Prove It On Me: Postfeminism, Postcivil Rights, and African-American Women's Sexuality

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: American Studies


When do contemporary African American women express themselves artistically in the face of stereotypes of African American women as either pretentious jezebels or asexual mammy figures? Both historical and contemporary dynamics insure that these expressions are subject to shifting race and gender discourses. In the early 1990s, the mainstream press declared feminism dead because equality between the sexes was achieved. Unlike their feminist foremothers, according to this narrative, today's young women enjoy both sexual freedom and pay parity. This new state of gender affairs is heralded as the postfeminist era. Claiming that we are now in a post-civil rights era, advocates believe the largest black middle class in U.S. history and high ranking black officials in the President's inner circle are evidence that racism is a thing of the past. Correctives to decades of institutional racism, such as affirmative action, worked and are no longer needed.

Postfeminist and post-civil rights discourses neglect the continued racism and sexism African American women experience. While, as a group, African­ American women demonstrate significant achievements in education and the workplace, representations in popular culture remain conflicted. Defined according to stereotypes about their sexuality, historically African American women have responded to this misrepresentation by condemning women who do express their sexual selves. Yet, there are also women who have claimed sexual liberation and express this sentiment in their artistic expressions. From performing in hip hop music videos to crafting poetic responses to African American male misogyny to embracing positive representations of the African-American female body, these expressions vary in their reception. This study takes the standard paradigm of 'participation equals exploitation' and explores how some women participate in popular culture n sexually expressive ways that they find liberating. At the same time, there are formal and informal forces that deem these expressions inappropriate because they violate societal gender and race norms.

The four sections of this interdisciplinary project use in-depth interviews, ethnographic participant-observation, and textual analysis. The first focuses on the case Sarah Jones v. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and uses radio history, meaning-making, and feminist theory to understand the federal government's attempt to censor radio airplay of her poem 'Your Revolution.' Her song, seen by many critics as an assertion of feminist sexual agency, was labeled indecent. The FCC, which regulates all radio in the U.S., levied a $7000 fine for KBOO Community Radio, Portland, Oregon. The radio station appealed--Mat a cost of $24,000""" but it was only when Jones launched her own lawsuit against the FCC in 2002 that the regulatory body reconsidered its decision and repealed the judgment.

At the municipal level, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attempt to form a city-wide decency commission in response to work by African- American photographer Renee Cox. Her photograph, which was featured in a Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA) exhibit of African-American f-.photographers, depicts Michelangelo's Last Supper with Cox, fully nude, as Christ and the wise men are all recast with men of colour. The furor her photograph caused included condemnations from the Catholic League and New York's Archdiocese, but most importantly, from Giuliani. He threatened the BMA's funding and formed a short-lived Decency Commission to approve publicly-funded exhibitions. Jones and Cox's cases serve as the linchpin for interrogating both the historical and contemporary application of the indecency label to minority sexuality.

Post-civil rights and postfeminist discourse provide the intellectual bridge between the first two chapters and the last two. While the first two examine formal, state-sponsored censorship of African-American women's sexuality, the final two chapters illuminate censorship that is less formal, but nonetheless powerful. Specifically, I apply the theories of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler on sexuality, the Body, discipline, and surveillance to television programme, video, and film output.

The other two sections of the study interrogate representations of African-American women on television and in film. Chapter three explores the possibility of female sexual agency in hip hop/rap music videos. Ethnographic interviews with music video performers give voice to these women often condemned in the African-American press as architects of their own sexual exploitation and labeled 'video has' by the public. Interviews allow these women to speak for themselves. Chapter four illuminates caricatures of African-American women in reality television, and narratives of coming home to one's blackness in recent feature and documentary films. l engage in textual analysis of representations of African-American women as vain, unstable, and emotionally irrational in popular shows such as The Apprentice, America's Next Top Model, and Survivor. The films l analyse include Down in the Delta (1998); Nobody Knows My Name (1999); Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2004); and In Search of Black Female Sexuality (2004). I juxtapose documentary and feature film representations to interrogate assumptions about authentic representations of African-American womanhood in the postfeminist and post-civil rights era.

Examining cultural representations of African-American women's sexuality focuses a lens onto the anxieties and tensions that persist in American culture despite advances in rectifying institutional discrimination. I arrive at compelling conclusions about the intersection of sexual expression, the marketability of race, and capitalism's ability to absorb alternative social justice discourses.


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