: 7), “intellectual and economic elite” (Fanon, 1963: 61) or “young nationalist bourgeoise” (Fanon, 1963: 62) was co-opted even before the revolution started and has been groomed to take over the reigns. Fanon calls them figuratively - “whitewashed”. I would argue that for black women, Fanon’s description of whitewashing manifests physically as well as mentally. Black women can have a relationship with a white man to lactify themselves but they can also act out the lactification process on themselves. This is something that post-colonial society, still oriented around white values encourages and black women uphold and partake in.

A look at popular culture shows how much light-skinned women are prized over dark-skinned women. Sharpley-Whiting writes that most women chosen to feature in hip hop videos are “fairer-skinned, ethnically mixed or of indeterminate ethnic/racial origins” (Sharpley-Whiting, 2007: 27) meaning they can pass for white or their blackness is not so prominent as to be out of line with prevailing standards of beauty.  The same can be said for the Hollywood film industry where there are few roles for black women. In keeping with lighter-skinned privilege, the only woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in A Leading Role has been the light-skinned, Halle Berry in 2001. Viola Davis the comparatively darker-skinned actress of film, The Help (2011) who was nominated in the last Oscar ceremony for the same prize complains, “It’s just the politics, you know. It’s just the politics of it all...There’s just not a lot of lead roles for women who look like me”[1]

That is not to say that things have changed. Even as recently as thirty years ago there would not have been as many full-length films devoted to black women, or as many black women on screen.  “One drop of black blood” (Collins, 2005: 194) as Patricia Hill Collins puts it, is no longer criteria for exclusion from popular culture which is becoming more accepting of “racial fluidity” (Collins, 2005: 194). For example, Halle Berry has been cast in roles like Destiny in X-Men and Swordfish where due to script ambiguity, “white or Latino actresses” (Collins, 1995: 195) could have been hired too. So ideas of beauty are mutating and it is becoming more acceptable for black women to play a variety of roles. However it can be argued that these ideas are still operating within the constraints of white beauty.

Nina Simone, the famed jazz singer, born Eunice Waymon but often styled as the High Priestess of Soul, is remembered by her daughter and peers for her outspokeness about colourism and the rejection she received because of being a dark-skinned black woman. Filming has been started on a biographical movie about her life but the lead actress, Zoe Saldana, is much lighter-skinned than Nina Simone ever was and perpetuates the industry standard of favouring lighter actresses over darker ones. Earlier this year, Thandie Newton another light-skinned actress was chosen to play an Igbo women in the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This continual misrepresentation of black women on screen hides the fact that there are talented darker-skinned women in Hollywood, who could play these parts and whose skin colour hinders their selection for choice roles. It also creates the illusion that only lighter-skinned women have stories worth being told and shown on screen. It recreates real black women in the image of the white Hollywood ideal and in the process erases their being and parts of their story.

This situation extends to all areas of female visual culture. Singer Beyonce Knowles has been routinely criticised for sporting lighter skin on the covers of magazines, adverts and on album covers with the aid of digital enhancement. It appears to have helped her career and public image as she is according to the readers of FHM Magazine, the 38th Sexiest Woman in the World (FHM, 2012). Beyonce is one of only four black women included on the list and was placed lower than Barbadian singer, Rihanna, who is naturally light-skinned.

In the make-up world it is difficult to find foundation that suits darker skin tones. Iman, Ethopian supermodel founded one of the few companies to cater for a wide range of skin tones, especially for darker complexions. She has related how hard it was to do so with critics saying “black women don’t buy foundation” (Daily Mail, 2012) and shops refusing to carry her line of products, pushing her to sell them online. If the shops did agree to carry her products they insisted on separating the Iman Cosmetics and placing them in the back of the shop in a way that sinisterly mimics, former US bus segregation laws.

Another kind of best-selling cosmetics are skin lightening products marketed to black women as having the power to lighten their skins, make them more beautiful, confident and successful in their careers (Kpanake, 2011). Even the names of such products, like Fair and Lovely, encapsulate the colour binary their trade and adverts subscribe to: fair is to lovely as dark is to ugly.  The WHO estimated in a cautionary report about the dangers of skin-lightening chemicals that approximately “77% percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products” (The Economist, 2012) and it is likely that similar figures exist in other black societies where light-skinned privilege exists. Some scholars theorise that this prejudice arose out of slavery, where slaves who lived inside were sheltered from the sun and kept a lighter complexion than the slaves who worked outside. The latter were looked down on and treated as inferior as they worked harder and were treated more cruelly. The lighter-skinned, “house-niggers” had a greater chance of education and rising up through the ranks. Although formal slavery is gone, this colourism continues to the present day. While exploring the stigma of women aging visibly and unflatteringly, Naomi Wolf makes a point relatable to the colourism discussion in her book, The Beauty Myth. She contends that the beauty industry plays on “women’s fears of looking older” (Wolf, 1991: 106) and being called out as looking old in public in order to propel women “indoors once more” (Wolf, 1991: 106) towards the “locus of the separate sphere and the Feminine Mystique, the proper place for women in every culture that most oppresses us” (Wolf, 1991: 106).

