#EpicFail When @Jezebel Wanted to make Saartjie Baartman Relevant to Millenials

You know how feminists worry that feminism is dead, and that young women are dismissing the possibility of fashioning powerful, self-directed, and critical subjectivities, and instead framing themselves as idiot sexpots? Because of this fear, publications and online media aimed at reigniting feminism try too hard to cater to the millennial generation, in hopes of drawing them to something better than Beyonce’s team’s ability to co-opt conveniently edited portions of the message of feminism in order to get people to buy her shit. That might explain Jezebel’s attempt to exploit Paper magazine’s cover fetishising the sexual power of Kim Kardashian’s buttocks – and the Kardashian family’s choice to use their female members’ bodies and sexualities to create lucrative careers as twenty-first century courtesans – by comparing it to the exploitation of a Khoekhoe woman who, in the 1800s, was forced to daily and nightly exhibit her buttocks to European audiences.

The article, titled “Saartjie Baartman: The Original Booty Queen”, was written by Cleuci de Oliveira.

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First reactions on Twitter:

Why did Twitter go nuts after this poorly-researched article was posted? Because de Oliveira asserts that like “Nicki [Minaj], and Kim,” Baartman, too, “was already asserting a complicated dignity” and that she was “already demanding our respect [by] building a career with [her] assets.” She declares Baartman had agency (I can’t make this stuff up), and that although “her choice also brought her into a world of immense tragedy and humiliation,” she did choose, and her choices “took her across the world, and offered her experiences beyond her certain destiny as a household maid.” de Oliveira further insists, “Baartman chose to perform,” and to deny that “would be to continue to victimize a figure who has already suffered too much tragedy in life as well as death.” Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, here are de Oliviera’s last words on the matter:

[Baartman] surely had complicated relationships she must have had with the men who oversaw her career; she surely had complex feelings towards the societal anxiety and colonial fetishism that allowed her to be famous in the first place. But what is essential to remember is that she never acquiesced to being treated as property. Within the framework she was given, she was always an agent in her own path. She viewed herself as a performer, not a tool for scientific advancement, nor an educational resource for museumgoers, nor a patrimony of the state.

Again, from Twitter, here’s more. ‏‪@BlackGirlNerds:

Katy Alexander (‏‪@nuthinfunnytsay)

All this nonsense about “choice” and “agency” makes me think of my ENG 204 “Intro to Theory” students who just learnt the terms, and are dying to say that every woman – be they immigrant, Black, Latina, Chicana, undocumented meat-packing plant worker – has the ability to make choices, and if they make choices that are damaging to them (like, for instance, marrying a man for financial safety and legal papers, though he mistreats her), that is a “bad choice”. They, too, like Oliveira, don’t yet recognise the horrific decisions (not choices) people who are subjugated must make in order to survive the terrible circumstances they face within specific historical circumstances and geographical locations. Those decisions reflect, in actuality, lack of real choices, and a limited level of agency. I have faith that my sophomore students will get that by the end of the semester. But de Oliviera, a full-fledged journo? I don’t know. And why didn’t Jezebel’s credentialed editors catch her terrible suppositions? Jezebel’s byline for Oliveira states that she “is a journalist based in New York City. She writes about art, culture, and Latin America.” Many blamed her status as an American, and as a “white Latina” for her ignorant suppositions and conclusions.

But one’s origins and one’s current geo-political locations are hardly an excuse. After all, I’m a Sri Lankan-born, Zambian-raised, US-educated brownish woman. I still have the responsibility to do sound research on the material I intend to publish – because thousands may read it, and be informed by it. Even if one person read my erroneous assumptions positioning an exploited woman from the Cape Colony as someone who had the same level of agency as a Kardashian, I’ve done some serious damage.

And that’s what de Oliveira did (and what Jezebel allowed to be published on their platform). A more historically accurate history of Baartman: she was a woman who was born in the 1770s “in the Camdeboo, or ‘Green Valley,’ some 400 miles from Cape Town,” whose “people were cattle-herding Gonaqua, a subgroup of the Khoekhoe”, who may or may not have known “what she was getting into” (Crais and Scully). Baartman was subsequently paraded out on view, and European audiences viewed themselves against the savage/colonised other’s bodily difference (expressing itself here as a fascination of savage/colonised other’s buttocks) in order to fulfill their (European) desire to amalgamate their self-view as the “norm”. Given the realities Baartman faced, positioning her as a woman who has as much “choice” in marketing her body and sexuality as commodities – à la Nicki Minaj and Kim K – is a grotesque assessment.

de Oliveira does concede the following:

Baartman was on the Piccadilly stage six days a week. At night, she performed in private parties at the residences of the elite and in London’s salons. On Sundays, she rode a carriage through town, waving to the crowds like royalty. Her exhaustion soon became apparent onstage. She was cranky, and often sick.

However, de Oliveira did did untold damage to what the historical record shows about Baartman. And Jezebel gave her a platform to do that damage – over 180,000 people have read it at the time of writing, and gushing comments below praise the “historical context” provided by the article:

bloodsweatZOMBIE: “Articles like this – well-researched, nuanced, adding historical context to today’s topics, sharply analyzed, and well-written- are my favorite part of the Jez: The Next Generation”

In the most well-researched and up-to-date history of Baartman, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, authors Clifton C. Crais and Pamela Scully write:

“At the very moment before she goes on the ship, and in the months before, she insists she would not go to England without Hendrik Cesars coming with her. . . . But of course, as a poor woman, and as a woman, the parameters of her being able to control her life were quite narrow.”

Why did Bartman go with men who had no good intentions for her? Before she and the men were about to leave Cape Town, Baartman reportedly told Cesars’ (one of the men who orchestrated her passage out of South Africa, and her European shows) wife, “Who will give me anything here?” I’ll leave you with a paragraph by Crais and Scully, one that that all Jezebel-feminists must read, meditate upon, and internalise:

Colonized people survived colonial cultures through dissemblance of their motives and hopes from settlers and slaveholders … Would Sara indeed have considered that it would be politically feasible for her to speak truth to power?

Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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