Harriet Tubman Sex Tape? REALLY?

It’s been an eye-opening week in social media. A while ago I heard about the Russell Simmons and Jason Horton project titled ‘Harriet Tubman Sex Tape.’ By the time I went to find the video, it had been taken down. So feel free to hold the fact that I haven’t seen the video against me, but I don’t think it was necessary, and could have quite possibly been triggering.

I, nor anyone else, should not have to explain why there is a problem with a parody sex video of Harriet Tubman. It’s 2013. Are we really doing this? We are going to take a Black woman hero, one of the most revered figures in abolitionist history, hypersexualize her, and then put it on the internet?

I shouldn’t be surprised. And yet…

Blogger Prison Culture tweeted the following statement about the video:

“Araminta Ross became a “slave for hire” at the age of 5. She did domestic work, field work, cared for children. She once said that one of her mistresses would savagely whip her almost every day, first thing in the AM. As a result, she would put on “all the thick clothes she could” to protect her body from the blows. When she was teenager, she stood before an overseer who was in pursuit of another slave. He took a lead weight & crashed it on her head. She was deeply wounded. She said that the blow “broke her skull.” She was carried back bleeding. She had no bed. They lay her on the floor. She was sent back to her parents who thought she would die. She survived. She went on to become Harriet Tubman. She freed slaves daringly & without fear. This is the person who [Russell Simmons] laughed at.”

A couple of thoughts I have about the video:

I honestly don’t think what kind of sex Tubman was or was not having was relevant. The video is historically inaccurate, insensitive and in poor taste. The video both hypersexualizes Tubman and desexualizes her at the same time. And keep the context in mind, of course. Harriet Tubman was a slave. Which means that in addition to being beaten, she was also repeatedly raped and abused in other forms.

I did see a clip of the video here, and I don’t encourage you to watch it because A) I think it is a waste of time, and B) I don’t want to give the people involved with this video any views. But I will say that  in the skit, the filming of the movie was done in secret. The cameraman was hidden in a closet. So we have a historical figure who dealt with numerous accounts of abuse, dealing with… surprise! More abuse. Rape isn’t funny. Neither is racism. Black women’s lives and sexuality, past and present, still manage to be the butts of our jokes…

Kimberly Foster, founder of @ForHarriet had this to say to the star of the skit playing Tubman, Shanna Malcolm.

Here is a petition asking for the video to be removed (it already has) and for a public apology to be made (which has not happened yet).

EDIT: It was pointed out to me by a reader that Jason Horton did not write, create or produce the video. I wasn’t saying that he did, but I can see how it would be construed that way based on what I wrote. So to be clear, Jason Horton acted in the video, and that was the extent of his involvement. I apologize for any misunderstanding.

Open Season on Mrs. Carter

ImageIs anyone else really sick of people ragging on Beyonce, or is it just me?

I’m not saying you have to like her music, or like her as a person, but let’s take a look at her accomplishments:

There’s plenty more where that came from, but even if there wasn’t I would say that Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter is a very accomplished, multi-talented, influential and admirable person.

This is one of the reasons why I get particularly annoyed when I happen to come across things like this letter that Rakhi Kumar has written to Michelle Obama about Beyonce not being a good role model for her daughters, Sasha and Malia Obama.

Rakhi Kumar’s complaint starts with her objection to one of Beyonce’s outfits at the Mrs. Carter World Tour, which apparently consists of a sheer bodysuit with the nipples showing. Because I haven’t been to the show, and because there are people commenting saying that her nipples were not showing, I won’t comment on that. But I will say that it’s a bit ironic that Kumar was so bothered by the costume and the ‘misogynistic implications’ that it represented, because the fact that Beyonce’s performance was belittled to what she was wearing can be read as misogynistic as well.