Fanon’s argument penetrates the psychology of the black mind and colonisation that continues even after the ‘master’ leaves. Knowing no other positions apart from slave and master the black women tries to ascend to the position of master, or rather mistress, by impersonating her old mistress’ whiteness and inflicting her power on other people. This action can be interpreted as the black woman attempting to “annihilate [her] own presence” (Fanon, 1986: 43). The black women does physically assault herself since these lightening creams contain mercury and hydroquinone, chemicals which can cause long-term scarring, kidney failure, chemical burns, skin infections and cancer (Kpanake, 2011). Wolf makes an accurate observation, saying these products and their makers are “selling ersatz light” (Wolf, 1991: 106). Every time a black woman uses a skin-lightening cream, she is co-opted into her own subjugation. She must confess her sins of being too dark, and then absolve herself of them by using the cream. But you can never capture something as ephemeral as light forever and the black woman engages in a destructive journey where oppressive beauty standards and her self-resentment “feeds her own artificiality” (Fanon, 1986: 30).

Hair is another source of beauty, pride and sometimes concern for black women. Emma Mashinini, the secretary of one of South Africa’s largest trade unions, the CCAWUSA, during Apartheid was a figure of strength and determination and was nicknamed, “Tiny Giant”. Despite her professional achievements, in her autobiography she details the struggles she had with her looks. She was born dark-skinned and like many women of the era used lightening creams on her face so she could benefit from the privileges afforded to lighter-skinned women at work and in society in general (Mashinini, 1989: 5).  Of her hair, she remarks:

“We used to wear wigs, too, to help give the appearance of being fair, and we used to have terrible struggles with our own hair to make it straighter.”
 (Mashinini, 1989: 9)

To this day, behaviour like this has become the norm amongst black women, many of them use damaging heat or chemical processes to straighten their hair. This temporarily changes or hides the natural texture of their hair which is curly or sometimes referred to more pejoratively as kinky and nappy. Many black women believe their natural hair to be ugly as white hair is higher up in the hierarchy of femininity (Collins, 2005: 195).  They are encouraged to believe this fallacy by a wealth of advertising as well as misogynistic remarks levelled at them by people like Don Imus, the sports commentator infamously called the Rutgers University Women’s basketball team, made up mostly of black women,  “a bunch of nappy headed hos” (Chiachere, 2007). Unfortunately this kind of incident is not a rarity in a society where black women, their natural beauty and sexuality are used to mock or control their behaviour.

The Hope of Hip-Hop: A Fanonian alternative?

In Fanon’s time he encountered black people portrayed as mentally feeble . They were used as the butt of jokes, the comic relief, the foil to white characters’ intelligence and wit. They were presented as dependent on white people to bring civilisation, but incapable of keeping it flourishing without white people’s support. He comments on this at length with regards to language. White people teach the black person English and the black person, it is implied, is unable to grasp it properly, due to their inferior nature. So they create a creole, slang or “nigger talk” (Fanon, 1986: 20). This manner of speaking becomes unfairly representative of all black people. It is concretised into a stereotype disseminated across all forms of media with the black person always at the ready with quips like “Yes Massa!”, “Sho‘ good!”, or “Yassuh boss!” (Fanon, 1986: 22). Today this continues in a more insidious way.

The black person is still often used for comic relief in television, where an accent, particular dialect of english associated with black people is played up to contrast the black character with other white characters. Their dress as well as dramatic hand gestures is often used to mark them out as different from the rest of the cast. Donna Meagle, is a large, dark-skinned office worker in the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee in the comedy mockumentary television series, Parks and Recreation. Her character undergoes little development. By Season 4 of the programme all the viewer can tell is that she cares little about her career, drinks too much, is self-indulgent and status-obsessed. Donna dishes out judgmental looks to the rest of the cast, preys on men, has a lake house and tries to mention as often as possible that she has a Mercedes-Benz. She is the archetypal superfluous, lazy bureaucrat.  She is the antithesis of the blonde, slim Leslie Knope, the diligent white civil servant, the show focuses on. Leslie is presented as giving and kind and devotes her life to creating more parks for the citizens of Pawnee. The function of Donna’s character is really to fill up office space and some screen time every episode with inappropriate behaviour and self-centred commentary. She is promiscuous, jumping from man to man and trawling local nightclubs for new lovers, while drinking large amounts. One of her classic lines is: “I never said anything about a boyfriend. Use him. Abuse him. Lose him.[2]” In the same episode, she remarks,  “Are you going to hit that?” referring to a male patient who is about to lose consciousness in the First Aid tent. In another episode, her stupidity is highlighted when she butchers a Italian elegiac poem for town hero - Little Sebastian, by reciting it poorly, mispronouncing all the words and showing her dearth of education. “As Fanon says, “the Negro has to be shown in a certain way” (Fanon, 1986: 22)

According to Fanon, in this world the black person can never find freedom. They are up against this stereotype and when they do not conform to it confusion abounds - “nothing is more astonishing than to hear a black man expressing himself properly” (Fanon, 1986: 22). People will remark surprise at their middle-class accent, superb grasp of the English language or deviance from stereotypes. As a jibe, they may be called “coconuts”, black people perceived by others as imitating white people’s demeanour. So some find it easier to lapse into being a slave to white-created archetypes (Fanon, 1986: 22).

