Tag Archives: African women

Fanon & the representations of black beauty in popular culture

From Thinking Africa “Fanon, black female sexuality and representations of black beauty in popular culture”
by Efemia Chela, 2012

Frantz Fanon’s works are all very personal. Black Skins, White Masks, a treatise on the lived experience of being black is based on his experiences in Martinican society, being a student and then a black doctor in France. A Dying Colonialism is the Algerian War through the prism of his work with the FLN and The Wretched of The Earth arises from his experiences visiting post-colonial African countries, interacting with future African leaders and observing colonial and native elites. Even though Fanon was a man his oeuvre have great relevance to women and this piece will focus on the representation of black women in Fanon’s works and how his observations can be used to analyse contemporary depictions of black beauty in popular culture and hip-hop. This essay will also address the dimensions of black female sexuality and the similarities between sexism and racism.

Of the woman of colour and her psychosexuality, Fanon writes, “I know nothing about her” (Fanon, 1986: 138) but here he sells himself short. Babha (1986) recognises that Fanon can be used to “site the quest of sexual difference within the problematic of cultural differences” (Babha,1986: xxiv).
For centuries, black women have been exoticised and viewed as hypersexual beings. Sara Baartmann was exhibited across Europe for this reason. Her large buttocks were displayed during what was termed a cultural exposition but was really a exploitation and more of a zoo viewing with audience gasping and “prodding at her” (Collins, 2005: 10) . Her supposed wild sexuality was manifest in her large bottom and her entire act was used as a tool to other her and black women, while upholding white superiority and contrasting Sarah Baartman to the ideals of white beauty. It was assumed that black people’s inability to subdue their rampant sexuality and sublimate their desire into civilisation, progress and decency was seen as justification for their subjugation.
Using Fanon this essay will argue that this idea continues to the present day and is somewhat perpetuated by hip-hop culture, the precarious nature of black masculinity and the unchallenged pre-eminence of white female beauty.
Beauty and Inadequacy
Fanon describes the black man as suffering “from an inadequacy” and a “feeling of insignificance” (Fanon, 1986: 35). He describes how black men want to be “powerful like the white man” (Fanon, 1986: 36) and while women undoubtably want power too, they are particularly prone to wanting to be beautiful like white women who are held up as paragons of beauty. Black women look for themselves in the mirror of popular culture and never see themselves reflected accurately or at all. So they endeavour to make themselves look more like the white characters they see portrayed. They are subtly taught to hate themselves. This hate is “constantly cultivated” (Fanon, 1986: 37) and the black woman becomes her own abuser. As Fanon says:
“Hate demands existence, and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate.” (Fanon, 1986: 37)
In The Wretched of The Earth, Fanon speaks about the colonial elite who leave the country after liberation and the black elite who fill the existing social vacuum. This “native elite” (Fanon, 1963: 7), “intellectual and economic elite” (Fanon, 1963: 61) or “young nationalist bourgeoise” (Fanon, 1963: 62) was co-opted even before the revolution started and has been groomed to take over the reigns. Fanon calls them figuratively – “whitewashed”. I would argue that for black women, Fanon’s description of whitewashing manifests physically as well as mentally. Black women can have a relationship with a white man to lactify themselves but they can also act out the lactification process on themselves. This is something that post-colonial society, still oriented around white values encourages and black women uphold and partake in.
A look at popular culture shows how much light-skinned women are prized over dark-skinned women. Sharpley-Whiting writes that most women chosen to feature in hip hop videos are “fairer-skinned, ethnically mixed or of indeterminate ethnic/racial origins” (Sharpley-Whiting, 2007: 27) meaning they can pass for white or their blackness is not so prominent as to be out of line with prevailing standards of beauty.  The same can be said for the Hollywood film industry where there are few roles for black women. In keeping with lighter-skinned privilege, the only woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in A Leading Role has been the light-skinned, Halle Berry in 2001. Viola Davis the comparatively darker-skinned actress of film, The Help (2011) who was nominated in the last Oscar ceremony for the same prize complains, “It’s just the politics, you know. It’s just the politics of it all…There’s just not a lot of lead roles for women who look like me”[1] .  Continue on Frantz Fanon – Thinking Africa

Myths of African women on the rise?

Does having a female president benefit ordinary women?  As part of the BBC’s Africa Debate programme, Malawian feminist and women’s rights campaigner, Jessie Kabwila, discusses the significance of  the “rise of African women” in leadership positions and whether this has any real impact on the lives of African women.   The debate reminded me of the one following the election of President Obama which asserted the US was now  post-racial – a dangerous assertion which attempts to erase racial realties.  The claim that African women are on the rise is also dangerous and part of a movement to gloss over African realities.  And not just because  there are only a  handful of African women in leadership positions, or even  because of the erroneous expectation that women in leadership would automatically act in the interest of women and against patriarchy but because nothing in the superstructure has changed.   This is very much not the case.  One point Jessie emphasises is the narrative which blames women for being complicit in their oppression. As Jessie points out we need to stop  this and  understand how patriarchy works in manipulating and constructing identities to its own interest…..

It is easy to believe that women are on the rise in Africa, especially when one considers that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia and Joyce Banda that of Malawi. From July 2012, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma took over the leadership of the African Union. Indeed, the list of women occupying spaces of power is growing.

However, a few questions need to be asked before we can say women are on the rise or not.

Firstly, what is the main source of oppression for women of Africa and can they rise from it, by becoming president of a country?

What constitutes women being on the rise in Africa? Who are the women of Africa? More specifically, are the women who are “rising” representative of women in Africa?

Research clearly illustrates that the principle of male supremacy is the engine of the oppression of many African women.

