Swinging the Pendulum of Black Pop Culture Feminism

Curator's Note

I cannot count how many conversations I’ve had with folks lately about Scandal. At the lawyer’s office. At the bus stop. Even at the funeral parlor! Once I tell people I write about black media, folks inevitably ask: Did you see the last Scandal? or Ooooh, girl! What do you think about Olivia Pope? The conversations are always animated, since all are thrilled to see Washington onscreen as Pope. Yet many conversations are also pained, since many folks question why she has to be the mistress. Well, sex remains an easy sell. And black sex? Jackpot! Especially when you sprinkle in the excitement of interracial coupling. You’d think American society would be over it, enmeshed as we are in this “post racial moment.” But nope. We still tune in every week to see the latest “Olitz” exploits because as much as we say it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white (to quote Michael Jackson), we have to admit black/white sex still titillates us.

In this sexual economy, Olivia transcends cliched onscreen blackness, perhaps, in that she is not “just black,” but a black woman who wields power, controls assets, and exerts influence. (Not that being “just black” onscreen is bad, but it often is code for “token” at best and “stereotype” at worst.) Even still, I don’t think we can escape Olivia’s potent sexuality. Heck, Olivia and Fitz can’t either, so arguably we’re in good company. In the end, sex is the most powerful weapon Olivia uses, and as audiences, we are reminded that black women can still be reduced to their collective sexual prowess.

Right now, no black woman exemplifies this idea better than Nicki Minaj. If Olivia’s sex sells, Nicki’s sex redefines the word commodity entirely. Her latest album cover, Anaconda, shows us why. In our attempts to reflect a wider swath of black female representations, to challenge the respectability paradigm, does only the ratchet remain? In ostensibly moving past race, do we just delve further into sex? Try as we may, black pop culture cannot be divorced from black feminism. But if Olivia and Nicki’s brand of black pop culture feminism can be reduced to just slinging our behinds (Olivia) or showing our behinds (Nicki), I think perhaps we’ve swung the pendulum too far.


I enjoyed this post. As I read I continuously turned over in my head discussions about black women's pleasure politics and empowerment in pop culture. While discussions of black women's sexualities and identities remain somewhat archaic - I tire of the narratives that leave black women as victims or as sexual deviants - the question remains how sexual prowess and pleasure for black women can change the direction of the pendulum for black women's sexual economies in pop culture?

Thanks for the comment Regina. I tire of the same narratives too. What has been irking me as of late is not so much that black women can't be sexy without someone calling us "hoes" and "ratchets" and such, but that our current moment seems to JUST be about black feminism (and general mainstream feminism) JUST as an expression of a very limited form of black female sexuality. I mean, can we get some diversity up in here? "Hip-hop feminism" as espoused by Nicki (which one can argue is more like "gangsta rap" feminism only) and "Beyoncé" feminism (which although complicated reminds me so much of Olivia Pope) seems to be all we get these days. I remember back in the day we had a fuller spectrum of what black female sex power looked like: we had Lil Kim AND Queen Latifah; we had Da Brat AND Left Eye; we had Salt-n-Pepa AND Roxanne; hell Remy Ma, Bahamadia, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and on and on and on. Now? FOOEY! Badu and folk like Janelle Monae don't get the shine like Nicki, Bey, Olivia, real housewives, etc. Why not? Hell i don't know, but I am tired. Can we get something other than this http://youtu.be/LDZX4ooRsWs and this http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/08/25/beyonce_vma_performance_w... ?

I'm not in good position to discuss Kerry Washington's image because I stopped watching Scandal around the third episode of season 1, but it seems like her star image is much stronger than the plot vehicle she's given to work with. What then of the current Halle Berry project? It too seems to be a weak story for a much stronger star, but it isn't sex obsessed.

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