Also, a sidenote: Why do people have such a problem with nipples? Last time I checked, all humans, regardless of gender, had nipples? What about them makes them overtly sexual? They are used FOR FEEDING CHILDREN. As soon as nipples are revealed, they are instantly assumed to be there for a man’s gratification, and if they are revealed for breastfeeding, it’s ‘indecent’. Feeding infants naturally is indecent now?

But I digress. My point is, automatically rendering any woman’s body parts overtly sexual… sexualizes women. And apparently, women aren’t supposed to be sexy in order to be good role models. Or at least that is the case according to Rakhi Kumar.

At one point in the letter, Kumar says:

Beyonce, performing in sheer body suits, nipples displayed, mouth open, high heels and sheer tights, shaking her butt on stage, can no longer be held by world leaders as an icon of female success.

Because for as long as she is, we are feeding a demonic myth that women must make themselves sexually available to enjoy ultimate success.

This is a debate that comes up a lot in discussions about rape culture. There is an idea that women who wear revealing clothing are ‘asking to be raped’ or ‘asking for sex.’ Because apparently women don’t dress for themselves- they dress to attract or repulse men. So by wearing clothing that is revealing, Beyonce is making herself ‘sexually available.’ I wish it was obvious to people why that is an extremely flawed philosophy, but apparently not. So just to make it clear: women are people. People should have the right to wear what they want and not be judged for it. As far as I’m concerned, a woman should be able to walk down the street naked and not have someone touch her without her permission. If a man can walk down the street shirtless and we can just assume he’s hot, and a woman can’t because that’s indecent exposure and she’s inviting rape, that says more about our assumptions and who we are than it does about the man and woman in question.

Kumar also says later on in the letter:

And it’s time that young girls were sent a different message. A more refined, intelligent message. A message that engaged them at the level of their intellect and potential because implicit in our message to them should be the acknowledgement that they are naturally brilliant and that we believe that they are capable of everything -without ever having to undress to achieve their success.

I’m sorry, since when is someone’s intellect based on their appearance? Because Beyonce isn’t wearing enough clothing for your standards, she isn’t smart or strong or capable? Beyonce won every single award she has because you could see her nipples through her bodysuit?

Kumar even points out that Beyonce is the one who chooses to do it! You don’t have to agree with Beyonce’s choice, you don’t have to like it. But to tell the First Lady of the United States that she is not choosing the right role models for her children because you don’t like Beyonce’s clothing is absurd. The fact that Kumar refuses to acknowledge Beyonce’s talent as an artist and musician because of a sheer bodysuit is playing right into the idea that a woman can be defined by what she wears. And the fact that Kumar feels the need to criticize an aspect of Michelle Obama’s child-rearing reminds me of Jaclyn Friedman’s piece last year on GOOD, telling Beyonce and Jay-Z how to raise Blue Ivy Carter.

In a broader scope, I tend to feel icky when people feel the need to tell influential, successful Black people how to raise their children. I also don’t like the idea of Beyonce being judged by her outfits, because I feel like Black women are simultaneously oversexualized and desexualized, and that there is another anti-Black political message in judging what Black women wear and what effect that has on their body and their sexuality. But that’s another post for another day.

I conclude this by saying: Leave Beyonce alone! Let her live her life and celebrate her accomplishments the way she wants to, please stop overcriticizing every little thing she does. No one is a perfect human being- that includes celebrities, and that includes her. Before Kumar judges someone else for not being a good role model, she should make sure she is one too- and so far, I’m not feeling the messages she has for young women.

Unsolicited Advice from a Black Woman: To Jaclyn Friedman

Dear Jaclyn Friedman,

Beyonce Knowles', showing off her baby bump!

Recently, I read your piece “Unsolicited Advice for Blue Ivy Carter: Growing Up As the Girl of Beyonce and Jay-Z,” on GOOD, and I walked away feeling perplexed. I know who you are. You’re a pretty well-known feminist author, from Boston, Mass. You wrote and published Yes Means Yes: Visions of Sexual Power and a World Without Rape a few years ago. Keeping these facts in mind is what led me to become perplexed in the first place, because I’m sure you wrote this piece as your way of helping, not hurting, the newest addition to the Knowles-Carter family.

