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When We Analyze Representation in the Absence of Reality

Oh snap look at me back to posting once a week. *sips tea*

So Franchesca Ramsey has her own segment on MTV News called Decoded. The premise is essentially y’all people don’t read, stop being racist, let me break it down for you. It’s actually pretty good and necessary. The kind of thing young MTV viewers need to watch. (Insert joke about young white kids and music festivals.)

But the most recent episode engages in a conversation about representations of black women that has always bothered me.

It bothers me because I have trouble analyzing these painful stereotypes without talking about labor. Both the cultural labor done by the black women who play these characters and the real labor done by sex workers and domestic workers that these moments of pop culture claim to represent.

Ramsey starts with the Jezebel trope, which she refers to in the video’s opening as the “sexy prostitute.” She continues by (rightly) outlining the history of sexuality and rape as it relates to the context of imperialism in Africa and slavery in the United States. She continues by making reference to music videos and reality television as examples of the sexualization of black women in popular culture.

It’s not that I disagree with her. The idea of black women’s bodies being exploited for sexual pleasure is unsettling. But I worry about the sexual labor (and the women who perform said labor) getting erased in this conversation. Even in Ramsey’s video, we never hear from the women she references even though their voices are well represented in oral histories and interviews.

In this respect I am really grateful for the work of Mireille Miller-Young who teaches feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara. Miller-Young calls the work of video vixens a part of the illicit erotic economy. She so brilliantly incorporates the voices of sex workers and their analyses into a complex discourse on sexual agency and exploitation. It’s a difficult thing to do. I don’t always do it well. But I try. And it is something missing from this episode of Decoded that I noticed and couldn’t disregard.

Then, of course, Ramsey gets to the mammy figure.

She referred to the mammy as fat, old, and dark-skinned. At this point I began to itch. She related mammy’s aesthetic to her asexuality. Yes, mammy is supposed to be asexual. This is related to the history of sexual assault that domestic workers were often subject to. Sexuality is an important dimension of black women’s oppression as workers. But this doesn’t exactly come across in the whole “fat, old, and dark-skinned” description. It almost suggests that size, age, and skin color automatically mean undesirability. Not that I think this is what Ramsey intended. It’s just a sticky situation to unpack.

The video then delves into the “domestic work as the only work for black women” discourse. Again, it is true that black women were once restricted to domestic work. But it doesn’t mean that the work itself is degrading. Ramsey tackles the spectrum of black actresses from Hattie McDaniel to Octavia Spencer. They appear to be passive victims of representational oppression. But the work they do is cultural work. Both McDaniel and Spencer pay homage to the women who do the labor they represent on screen. Although they are certainly meant to be a part of the scope of media that limits black women, they represented those women workers with as much dignity and respect as they could creatively muster.

There is one thing that Ramsey says that I absolutely agree with. She argues that media plays a part in how we view the world around us. Yes. Yes. Yes. But what we don’t realize is the way that our conversations about representation get in the way of the important and urgent discourses about labor. It’s one of the biggest battles that domestic worker organizers must deal with.

Yes it’s complicated. Yes it’s difficult. But black women workers deserve as much complexity as we can give them when we are dealing with these issues. This isn’t Ramsey’s responsibility. The sharp-tongued and quick-witted nature that characterizes her critique is important for her audience. At the same time we have a responsibility to dig deeper. We can’t leave these complicated and sometimes contradictory discourses on the cutting room floor.

 

 

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About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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