It’s time to talk about fetishization

Sunday, December 6, 2020 - 4:43pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

This September, Netflix announced that it would start streaming the film “Cuties,” a French film directed by Senagalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré, and the Internet went wild.  “Cuties” is a coming of age film following an eleven-year-old girl who uses dance to explore her identity, against the ideals of her conservative family. The film has been critiqued for hypersexualizing young girls, as multiple characters under the age of twelve are depicted making sexually suggestive gestures throughout the movie. A rush of Netflix subscriptions cancellations followed, and the backlash was so strong that a Texas grand jury indicted the film for “promoting certain lewd material of children.” 

Some, however, defended the film, saying that many people were missing the point. The film was not a promotion but instead a commentary on the hypersexualization of young girls in today’s society. It was lewd, by nature, forcing us to have a conversation about the hypersexualization of young girls, especially during the age of social media, which was another common theme throughout the film.

This was the first time in my life that I have heard such an in-depth and purposeful conversation (albeit a short-lived one) about the hypersexualization of young girls, especially girls and women of color. As I reflected further, I started to realize how much this culture of hypersexualization has affected my own perception of my body as I grew into it as a young girl and a woman of color today. 

This hypersexualization of women of color is deeply rooted in our country’s history, dating all the way back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization. Professors LaKisha Simmons and Andrea Bolivar from the Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan introduced me to the historical contexts of the fetishization of women of color. 

“There was a concerted effort to define whiteness as proper humanity, and part of that definition involved what makes one a man and what makes one a woman,” Simmons explained in an interview with The Daily over Zoom. “And so you see, these conversations kind of intertwined with what we might say are excuses, or colonization, and stealing both land and human bodies.” 

There is concrete evidence for this in the writing accounts of early European colonizers and slave traders. In a 1997 paper, Jennifer L. Morgan, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, wrote, “Writers who articulated religious and moral justifications for the slave trade simultaneously grappled with the character of the female African body — a body both desirable and repulsive, available and untouchable, productive and reproductive, beautiful and Black.” 

Postcards with pictures of naked Indigenous and African women on them were even sent back to Europe to entice men to come to settle in the New World. These writings and postcards had a cynical underlying intention. 

“They're trying to justify access to bodies, whether for labor or force for sex and justified various forms of violence,” Simmons explained. “So on the one hand you have to say that these are not regular women like the ones back home, right? And then on the other hand, you're also saying that they're somehow extra desirable.” 

As a Latina myself, I was interested in what led to the hypersexualization of Latinas specifically. In an email interview with The Daily, Bolivar gave me valuable insight on the history of hypersexualization of Latinas in the U.S. 

“Scholars have argued that Latina women are constructed as hypersexual and overly romantic in order to distance them from, and thus bolster, the white heteronormative family and nation,” Bolivar said. “Racialized/sexualized stereotypes also justify violence, including sexual violence, against Latinas, and other women of color.” 

East Asian women also experience hypersexualization. Like other WOC, they are exoticized and fetishized for their looks. They are stereotyped as being submissive, a justification for access to their bodies. 

This issue is further complicated when we look at the intersectionality between being a woman of color and in the LGBTQ+ community. Bolivar, whose research allows her the opportunity to work with transgender Latinas in Chicago, explained the challenges faced in this overlap of identities. 

“They challenge cisgender notions about gender, the body, and the relationship between gender and the body, and they challenge the gender binary — all of which are foundational to personhood and membership in larger society,” Bolivar explained. “As a result, their bodies are objectified, fetishized, and hypersexualized.” 

At the inception of the country we know of today as the United States, those in power — white, land-owning men — were creating systems and a culture that inherently served to disempower WOC. In fact, colonizers associated African and Indigenous women with wildlife to justify the inhumane treatment of these groups. 

“Hypersexuality is associated with animaility, so claiming that they were hypersexual bolstered the association with animals, which of course justified genocide and enslavement,” Bolivar wrote. “We, as a nation, have inherited that reality, but have yet to reckon with it. BIPOC and BIWOC have inherited this trauma in our bodies.” 

These systems continue to exist today and have a lasting impact on the women of color living in the United States. For example, the U.S. gender wage gaps disproportionately affect women of color. For every $1 a white man makes, Latina/Hispanic women make $0.54, American Indian and Alaskan native women make $0.57, Southeast Asian women make $0.61, Black women make $0.62 and Hawaiin/ Pacific Islander women make $0.68. This inequity makes sense, considering the systems that exist were built to the benefit of whiteness and maleness, viewing those of color as “others” or exotic beings existing in a completely different category.

Women of color today are also more prone to experience acts of domestic and sexual violence. Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate that is 35 percent higher than their white women counterparts. Transgender women of color are also a group very vulnerable to this abuse. A 2012 study showed that 61.5% of victims from hate violence homicide were women, many of whom were transgender women.  

“It is incredibly important to recognize violence against trans women of color,” Bolivar said. “That is the first step in combating it. However, at the same time, trans women of color have become associated with death, which is dehumanizing and dangerous.” 