Fanon’s solution is a different cultural world, not oriented around white-created ideals, values and norms. This is what he means when he speaks of “the establishment of children’s magazines especially for Negro children, and ultimately, the publication of history texts especially for them” (Fanon, 1986: 115). In these spaces, black people do not have to feel inadequate or stereotyped. Here, the black person finds themselves valued intrinsically and not compared unfavourably to another race. They do not have “to turn white or disappear” (Fanon, 1986: 115) they can exist outside of the race binary.

One could argue that hip-hop represents an attempt to do just that - to “negrify the world” (Fanon, 1986: 31) and create an alternative space for black people to express themselves and value themselves on their own terms. Through hip-hop, black people tell their stories. In ‘99 Problems,’ Jay-Z raps about the problems facing black men. He raps about police harrassment :

“So I...pull over to the side of the road/
And I heard ‘Son do you know why/
 I'm stopping you for?’/
Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low.”

and later in the verse,

“ Are you carrying a weapon on you?/
 I know a lot of you are.”

He describes the bias of the legal system:

 “D.A. tried to give the nigga the shaft again/
Half-a-mil for bail cause I'm African”                    (Jay-Z, 2004)

 These stories deserve to be heard and are an important counter to white-dominated popular culture which by and large ignores many issues and experiences pertinent to black people. This song like many in mainstream rap industry in particular shows the necessity of rap music concomitantly hamartia. The chorus is as follows:

If you’re having girl trouble/
I feel bad for you, son/
I got 99 problems/
But a bitch ain’t one

He then describes having to “strong-arm a ho”  in another verse:

A nigga like myself had to strong arm a ho
This is not a ho in the sense of having a pussy
But a pussy having no God Damn sense, try and push me    (Jay-Z, 2004)

Here Jay-Z is not describing violence used against a woman, he is talking about another man. He identifies inferior, weak or irritating men as hos. So in a misogynistic move, women are aligned with the negative. Traits gendered as female when found in men are shown to be deplorable and a hindrance to strong hypermasculine men at the top of the rap hierarchy.

Jay-Z features in a more recent track by Kanye West, ‘Monster’. In the track, West raps about media criticism, gossiping (an act routinely gendered as female), his wealth and popularity. Most of the track is consecrated to his evil nature and how he is evil, but is also portrayed by others as a monster. His evil takes the form of abuse of women exemplified by the following:

“Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/
I put the pussy in a sarcophagus/
now she claiming I bruise her esophagus”

“less talk, more head right now huh?” (West, 2010)

“I kill a block/ I murder avenues
rape and pillage a village, women and children”  (West and Jay-Z, 2010)

West treats women as sex objects in his lyrics and the corresponding video that glamourises violence. It shows numerous dead corpses lying in bed with the rapper, on the floor and hanging from nooses. The white women are in pristine make-up, high-heels and lingerie but all have the pallor of death. Kanye rearranges their bodies and holds up a severed woman’s head unperturbed by the death surrounding him. It is implied that he is the killer and they are his victims. As Anita Sarkeesian, pop culture media critic puts it, the video “fetishises the aspects of women that don’t even require us to be alive” (Sarkeesian, 2011). The women, though dead can still be used for their beauty. All the “beautiful” eroticised dead women are white and in contrast the black women are portrayed as ugly animalistic savage, soul-eating demons hounding  West and weaving in and out of dark corridors.

A Modern Cerberus: Sexism, Racism and Hip-Hop

The ‘Monster’ video shows how interlinked sexism and racism are. One discrimination is used to uphold the other and hip-hop music at various times shows elements of sexism, racism and colourism. Initially one would not expect this. One would expect black people sensitive to discrimination to create a cultural space free of this. Fanon warns us of this assumption. In The Wretched of The Earth he describes how the native population inherits the “primitive Manicheanism of the settler” (Fanon, 1963: 144). They view white as evil and black as virtuous but later come to realise that they cannot predict what people will do based on their race. During the revolutionary war they realise “the iniquitous fact of exploitation can wear a black face” (Fanon, 1963: 155).

hooks makes a similar point about women involved in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, where she says women’s contributions were viewed as less important and integral to success (hooks, 2004: 10). Elaine Brown chaired The Black Panther Party from 1974-1977 and organised their involvement in electoral politics. Brown decried the sexism which eventually provoked her to resign from the Black Panthers especially the beating of Regina Davis, a teacher at the Black Panther School. Elaine herself was whipped for insubordination some years earlier as many women in the movement were, but the attack on Davis struck a nerve within her (Brown, 1992). Davis was beaten so severely by a male Panther, her jaw was broken and she hospitalised for her injuries. In her autobiography, A Taste of Power, Brown writes about the gender conflict within the Party:

“A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the black race”                                                        
                                                                                                            (Brown, 1992: 357)

However one cannot demonise hip-hop without looking at the rest of popular culture which has a problematic approach to gender or the parts of hip-hop culture that are positive. There are hip-hop songs which encourage social change and equality of the sexes. Hip hop like any other cultural movement is undergoing a mutation where there are more and more female rappers. In the past five years, female rappers like Nicki Minaj, Rye Rye, Azealia Banks, M.I.A. and Santigold have experienced widespread success and are changing the face of the industry.

