African American women have historically been viewed as hyper-sexual creatures, due to unique anatomical features not often seen in other races. This hyper-sexualized view of Black women dates back as early as the days of slavery when European imperialists traveled to Africa and were excessively intrigued by (and abashedly attracted to) the women in the tribes. Europeans were in awe of the physique of African women, comparable to none, as well as their dancing and traditional garments. Europeans unfamiliarity with a body type that is not unusual amongst African women resulted in a projection of hyper-sexuality onto Black women that did not truly exist and has been hard for Black women around the world to rid themselves of. Saartjie [Sara] Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus,” became the blueprint for degrading and humiliating the Black woman on a worldwide level. Saartjie Baartman was a South African born woman who was enslaved by a Dutch farmer near the city of Cape Town. Her master was approached by traveling Europeans to travel to Europe to have her body examined and put on display. In 1810, Saartjie’s master informed her that she would be free and assume fortune and fame in order to persuade her to leave his plantation for the sideshow act she would unknowingly become in. It was this promise that led to Saartjie’s willingness to travel to Europe. Saartjie traveled to England and upon her arrival, she was placed on public display, often times in a cage, so her large buttocks and breast could be observed by hundreds of curious Englishman. These invasive spectators were recorded as laughing at her, calling her names, and throwing items at her. Saartjie’s body was so spectacular and strange to Europeans that medical students were able to use her for scientific research. She was again sold from England to a French circus to dance in the nude as entertainment and was one the main attractions. Saartjie never enjoyed the freedom she was promised and turned to alcohol to cope with her humiliation and entered prostitution to support her when she was no longer necessary as a side show attraction. She died in 1815, only five years after her arrival to Europe. Saartjie’s humiliation did not end with her death. She died of unidentified disease in France and her body was turned over to a museum. Her brain, vagina, and her skeleton were removed from her body, preserved and put on display. Her frameless body was then preserved in such a way that she stood erect as well. Her body was eventually buried in France but the parts removed from her body remained on display in a French museum until 1974. The displays were removed that year and replaced with casts of Saartjie’s confiscated body parts. Saartjie Baartman’s humiliating enslavement marks the beginning of the Black woman’s degradation. She could be considered the first “video-vixen model.” However, culture has changed such that women willingly dance erotically while scantily clad or totally nude, whereas Saartjie was forced. This willingness has transformed the way the Black woman is viewed and the way the Black woman views herself.
The manner in which Saartjie Baartman was treated is indicative of European attitudes about Black women and African standards of beauty. Saartjie was renowned for her physique, which Europeans responded to Saartjie as an object with disgust, intrigue, sexual attraction, and condescension. The removal of her organs indicates a perverse obsession with the body of the African woman. This attitude about the Black woman’s body has persisted, taking on new faces as culture changes and pop culture emerged. Media images of Black women have long been degrading, unflattering, and/or extreme. Black women have specific functional roles in the media: typically and most often as Jezebel, Mammie, and the welfare mom. The Jezebel stereotype of the hyper-sexual, manipulative Black woman is more prevalent and more widely seen in...
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