Saturday, 10 December 2022

Excursus #9. (De-)sexualisation as an instrument for stereotyping the ethnically "other"

This is the text published in the exhibition catalogue. More texts of mine on the Dragon Lady, Butterfly, Mandingo, Uncle, Mammy, Jezebel stereotypes etc. are exhibited in the Caricature Museum Krems until 19th of February 2023.

Black … tall, athletic, strong, hypersexual, lusts after white women. Thus runs the narrative that turns Black men into feral savages and white women into the endangered objects of their desire. This narrative concurrently elevates white women to a generally valid female ideal and, tacitly but unmistakably, downgrades Black women to, at best, a second-rate alternative to this ethnocentric notion of beauty, an arbitrary and often contradictory mix of non-desirable, because desexualised , and unworthy of protection, because hypersexualised .

The Mandingo character was born at a moment that suited the white man. It pandered to rape myths in order to evoke fear and fury, the very emotions that can mobilise the masses and be instrumentalised to assert the white man's own interests—cloaked in the friendly guise of protecting women and serving the common weal. Protection is required when danger is looming—was actually the key message here. The muscle power of the enslaved Mandingo was useful on the plantation of the white man, but when Mandingo became a free individual, he had outlived his usefulness and the white man lived in fear that he might take his revenge by sexually assaulting white women.

Rape myths emerged when slaves became free and their freedom put social hierarchies and power asymmetries at risk. Basically, they were a paranoid reaction on the part of white men to an anticipated new order; instilling fear of a Black rapist was designed to serve as a prophylactic. After all, a world without slavery also meant political and economic participation for African Americans and thus endangered white supremacy. Moreover, it also meant the potential shattering of a sexual taboo involving the constellation of Black/male and white/female. Every effort was made to prevent this constellation, and crafting the image of the uninhibited, voracious Black rapist turned out to be a clever stratagem that also successfully instrumentalised sexual envy. Marketed under a catchy label, “new Negro crime”, the myth was disseminated by the Ku Klux Klan; while the—purported—aim was to protect white women and their purity, the actual motivation was to uphold the white power system. After all, rape of a white woman, even attempted rape, was only punishable by execution if the perpetrator was Black.

In this tradition white women assumed a complex role, being inferior as a gender to white men, but ethnically superior to Black men. They were able to harness this superiority by accusing a Black man of rape, even if their relationship was consensual. This course of action was taken, for instance, if relationships threatened to become public knowledge and the family’s reputation had to be protected. The practice of lynching helped to preserve order and regulated and controlled the behaviour and status of white women. The Mandingo stereotype legitimised executions and lynching. Today, it lives on in derivative forms as athlete, criminal or porn fantasy.

The female Black equivalent likewise suited the purposes of white men: Jezebel, the hypersexual, seductive, manipulative Black woman, the antithesis of the pure and innocent white woman. First and foremost she served as living proof of Black promiscuity and bolstered the insinuation that white men would not ever sexually assault their female slaves, but rather that the sex was consensual or indeed initiated by the woman.

Not particularly graceful, but likeable because devoid of hard edges, soft and motherly. This is the persona of the grateful slave woman, a loyal servant who knows her place and perceives her life’s purpose to be that of serving her white family. She neither has nor wants any Black friends, their aspirations of freedom being beyond her comprehension. In literature, movies and animated film alike, the “mammy” figure is portrayed as a corpulent, coarse, clownish, sometimes unclean, unattractive and, above all, asexual character. These attributes serve to convey a significant message and another riposte to the accusation levelled by abolitionists from the North that slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves, particularly the younger, lighter-skinned and slimmer ones among them. It is hardly a coincidence that the character of the mammy was forged in the time before and during the American Civil War. She served as evidence that white men could never covet a Black woman. The male equivalent of the mammy is the “uncle”, a completely asexual Black man who is unfailingly friendly and loyal to whites. Both were used as corporate characters in the design and marketing of food products.

The exhibition addresses the background and impact of ethnic stereotypes which are reduced to just a few signal components: Black, Asian, male, female, de-sexualised and hypersexualised . Apart from the examples sketched out here, the show also explores the combination of Asian and female, specifically in the characters of Butterfly and Dragon Lady. Both types of women are highly sexualised , the former being obedient, submissive, fragile and perfectly ready to commit suicide in order not to stand in the way of the white man’s long-term happiness, the latter being ice-cold, selfish, seductive and merciless. Asian men, on the other hand, are more often shown as desexualised characters, even today. The makers of movies and television films liked to use the practice of blackface and yellowface, which also served as templates for character design. Another aspect explored by the exhibition is the mutual influence on one another of comics, novels, film and theater, as well as the question of what role humour —genuine or pretend—plays in the acceptance of stereotypical portrayals. (Moazedi, 2022)

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photograph by Chen Man via, translation by Susanne Watzek