Last week was a noteworthy one for black female sexuality in the news. On one hand, Vibe’s 2012 Sexy Issue cover story touted as “role models” four female reality television stars who are featured on notoriously violent and sex-driven shows. On the other hand, actress Meagan Good shared in an interview that she’s been practicing celibacy and Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones tweeted that she is a virgin. Vibe readers critiqued the pop culture magazine for its cover story. And, predictably, the public cheered Good and rewarded Jones with a huge overnight bump in her Twitter following.
What we do (and don’t do) with our bodies is a deeply private matter and we are not obligated to shed light on our intimacies for public consumption. But we should ask ourselves why the media tend to depict our sexuality in such extremes.
Even within those extremes, the portrayals are very shallow. Why is there so little examination of the life experiences, beliefs and behaviors that lead some black women to be promiscuous and others to be celibate?
Too often, we’re characterized as pathologically hypersexual creatures who are incapable of taming our emotional and physical dependence on men. Our abstinence is presented as a superhuman, radical break from the norm, one made only by devout Christians — when factors such as sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and infidelity make it a far more commonplace choice than the public realizes.
Are all of the nuances in between those two options too boring to keep audiences engaged? Are there not enough writers and filmmakers of color empowered to show the full range of black female sexuality? Do we perpetuate the problem by buying into the same recycled images?
Isn’t it time for us to overcome our fears of societal stigmatization and judgment related to our intimate choices — fears based in history — and take part in shaping our sexual image? Isn’t it time to start holding others accountable, too, for our debasement in the public eye?
Some bloggers are already doing this in writing about Shonda Rhimes’s new hit show “Scandal.” True, many seem unequivocally enchanted with lead character Olivia Pope — played by Kerry Washington. But there are also those who find the hot and heavy sex scenes between her and Fitz Grant, a married man who also happens to be the president of the United States, problematic.
Drawing a comparison with Thomas Jefferson (Fitz is white) and Sally Hemings, Stacia L. Brown says in an article in Clutch Magazine that she finds herself “distracted by this idea that, for all her gutsy unflappable-ness, and for all her intimidating, unflinching command in the face of an employee or opponent, the married president happens to be her weakness.”
While many have called this comparison a leap, I get why some writers have gone there as a point of criticism. Olivia is a black woman that gets the job done and commands respect. There’s a lot to like about her dance with professional and personal perfection. But the one thing that constantly reminds viewers of her flawed humanity is a man. A man who rules the free world — but a married man nonetheless.
And that’s where it gets messy. While some, like Ebony contributing reporter Patrice Peck, argue that Olivia’s “blatant disregard for political and social realities when it comes to matters of the heart” provides escapist, fantasy-world entertainment, there are others, myself included, who think that it’s a taste of familiar medicine.
Once again, it’s not enough for a black woman to be brilliant and powerful, living out her sexuality in the ways that millions of other women like her do daily. That’s never enough — for some reason. She must be sexually deviant.
But mainstream media have not been completely bereft of role models.
Twenty years ago, the film “Boomerang,” starring Eddie Murphy, gave the world a taste of a 1992 Olivia Pope. Her name was Jacqueline (played by Robin Givens) and she was the quintessential alpha woman. The difference between Olivia and Jacqueline is that Jacqueline not only handled business in the boardroom, but she could also keep things in perspective in the bedroom.
Jacqueline felt empowered to walk away from her sexual intimacies emotionally intact; she knew how not to get “messy” when there was no hope of a future with her partner. I’m not in favor of being too emotionally detached, but Jacqueline was the sort of sexually smart and self-possessed black woman rarely seen in popular culture — yet out there in reality.
Many of us are yearning to see our sexual selves more thoughtfully portrayed within mainstream media. But by watching these television shows and movies, we are co-signing on these recycled portrayals rather than supporting and creating alternatives.
We have some serious work to do toward truth-telling, beginning with ourselves. Maybe this will lead us to the place where we collectively resist cultural abasement and self-abasement and demand that Hollywood stop sticking to these stereotypical scripts.
As consumers of popular culture, we can all stand to learn a lesson or two from Jacqueline about knowing when our needs aren’t being met and when the time has come to walk away.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.
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