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Fanon & the representations of black beauty in popular culture

From Thinking Africa “Fanon, black female sexuality and representations of black beauty in popular culture”
by Efemia Chela, 2012

Frantz Fanon’s works are all very personal. Black Skins, White Masks, a treatise on the lived experience of being black is based on his experiences in Martinican society, being a student and then a black doctor in France. A Dying Colonialism is the Algerian War through the prism of his work with the FLN and The Wretched of The Earth arises from his experiences visiting post-colonial African countries, interacting with future African leaders and observing colonial and native elites. Even though Fanon was a man his oeuvre have great relevance to women and this piece will focus on the representation of black women in Fanon’s works and how his observations can be used to analyse contemporary depictions of black beauty in popular culture and hip-hop. This essay will also address the dimensions of black female sexuality and the similarities between sexism and racism.

Of the woman of colour and her psychosexuality, Fanon writes, “I know nothing about her” (Fanon, 1986: 138) but here he sells himself short. Babha (1986) recognises that Fanon can be used to “site the quest of sexual difference within the problematic of cultural differences” (Babha,1986: xxiv).
For centuries, black women have been exoticised and viewed as hypersexual beings. Sara Baartmann was exhibited across Europe for this reason. Her large buttocks were displayed during what was termed a cultural exposition but was really a exploitation and more of a zoo viewing with audience gasping and “prodding at her” (Collins, 2005: 10) . Her supposed wild sexuality was manifest in her large bottom and her entire act was used as a tool to other her and black women, while upholding white superiority and contrasting Sarah Baartman to the ideals of white beauty. It was assumed that black people’s inability to subdue their rampant sexuality and sublimate their desire into civilisation, progress and decency was seen as justification for their subjugation.
Using Fanon this essay will argue that this idea continues to the present day and is somewhat perpetuated by hip-hop culture, the precarious nature of black masculinity and the unchallenged pre-eminence of white female beauty.
Beauty and Inadequacy
Fanon describes the black man as suffering “from an inadequacy” and a “feeling of insignificance” (Fanon, 1986: 35). He describes how black men want to be “powerful like the white man” (Fanon, 1986: 36) and while women undoubtably want power too, they are particularly prone to wanting to be beautiful like white women who are held up as paragons of beauty. Black women look for themselves in the mirror of popular culture and never see themselves reflected accurately or at all. So they endeavour to make themselves look more like the white characters they see portrayed. They are subtly taught to hate themselves. This hate is “constantly cultivated” (Fanon, 1986: 37) and the black woman becomes her own abuser. As Fanon says:
“Hate demands existence, and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate.” (Fanon, 1986: 37)
In The Wretched of The Earth, Fanon speaks about the colonial elite who leave the country after liberation and the black elite who fill the existing social vacuum. This “native elite” (Fanon, 1963: 7), “intellectual and economic elite” (Fanon, 1963: 61) or “young nationalist bourgeoise” (Fanon, 1963: 62) was co-opted even before the revolution started and has been groomed to take over the reigns. Fanon calls them figuratively – “whitewashed”. I would argue that for black women, Fanon’s description of whitewashing manifests physically as well as mentally. Black women can have a relationship with a white man to lactify themselves but they can also act out the lactification process on themselves. This is something that post-colonial society, still oriented around white values encourages and black women uphold and partake in.
A look at popular culture shows how much light-skinned women are prized over dark-skinned women. Sharpley-Whiting writes that most women chosen to feature in hip hop videos are “fairer-skinned, ethnically mixed or of indeterminate ethnic/racial origins” (Sharpley-Whiting, 2007: 27) meaning they can pass for white or their blackness is not so prominent as to be out of line with prevailing standards of beauty.  The same can be said for the Hollywood film industry where there are few roles for black women. In keeping with lighter-skinned privilege, the only woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in A Leading Role has been the light-skinned, Halle Berry in 2001. Viola Davis the comparatively darker-skinned actress of film, The Help (2011) who was nominated in the last Oscar ceremony for the same prize complains, “It’s just the politics, you know. It’s just the politics of it all…There’s just not a lot of lead roles for women who look like me”[1] .  Continue on Frantz Fanon – Thinking Africa