The Black Body in Ecstacy- Jennifer C Nash
Pornography has implicitly come to structure black feminism’s conception of representation. Indeed, black feminism has often read visual culture’s treatment of black women even in nonpornographic texts as a kind of pornography; pornography has become both a rhetorical device and an analytical framework, a strategy for describing and critiquing a particular re-presentation of black women’s bodies. Alice Walker, for example, notes that “for centuries the black woman has served as the primary pornographic ‘outlet’ for White men in Europe and America. Here, the “pornographic” comes to signal not the genre conventions of the hard-core, but a mode of sexualizing and objectifying black women. If the “pornographic” describes a way that black women are violated, dominant visual culture is imagined to offer a particularly explicit, uninterrupted gaze at black women’s bodies, securing ideas of black women’s hyperlibidinousness, ranging from black feminist critiques of blaxploitation to hip-hop feminist critiques of “video hoes” and “video vixens.”
Engaging with racialized pornography as an actual visual enterprise structured by historical moment and technological shifts rather than as a rhetorical trope is thus necessary for unraveling the assumptions underpinning black feminism’s conception of representation.
While pornography has maintained rhetorical and symbolic value for black feminists, some black feminists have been specifically concerned with racialized pornography’s pernicious effects. Following Catharine MacKinnon’s insight that pleasure can be the “velvet glove on the iron fist of domination,” black feminists have often treated racialized pornography as particularly problematic because of its capacity to make racial inequality look sexy. Walker’s famous refrain that “where white women are depicted in pornography as ‘objects,’ black women are depicted as animals. Where white women are depicted at least as human bodies if not beings, black women are depicted as shit” has become emblematic of a prevailing black feminist approach to pornography where critiquing racialized pornography is treated as analogous to critiquing racism. Examining the meaning-making work that black women’s bodies have performed in pornography is central for undermining the transhistorical transtechnological claim that racialized pornography’s representational labor is always to represent black women “as shit.”
Because pornography functions as an act which secures male power, antipornography feminists argue that pornography both mirrors and cements the actual position of women under conditions of patriarchy. Mac-Kinnon asserts, “In pornography, there it is, in one place, all of the abuses that women had to struggle so long even to begin to articulate, all the unspeakable abuse: the rape, the battery, the sexual harassment, the prostitution, and the sexual abuse of children. Only in pornography it is called something else: sex, sex, sex, sex, and sex, respectively.” Pornography, then, celebrates male dominance, it eroticizes sexual assault, it glamorizes female subordination, and it “sexualizes women’s inequality”—quite simply, it is the linchpin of male control over female bodies. Antipornography feminists, then, actively rebut the idea that pornography is merely benign fantasy. Dorchen Leidholdt argues, “The environment in which we learn about and experience our bodies and sexuality is
a world not of sexual freedom but of sexual force. Is it any surprise that it is often force that we eroticize? Sadistic and masochistic fantasies may be part of our sexuality, but they are no more our freedom than the culture of misogyny and sexual violence that endangered them.” Leidholdt shows that the very content of fantasy is shaped by male dominance, suggesting that our affective lives are shaped by “the culture of misogyny.” If “sexual force” constitutes the milieu in which our sexual subjectivities develop, antipornography feminists assert, then our sexual practices and pleasures are suffused with the practices of patriarchy.
Contemporary anti-pornography feminists also argue that pornography’s omnipresence has come to fundamentally alter the fabric of intimate life. As Dines argues, “To think that men and women can walk away from the images they consume makes no sense in light of what we know about how images shape our sense of reality.”44 To that end, the labor of some contemporary anti-pornography work is to trace how pornography’s cultural presence destroys intimacy, commodifies relationships, and glamorizes violence. While I am deeply critical of antipornography feminism’s reliance on law as an attempt to safeguard women’s bodily integrity, its wholesale neglect of pleasure, and its symbolic use of black women’s bodies, my analysis remains fundamentally interested in two foundational premises of antipornography thought. First, antipornography feminism convincingly argues that female subjects’ experiences of pleasure are mediated by patriarchy and its intersection with other structures of domination. This is not to say that one’s experience of pleasure is inauthentic; rather, anti-pornography feminism uncovers that pleasures are enjoyed against the backdrop of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and that this context casts a profound shadow on the pleasures we experience. Second, this scholarly tradition shows that pleasure can mask the pernicious workings of patriarchy. By critically interrogating pleasure, rather than simply celebrating it as necessarily positive, antipornography feminism shows that hierarchy often wears the guise of pleasure. Both of these critical interventions underpin my own readings of racialized pornography, spectatorship, and visual pleasures.
Surprisingly absent from pro-pornography feminism is an engagement with how race (and other structures of domination) fundamentally alter and constrain women’s access to sexual pleasure and agency. Fortunately, a new and more complex form of sex-positivity has begun to take hold within the parameters of black feminism, with work by scholars like La-Monda Stallings, Siobhan Brooks, and Shayne Lee asking how “a pro-sex vision can supplement the feminist quest for social and sexual equality by delving into popular culture to see the production of proactive scripts for female sexuality and erotic agency.” The development of sex-positivity within black feminism has productively bracketed older black feminist conversations about respectability and sexual conservatism, instead attempting to place black female sexual agency at the heart of black feminist conversations.
Unlike pro-sex feminists, though, sex-radicals emphasized sexuality as a fraught site for female subjects (rather than simply a site of agency), a space where pleasure and danger bleed into each other in messy ways, particularly for multiply marginalized subjects.