Some women like Queen Latifah have attempted to reclaim the genre and use it to fight misogyny. In her track, ‘U. N. I. T. Y.’:

Everytime I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a hoe/
Trying to make a sister feel low/
You know all of that gots to go...
A man don't really love you if he hits ya/
This is my notice to the door, I'm not taking it no more/
I'm not your personal whore, that's not what I'm here for   (Queen Latifah, 1994)

Men are also involved in changing the dominant sexist message of commercial hip-hop. Dead Prez, a male duo rap about social justice, pan-Africanism and rejecting domination, be it corporate control of artistic creativity or violence against women. Their song, ‘Mind Sex’ subverts rap conventions where songs are focused on sex and male pleasure particularly.  Dead Prez say:

It's time for some mind sex/ we ain't got to take our clothes off yet
We can burn the incense, and just chat/
Relax, I got the good vibrations/
Before we make love let's have a good conversation...
Later we can play a game of chess on the futon/
See I ain't got to get in your blouse/
It's your eye contact, that be getting me aroused/       (dead prez, 2000)

Other forms of popular culture, including those dominated by white artists are rife with sexism. Hip-hop and black people are not the only people supporting patriarchy. Rock music and the sub-genre of death metal in particularly noteworthy in this regard. Artists like Slayer, Marilyn Manson and Cannibal Corpse have been at the centre of controversy surrounding their lyrics and videos.

‘She Was Asking For It’ by Cannibal Corpse condones violence against women and encourages ‘victim-blaming’ in their song with lyrics like the following:

I wrapped my hands around her neck/
Squeezing out her breath/
Eyes rolled back in her head/
Clawing at my skin/
I know now it's not my fault/
She was asking for it                                        (Cannibal Corpse, 1994)

Mainstream pop culture is littered with the references to women’s main purpose being sex objects to sate male desires. There is a history of encouraging female dependence on men, trading sex for goods as well as presenting women as avaricious. Songs like Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ (1984) and  ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ famously sung by Marilyn Monroe in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953) are prime examples of this. Marilyn coquettishly sings,

“Men grow cold as girls grow old/
And we all lose our charms in the end/
But square cut or pear shape/
These rocks don’t lose their shape/
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!”                 (Robin and Styne, 1949)

So black people are not only to blame for the dissemination of sexist ideologies but they do find themselves as the focus of this essay. I would argue that it is because hip-hop does not distance itself enough from mainstream culture that it ends up replicating the sexism, subjugation of women, and objectification of women present there and incorporates it into what should be a revolutionary sphere with a new social order.

Hip-hop like any other cultural movement is filled with contradictions. Some artists and songs praise women, treat them as equal to men and encourage independence. Songs like Destiny’s Child’s ‘Survivor,’ reject dependence on men and subservience.

Lines like,

“Thought that I would fail without you/
 but I’m on top/
Thought it would be over by now/
but it won’t stop/
Thought that I would self-destruct/
but I’m still here/
Even in my years to come/
I’m still going to be here         (Destiny’s Child, 2001)

send a clear message of feminine strength but they are transmitted in a way that panders the male gaze. In the music video, the members of the group are scantily-clad wearing “a melange of animal skins” (Collins, 2005: 29) and performing dance moves that “focus on the booty” (Collins, 2005: 29). One could argue that in this set-up the women are taking back control of their sexuality but equally convincingly one could argue that the only way black women can get then attention of men and the media and sell records is by being overtly sexual and exposing their bodies. In this way, the message of the song fades into the background while the sexuality of Destiny’s Child is foregrounded.

Destiny’s Child have a later song that actually encourages dependence on men, called ‘Soldier’. The women sing about needing male protection from a hyper-masculine figure. Only those who fit the following description need apply:

If his status ain't hood/
I ain't checkin' for him/
Betta be street if he lookin' at me/
I need a soldier/
That ain't scared to stand up for me/
Known to carry big things/
If you know what I mean...
Gotta know to get dough/
And he betta be street                                 (Destiny’s Child, 2004)

One need only look at the myriad of similar tracks like “Hot Boys” by Missy Elliot, “Money Talks” and “Custom Made” by Lil’ Kim or “Money In The Bank” by Timati and Eve to see that women in hip-hop often perpetuate sexism and dependence on men, reproducing what T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting calls “the pimp-ho nexus.” (Sharpley-Whiting, 2007: 142). This relationship is treated as the norm in rap culture, where the male pimp manipulates women and keeps them under control. He seduces them and uses their sexuality to satisfy himself and/or sells them as prostitutes, keeping a cut of the money for himself and doleing out presents (sometimes drugs) and gifts as well as violence and threats as he sees fits. This hustler is cool, “fearless, insensitive and egocentric” (hooks, 2004: 57). Accessing a black women’s sexuality is “is prized as a testament not of love but of control” (Kubrin, 2009: 9) over them. As the ultimate ‘playa’ he avoids commitment, never gets attached to women, viewing them as replaceable and he constantly seeks to add more and more to his ‘harem’ as it were. As Kanye West boasts in his song, ‘So Appalled’:

