Sander L. Gilman, Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature

Gilman’s essay points out that at the time Baartman was exhibited there were a number of conventions that were synchronic and gave rise to ideologies concerning women, blacks and sexuality. These ideologies had their roots in medicine and were thus afforded “scientific” as opposed to subjective status, although as Gilman points out, despite the power inherent in medicine, its iconography is no more “real” than aesthetic conventions, merely coming about as a means for man to organise his perception of the world at any given point; determined as much by history as scientific truths (p 205).

At the time, black sexuality was seen as deviant, uncontrolled, in contrast to the European model of civilised culture. The Hottentot was seen as the basest form of being, closer to orang-utan than to the European, and the difference was emphasised by physical disparities. Baartman’s anomalous physicality served as essential icon for sexual difference, and since at the time the female genitalia defined the female, “Sarah Bartmann’s genitalia and buttocks summarized her essence for the nineteenth-century observer” (p 216).

Gilman points out that unrestrained sexuality of the female was associated with everything primitive, and studies by Lombroso equated deformed labia, steatopygia and plumpness with degeneracy displayed by female subclasses of the madwoman and the prostitute – the sexual loss of control was deemed atavistic, a throwback to the Bushman or Hottentot (p 229). This loss of control was considered pathological, thus requiring medical intervention to prevent the spread of disease and degeneracy. This, combined with prevalent theories that the skin colour and physiognomy of black people was evidence of congenital leprosy meant that “Black females do not merely represent the sexualized female, they also represent the female as the source of corruption and disease” (p 231).

Gilman points out the sexualised female present in Manet’s Nana:

“Manet places her in a position vis-a-vis the viewer (but not the male observer in the painting) which emphasizes the line of her buttocks, the steatopygia of the prostitute. Second, Nana is placed in such a way that the viewer (but again not the flâneur) can observe her ear. It is, to no one’s surprise, Darwin’s ear, a sign of the atavistic female. Thus we know where the black servant is hidden in Nana-within Nana. Even Nana’s seeming beauty is but a sign of the black hidden within. All her external stigmata point to the pathology within the sexualized female.” (p 237)

Little wonder, then that the painting was not permitted into the Salon of 1877! The sexually unbridled woman (primitive, black, prostitute, lesbian) corrupts man and leads to his downfall and loss of power.

“The “white man’s burden” thus becomes his sexuality and its control, and it is this which is transferred into the need to control the sexuality of the Other, the Other as sexualized female. The colonial mentality which sees “natives” as needing control is easily transferred to “woman” – but woman as exemplified by the caste of the prostitute” (p 237).

It was thus with a mixture of fear and desire that the white male European beheld the Hottentot, a similar combination of fear and desire that the working-class prostitute presented to the European bourgeois ‘gentleman’, a fear of infection with the possibility of contracting venereal disease (Sibley 1995, p 25). According to Sibley’s rationale, Baartman’s black skin could also have been interpreted as representing dirt and thus she posed even more of a threat to the purity of white masculinity.

As Hall (1997) reminds us, soap was awarded mythological status in the 19th century – not only possessing the ability to cleanse the poorer classes in their unhygienic slums, but also endowed with the magical power to wash black skin white (hence, the implied logic goes, the power of cleansing the natives, of Europeanising them).

Dirt was also associated with lowlife and criminal types, as Jacob Riis frequently informed his audiences: “the true line to be drawn between pauperism and honest poverty is the clothesline. With it begins the effort to be clean that is the first and best evidence of a desire to be honest” (cited in Curtis 2003, p 6). Thus we have the notion of black skin associated with disease, dirt and criminality, in need of cleansing and civilising through the whitening (imperialist colonial) power of soap!

I came across Baartman’s story when I was researching the dark history of colonial attitudes during my last major project. A dramatised version of her life story “Black Venus” is available online in 2 parts here and here.

