“On that same [video] set, I had to wear a short, tight dress. I had some downtime, so I sat in one of the rooms where the food was set up. Soon one guy came in and then another. Within a few minutes, fifteen guys were surrounding me, and I was trapped. I felt like a specimen in a museum. I didn’t want to get up because I knew if I did, they would start making a fuss over my ass. I kept thinking, ‘I’m sitting here with these guys ogling, trying to touch my leg and arm, trying to see what kind of girl I am, see if they can run a train on me.’ I was so terrified of getting up. The dress was so short and my shoes were so high, I was afraid to even uncross my legs. Eventually a crewmember came in and regulated the situation; he could see how terrified I was about even moving an inch. It all lasted about ten minutes.”
51; Melyssa Ford, “Calendar Girl” (fromNaked)
“. . . Master Hendrick would invite the spectators to examine me to assure themselves nothing was fake. Some of them accepted the invitation by touching my backside or searching for evidence of padding. One pinched me, another walked around me, a gentleman poked me with his cane, a lady used her parasol to ascertain that all was ‘natural.’ Master Hendrick sometimes used a long piece of bamboo to prod me around or move me forward or backwards. But worst of all, the laughter raucous, lewd, predatory, and hate-filled never stopped. It erupted at the slightest excuse, a stumbling foot, a tear, an epithet from a spectator, the shrill whistles and catcalls of the gallery.”
51; Barbara Chase-Riboud, Hottentot Venus
Her ample bosom is barely contained by the bejeweled black satin bustier. She stretches its straps down past her wide, curvaceous hips, her full, round thighs beginning where the skimpiest of bejeweled black satin thongs ends. Her head is cocked to the side, she slyly peers out from the corner of her eye, lips moist, not quite smiling. Is it a dare? An invitation? A humble testimony to the work of God, genes, and personal trainers? A not-so-humble one?
This is Melyssa Ford in all her glory, on the cover of XXL Presents Eye Candy, a semi-annual spin-off of the popular rap publication. Eye Candy is a blowout of a regular XXL feature spotlighting attractive young women in cheesecake outfits and poses (this issue of the magazine’s spine carries the truth-in-advertising appellation “T&A ETC.”). Most of the women spotlighted in the “Eye Candy” section can be seen to fuller effect in your average rap video, gyrating about as the love interest / sex interest / obligatory female jiggling various body parts. Eye Candy, the magazine, is devoted to the hottest such starlets, known to the world politely as “video vixens” and derisively as “video hos”. Ford takes pride of place on the cover as the most polished and accomplished of them all, down to the what else? stunning centerfold shot.
You can also find her on the cover of Black Men Swimsuit Extra, another spin-off pub devoted to babes in bikinis (Black Men being the parent mag). Except that Ford ain’t wearing a bikini on the cover: only a wide-brimmed hat, a necklace, and a strategically draped arm. And this is no ordinary cheesecake book; this issue is devoted to Ford herself, her background, her plans for the future, her calendar shoot in Jamaica, the DVD of said shoot, her zodiac sign, and so on.
Now, one look at the undeniably gorgeous Ms. Ford would explain why people think she can sell magazines. But there’s a bit more to the story than that. Once upon a time, Ford was studying forensic psychology at York University in her native Canada when she was discovered by rap video director, Little X. After that first taste of the biz, she moved to New York City, working under the table as a bartender while learning the industry ropes. She went on to appear in some high-profile videos (Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin”, Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass”, Usher’s “Yeah”), where her 34-20-38 frame earned her the nickname “Jessica Rabbit”, after she of the animated “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” fame. Ford parlayed that notoriety into a gig hosting the celebrity magazine show BET Style, a relationship advice column for Smooth magazine, and enough clout to call her own shots (what she will and won’t do, wear, portray, etc.) for appearances in videos.