As far as standards of beauty are concerned, women of color still exist in a dichotomous space where we are both disgusting and desired at the same time. This weird place of fetishization is fixated on all forms: from our hair texture to our curves to our accents. We are constantly “othered” and outcast in the workplace or in school, but we are simultaneously considered the most beautiful women in the world.

Growing up, I subconsciously felt this tug of war inside of me. I am Dominican and Danish, existing in two different worlds with two very different standards of beauty. I was raised in New York City, in spaces that were predominately white, where I was seen as different from many of my peers. When my Caribbean curves began to form, changing the shape underneath my dance leotards, and as my breasts and hips grew, stretching the fabric of my favorite clothes, a sense of shame began to creep in. When I walked down the street, the male gaze became more aggressive — more like a hungry stare. I began to dissociate from my body. 

I did benefit from many privileges in my Dominican culture because I have glimpses of European features: light brown skin, hazel eyes, “good” curls, a curvy physique, a European last name. My POC peers would reach for my curls and gently tug to test if my hair was real. They would ask me to look into the sunlight so they could observe the golden specks in my hazel eyes and see if they were just contacts. I would be told that my brown skin made me look taína, the Indigenous people of my country, which is the utmost compliment in Dominican culture. I was made to feel beautiful as if I was a uniquely and meticulously handcrafted piece of art. 

At the same time, I was told that many of the things that made me beautiful in my Dominican culture were ugly in the white spaces I existed in. White peers of mine would ask if they could feel my boobs or if I could flash them, as if they had never seen a woman with curves before. They would assume that I slept around often and asked about my sexual experience, but would also say that I would get more attention from guys if my skin was a lighter shade. It is in these spaces that my white peers felt entitled to my body: to critique my shape, to ask me personal questions about my sex life and to touch me. It’s as if I have been walking down a tightrope my entire life, teetering between being beautiful by some and undesirable by others. 

Of course, standards of beauty shift with time — they are never stagnant. What was considered beautiful for women in the 1960s is not the same as what was considered beautiful for women in the 90s. When I scroll through my Instagram feed, I notice that the standard of beauty emerging seems to be something I was once made to feel ashamed about: having curves. Namely, having a big butt and big boobs.

Enter the Kardashians/Jenners. I really do believe that Kim Kardashian and her family have made big butts and breasts more acceptable and desirable in mainstream society. This is illuminating in itself: A family of white women using their privilege to iconize what has been used to stigmatize women of color for centuries. 

“It's really about monetizing Blackness or whatever, but they can do it in a way that actual Black women cannot … It's actually like leaning into your privilege as a white person to be able to use Black culture and style and look, and then make money off of it,” Simmons explained. 

But this is nothing new. The entertainment and music industry has a long history of hijacking ethnic minority cultures for profit.

Reflecting on the scope of and my own personal experiences with this issue made me feel stuck. How could I possibly fight a problem that is both so deeply rooted in our society and in my internal dialogue? 

Then, while I was trying to pick out what to listen to for a run one day, I coincidentally stumbled upon Brene Brown’s podcast “Unlocking us” with Sonya Renee Taylor on her book “The Body Is Not an Apology.” The description of the podcast mentioned words of radical self-love, which I reflexively rolled my eyes at. I have stuffed my mind before with one too many self-love podcasts and books, telling me how I can grow more comfortable in my own skin. Would this one be able to offer me anything different? But I was going on a long-distance run and needed something inspiring to listen to, so I gave it a try. I expected the podcast to be cliché, filled with talk about ways to love yourself and to become comfortable in your own skin by accepting yourself for who you are. 

Boy, was I wrong. 

Instead, Taylor presented self-love as a means of social activism. She went on to discuss how systems in our society tell so many people to dislike their bodies — from people with disabilities to people of color to plus-size people. By constantly putting ourselves down and apologizing for our appearances, we are contributing and upholding the same systems which disempower us. I had goosebumps for the entire hour or so of my run.

But expecting every WOC to reject all systems which oppress them is a tall order to ask. We all have different experiences, traumas and identities we hold that must be dealt with and understood. It’s a personal journey. So I turned to academics for perhaps a more clear answer: I asked Bolivar what I and fellow women of color could do to walk the fine line of sexual empowerment without feeling like we are being exoticized.  

“Something that felt empowering yesterday may feel icky today,” Bolivar said. “So I guess my one piece of advice would be to check in with yourself often. And don’t hold yourself to others’ expectations about how you “should” feel, and what “should” be empowering or disempowering,” she responded. 

That’s just it. The journey into growing into your sexually empowered self is a personal one. It’s not linear, it’s dependent on circumstances, a trial and error. But it requires being gentle and compassionate with yourself, even when all external pressures and your subconscious want to do otherwise. 

I can only hope that the conversations surrounding the hypersexualization of WOC don’t just stop with the conversations we had in September on the film “Cuties.” Uncomfortable conversations and confrontations with reality need to be conducted. The most empowering thing we can do is have those conversations in a way that doesn’t victimize women, instead, acknowledging their positions and honoring their stories. It’s time to freely talk about fetishization and challenge the systems in place that uplift these attitudes.