Thursday, August 24, 2006

Becky Got Back:
The Age of White Girl Booty Bling

Oh my God
Becky, look at her butt
It is so big
She looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends
But y'know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her

Because she looks like a total prostitute ('kay)
I mean her butt, it's just so big
I can't believe it's so round
It's like out there
I mean, it's so gross
Look, she's just so black …

-- “Baby Got Back”
Sir Mix-A-Lot

According to celebrity gossip Web site, Jessica Biel is the new J-Lo – and she’s got the goods to back it up.

Black women are still reeling that Jennifer Lopez was crowned Booty of the Decade – a title they felt had been hijacked from swarthier contenders like Janet, Serena or BeyoncĂ©. Now comes the news that a white B-list actress is redefining bootylicious. To some, that’s almost as blasphemous as plastering Jessica Simpson’s dimpled mug on a box of Dark & Lovely.

“White women with butts like black girls” is a relatively new cultural phenomenon, and some may say – cheekily – fashion statement. In recent years, booty bling has been the must-have accessory to rock from the clubs to the red carpet. Balenciaga bag? Check. Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals? Check. Booty bling? Double check.

Rasheeda has been none too thrilled about Becky bum rushing an anatomical arena largely deemed the province of black women. Sisters still shudder over Bo Derek’s wispy braids and the "Parisian pout" being sported by many non-blacks whose French is limited to Moet et Chandon. Hair, lips and the bootay are racial signifiers, visible symbols of blackness that the larger society has historically viewed with derision. Some wonder which body part will be co-opted next and elevated to high fashion – the nose? According to bell hooks, “Separated from a political and historical context, ethnicity is being reconstituted as the new frontier, accessible to all, no passes or permits necessary.”

So back to the booty. Why all the hatin' on Becky’s newfound butt muscles? "Fat bottomed girls make the rockin' world go round," as Queen informs us, so shouldn’t every woman want to hit the StairMaster or Pilates studio? For many sisters, the issue is larger than simply wanting to look good in a pair of Seven jeans. Bootyjackin' is reminiscent of Elvis Presley "stealing" black music then being credited as the originator of it – cultural appropriation at its finest. Another viewpoint is that sisters struggle with issues of invisibility and marginality, while simultaneously being hypersexualized in everything from Cognac ads to your garden-variety rap video. As author and journalist Lisa Jones writes in Bulletproof Diva, "Black women don’t have faces or souls, just big ol' butts."

The posterior is political. Black women have had junk in the trunk for centuries, yet mainstream America has never given them accolades on the level of La Lopez, and now Biel. Quite conversely, the black female butt has been the subject of ridicule and revulsion throughout the ages. In her essay, "Venus Envy," Jones explores the majority culture's reverence/repulsion toward the booty. She gives the example of Saarjite Baartman, a young South African woman who was displayed naked in a cage in London during the early 1800s. A British doctor brought Baartman from Capetown to exploit her big butt, and she was publicly exhibited for over five years. After her death, the "Hottentot Venus" was dissected, and her genitalia preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. Jones muses that young Saarjite’s preservation "was used to support almost a century’s worth of myths of white racial superiority." Those Londoners who shelled out big bucks to sneer at Baartman’s buttocks would be rolling over in their graves to know that some white women now shell out big bucks to rock that same "primitive" look.

Several questions arise out of the renewed interest in the black booty aesthetic: What defines blackness, and can race be appropriated? As a modestly endowed sister (some would say gluteally-impaired), I've got my own issues with the revered/reviled rump. My tiny tush has always made me feel like less of a black woman. Growing up, my proper English, lack of double dutch skills, and flat butt nearly qualified me for white womanhood. So, the irony is not lost on me when I see my perky freckle-faced Pilates instructor sporting the equivalent of double Ds in the back of her spandex pants, and when I tell said instructor that I want a "butt like hers." Not like Beyoncé or Janet, but like Becky. It's almost as if she has more soul than I do, that she has membership in an exclusive club I've been trying to join all my life. But as she grabs a handful of heinie, and commands the similarly endowed white women in class to do likewise and "Give the booty some love!" I realize that having a curve-free butt doesn't make me less soulful than she, and a plump tush doesn't automatically enroll her in the nationalist club. Even though others may see Becky as the total package, I'm not in competition with her. In a room full of booty blinging white women, I found my own shine. To paraphrase Ntozake Shange, I saw the bootylicious goddess in me and loved her fiercely!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mel's Still in the News **
(An Ode to Black Women's Depression)

Depression hit my sister Nell
(with Mel G. in the news)
Black women know this pain quite well
(but Mel is in the news)
Can’t find no stats on her dis-ease
(while Mel is in the news)
Don’t mean she’s not in misery
(and Mel is in the news)
They tell her “just get over it”
(while Mel is in the news)
'Cause black girls can’t be mentally sick
(but Mel’s still in the news)
Gotta be a strong sis, wife and mother
(and Mel is in the news)
When she’d rather stay under her covers
(with Mel G. in the news)
Wondering if she’d be better off dead
She finally took Zoloft instead
But she refuses to go get therapy
‘Cause that’s a white girl thing, you see
Depression hit my sister Nell
(with Mel G. in the news)
Black women know this pain quite well
(but Mel is in the news)
Never will she give her sickness voice
(hmmm! Mel is in the news)
Just put on her game face and rejoice
(while Mel’s still in the news)

**A shout out to Gil Scott-Heron's
"Whitey on the Moon"