Ford’s contemporaries on the video starlet A-list include Ki Toy Johnson, Esther Baxter (who earned her nickname after starring in the video for Petey Pablo’s “Freek-a-Leek”), and the sensuously named Buffie the Body. Although their backgrounds and life stories are radically different, these women tend to all have relatively slender waists and bodacious backsides. That is no coincidence. The black female rear end has long been a subject of fantasy, desire, celebration, and questions concerning ownership. The bulging booty as gold standard of black female beauty became virtually axiomatic within hip-hop with 1992’s “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect (MCA) and, more famously, “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot (Def American), which attempted to make the black woman’s fuller-than-white-women butt a signifier of racial pride (and, to a certain measure, succeeded wildly).
Aside from rap videos, the only places you’re likely to see these women are in strip clubs (where lots of rappers apparently enjoy spending spare time and money), and in the pages of the aforementioned XXL and Black Men, plus their competitors King and Smooth (which has its own spin-off Smooth Girl). Just as the granddaddy Players, the hip-hop leaning Fish-n-Chips, and various other titles exist in a racially parallel porn universe from Playboy and Penthouse, so do these black laddie publications chronicle women hardly ever seen in Maxim and FHM (now there are laddie mags for those who like their cheesecake with Latino and Asian flavorings another sign, apparently, of their emerging consumer clout).
Women getting this sort of notoriety for not much more than their sex appeal is a somewhat new phenomenon in the annals of black pop culture. It’s not that there have never been attractive women in our entertainment, and it’s not that there have never been black pin-up girls (the “Beauty of the Week” in Jet, anyone?). But for all the loving, playful and sassy representations of sashaying hips and fine brown frames in our song, dance, and art, you’d be hard-pressed to name a lot of black women through the years who earned renown strictly for the fullness of their curves.
Soul Style: Black Women Redefining the Color of Fashion by Duane Thomas (Universe, 2000)
Duane Thomas’ Soul Style: Black Women Redefining the Color of Fashion (Universe, 2000) is a breathless valentine to a century’s worth of attitude, boldness, and beauty. From Josephine Baker to Lil’ Kim, Thomas and his various collaborators lift up the accomplishments and meanings of virtually every major black female star from the 20th century. But while there’s no denying the sexiness dripping from many of the photos Soulstyle collects (for example, Halle Berry in a softly clinging knit robe), not a single image not even Josephine Baker posing nude resembles any model’s spread in a modern day laddie mag. In Thomas’ depiction of beautiful black women, you won’t see anyone on all fours in an art-directed “come hither big boy” pose, cleavage heaving towards the camera. You won’t see anyone shot from behind as she demurely gazes into the distance, the reader’s eye free to travel down to her thong-clad bottom. There is one picture of a woman using her arms to shield her bare breasts, but it seems to declare, “Here’s an artsy shot from my modeling portfolio,” not “I’m topless on the beach—let’s play!”
If it were just the discreetly marketed magazine, calendar, or DVD where such images were available, it would be a slightly lesser deal (though no less bothersome for many). But the pervasiveness of rap videos stringing together shot after shot of such women shaking what their mommas gave them became too much to ignore. Having a scantily clad honey or six in the video became de rigueur, just like shots of the entourage making gang signs and rented luxury cars. Such images all but drowned out any other representation of women in rap videos, especially considering the relative paucity of female rappers that can command big budgets for videos (and the even skimpier number of women directing videos, developing artists’ marketing plans, or deciding what gets added to the TV rotation and what doesn’t). Of course, the fact that these videos often illustrate songs that refer to women as “bitches” and “hos” hardly helps matters.
It got so bad that BET, the network that relies on black pop videos for much of its programming, relegated the raunchiest of them to BET Uncut, airing at 3AM away from the reach of the youngest, most impressionable minds (at least, those such minds without VCRs or Tivo). One of the most notorious Uncut favorites was Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video, which featured various shots of men swiping credit cards down a woman’s butt crack. Needless to say, folks felt emboldened by the cordoning-off of territory for soft-core porn with a funky beat, and started making videos specifically for broadcast on Uncut.
