Hottentot Venus 2.0?: Still Gawking at the Black Woman's Buttocks

Curator's Note

In 19th Century Europe, Sara Baartman, also colloquially known as the Hottentot Venus, was exhibited as a "freak show" where white Europeans marveled at the (alleged) size and shape of her buttocks. We can (and often do) wrap ourselves in the notion that stereotypes are things that persisted “back in the day” rather than hegemonically created images that shape shift and morph to accommodate contemporary needs (Stuart Hall reminds us that ALL stereotypes have a job to do). It is within this framework that the Hottentot Venus for the 21st Century reappeared before us on Saturday Night Live when media personality and musician Nicki Minaj portrayed the title character in the skit, The Bride of Blackenstein.

Clearly meant as a riff on Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, The Bride of Blackenstein (and Minaj by association), is reduced to the shape and size of her ass. While watching this clip, I could think only of the Hottentot Venus (although her "sisters" in black stereotypes are present: Sapphire is there with a side order of Jezebel.)

What almost makes one forget the touches of other stereotypes present in the skit is the incessant close-ups (and accompanying "booty pops") that reduce the Bride of Blackenstein to her ass, much like the Hottentot Venus. But what is most disturbing is the notion that the video clearly positions this round, black ass as outside the hegemonic construction of aesthetic beauty, but rather locates it within lust and sex. If the message isn’t clear initially, Bill Hader dons verbal blackface in order to drive the message home. He first expresses his appreciation for the Bride of Blackenstein's ass which is then juxtaposed against the ass shot of his wife (played by Kristen Wiig) with accompanying "sad" music. This helps us to epistemologically "know" that there is sexual currency within the Bride of Blackenstein’s ass. In other words, for white men (the largest share of SNL’s audience), women like the Bride of Blackenstein are who you fuck, but women like Kristen Wiig’s character are the marrying kind.


What do you make of the black actors' complicity in the sketch's performance? Saturday Night Live's comedic golden age was in the 1970s. It seems to me that the  "resurgence" of black characters in today's iteration choose to hearken back to the certain laughs of that time-- perhaps as a way of proving they belong. This is an interesting move given the 1970s was the era of SNL's first black cast member, Garret Morris, who "as the only African-American character on the first season, broke the mold, his roles also set the precedent for many of SNL's minority characters to be pigeonholed into stereotypical roles."1

1. "Black Saturday Night Live Characters Through the Years" The Root.


Thanks for your comment.  Certainly SNL is problematic generally in the sense that it is meant to be both comedic and parodic.  But, black actors are absolutely complicit in the ways in which they allow blackness to be portrayed on SNL, particularly given that SNL serves a largely non-black audience.  If we look at the current crop of SNL actors, on one hand, the show can be applauded in that there is more than just the singular black guy, but they do reify idea(l)s about what blackness is.  Keenan did a black parody of a Sharper Image commercial for a product called iSleep that asserted that a black businessman was traveling for business and couldn't get a good night's sleep because he didn't have the "sounds of home" with him.  These "sounds of home" were constructed as being loud music, arguing, car alarms and gunshots.  What is particularly problematic about this representation is the notion that it reifies the notion of monolithic blackness -- irrespective of class.  

So, that's a long answer to say, these actors are wholly complicit.

This clip is obviously really bothersome. Besides the "sexual currency" of her booty-popping shots, the clip demonstrates a toxic relationship between the commodified sexuality of the black female and the racist stereotypes of a controlling and demanding matriarch. In this clip, the ass shots are immediately followed by a qualifying of her sexuality with her annoying demands on Blackenstien to "get a job" and "ditch his friends", and visa versa her complains are qualified with a subsequent close up on her booty-pop. Through this ideologically constructed scene, SNL is definitely doing its part to maintain a racist hegemony. 

This clip bears ideological resemblance to a more recent sketch on SNL that disturbed me. In a parody of the recently criminally implicated head of IMF, Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah--the only two black cast members on SNL right now--played two prison inmates who harass the head of IMF, and the comedic part is that they don't want to talk about drugs, or rape, or crime (as hegemony would expect of two black men in jail) but they want to talk about economics and global affairs, to which the audience roared with laughter. When two black men break from the racist hegemony, as these characters did, it is uncomfortable and laughable. Of course, the show had to qualify its scripted break from the norm with a punch line at the end, where these two men return to the jailbirds that the racist stereotypes construct them to be by saying " we gonna rape you." In response, the audience laughed and cheered. 

 While this skit is meant to be parodic, it definitely strikes a chord in the realm of racial stereotypes to an unnecessary degree. It is not only the booty pops and close-up shots degrading the image of the "average" black woman, but also the harsh references to cold, americanized stereotypical characteristics that make up this "black bride". Her nails are from a cashier at Wal Mart, her mouth is from "A Ho who didn't know her place," as well as the phonetics used by all of the black characters in the clip can all be taken the wrong way if the viewer does not have a smart, light sense of humor. Even though SNL is watched by a widely caucasian audience, I think that it would be braver of the black cast members to not partake in as many stereotypically black skits as they do. A good laugh is great, but when it is at the expense of a certain demographic, perhaps it would be a better idea to tone it down so as to not reduce the SNL writers to such a dumbed down form of comedy.

I think this text is extremely problematic, the “booty pops” are emblematic that her only power is exerted through her sexuality, which in fact strips her of power. Her power lies in her sexuality or her buttocks, this is evident when igor asks “is a (buttocks) like that really worth all this trouble” and Dr. Blackenstein states “oh its worth it” proving that her only worth, her power, lies in her sexuality or her buttocks. Plays on black stereotypes, telling ‘Blackenstien’ that he needs to find a job (the stereotype that black men are lazy) and that African american women are unruly, bossy (with the intellect of ‘ho‘s that don’t know their place‘), and wear weaves ( Minajs character was defensive saying its all her real hair). 

Though this skit bothers me, sad to say I expect this from Saturday Night Live. With SNL I’m troubled with the way black actors are used in sketches, it reminds me of the times in television were black people were only cast to entertain, for  comedic relief . I mean I have watched only a few episodes and I know it’s a comedy show;  but the times I did watch the way they overplay stereotypes its quite bothersome. The roles Kenan Thompson now plays as an actor  reminds me of his old 'Kenan and Kel' and 'All That' shows. He seems, to me, to be playing that same role of entertainer but now for an older crowd (kind of going off in a tangent here but it reminds me of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled in which he points out black roles in media are often that of comedic relief or rhythmic dancers I.e. solely entertainers). Its media like that that reinforces the construction of the stereotypical blackness, which is bothersome. Why cant they have a black actor on skits like weekend update (in which he’s in the lead role and makes witty jokes, that don’t play into hegemonic racist ideologies) and such?

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