Social media provides the perfect space for the continued dehumanization, commodification, and fetishization of Black women.
As we kick off Women’s History Month, I thought I might start my commemoration of women with an unpopular opinion: I am tired of seeing Black women twerk on social media. I often cringe at the continued objectification of Black women’s sexuality and their bodies being available for mass consumption and commodification with just one click. I realize that in 2023, it is politically incorrect not to revere sex workers, exotic dancers, video and Instagram models, and all others who regularly show their assets for the world to see. But, at times, it all makes my skin crawl.
Mainly because we are so much more than our bodies and the stereotyped tropes that White supremacist culture have created for us to occupy. Let me explain. I am an older millennial, which may be ancient to some. But I remember when a person had to do more than open an Instagram account to get a gander at a woman’s backside. When going to college and earning a degree was preferred over fast money and exotic dancing, and when “leaving something to the imagination” was still a thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not condemning sex work or exotic dancing as means to earn income. Nor am I side-eyeing Instagram models, OnlyFans models, and others who bare it all on social media. However, I can’t seem to jump on the bandwagon that praises “p-popping on a handstand” over earning an advanced degree in higher education.
I understand that many of the examples I have provided are now considered demonstrations of women taking ownership of their bodies and sexuality. I can understand that line of reasoning. Listening to the City Girls even gets me hyped — ready to demand a BBL and new teeth from my husband. We live in a time when women feel they are deciding when to take off their clothes, open their legs, and say yes or no — and we are, to some extent.
That is, although women might be making the decision, a much stronger force is influencing these decisions and shaping the cultural norms we adopt — White supremacist culture and patriarchy. But this is nothing new. The histrionic dehumanization, fetishization, and objectification of Black women have been well documented. The bodies of Black women have been managed and controlled throughout American history; from the slave era to the modern era, Black bodies are still perceived as having inherently inferior value. From the auction block to sex shops, Black bodies remain byproducts of an ongoing manifest destiny — to be commodified for a monetary benefit or the entertainment of White folks.
As enslaved people, Black women were forced to have sex with their White enslavers, sometimes in front of their Black husbands. During Jim Crow south, White men did not think twice about catcalling or even sexually assaulting Black women in broad daylight with little to no recourse. Historically, Black female genitalia and secondary sex features have been fetishized for their size and shape. The pervasive nature of social media and mediated stereotyped images of Black women have only added insult to injury.
Social media has provided a more nuanced and culturally acceptable platform for the continued objectification of Black women’s bodies and has done so in a way that some Black women are chomping at the bit to jump on board. After all, social media offers users instant gratification and validation, from “likes” and heart-eye emojis to the potential to make large sums of money. Even grandmothers are enticed to create TikTok accounts. While this may all present as innocent and empowering to some, it is far from it.
And make no mistakes about it, if Black women are making tens of thousands — or even $1 million annually — on social media platforms like OnlyFans, the non-Black founder and its CEO are making more than 100 times that. In fact, the current CEO of OnlyFans made $284 million in 2021. That’s right, almost $300 million in one year. Name one Black model on OnlyFans that made even close to that. Again, commodification.
For giggles, one night I scrolled through Instagram. I was not surprised to find that images and videos of Black women dancing provocatively and/or dressed scantily clad overwhelming outnumbered pictures and videos highlighting Black women entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, dentists, social workers, and so forth. Additionally, most posts objectifying Black women received up to ten times the number of “likes” than posts of a Black woman achieving an accomplishment unrelated to her body.
We have internalized stereotypes depicted in film and television for decades. We have been portrayed as wet nurses, bed maids, angry welfare queens, and intellectually inferior. Inundating American popular culture with these stereotypes has been wildly effective in further marginalizing and oppressing Black women by reducing us to objects with no redeeming qualities or value outside of our bodies and sexuality.
And not much has changed. Don’t believe me; tune into almost any show on the Zeus Network or an episode of Love and HipHop. Or, do a leisurely Instagram scroll as I did. Bigger than that, representations of Black womanhood lack diversity and are often depicted as one-dimensional. That is, there are very few highly celebrated images of Black women — particularly young Black women — that are not overly sexualized.
So, again, I am not condemning Instagram models or those who won’t hesitate to drop it low on social media. Do you, sis! However, it is undeniable that depictions of Black womanhood are largely centered around sex and lust. Which is fine, but where is the diversity?
Black women are also innovators, thinkers, change agents, leaders, creators, doctors, healers, pastors, and so much more. These depictions create a narrative that does not fully reflect a holistic picture of the ingenuity, brilliance, grace, softness, queendom, and creativity that lay at the foundation of Black womanhood. No other ethnic group of women has been “seen” primarily for their bodies in the same way that Black women have. But I suppose that is the objective of oppression.
That said, I am encouraging Black women to remain aware of the world that we live in and that many of the norms that we all follow are rooted in values and objectives that are not only remiss of Black women’s best interest but have been designed to silence us and to reinforce our invisibility.