For women to be on the rise, the ideology of seeing men as people who are superior to women has to be brought to an end.

In the context of such gender relations, one wonders if one woman’s joining of the nation state – especially given its sexist character – really makes a difference?

I would argue that unless one changes the male-privileging structure that has produced that woman, both in and outside the state, the one she has have risen through and become master at, her joining of the state is often a cooptation, a process that demands her to become a “man”.

In fact, her very survival in the position depends on her ability to perform this manhood and assure the status quo that she will continue to privilege men and manhood.

‘Laughable’

Another factor that is crucial to remember is that right now, only two out of 54 African countries are being led by women.

This pathetically imbalanced proportion is being read by some as women being on the rise.

This is laughable, particularly when one remembers that women constitute over half of the population in most countries in Africa.

Imagine if after the independence struggles only two out of the 54 countries were being led by Africans – I do not think that would be read as Africans being on the rise.

For women to be on the rise, whatever the woman leader does must trickle down to the other women.

This means we have to change and transform the colonial structures imposed on the African social landscape such as the modern state, organized religion, global capitalism, reinvent male privileging institutions that oppress women at personal and communal levels such such as marriage.

When we say African women are on the rise, we need to be sure if we are talking about leadership or structure.

What needs to change is the structure to enable women to emerge from the base, instead of being appointed.

Transformation is needed but this can only occur with the transformation of the whole system.

Political power has a lot to do with the people who surround the leader, it comes from the structure. The women in power are often surrounded by men in a system that is constructed to serve men.

It is also sad that many times, women are appointed into positions stereotyped to be for women.

A good example is Joyce Banda’s choice for minister of gender.

In order to change the patriarchal gender ideologies and show that women are fit to be leaders, it would be good to appoint them into ministries such as defence.

This can help contest the political culture and tradition.

Elite women

The majority of African women are poor, living in the rural areas and illiterate.

The bulk of the women who are “rising” are not from this class.

Ms Zuma, Sirleaf and Banda are card-carrying members of the ruling elite, socially and politically.

One could ask how do we ensure women truly rise in Africa?

This is where one needs well-researched, effectively implemented and monitored affirmative action programmes.

These need to be home-grown and owned.

Botswana and Rwanda are examples of African countries that are registering significant gains in women’s participation in political power.

Affirmative action is what addresses structural imbalances, not having one woman running government.

Women need to be in leadership positions in various board rooms, political parties and spaces of knowledge production such as the university, just to mention a few.

If we can get 50% of boards and parliaments to be “womaned” by women, then you have opened space bottom up, instead of just having one woman up there, in a structure that is hostile to women.

A female-friendly state

A female president can make a huge difference in her country and this can be in increasing women’s participation in democracy, making sure that the state is accessible to women.

She will make sure that their voices, especially that of the uneducated, the rural illiterate, are taken into consideration and not belittled by being assumed or spoken for.

A woman president can champion issues concerning women.

But the woman leader has to remember that the male supremacy principle is used to control resources and power and when threatened, it mutates and reinvents itself, reminding the woman leader that she will be punished by those peddling and benefiting from this male privileging, if she does not maintain and reproduce it.

So the woman president has to be an organic leader – one who takes gender justice as a principle.

She has to be someone whose political capital resides in having integrity, truth and justice, not populist loyalty.

Because of the globality and interconnectedness of indigenous, colonial and capitalist male privileging ideologies, an African woman president must be prepared not to be voted back into office but focus on standing for what is right.

Woman mourning in DR Congo
Would a female president be less likely to engage in war?

Such a stand will most likely be costly politically and its fruits take time to be registered.

They are not short term, yet politics is built and thrives on short term results.

Such a leader knows that change is not an event, it is a process and the benefits of a woman-friendly stand will most likely be harvested in the long run and by other people.

This kind of a woman leader is committed to the greater good, the collective vision, not the next election or the ability of her post materially benefiting herself and those surrounding her.

Such a woman president would not use and depend on recycled politicians as they are clear products of a “boys club” that has survived on mastering and playing the political field, an entity that has historically been modeled on corrupt male forms of power.

The woman president would handle issues of the economy in an astute, mature, meticulously informed manner because she knows that poverty informs issues that produce and propel women’s oppression such as gender-based violence, maternal death, HIV and Aids, and the impact of adverse climate change.

This woman would demonstrate that she is aware that many African women are in the informal sector and they live in situations rife with power relations skewed against them locally and globally at race, gender and class levels.

The way she handles issues such as devaluations would illustrate that she knows that such things are lethal to the poor, uneducated and those living with HIV and Aids, the majority of whom are women.

One could ask what a non-male dominated state would look like.

Firstly, the state would prioritise female participation in various institutions, bottom up, top down and horizontally, especially in issues that concern women.

Structures that produce political power would be reconfigured to invite and accommodate women in their large numbers, starting by deconstructing ways of running the state that favour male forms of power.

Such a state would adopt a feminist approach to development and fighting poverty, maternal death, HIV/Aids and climate change.

Women are often seen campaigning but the men end up in power

In such a state, a woman would not be a second-class citizen and women’s empowerment and personhood would be an issue of priority.

Issues that oppress women would take centre stage in state-sponsored programmes.

Women’s labour would be recognised and rewarded, including what is done at home and in private and informal spaces.

It is good that the number of women in positions of authority in Africa is increasing but for this to constitute a rise in the definition and lives of women in Africa, the structure that produces what is called a person, man, woman and power has to change.

After that, you can begin to ask if the emergence of women like Joyce Banda means a rise for women of Africa.

Listen to a radio broadcast of  a panel discussion on African women on the rise.