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This is the fourth part in a series on Sara Baartman.

Baartman, as an icon of the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality, has been widely appropriated in academic analysis. The theoretical tendency to reproduce rather than challenge biological essentialism has meant that Baartman has become objectified over again, even in the guise of challenges. The main problem is continued positioning of Baartman’s body as the site of difference. What has regularly been ignored by academics is their own complicity in making Baartman’s body so. And a good part of that is tied up with making that body take on contemporary meanings without reference to the specificity of how Baartman’s body has been constructed in given historical moments.

In particular, Sander Gilman’s work on Baartman and visuality is among the more popular academic works on Baartman. See ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature’, in Critical Inquiry 12 from 1985). Or, don’t see: it’s a disturbing read because, as Qureshi points out, ‘its emphasis upon female genitalia and use of explicit visual material with little supporting discussion can appear voyeuristic’. You flip a page, and there’s a huge illustration of genitals staring back at you. So, read at your own risk.

With Gilman, again Baartman’s body is the focus, and the framing of gender and sexuality through race as located in this individual rather than acknowledged as culturally produced. Zine Magubane is my favourite academic on Baartman along with Qureshi. In her ‘Which Bodies Matter? Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretical Odyssey of the “Hottentot Venus”’ (Gender and Society 15, 2001) she says that ‘Gilman’s theoretical adherents, with little question and much enthusiasm, took up the idea that Baartman’s physical stigmata transformed her into a representation’ of black womanhood.

Her biology, then, is again being appropriated as an impossible embodiment of all the varied physical features and experiences of sexualised black womanhood. That she can be expected to embody black womanhood at all is rife with problems, as she wasn’t necessarily part of groups classified as black during her lifetime, even if her story definitely is tied up with the oppression of black women now (see the beginning posts of this series). Magubane notes that ‘scholars have so readily accepted Gilman’s claim that the mere sight of Baartman produced a uniform and unvarying ideological response’ – so where is there room to ask what Baartman might have meant to a variety of groups? Maybe even some who don’t think plastering images of vulvae over journal pages is the best way to defend someone whose genitals have been focussed on by millions?

Let’s get specific. Not only does this essentialise Baartman at the expense of social analysis, it makes invisible how responses differ between Baartman’s time and now. For instance, Gilman notes that “Hottentots” were representative of ‘the essence of the black, especially the black female,’ making invisible that “Hottentots” were in the nineteenth century often considered a separate race to other peoples presently considered black. When academic analyses focus on Baartman’s body rather than the contexts marking it as singular and other, they miss the ethnographic data for biological essentialism, erasing evolving ideas of racial difference. That Gilman’s talk of black essences (for goodness sake) was taken seriously by the academy pinpoints that the manner in which Baartman ‘has been constructed as a theoretical object highlight[s] the inherent dangers in the deployment of any theory without due attention to historical specificity’ (Magubane).

Academics really should know better than to use Baartman as a touchstone ready to be appropriated for any work on blackness, art, objectification, or similar. Academic work on Baartman, particularly in the tradition of Gilman, has often reproduced the minimising framings of identity categories they purport to tease out, simply because they do not turn the lens of analysis inward or on broader society.