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I found the video to be touching and frustrating and a super tribute to those out there who are resisting in the spotlight. It was a moment of incredible vulnerability, strength, and determination.
The article in Ms. magazine doesn’t really have anything to do with Nicki Minaji, though I thought it helped set the scene. Janell Hobson shares with us the story of “Sara (Saartjie) Baartman, a South African woman who was exhibited in England and in Paris as the ‘Hottentot Venus‘ between 1810 and 1815.” Just a few years before Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
The premise of Baartman’s Hottentot Venus show focused on her supposedly too-large behind and the belief in her “missing link” status as a “Hottentot,” a now derogatory term used to describe the Khoisan ethnic group residing at the Cape of South Africa. That group was believed to be so “primitive,” straddling the line between human and animal, that only they would find someone like Baartman to be a “Venus.” Any white man who found Baartman desirable was in danger of “reverting” back to his “primitive” form (even though Victorian ladies donned bustles later in the century).
Shelley, who wrote her science fiction as a criticism of scientific violations of the natural world and the “mad” scientists who obsessed over “penetrating nature’s secrets,” may have had men like Cuvier in mind. Cuvier literally penetrated such secrets in his dissection and preservation of Baartman’s brain and genital organs. His thesis, which compared Baartman’s genitalia to those of orangutans, formed the basis for much of 19th-century scientific racism, which later evolved into eugenics. Of course present-day science is quick to remind us that race is a social construct and not based in biology, but popular culture can keep this strain of thinking alive with its reductionist representations of black (and white) female sexuality.
As Hobson points out in the comment section of her article, the connection between Nicki Minaj’s SNL skit and the Hottentot Venus through the decades relies on the universal understanding and agreement that a Black woman’s body is funny. That is a powerful idea.