SUNDAY TIMES - It's time to look beyond black women's behinds
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Sunday Times Lifestyle By Pearl Boshomane, 2016-01-10 00:00:00.0

It's time to look beyond black women's behinds

Cuban actress Yahima Torres as Sara Baartman in the 2010 film 'Black Venus'. Olivier Gourmet plays the impresario Reaux, who brought her to Paris to be displayed
Image: Supplied.

The hype about Beyoncé's non-existent Baartman project raises a more urgent question: when will we stop the visual theft of the black female physique?

When rumours circulated this week that Beyoncé Knowles was working on a film about Sara "Saartjie" Baartman, the ignorant headlines started flying.

"BEYONCÉ HAS BOT HER EYES ON WINNING AN OSCAR FOR FILM ABOUT LADY WITH GIANT REAR" was the UK Sun's interpretation.

"BEYONCÉ PENNING MOVIE BASED ON THE TRAGIC LIFE OF 'BUM WOMAN' SAARTJIE BAARTMAN" offered a Daily Mail tweet.

"BEYONCÉ WILL WRITE & STAR IN A MOVIE ABOUT THE INFAMOUS 'HOTTENTOT VENUS' SAARTJIE BAARTMAN" tweeted NY Mag.

The headlines, tweets and articles were cringeworthy at best and infuriating at worst because of the writers' total ignorance of her tragic story. Knowles's representative eventually told Billboard that the star was "in no way tied to this project". Many in SA breathed a collective sigh of relief at this, but the (mostly) angry reaction to the initial story says a lot.

Yes, we should have more South Africans telling South African stories. After all, no one can tell our stories as authentically as those who have - whether first-hand or through someone else - lived them.

We understand the nuance, the joy, the grief and the anger far better than someone who has never experienced our history.

But in the end it's not about who tells the story, but about telling it the way it deserves to be told.

‘La Belle Hottentot’, above, a 19th-century print by an unknown artist, shows Saartjie Baartman being scrutinised. Image: Supplied

Baartman's is a particularly sensitive and harrowing tale, and one that many South Africans are familiar with.

She was enslaved and sent to London (and later Paris) where she spent years as part of a freak show, put in a cage on display for white audiences who found her skin colour and physique grotesque.

She died at 26, cause unknown. And the occasional media treatment she has received in recent years has often been careless, even shameful.

In a 2014 article, the US feminist website Jezebel called Baartman "the original booty queen", writing that she was the original Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj. Seriously.

So why has such a well-known figure in our history yet to receive the biopic treatment in South Africa? (Director Zola Maseko made a documentary, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman, in 1998, and Baartman was the subject of a 2010 French film titled Black Venus.)

Perhaps it's because her story hits too close to home for us. Because the tale of Sara Baartman isn't something only of the past.

How so? Black women with big behinds are still treated like something of a freak show, something to be gawked at in South African adverts, TV shows and movies.

The big mama with the big booty is still a caricature, often used for comedic effect or as a costume. Remember the University of Pretoria students who dressed up as domestic workers for a party, complete with blackface, doeks and huge, padded behinds?

It goes beyond that. The obsession with the black female physique - especially a certain type of physique - strips black women of their agency and even their humanity.

Catcalling is a global problem, but it's particularly dangerous in a country such as South Africa, where the rape rate is frighteningly high.

Female bodies, and particularly black female bodies, are objectified to the point where their existence isn't for the women who own them, but for the pleasure of the men who lust after them.

It's as though once a woman has curves, she ceases to belong to herself and is for everyone else: their abuse, their pleasure, their perversions, their entertainment, their mockery.

Sara Baartman still doesn't have her dignity - 200 years after her death.

But perhaps we should concentrate instead on restoring the dignity of the many living women who are similarly treated, here and now, in South Africa.