In this talk back viewers respond to the “Black Girls Rock” celebration that aired on BET in November 2011. We reflect on the significance of a program that celebrates black women and girls who are leaders and change agents. How do we reconcile these representations with the typical portrayals of women we are used to seeing in music videos on BET? And how do we as artists and engaged audiences contribute to a media landscape that reflects our diversity?
BET, can you show us how Black Girls Rock through your programming year round?
What do you notice about this picture?
What do you notice about this photograph of a news -stand at the 34th St Subway platform in NYC?
Have you seen this type of display before?
When I lived in NYC three years ago I walked by news stands like this on a daily basis. Recently while visiting NYC, I walked by this newsstand and took this photograph.
The other night I showed the picture to my friends and asked what they noticed.
It was a media literacy moment, FAAN Mailstyle. Here’s some video of the conversation:
What do I notice?
I notice a typical NYC newsstand. And as I point out in our discussion, I notice a discrepancy between the way white women and black women are represented. To put it bluntly, I see lots of white faces and lots of black booties.
BlackandBrownNews.com (BBN), an award-winning digital news and information distributor, did a fascinating news story about this in 2009 titled “New York City Newsstand Vendors: Exploiting Some, Protecting Others”:
We found shopkeepers – many of them people of color – who exploited the images of Black and Latino women while going to great lengths to protect the image of White women on like magazine covers.
This news story led to a campaign and according to the Founder, legislation is now on the table. I’ll come back to this later.
In addition to observations around representation when looking at this photograph, my friends and I discussed the question of impact. We wondered what we learn from these images. How do we interpret these spectacles (when we do notice them)?
The little boy holding his lunch box, the teenage boys with their book bags, the grown man who is my boss, what do they think when they see this? What does this teach them?
The black girls out there… the teenage sister who is looking for validation, excited to hear someone call her sexy as if it is the only compliment that matters… and perhaps the only compliment she hears on a regular basis. What does she learn from this?
The men who shout, grab and follow…. the ones who throw epithets and glass bottles when their cat calls are ignored… Do they notice the newsstand? What does it teach them and the men who silently look upon them?
Street harassment has often made me feel like I am on display…. humanity stripped, objectified. I remember feeling that way and then walking passed newsstands not much different than this one. Including a shot of a magazine display in Walking Home, my film about street harassment, was an effort to make this connection visible.
But this connection goes beyond how I personally feel. There is a connection that speaks to our history. This newsstand may appear insignificant, but it is symbolic of a history that is still unfolding, where black and brown women in particular experience a unique form of normalized sexual exploitation and violence, one that is colored by sexism and racism. It is symbolic of a history where black women go missing and so does the media coverage about their disappearance. A history where black women have been viewed as “unrapable,” where joking about sexual violence in song lyrics is interpreted as “funny” or “shocking,” but ultimately accepted as pure entertainment by audiences andjournalists alike.
Then and Now
bell hooks and other scholars have argued that the dehumanization of black and brown men and women’s bodies has been used to justify and reinforce the oppression of black and brown people. In Black Sexual Politics, author Patricia Hill Collins explains:
“For both women and men, Western social thought associates Blackness with an imagined uncivilized, wild sexuality and uses this association as one lynchpin of racial difference. Whether depicted as “freaks” of nature or as being the essence of nature itself, savage, untamed sexuality characterizes Western representations of women and men of African descent.”
It is this narrative that helps explain why it was once acceptable for a black woman named Saartjie Baartman aka the “Hottentot Venus” to be caged, scrutinized and demonized at European Freak Shows. And it is this narrative that helps explain why newsstands like the one above exist all over NYC.
So what do we do with this newsstand, this symbol?
I wonder how Saartjie Baartman would answer that question.
Let me suggest that we notice it, seek to understand its implications and impact and talk about it. And then– if we care– we can act.
To all of those arguments that blame women and black women specifically for choosing to objectify themselves (you know, the whole “well she CHOSE to be in that video, magazine, party flyer, etc.”) this newsstand illuminates a reality that those arguments often overlook. Rather than simply blaming women who make those choices, we should be asking in what context are women making those choices?
And for the black women who adamantly distinguish themselves from “those women” and argue that they are not affected by these representations, I want to know what they think of this newsstand as a symbol. Is there still a disconnect? Or is there a reason to pay attention?
I am curious about the action steps outlined by Black and Brown News which asserts the following:
New York City newsstands are licensed by city government and they are also bound to law. According to New York Penal Code Penal Law Sections:
–245.10 Public display of offensive sexual material is defined as showing of the female genitals, pubic area or buttocks with less than a full opaque covering, or the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any portion thereof below the top of the nipple.
–245.11 And a person is guilty of public display of offensive sexual material when he with knowledge of its character and content he displays or permits to be displayed in or on any window, showcase, newsstand, display rack, wall, door, billboard, display board, viewing screen, moving picture screen, marquee or similar place, in such manner that the display is easily visible from or in any: public street, sidewalk or thoroughfare; transportation facility; or any place accessible to members of the public without fee or other limit or condition of admission such as a minimum age requirement.
If you notice or think that a newsstand is in violation, please take the time to contact the appropriate authorities.
Apparently it is possible to report violations to NYC City Officials. Of course as BBN has mentioned, enforcement has been an issue.
Let’s keep this conversation going. What are your thoughts? What’s next?
By Nuala Cabral