The rate at which our puritanical society works always astonishes me. Yet the way that forms of racism creep into our daily lives sadly doesn’t. Take a new music video by Erykah Badu, which has caused a bit of chaos in our cultural milieu of late and has resulted in a charge of disorderly conduct and international media coverage.
Badu’s video for her latest single, “Window Seat,” available at Badu’s website, shows the singer stripping her clothes as she walks through downtown Dallas, ultimately ending up naked at the spot where Kennedy was assassinated.
In the beginning seconds of “Window Seat” explicit homage is paid to the 2009 video by the duo Matt and Kim for “Lessons Learned,” embedded below, which provides an interesting case for a cross-racial nudity comparison.
The two videos, at face value, are quite similar. Both document artists walking the public streets in a striptease strut, their respective song playing in the background as they move in slow-motion past gawking pedestrians. Both end in a sort of surreal calamity. And both mark a significant point in the careers of both musicians.
But outside the video screen we see two different stories. Matt and Kim’s video had no legal consequences. In fact, Kim spoke of the friendly relationship they had with the police during and after the filming. While no cops were present at Badu’s guerrilla shoot, Badu was smacked with a $500 disorderly conduct charge.
But more important, Badu’s corporeal exhibition elicited national repute. The Dallas Police Department claims it has been receiving calls from people “across the country to express their concern.” The response to Matt and Kim’s two person skin-fest was nothing but positive, which begs the question of whether a black body in downtown Dallas has a more disorderly character than two white bodies in Times Square, New York City.
To be clear, there are other considerable differences between the two acts. Badu’s video visually represents the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while Matt and Kim’s is more a political statement of abstract freedoms and rejection of social norms. Badu’s video was shot purely in a guerrilla manner, with no permits; Matt and Kim’s shoot had a tenuous permit for “tourists walking through Times Square inappropriately dressed for the weather.” And admittedly, indie-pop darlings Matt and Kim were a much less known quantity than the prolific Badu at the date of the release of their video.
But nonetheless, there is something here that cannot be dismissed as purely situational. Many critiques of Badu chastise her for being nude around children. In fact, the Dallas police used the fact that “[Badu] disrobed in a public place without regard to individuals and small children who were close by” to charge her with disorderly conduct. But Matt and Kim’s video also has run-ins with children. So is the difference just an issue of location: the intolerant, flesh-hating world of Dallas or the international nudist colony of New Amsterdam, otherwise known as New York City?
I posit another perspective.
There has been a long history of white audiences hyper-sexualizing the black body. Saartjie Baartman, known then as the “Hottentot Venus,” serves as an appropriate historical example from the early 19th century. Baartman was brought to Europe from South Africa as a specimen of black sexuality, exhibited in freak shows and causing uproar among the rabble that read her voluptuous figure as a perverse sexuality. Representations of Baartman, with her exaggerated hips and breasts, fueled not just stereotyped notions of black bodies, but also a belief that blacks were more sexual. In fact, Baartman was believed to have an elongated labia, which many read as biological evidence of a heightened sexuality. A similar historical path can be traced with the black male body, as U.S. antebellum society positioned the black male figure as dangerously and excessively sexual, the possessor of an exotic anatomy that many white men were fearful of.
But while such nonsensical beliefs may seem arcane to us, we should always be open to see how remnants of these historical forms of racism affect our perceptions of blackness even today. As we watch Badu march down Dallas’ streets only a couple of weeks ago we must not fall into the post-racial trap of understanding skin color as an unimportant character in the cultural politics of these two videos. Sure, there are differences between the two that aren’t racial, but accepting only those would allow us to ignore the importance that race still does play, especially in how we understand and define sexuality.
Nor can we completely and ignorantly collapse the public outcry against Badu’s nudity as a result of some whack-jobs with too much time phoning the Dallas Police Department and calling for Badu’s body on a platter. Rather, our interest in the video propelled it into the mainstream of society. It’s difficult to imagine some puritanical white man (let’s just assume, for sake of obviousness) going to Erykah Badu’s website and discovering her video on his own. Instead, Badu’s nudity circulated through our media landscape and found itself a home on said white man’s computer or television screen. The reasons for this are not singularly sexual but are very much indebted to the remnants of Baartman and the hyper-sexualization of blackness. Sex sells, and media clearly enjoy it when sex can be read as news (as we all are doing right now).
So is it that our society still reads sexuality through blackness, providing an eroticization of Badu that Matt and Kim’s video doesn’t have? (Yes). Is it that two scrawny naked white musicians can appear to us as childish in Times Square, while one naked black musician can appear dangerous and disorderly in Dallas, Texas? (Yes). And is it that race still matters in our society—that we should constantly think not just of how we personally understand race and racism but how race itself is constructed to mean things other than a group of people with a certain skin color? (Of course). Here’s to hoping Badu fights the disorderly conduct charge. I heard the “wardrobe malfunction” excuse still holds water.