“I keep them bitches by the twos, nigga”


Thirty White Bitches”          (West, 2010)

The Oscar-award winning group, Three Six Mafia, who won the award for Best Original Song in A Feature Film with their song ‘It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp’ express the expectations of black men in the industry and in the greater society :

That’s the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin’/
Gotta have my hustle tight, makin’ change off these women/
You know it’s hard out here for a pimp,/
When he tryin’ to get this money for the rent/         (Three 6 Mafia, 2004)

There are some similarities between the racism experienced by black people and the sexist sentiments that male rappers direct towards women. Women are essentialised in various ways (Kubrin , 2009: 9). Rappers call them “chickenheads[3]”, “triflin’ hos”, “bitches”, “golddiggers[4]”. They are reduced to objects recited in hip-hop mantras like “Guns, bitches and bling” and “Cash, Money, Hoes” alongside other inanimate things. Their bodies are linguistically chopped up and divided into parts to be sexually devoured - “the booty”, “big titties” and “pussy”. They are othered and either presented as the sum of their overt sexuality or portrayed as scheming she-devils out to ruin a pimp.

So in hip-hop, black women are depicted as being sexual beings but their sexuality is policed by black men. They must toe a line, that is difficult to pin down exactly and is drawn by others. If they are too free with their sexuality and have many partners they are mocked, at the same time if they refuse to acquiesce to a pimp’s demands of them they are subject to threats and violence. So black women are trapped by their sexuality, the same way they are trapped by images of white female beauty that surround them. They are manipulated into chasing an ideal that they will never be able to attain. Wolf (1991: 11) calls this “beauty pornography” where sexuality and beauty are linked as commodities and while they can be sources of power for women, more often they are used to “undermine” and destroy “women’s vulnerable sense of self-worth” (Wolf, 1991: 11) by taunting them with their imagined inadequacy.

This leads to a bizarre situation similar to the one described by Fanon in his discussion of black people and the type of servitude society expects from them. He writes that white people demand the black person to be obedient, serve with a smile and make jokes even though both parties knows the black person lives under the spectre of duress and oppression (Fanon, 1986: 35). Similarly it is demanded that women accept their place and and do not complain when threatened with sexual harrassment. Rape culture and inequitable gender relations make it clear they are expected to acquiesce, smile and take it in their stride. As Eminem in his song, ‘Kill You’, puts it:

“Just bend over and take it like a slut, okay?” (Eminem, 2000) (Kubrin, 2009: 15)

Black Imperialism: New Faces, Same Problems

One can argue that sexism and discrimination against women in black communities can be read as a form of colonisation, of men colonising women in the same spirit as black men and women were colonised by white foreign powers. So black-on-black sexism is in some ways a legacy of colonialism.

In A Dying Colonialism, Fanon describes the western male gaze directed at the veiled Algerian woman. He sees her in terms of how she can be uncharted territory to be exploited - virgin land to be conquered. He writes:

“Every rejected veil disclosed to the eyes of the colonialist’s horizons until then forbidden, and revealed to them, piece by piece, the flesh of Algeria laid bare.”                                                                         

(Fanon, 1965: 42)

To unveil and expose the woman is to weaken her and break her resistance. Wolf in The Beauty Myth argues the same point, that society continually exposes women to use their bodies against them. She says, “constant surveillance is used on political prisoners for similar reasons: an enforced lack of privacy strips dignity and breaks resistance” (Wolf, 1991: 99). If the coloniser, cannot see the woman to the extent that he wishes he becomes frustrated and aggressive, threatening violence or actually committing violence against her. Numerous sources[5] describe how rape was used as a tool by the colonial masters to assert their dominance. The rapper follows this lead. Rap songs are filled with entreaties to women to expose themselves like the following:

“It’s Young Money baby, take your clothes off”     (Lil’ Wayne, 2011 )


She gettin crunk on my camera phone/
And her birthday suit is what she got on/
She bustin’ that thang...wide open/
Hold on baby let my camera focus”           (Chamillionaire, 2008)

Or references to rape and sexual abuse:

                                                                            (Tyler,  The Creator, 2011)

Women to some extent encourage this exhibitionism.

“You like it when I shake it?/
Shawty on a mission, what yo name is?/
What, you want me naked?/
If you likin' this position you can tape it on your video phone”   (Beyonce,  2008)
Since society teaches black men that they are inadequate, they make themselves visible by their braggadocio and “unacceptable criminal behaviour, by doing violent deeds” (hooks, 2004: 54). Similarly, women fight feelings of inadequacy by using their sexuality to make themselves visible. Patriarchy, the gendered division of labour, glass ceilings and discrimination mean their other assets are undervalued and their work goes unrecognised. In the search for recognition from others they demean themselves.

