Thursday, March 8, 2007
I was intrigued when I heard another Black woman use the phrase that is the headline of this article. It sounded different from sexism. And it could just be all words at this point, but whenever I see the larger-than-life ads for Eddie Murphy’s new movie “Norbit,” the phrase rises to the surface again. The ad features two images of Murphy — one as a meek, glasses-donning version of himself and the other as a severely overweight Black woman who’s pinning him down. This particular image of a Black woman is where I have to acknowledge the female experience of racism.
She is the fat, dark-skinned, loud and unattractive bitch. She is positioned in “real” life and in the movie as the opposite of the Thandie Newton-ish slimmer, lighter and sweeter Black woman. She is comic relief. She is who no one, even those of us who are, wants to be. She is undesirable. She has her historical predecessors, from early American television and cinema.
She ain’t new.
Her image, however, consistently gets green-lighted as an appropriate form of comedy for the masses. Comedian Mo’Nique, bless her soul, had a popular television show in which she essentially was that woman — fat, loud and undesirable to the desired man of the show. She has one foot in those old Tom & Jerry cartoons — she’s always screaming. She’s been the character of countless comedic routines for an easy and reliable laugh.
This version of oppression is completely de-politicized, as is anything once you bring being female into the conversation, particularly when it has to do with looks. Be assured though, that if the traditional experience — the male one — of racism were displayed on billboards as if it were comic, the usual suspects would raise hell. When Jesse, Al, and some women, begin marching and addressing a movie like “Norbit,” I’ll believe that we’re getting somewhere.
I don’t know if I can wait for a march though. The mainstream representation, if there ever was one, of the female experience of racism is limited to trite debates where light-skinned and dark-skinned Black women are positioned against each other — à la India Arie/Alicia Keys of a few Grammys past, or Jennifer Hudson/Beyoncé of “Dreamgirls,” or, hell — and this one probably slipped past the radar of most — Angela Bassett/Halle Berry when Bassett explained that she passed on Berry’s “Monster’s Ball” role because she felt it was one of a prostitute.
With these instances as the context, is it any wonder that people might scoff at the notion of “the female experience of racism”? It has been the challenge of Black feminists galore to take on something people don’t realize exists. How do you explain the irony of “Norbit” opening to the number one spot on its first weekend while “Dreamgirls,” a movie that at least attempts to consider different versions of Black womanhood, stood at number 10? Or that “Dreamgirls” has helped restart Murphy’s career, and he follows with “Norbit”? We barely have the tools to consider that, once they are absorbed into the mass media marketplace, there is not much difference between Mo’Nique, Big Momma from the Martin Lawrence movies and Nell Carter from the ’80s sitcom “Gimme a Break.”
It doesn’t make a difference if it’s an actual woman, or men performing in suits, it doesn’t matter if a white person produced the image or not. The totality of these images reaching our eyes and minds via Viacom, GE or Disney all have racist and sexist implications.
It is political. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it seems like this is about looks. It’s not. It’s about humanity and economics, as racism has always been. I know Black women who look like Murphy’s female character Rasputia in “Norbit.” They are all beautiful, complex women who, as a result of real conditions in this world brought on by racism and capitalism, are overweight.
To repeatedly exaggerate us on the big screen as if it were reality and just to entertain everyone is wrong. As is being told in a multitude of ways that being Black, female and overweight is synonymous with being loud, unattractive and undesirable. It is not merely a matter of depoliticized self-esteem. It is an unacceptable, systematic practice of disregarding and disrespecting a significant and specific part of the population.
With the limits that this notion of Black womanhood imposes, everyone misses out. We narrow who we consider for a number of roles, from who we can date to who can lead all of us. So, while a number of us fixate on whether a black or a woman has a shot at the White House, I refuse to act as if we, or our experiences, don’t exist or matter.