There does seem to be some debate as to whether she had to resort to prostitution shortly before she died as a means for support, but nevertheless, her story as one abused and exploited for the voyeuristic and perverse pleasures of others is one that cannot be denied. Her case is often appropriated and cited in discussions of race, gender and disability discrimination (enfreakment), although it has been pointed out that this was facilitated and came about merely as the result of her being politicised. Had her case not been taken to court by abolitionists, she would probably not have garnered such interest and media-fuelled posthumous repatriation – there are surely many other foreign dwarves and bearded ladies that were displayed in a similar manner and whose remains have yet to be repatriated. Debra Singer has also pointed out (in Willis 2010, p 87) that this was not the first nor the last case where an African woman was exhibited in Europe and photographed naked, nor the last to be labelled the ‘Hottentot
Venus‘; what makes Baartman’s case salient, according to Deborah Willis, is the huge number of images that were produced of her, “and it is this plethora of visual representation that makes her so significant, so enduring” (Willis 2010, p 6).

Consequently, Baartman still continues to be appropriated and made the site of contemporary discourse on a whole gamut of causes, including the representation of (black) women in Western culture, ideals of sexuality and femininity as well as the gaze as instrument of colonization or possession (ibid, p 87). Below are a couple of examples, the first is ‘Venus Hottentot 2000′ by Lyle Ashton Harris, and since the breasts and buttocks are prosthetics we understand that the image is activist (possibly on themes of both gender and ethnicity). The now infamous champagne image of Kim Kardashian was a recreation of a 1976 photograph taken by Jean-Paul Goude as part of his (racially questionable) ‘Jungle Fever‘ publication.


The more contemporary image has sparked the double reaction of racial controversy and a flood of memes that mock Kardashian and her inflated rear:

Regarding the comparison he has made with the Hottentot Venus, Grigely has the following to say:

It is a discomfiting analogy, and I realize some people will not like it. They will be angry. Perhaps then they will begin to understand the anger of the disabled—how the gaze that acts under the guise of curiosity, like colonialist curiosity, is actually a gaze of violence. We are at a stage in cultural history where our conceptions of “otherness,” to be truly other, must move beyond representations of the canonized Other. The colonized no longer necessarily live abroad; they live next door to us, and within our own homes.”

The violence of the gaze of the non-disabled, the curious stare, which is just what we are able to engage in when we are given photographs to pore over; it’s rather like being able to feast one’s eyes on the Medusa through the agency of a mirror – without risk of being ‘turned to stone’ by a guilty conscience. The colonised here refers to the Other, the ethnically different ‘Hottentot’, the sexually deviant ‘queer’, the disabled ‘freak’; the fact that these Others are appearing more in our communities means they demand to be dealt with rather than simply ignored or passed up as being too remote from our reality.

The fact that the metanarratives of the 19th century seem to feed into one another and support the overarching hegemonic notion of white male supremacy is something that has been noted by Halberstam, through the writing of Hall and Gramsci:

hegemony, as Gramsci theorized it and as Hall interprets it, is the term for a multilayered system by which a dominant group achieves power not through coercion but through the production of an interlocking system of ideas which persuades people of the rightness of any given set of often contradictory ideas and perspectives. Common sense is the term Gramsci uses for this set of beliefs that are persuasive precisely because they do not present themselves as ideology or try to win consent.” (2011, p 17)

Thus we are presented with a set of ideas about the Other, and then supplied with scientific proofs from different disciplines that corroborate the original assumption, what Foucault (1988, p 18) termed “very specifictruth games’“, in doing so creating an entire system of interwoven logic as Sekula (1986) demonstrated (with the rise of statistics and social sciences to construct the binary notion of ‘normal’ man and ‘deviant’ others), which appeared to be impossible to refute as a whole or in its parts (until challenged by the civil rights movement and then feminist/gender activism).

Grigely muses on the connection between social attitudes to difference and linguistics – terms like racism and sexism work because the root word is monosyllabic, whereas terms like disabled, handicapped or physically challenged are already clumsy and inadequate, so there cannot be an adequate term for the oppression of such a group. “Defeated by the aporia of language and the strictures of etymology we crawl back into our present: we are we to ourselves alone. You remain you. The gulf widens.” (do we not use the word ableism?)