Black Women and Bad Faith

In every country of the world there are climbers, “the ones who forget who they are,” and, in contrast to them, “the ones who remember where they came from.”                                                                                                  

(Fanon,1986: 24)

This is Fanon’s objection to Mayotte Capécia in his analysis of her memoir Je suis Martiniquaise published in 1948. Fanon takes issue with the way she demeans herself. In Chapter 2, “The Woman of Colour and The White Man”, Fanon analyses Capécia’s novel as well as how black women can fuel racism with their sexuality and their choices of partner.

Sharpley-Whiting finds a lot of criticism in feminist discourse over Fanon’s discussion of Capécia. Feminists like Gwen Berger and Susan Andrade write him off as misogynistic (Sharpley-Whiting, 2007: 38) and discount his work because of his treatment of Capécia and how he views as her ‘blackphobia’ and her book as “a sermon in praise of corruption” (Fanon, 1986: 29). He sees the authoress as a social-climber who uses her relationship with a white man to ‘lactify’ herself.

These writers assume Fanon is ‘slut-shaming’, policing Capecia’s sexuality and is unjustly critical of a “black woman working in the service of whites, using the only commodities of exchange she has to eke out her existence in the colonies: her body” (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 38). Feminists’ reading of Capécia’s character is underpinned by a racist assumption. The book clearly shows that she has no need to trade sexual favours for money as she rejects gifts from André the French officer (Sharpley-Whiting, 1998: 39) and she is a successful laundress but these facts are ignored. Instead, the feminists have taken away Capécia’s agency and portrayed her as a victim instead of a rational actor with racist prejudices.

It is clear that Fanon’s criticism of Capécia is not levelled at her because of her gender but rather because of her support of the racist ideology of the French colonisers and inauthentic love. Fanon’s conception of love is diametrically opposed to Capecia’s. His idea of authentic love is that it is an honest and true expression of deep emotion for another where one wishes for another what one “postulates for oneself, when that postulation unites the permanent values of human reality” (Fanon, 1986: 28). Furthermore Fanon’s authentic love is “the mobilisation of psychic drives basically freed of unconscious conflicts” (Fanon, 1986: 28). Capécia’s memoir shows her engaging in inauthentic love because she heralds the white lover as a “form of salvation” (Fanon, 1986: 30) and she would feel shame at taking a black lover. Her love is tied to her knowledge of the social status courting a white man will bring her and is thus conflicted. She does not love André intrinsically, she loves the evidence that he is white - his blue eyes, blonde hair and the mansions in the rich suburb of Didier he visits (Fanon, 1986: 29). She is guilty of what Sartre calls, la mauvaise foi. By this Sartre would argue Capécia is not acting as an authentic being and making her romantic choices freely. She engages in self-deception because she does not truly love Andre and on some level recognises that. She is loving for others, to wit, she uses false values and discriminatory societal norms to shape the dimensions of her love.

It can be argued that in a sense Fanon treats Capécia more fairly than the feminists who critique her do, measuring her with the same yardstick as her male counterparts. Perhaps one should extend the same logic to the women who operate in the hip-hop sphere and play by the male rappers rules, upholding patriarchy and sexism. In order to be successful in the industry these women feel they have to fall in line with the codes and status quo set up by the male rappers before them. In this situation, they become a slave not to white created archetypes (Fanon, 1986: 22) but archetypes set up by other black people, particularly black men, which are just as exploitative.

They other themselves by distinguishing themselves from men physically by putting on display “indicators of womanhood” (Collins, 2005: 194), like breasts and hips. Yet they futilely try to ingratiate themselves with male rappers by using the same language as them and trying to reclaim words with negative connotations like ‘bitch’. It is debatable as to whether they are entirely successful but what is clear is that more and more women are entering the rap industry and the industry is mutating.

Hip-Hop: A Mutating Movement

In A Dying Colonialism, Fanon discusses mutation, the changing in meaning and value of things like the radio, or the veil over the course of the Algerian Revolution. For Fanon, nothing is static, everything is in flux and the values of each culture mutate through experience.  Language expresses a culture’s world view and is the legacy of a specific history. Mastery of a language allows one access and status in a culture. As Fanon says, “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture” (Fanon, 1963: 25). Interrogation of this history, and the birth of these words can reveal underlying assumptions, morals and beliefs. The word “booty” is used often in rap music like in Bubba Sparxx’s 2006 hit, “Miss New Booty”, whose refrain is “Booty, booty booty booty, rocking everywhere”. ‘Booty’ is slang which refers to a woman’s buttocks but also sex, in the sense of “I got some booty last night”. Although this is the more modern use it can be argued the word ideologically still retains links to its etymology. The word comes from Middle Low German words būte or buite, meaning ‘exchange or distribution’. Booty is used to refer to treasure stolen from an enemy from a raid or during war time. Collins (2005) emphasises that it cannot be given away but must be taken by force and the use of this word to refer to a part of the female body is heavy with violent meaning. The word “booty” sets the man up as the brutal seizer of the woman’s sexuality. This ties into the pimp-ho nexus and generally unequal relations upheld by hip-hop culture.