If there is anything that we’ve learned from Forbes’ “If I Were A Poor Black Kid,” by Gene Marks, I would hope it would be that when White people talk down to Black people about what they  SHOULD do with their lives, without actually knowing what it’s like being said Black people firsthand, problems ensue. And yet, here  I am, reading your “unsolicited advice,” wondering what on Earth made you think it was a good idea to write a letter to a Black baby that is barely a week old badmouthing her parents, and telling her how to “properly” assert her sexuality in a sexist world.

This is a problem that many Black people have with the mainstream (read: very White) feminist movement; intersectionality is not taken into account nearly enough. I understand that Blue Ivy, as a girl child*, will have to deal with issues of sexuality as she grows up. But unfortunately, not only will Blue Ivy’s sexuality and related choices be complicated by the infamousness of her parents, but because she’s going to grow up a Black woman. The sexuality of Black women in America is much more complicated. Throughout history Black women have been hypersexualized- we suffer from higher rates of rape, Black people’s “endowments” are used to dehumanize them, and our sexuality is often controlled (for example, see: forced sterilization) and shamed by White people. So, telling Blue Ivy how to navigate her sexuality is problematic at best. At worst, it’s entitled, and indicates that you think you know best.

You should know all of this by now.

On to the next piece: I’m not really sure where you get off telling people, especially Black people, how to raise their children. I sincerely hope you did not think telling Blue Ivy about her parents’ shortcomings (in your eyes) would benefit your career. I know you aren’t totally ignorant, because you did say this:

Some people are going to expect you to act like a “perfect lady” at all times (they will all define this differently), asking you to single-handedly extinguish centuries of cultural stereotypes about black women being sexually incontinent. Others will jump on any evidence they can find to “prove” that you’re destined to live up to that stereotype. Either way, to millions of people, you won’t just be Blue Ivy Carter, human being. You’ll be an Ambassador of Black Girlhood, and later, Black Womanhood.

And that is absolutely true. But you don’t earn any brownie points by pointing out Jay-Z’s misogynist lyrics (because of course only Black rappers are misogynists- it’s not like it happens in other genres or with other races. Oh wait…), or by shaming Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” because you don’t approve of using the symbol of a diamond ring to symbolize commitment. The fact of the matter is, it’s none of your damn business, and Blue Ivy is not your child.

You have a tremendous amount of privilege as a White woman, even if you are a woman (and therefore don’t have male privilege). Please keep this in mind the next time you feel the need to indicate that you would be a better mother to a Black child than her actual parents, or to tell a Black child how to assert her sexuality properly.

Click here to read another fantastic (and better written) post about this very subject.

*As of now, we only know that Blue Ivy was born with a vagina. We don’t know yet that they identify as a girl, it’s too soon to know that. This article was written assuming Blue Ivy is a cisgender girl, which should not be considered the default. 

Edit: Jaclyn Friedman has apologized for her column:

JACLYN FRIEDMAN
This column has received some strong criticism, and rightly so. It erases the long, damaging history of white people (specifically white women) telling Black women the “right” ways to be sexual, as well as how to raise their children. Worse, it contributes to that dynamic. This was far from my intention in writing it, but intentions aren’t magic. I was wrong.

Obviously it would have been far better if I’d understood all of this from the get-go, and not written the column. The best I know how to do at this point is to offer my deep, sincere apology, commit to donating the fee I’ll receive for this column to SisterSong, and redouble my ongoing efforts to understand and undo racism, both within myself and beyond. These efforts take many shapes, but one specific approach I’ll be focusing more energy on is increasing my reading and listening to women of color who work on sexuality issues.

(I’m publishing this here as GOOD has a no-retractions policy.)