And the phenomenon shows signs of crossing over into the mainstream. Witness a recent Amp’d Mobile commercial. In it, a guy standing on a bus is playing with some device, when he commands two guys in the back to start fighting; they comply. He then tells some guy with a boombox to crank up some old funk tune; up comes the beat. Then he turns to a black woman and commands, “You, shake your junk”. She gets up, grabs the pole that’s conveniently right there, and turns the bus into a stripper’s workout room, shaking her prodigious junk for all it’s worth (and I’ll argue that only until pornified rap videos became commonplace did a whole lot of people know this colloquial meaning of “junk”).
It’s hard to isolate the more troubling part of this brief scene: is it that a white man can command a black woman to “shake your junk” as though neither of them had ever left the strip club (or worse, the plantation), or that she does it without complaint? At least she keeps her clothes on. Then again, this is a 30-second ad for a mass-market product, not an offering from Lil’ Jon and the Ying Yang Twins or some other strip club-influenced rap act, and I don’t think the spot would have passed prime time muster had our girl been wearing a thong.
Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans (Amistad, 2005)
Then there’s Superhead. Even after writing Confessions of a Video Vixen (Amistad, 2005), Karrine Steffans is probably still better known by that most dubious nickname, one I have no real desire to learn how she acquired. Confessions reads like an episode of Behind the Music: abused teenager runs away from broken home, gets discovered working in strip club by one-time hot rapper, ends up making lots of videos and screwing half of the industry, parlays fame from both into movie work. Predictably for this sort of tale, Steffans finds herself strung out, broke, and disconnected form her own child before finally trying to get it together by writing a tell-all book (the only thing missing was a spreadsheet comparing her partners’ cock lengths) and announcing that she trademarked “Superhead” after learning that the name is actually a compliment in the UK. Not surprisingly, the book made the best-seller lists.
In an August 2005 interview on AllHipHop.com, Ford denounced Steffans’ book. “Her motivation for doing videos was for a stepping stone to become bigger in the entertainment industry [and] to be promiscuous,” Ford said. “The fact that her story is being sensationalized right now sends a real bad message to little girls.”
Fair enough, but it’s easily argued that Ford herself isn’t much better with her video and magazine appearances. In fact, that actually happened in a conference last April on feminism and hip-hop at the University of Chicago. Ford was one of the featured panelists, and attempted to explain the measure of control over her image and work conditions she’s able to demand. None of that impressed those scholars and activists in attendance, who called her a whore and pretty much blamed her for degrading black womanhood and the entire community.
Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts by Akiba Solomon and Ayana Byrd (Penguin, 2005)
Ford spells out her position in “Calendar Girl”, her contribution to Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts (Penguin, 2005). It’s a collection of musings, edited by Ayana Byrd and Akiba Solomon, about black women relating to their bodies; the good, the bad, and what they may have perceived to be the ugly. There are celebrities, just plain folk, young women, older women, skinny women, shapely women, and Ford, talking about what she’s been able to create for herself:
“I am the highest-paid video girl to date. I’ve endured all the snide comments and ignorant remarks from people who presume to know me because I’m on their television screens and in the pages of their magazines. But I’m not the promiscuous twit I’m often mistaken for. I am a businesswoman who has used videos to launch a multimedia career. My product is me.
“Besides being the lead girl in hip-hop and R&B videos, I am a sex columnist for a men’s magazine. I star in my own DVD. I’ve hosted television shows, and I’ve produced my own calendar, which I sell on the Internet. My job is to sell fantasy and perfection. When the cameras go on, I detach myself and play the sexy vixen who will turn a nigga out.”