Fanon discusses mutation of gender roles during the Algerian War. Some patriotic women who wanted to contribute to the war joined the FLN and smuggled fake identity cards medicine, money, bombs and guns for the Algerian side (Fanon, 1986:53, 58). The very fact that the men of the FLN allowed women to be active participants was revolutionary. The organisation made the decision to treat them as equal to men. They faced the same threat as men, if captured, of torture or even death (Fanon, 1986:49). The role of women mutates, they are no longer only operate in the private sphere, raising children and keeping house (Fanon, 1986: 106). Through activism and war, they can enter the public realm and are afforded access to new opportunities. The woman is no longer, inadequate, and regarded, “always as a minor” (Fanon, 1986: 106) destined to pass from under the stewardship of her father to her husband. “The woman-for-marriage” transforms into “the woman-for-action” (Fanon, 1986: 108). Her sexuality is no longer viewed only in terms of her child-bearing capacity and nubility. Her sexual relations with men change because she speaks out and expresses her desires. For example, she vows not to marry a man who is not part of the FLN or not actively involved in the war (Fanon, 1986: 112). The Algerian man and woman are on equal footing in their relationship. They are the “united militant couple” (Fanon, 1986: 114) who are integral to the creation of a new Algeria.

Fanon warns that the revolution is not just a singular event. He says that the people must maintain the rupture with an exploitative past. The gains made are threatened on an daily basis even after it seems the battle is won. Everyday actions contribute to keeping society from reverting back to the injustices that characterised colonialism. After the colonisers leave, the public becomes lax, society is not radical enough so it falls back on old inherited ideologies. This is what hip-hop has done. It reproduces the sexism and female subjugation that was inherent in the colonial era and does not contest it the way it has done racism. It is still mutating but it unclear if it will mutate enough as a genre to create an anti-patriarchal sphere.

Rape Culture in South Africa and The Other Jay-Z

“The goal of the sexual conquests is to make a fool of the young woman. . . .”           (Kubrin, 2009: 9)

The same questions surround South African society with its violent history and quite violent present. As a patriarchal society, South Africa is rife with “serious manifestations of women abuse” (ANC, 2007: 6). Some men seek to assert their masculinity and place at the top of the gender hegemony through the subjugation and abuse of women. 70 000 women reported rape to the police in 2009 (Marais, 2011: 228) but this is only a fraction of the real picture, due to the stigma surrounding rape, indifference of the police and dismay with the justice system which lead to rape victims keeping silent. Even the current president Jacob Zuma, was involved in a rape trial in 2006. Though he was acquitted, the discourse surrounding the trial, his supporters and his testimony all point to a codified rape culture.

Zuma’s supporters were fiercely loyal to him at the expense of the complainant. ‘Khwezi’ was threatened with death threats and protestors outside the court toted signs with sexist slogans like “Burn the Bitch” and “How much did they pay you, nondindwa [bitch]?” (M&G, 2006). Female Zuma supporters were seen burning A4 size photos of the ‘Khwezi’ as well. Julius Malema, then ANC Youth League member, infamously rubbished ‘Khwezi’s’ claim of rape commenting:

“when a woman didn't enjoy it (sexual intercourse), she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast and taxi money. In the morning that lady requested breakfast and taxi money. You don't ask for taxi money from somebody who raped you,”  (IOL, 2010)

Throughout the trial, Malema as well as Zuma himself claimed he was not a rapist but rather the victim of a witchhunt by white-led media and the machinations of Khwezi and her father, a member of a rival ANC faction. As was his constitutional right, Zuma gave testimony in Zulu, which had the effect of bolstering his image as a traditional black South African man.  He presented himself as not in control of his actions because they were dictated by Zulu culure, a culture which a Western system of justice could not understand (Maré et. al, 2010: 52) and which was unfairly punishing him for.

Zuma said,

“In the Zulu culture you don’t leave a woman in that situation[6] because if you do then she will even have you arrested and say that you are a rapist.” (M&G, 2006; Maré, 2010: 57)

So he used, as has been done before, a black woman’s sexuality against her.
He also fed on the stereotype of the duplicitous woman often referred to in rap songs who seeks to ruin the reputation of a pimp by running to the courts. Zuma’s defence led by Kemp J Kemp, presented the court with the ‘Khwezi’s’ unpublished memoirs which showed she had been raped at ages “five, 13 and 14” (M&G, 2006). This made it seem like she was promiscuous, commonly had sex with older men and cried wolf, or rather rape, habitually.  In this way rape claims, like those of the defendent ‘Khwezi’ are systematically delegitimised. Nas in Dr. Knockboot raps,

Don’t take the pussy, if she fightin’/
‘Cause you saw what happened to Tupac and Mike Tyson/
‘Specially if you large [famous], some hoes is trife [petty] /
Get you on a rape charge, have you servin’ your life.