He quotes a long passage from John Hull’s Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, which deals with this idea of the blind person not having a face, not being able to return the gaze:

Another aspect . . . is the horror of being faceless, of forgetting one’s own appearance, of having no face. The face is the mirror image of the self.

Is this linked with the desire which I sometimes feel to strongly hide my face from others? I want to hold my chin and to cover my mouth with one hand, pressing my hand against my nose, as if I were wearing a mask. Is this a primitive desire to find some kind of equality? Since your face is not available to me, why should my face be available to you? Or does it spring from a sense that the face has been lost? Am I somehow mourning over the loss of the face? Am I trying to regain the assurance that I have got a face by feeling it with my own hands? I want to touch my very lips as I am speaking. Other people’s voices come from nowhere. Does my own voice also come from nowhere?

This is a really strong passage, and goes some way to expressing the anguish a disabled person must go through in trying to search for and assert an identity that is other than their impairment.

Although it is well known that Calle refuses to comment (especially to media) about her work, Grigely picks up on one sentence that a critic wrote in The New Yorker about the exhibition: “Some of these people look blind, some of them don’t.”

“The very idea of looking blind, of bearing visible signs of identity, is somehow striking: one thinks of Paul Strand’s photograph of a blind woman, a string with a signcard placed around her neck: “BLIND.” … Would The New Yorker say of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs: “Some of these people look homosexual, some of them don’t”?”

He then talks of looking in the mirror to see if he can find any visible signs of his deafness, and since he cannot, wonders whether he ought then to get a hearing aid (not a flesh-coloured one, but a red one!).

“…when we [disabled people] read books and see movies about the lives of disabled people, we recognize that these are not real lives, but lives filtered through the ideologies of able-bodied people, lives that are made believable so that they can be marketed to a believing audience.”

Made believable since they do not deal with the daily mundanity, with the daily struggles; made believable since they conform to non-threatening ableist ideas of what it’s like to be disabled. This is the kind of stereotype I want to try and challenge.

I am beginning to think of you as a social archaeologist, as one who excavates the shards of human existence, makes notes, photographs, and so on. No scruples, no pettish qualms—truth only.
But whose truth?”

Whose truth indeed? I think that every artist, just as every philosopher, is looking somehow for a personal truth – and what after all is wrong with that? If we accept that there is no objective truth, that all truths are subjective, then what is Grigely’s problem? That Calle’s work deals with disabled persons but expresses a truth that is hers and not their own? Can’t all artists who make use of human subjects, portraits or otherwise, be accused of the same ‘projection’?

…when was the last time a critical journal like Representations or Critical Inquiry or Cultural Critique published an essay about the disabled other—even in special issues devoted to “identity”? Is it because the disabled continue to be patronized as inferiors—that is, as people incapable of participating in contemporary critical discourse? Is it because our signs of difference are just too different to fit into mainstream critical theory? Is it because our presence provokes discomfort that is best kept out of sight—as, historically, has often been the case? Remember those schools for the Deaf and the blind located in rural environments? The very fact that we remain largely absent from mainstream debates about identity and difference, or from the art canon itself, seems to echo the earlier absences felt by now-canonized minorities, who, perhaps understandably, have their territory to protect, their claims of empowerment to guard.”

The two-stroke punch of this postcard needs to be analysed – first Grigely questions why disabled identities are not dealt with in critical theory, and posits that the reason may be that it is too difficult, uncomfortable to include the disabled body in such discourse, and even those other areas of oppressed minority groups do not attempt to include disability in their hard fought for garrets.

In the final postcard, Grigely repeats his refrain: “Since your face is not available to me, why should my face be available to you?” and then proposes the following:

Perhaps, Sophie, you might some day return what you have taken, might some day undress your psyche in a room frequented by the blind, and let them run their fingers over your body as you have run your eyes over theirs.”

This would in fact be seen as equal payment in kind, the blind ‘seeing’ Calle’s body with their fingertips, the circle thus closed through reciprocal performative act. Although the postcards are quite long-winded and at times verge off on tangents, the idea of engaging on an equal footing with Calle’s work is intelligently executed, and Grigely has some interesting insights to bring to the table. I wonder whether Calle received these postcards, or whether she is even aware of their existence.


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