But if she hadn’t gotten the message before, perhaps her reception from a room full of black feminists helped dropped the hint. She can maintain all day and night that she’s the one in control of those sexy images, but her detractors have a problem with the images existing at all, whether or not she’s making money from them. Essence magazine, the tentpole of the black womanhood community, launched a jeremiad last year against sexism in hip-hop music and videos. Its ongoing “Take Back the Music” campaign seeks to open a discussion of the broader effects of degrading images of black women, and especially young black girls. There are many difficult issues involved, and there is by no means consensus among sistas as to whether these images are harmful in the first place. But without a constructive look at them, they’ll surely continue unabated.
Students at Spelman College took matters into their own hands in 2004, rejecting Nelly’s charitable largesse because of that infamous “Tip Drill” video. He and his charitable foundation had planned to hold a bone-marrow drive at the venerable black women’s institution, but the sistas there, and some brothas at nearby Morehouse College, would have none of his presence there, and Nelly cancelled the event. They understood the importance of raising awareness about bone marrow donation, especially in communities of color, but that didn’t outweigh their outrage over his lascivious video.
Black women, you see, have a special sensitivity as to how their womanhood is portrayed in mass culture. They’ve had to contend with centuries of being labeled promiscuous whores, hardwired for animalistic sexuality and not much else by that blasted jungle DNA. It has been a battle for decency and dignity at the most intimate, personal level. The victories in the battle have been so hard-fought, the wounds still so far from healed, that it doesn’t take much to call all that pain back to the surface. The ravages against black womanhood are legion, but with big butts on endless display in videos and “bitch” and “ho” all but commonplace in hip-hop lyrics, one particularly sad and disturbing case comes to mind.
Sarah Baartman (1789-1816) survived the slaughter of her people, only to be exploited for centuries hence. She was born in what we now call South Africa as a Khoikhoi, and enslaved in Cape Town by wealthy Britons. Her exceedingly large rear end, especially prominent on a short 4-foot-7 frame, gave associates of her enslavers the idea that there was money to be made. So Baartman went off to London, where she was christened “Hottentot Venus” and put on public display.
She was marketed as the freak show to end all freak shows. She was made to bandy about in a cage, her derriere in full and barely clothed view, and would be told to perform a song or dance for the leering, jeering patrons. The spectacle became a smash hit, inspiring bawdy parlor songs. Baartman actually enjoyed a brief measure of dignity in her downtime from “performing”, but such luxuries were a thing of the past by the time the enterprise made its way to Paris.
There it was more of the same, in even more degrading circumstances. The French were so taken by the sight of her rear, and by thoughts of her supposedly altered genitalia, that scientists convened to prod, poke and examine her. She died of pneumonia, alcoholism, and despair in Paris on New Year’s Day, 1816, but that is not the end of the story.
Instead of being given a proper burial in France or her native land, Baartman was preserved like a prize specimen, remaining on display for another two centuries at Paris’ Museum of Natural History. The exhibit included a life-size statue, her preserved brain, and a wax model of her genitals. These were offered as proof positive, according to the scientific community of the 1800s, of the genetic inferiority of African people. It was not until 2002, after years of awareness raising and diplomatic wrangling, that Baartman’s remains were remanded to South Africa for a long-delayed, fitting memorial.
Author Barbara Chase-Riboud saw that Paris exhibit in the 1970s, and the images stuck with her. She would eventually set those images loose in Hottentot Venus (Doubleday, 2003), a historical novel which imagines Baartman commenting on her pain and circumstances, and imparts a measure of decency Baartman never experienced in life:
“Despite the filth around me, I was determined to remain clean, my skin soft and smooth, unblemished as when I polished it with whale fat. I spent my waking hours, out of the cage, trying out new grease and pomades, oiling my face and neck, my hands and feet, my breasts and thighs. I dipped my hands into the softness of kid, satin and velvet gloves, which I collected by the dozens. According to Alice, my body was, in fact, insured by Lloyd’s of London for more than five hundred pounds. This must have been my new owner’s idea. I could not imagine my former master, or my former husband, thinking of it. All that was so long ago. I no longer thought nor cared about it anymore, I couldn’t. I would go crazy if I did. All I wanted now as the hot peacefulness of my bath: to sink down into oblivion with my opium pipe and my gin. To live only in dreams. Dreams of a time when I was not a thing-that-should-never-have-been-born.”
