On the Masculinization & Sexualization of Black Women
Written by: Kennedy Kelis
Edited by: Grace Bennett
Trigger warning: Sexual & physical violence, Slavery
For centuries, several set precedents regarding the black, female existence have contributed to oppression and degradation of black women as a whole. The masculinization and sexualization of black women were both originally perpetuated in order to punish us, and in the 21st century, these processes continue to fulfill the purpose of their design.
The sexualization of black women dates back to centuries ago, when white slaveholders would subject their female slaves to the terrorism that was consistent rape, beatings, and brutalization. Enslaved black women were viewed as objects of sexual conquest, as “sexually lascivious and seductive temptresses” (Watson). White men characterized black women as “animals in heat” in an effort to justify their sexual abuse, exaggerating their feminine features in media and perpetuating the idea that they were simple temptations to the white man’s flesh.
Unfortunately, this excessive sexualization has followed black women for hundreds of years, haunting us for the entirety of our lives. Today, little black girls who decide to wear lipgloss or paint their nails any shade of red are quickly deemed “fast.” Little white girls may do the exact same thing, but they are almost always labeled as “cute,” never falling victim to the same menacing societal expectation as their black counterparts. This is indicative of the continued belief that the simple existence of black women is somehow inherently sexual.
This dangerous notion manifests in the form of sexual violence and exploitation of black women as well. The American pornography industry has plentiful examples of this exploitation, having films with titles such as “Black Chicks in Heat,” “Hoochie Mamas,” and “South Central Hookers” (Pilgrim). As argued by a piece written by Dr. David Pilgrim, PhD and founder of the Michigan Jim Crow Museum, films such as these repeatedly depict these women as mere objects of sexual entertainment, arguably “validating” the idea that black women are sexually promiscious. Furthermore, more than 20% of black women in the United States today report having been raped in their lifetimes, this number being higher than that of women overall and therefore again exhibiting the dispraportionate belief that black women are simply objects of sexual conquest (Barlow).
Moreover, not only are black women and girls today falling victim to excessive sexualization, but partly due to the historical precedent that has been set regarding our simple existence, we are also consistently masculinized. This masculinization can be seen in the creation of the nineteenth century character by the name of Mammy, this woman being originally portrayed as “old,” “dark-skinned,” and “sometimes morbidly overweight” (Pilgrim). With this depiction then came the notion that no “respectable” white man would choose a “fat, elderly black woman” over an “idealized white woman.” Amidst the continued sexual exploitation of black women by white men in the United States, Mammy’s character was created and shown in media in an attempt to deprive black women of any form of feminine beauty, therefore ensuring the security of white wives in their relationships with their husbands.
The masculinization of black women can also be attributed to the general view of blackness as a whole. Research has found that blackness is closely associated with masculinity, regardless of gender or sex (Coles). This then contributes to the general perception of black women as “loud,” “angry,” and sometimes “dangerous” despite the fact that the behavior that elicits these perceptions of black women may often elicit completely different views of our white counterparts. As asserted in a thesis written by Dr. Daphne Valerius, filmmaker and graduate of the University of Missouri, Columbia, “white women are able to position themselves in such a way that their anger is profitable in the media, while the anger of the black woman is condemned” (Valerius). Should black women display an ounce of disagreement or “militance,” we will quickly be labeled as masculine, as if to be feminine is to simply bend to the wills of others.
Due to this aforementioned perception, black women are all too often faced with societal degradation. Black female celebrities such as Megan Thee Stallion are frequently compared to men due to their bodies and facial features, while white female celebrities are frequently praised for these same qualities. Black women are also repeatedly degraded by black men due to our perceived “combativeness,” with the majority of married black men in a 2013 study blaming black women for their singleness and attributing it to their “bad attitudes,” “high standards,” and consistent “nagging” (Hurt). Nonetheless, it is important to note that this “attitude” of not settling and complete refusal of complacency was, in fact, the impetus of many modern and historical black power movements.
The masculinization and sexualization of black women has existed and followed us for centuries. These processes coincide in their creation as deliberate attempts to oppress us, to punish our mere existence and to hinder black women from reaching true liberation. Moving forward, with this truth in mind, it is imperative that we abandon these preconceived notions of black, feminine existence, instead choosing to celebrate black women as powerful, intelligent, and greater than historical falsehoods.
Barlow, Jameta Nicole. “Black Women, the Forgotten Survivors of Sexual Assault.” Apa.org, American Psychological Association, Feb. 2020, https://www.apa.org/pi/about/newsletter/2020/02/black-women-sexual-assault. Accessed 27 Mar. 2022.
Coles, Stewart M. “Black Women Often Ignored by Social Justice Movements.” Apa.org, American Psychological Association, 13 July 2020, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/07/black-women-social-justice. Accessed 27 Mar. 2022.
Hurt, Tera R et al. “Married Black Men's Opinions as to Why Black Women Are Disproportionately Single: A Qualitative Study.” Personal Relationships vol. 21,1 (2014): 88-109. doi:10.1111/pere.12019
Pilgrim, David. “The Jezebel Stereotype.” Ferris.edu, Ferris State University, 2012, https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/jezebel/index.htm. Accessed 31 Mar. 2022.
Pilgrim, David. “The Mammy Caricature.” Ferris.edu, Ferris State University, 2012, https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/mammies/homepage.htm. Accessed 31 Mar. 2022.
Valerius, Daphne S. “DO BLACK MEN REALLY LOVE BLACK WOMEN? A QUALITATIVE STUDY ON HOW MASS MEDIA SHAPE BLACK MEN’S PERCEPTION OF BLACK WOMEN FOR LONG-TERM ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP – OR NO.” Mospace.umsystem.edu, Univerity of Missouri-Columbia, May 2021, https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/handle/10355/85821. Accessed 7 Apr. 2022.
Watson, Laurel B, et al. “African American Women’s Sexual Objectification Experiences.” Journals.sagepub.com, Sage Journals, 10 Aug. 2012, http://sage.cnpereading.com/paragraph/suppl/10.1177/0361684312454724. Accessed 27 Mar. 2022.