(Nas, 1999) (Kubrin, 2009: 16)

This stereotyping of women and deligitimisation of their claims encourages rape because men can commit crimes against them with impunity. Zuma also had his own song, “awuleth’ mashini wami” or ‘Bring Me My Machine Gun’, which he sung during public appearances often outside the courthouse. This traditional struggle song, due to the context in which it was sung acquired became loaded with sexual innuendo and conflated sex and violence in a disturbing fashion. This fusing especially by a revered public figure, serves only to perpetuate the patriarchy in South African society and contribute to violence against women.

In conclusion, Fanon’s works are concerned with struggle, mobilisation of people and revolution but are also pertinent to societies that believe they are post-apartheid, post-colonial, post-slavery or even post-domination. It is clear looking at the cultural capital these communities create that those assertions must be interrogated. Fanon reminds us to be ever-vigilant and track the changing face of oppression which mutates but uses similar means of retaining control including colonising victims and encouraging them to abuse themselves.

Reference List

African National Congress, 2007. ANC Policy Document: 52nd National Conference: Adopted Strategy and Tactics of the ANC

Chiachere, R., 2007, “Imus called women's basketball team ‘nappy-headed hos’”, Available From:, Accessed On: 24th November 2012

Collins, P. H., 2005, Black Sexual Politics, African Americans, Gender and The New Racism, Routledge : New York and London

Daily Mail, 2012, “How defiant Iman built a $25m beauty empire - after retailers told her 'black women don’t buy liquid foundation”, Available From:, Accessed On: 24th November 2012

Fanon, F., 1965, A Dying Colonialism, Grove Press: New York

Fanon, F., 1986, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press: London

Fanon, F., 1963, The Wretched Of The Earth, Grove Press: New York

Griffin, F. J., 1993, Elaine Brown's Taste of Power, Boston Review (March/April), Available From: Accessed On: 24th November 2012

hooks, b., 2004, We Real Cool: Black men and masculinity, Routledge: New York

hooks, b., 1990, Yearning: race, gender and cultural politics, South End Press: Boston, 2010, Malema ignores hate speech judgment, Available From: Accessed On: 24th November 2012

James, C. L.R., 1963, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and The San Domingo Revolution, Vintage Books: New York

Kubrin, C. E., and Weitzer, R., 2009, Misogyny in Rap Music: A Content Analysis of Prevalence and Meanings, Men and Masculinities, Vol. 12 (1) October, 3-29

Marais, H. 2011. South Africa Pushed To The Limit: The Political Economy Of Change. Cape Town: UCT Press

Maré, G., and Waetjen, T., 2010, “Tradition’s desire: The politics of culture in the rape trial of Jacob Zuma” in The Politics of Jacob Zuma, Bulletin 84 - Winter 2010

M&G, 2012, Timeline of Jacob Zuma Rape Trial, Available From: Accessed On: 17th November 2012

Sarkeesian, A., 2011, Kanye West’s Monster Misogyny - Feminist Frequency, Available From:
Accessed On: 17th November 2012

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean, 2007, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold On Young Black Women, New York University Press : New York and London

The Economist, 2012, “Lighter Shades of Skin”, Available From:, Accessed On: 24th November 2012

Wolf, N., 1991, The Beauty Myth: how images of beauty are used against women, HarperCollins: New York

Songs Referenced

Beyoncé Knowles, Anthony Dent, Matthew Knowles, 2001, “Survivor”, Survivor, Columbia Records
Beyonce Knowles, 2009, “Video Phone”, I Am... Sasha Fierce, Columbia Records
Cannibal Corpse, 1994, “She Was Asking For It”, The Bleeding, Metal Blade
Dwayne Carter, Sean Garrett, 2004, “Soldier”, Destiny Fulfilled, Columbia Records
Dwayne Carter, 2011, “Two Shots”, Tha Carter III, Cash Money Records
dead prez, 2000, “Mind Sex”, Let’s Get Free, Columbia Records,
H. Seriki, 2010, “Camera Phone”, Universal Records
Jay-Z, 2004, 99 “Problems”, The Black Album, Roc-A-Fella Records
Leo Robin and Jule Styne, 1949, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”
Queen Latifah, 1993, “U.N.I.T.Y.”, Black Reign, Motown Records
T. Okonma,  2011, “Bitch Suck Dick”, Goblin, XL Recordings
W.  Mathis, M. Crooms, E. Jackson, T. Abbey, 2005, “Miss New Booty”, The Charm, Virgin Records
West, Kanye, 2010, “Monster”, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella Records
West, Kanye, 2010, “So Appalled”, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella Records

[2] Parks and Recreation (NBC) - Season 3, Episode 7: Harvest Festival
[3] “All the chickenheads, keep quiet!” - Fatman Scoop, “Be Faithful” (2003)
[4] Oh she’s a gold-digger, way over time, that digs on me - Kanye West, “Golddigger” (2005)
[5]Fanon, 1986: 104; Hooks, 2004: 64; James, 1963 :88
[6] i.e. a state of arousal