Obviously, there is no direct correlation between the indignity of Baartman’s exploitation and the current sub-genre of big-bottomed video hotties; these modern-day Hottietots, if you will. Our hip-hop honeys haven’t been dissected and pickled by science, at least not yet. In a June 2004 essay on Playahata.com, Ooh Papi connected Baartman to hip-hop images in discussing, of all things, blue jeans (“Sara Baartman: Nelly’s Apple Bottom of the Century”). Apple Bottom jeans are supposedly designed and sewn to accommodate fuller rumps, which mass-market designer jeans apparently don’t do so well. Nothing wrong with that, all body types need to have clothes that properly fit them. The issue became problematic for Papi once it came time to market them.
Nelly there he goes again launched the brand, and set about a national search to find a spokesmodel. Ooh Papi’s essay, coming hot on the heels of Nelly’s Spelman debacle, railed against the indignity of a campaign tie-in with VH1 showing scads of young women from the butt only, divorced of any other body part of characteristic that might have meaning to someone. Yes, you’ve got to show jeans designed for specific body types being worn by those body types, but Papi felt the campaign established that “. . . once again, sistas are little more than the sum of their body parts.”
That level of exploitative commodification in our pop culture is what bothers black womanists and activists against sexism. They recognize the fact that Ford, Steffans, et al and Baartman may be worlds apart in some respects, but are indeed connected by a problematic and slippery slope. I’m not suggesting that these round-assed Hottietots are living and working in anything close to the indentured squalor that Baartman knew, or that the corporations that foot the bill for these videos, ads, and magazines are engaging in a spin-off of the slave trade. But what exactly is the difference between Baartman being prodded about in a cage and a black woman flapping her butt to sell phones?
Melyssa Ford and her cohorts have every right to do what they do. It is a legal product, it does not endanger anyone’s health, and no one is forced to consume their work. Indeed, given all the other pressing issues black women face these days (access to health care, inequitable wages, unfair working conditions, their growing presence in the criminal justice system, and I could go on), activists can probably come up with better things to do with their time than rail against stupid little videos of stupid little songs.
And if Ford can dictate the terms of when, where, and how much she disrobes, that’s more than Baartman ever got to do not to mention the legions of young women grinding away in strip clubs even as we speak, hoping to become the next Superhead. So on one level, that’s progress. It’s another way for black women to make decent coin (and one that, like it or not, has been available to white women for years), and for Ford, it’s been an entrée into opportunities less fraught with controversy.
But how does all this Hottietot rump shaking affect the young black boys and girls who consume it? And, for that matter, the young boys and girls of other ethnicities? Do they ignore the images and live for the beats? Or do they internalize a message that women need to have outstanding physical attributes in order to succeed? Do they come to expect that all women can or even want to shake their asses like strippers on command? Do they believe that bouncing booties are the black woman’s main gift to mankind? Do they indeed believe that any other gifts might be possible?
While these and related issues get bandied about at an academic conference or conclave of progressive sistas near you (or, most crucially, among educators and social service professionals who interact with young black girls) the beat goes on. On the flip side of her Eye Candy centerfold, Ford is modeling Apple Bottom jeans; I guess Nelly finally found his spokesmodel.
And the latest Black Men Swimsuit Extra special issue is devoted to Buffie the Body, who headed off for fame and fortune as a dancer (and I ain’t talking ballet) as soon as her 34-28-46 frame blossomed. In the magazine, we learn that she’d like to score an endorsement deal for a booze or clothing company, among her other career plans for ‘06. She’d strip for Playboy for not less than one million bucks. And several shots feature her nickname prominently tattooed on her right buttock. She likely considers it a cute piece of self-marketing. But it’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of a brand a slave master, pimp, or some other exploiter of black women might make.
Her nickname? “Tasty”.