In 2014 the issue of identity is still one of relevance in Britain. Newspapers paraphrase Enoch Powell on a seemingly weekly basis. With an upcoming general election next year, it is no surprise the issue of us verses them, in the struggle to define a British identity, is at the forefront of political discussion.
However outside the more common debate of “us” against the “Muslim extremists” there is another identity crisis occurring and it has remained exploited and unabated for a long time. The difference between the Black and White identities unfortunately is not so, well, black and white. This is especially the case when the boundaries are being broken between them to drive consumerism and private gain.
Since second wave feminism the objectification of women has been one of the major issues within the public sphere. When we are focussing on this issue of racial identity, particularly within the representation of women, we should look to the work done by the psychologists Kenneth and Mammie Clark, alongside works by cultural analyst John Berger.
In the 1940s the Clarks published key papers on racial representation, as perceived by children, in segregated and integrated schools in the US. The children were presented with two dolls that were identical except for the colour of their skin and hair. The study showed a clear recognition of the white doll with yellow hair as being “good”, “preferable to play with” and amongst other things, of “nice colour”. Comparatively the brown doll with black hair was chosen when asked which one was “bad”.
Furthermore their colouring experiment showed that young African Americans identified themselves as of a lighter skin colour than they were, and when asked to colour in an outlined person more than half, coloured the person white or an unidentifiable colour. This showed clearly that young African Americans were identifying with White Americans more so than themselves.
When we add to this the analysis of female identity by John Berger in Ways of Seeing we can attain that for the black woman, who is the surveyor and the surveyed, identifies themselves as an object of inferiority.
But what does this mean today? Let us observe two case examples of public figures that have not just become objectified by gender, but who also, by engaging in issues of normativity, have become complicit in the continued ethnocentrism of young women.
The two examples we’ll analyse here are Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus. Whilst both are American women, both have toured sold out shows in Britain. They also feature heavily in publications that target women.
Beyoncé has on several occasions caused controversy for the way she is represented in the media. She is important to this discussion because her songs are often seen as empowering and inspiring to young women. With hits such as ‘If I were a boy’, ‘Irreplaceable’ and ‘Run the world (Girls)’ she has often voiced support for the empowerment of women. It is then perhaps ever the more concerning that in her promotion for her fifth album and an earlier L’Oreal advert, her skin tone is visibly lighter than her natural tone. This can only work to further the damage done to feelings of inferiority felt among black women. If Beyoncé can’t be proud and market herself as a strong black woman then why would it be a good thing to be one? The rhetoric quite clearly being amplified here is unavoidable.
So how does this link with Miley Cyrus? Much has been argued in forums and the press about what exactly Miley Cyrus means for perceptions of women and what kind of role model she is. The singer has vehemently denied any racism within her performances. As the revamped “I’m no longer a child” Miley Cyrus, she has claimed that involving black dancers in her performances makes them feel sexual and beautiful.
This begs many a question. But surely the first one should centre on the notion of a white woman acting as the protagonist for the emancipation of black sexuality. The second question, and perhaps the less ethnic, and thus larger problem, is of beauty standards in normative society.
The process of understanding the objectification of women is an ongoing one. Issues such as the use of make-up, fake-tan and the continual onslaught of sexualisation in the media continue to be of the upmost social importance.
With artists such as Iggy Azalea, J-Lo and Nicki Minaj all having produced music videos featuring overtly sexual content, all gaining widespread media attention, the objectification of the female body is unavoidable.
When Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ caused mass controversy with the use of questionable lyrics such as “I know you want it”, and now ‘Booty’ and ‘Anaconda’ are telling women to “give him what he asked for”, (I shan’t repeat the lyrics of Anaconda here), it leaves the mind to despair over what’ll come next.
It would seem now though that the issue of the black female sexuality is being soldered to the current narrative of white female sexuality. Whether this proves to be emancipatory or not is yet to be seen. Perhaps for those who wish to challenge these narratives, it could potentially be positive for the two problems to become one.
Until the issues of objectification and sexualisation of women are resolved, it is difficult to see how the patriarchal hegemony will break from its tirade of perversion. Above all though it is important to remember the ethnocentrism that runs strong through issues of representation in the current dominant culture.