lil kim: colonized and consumed
so, i can't look at that picture without seeing Saartjie_Baartman aka "Hottentot Venus". i can't shake it. with each glance, i see the disarming contortions of kim's diminutive form as a (failed) approximation of the curves and the boldness of her similarly exploited ancestor.
but there is a marked difference between the two images: kim is emphatically marked by the colonial project. her body is literally branded by/for french designer louis vuitton, a name that (given my urban, working-class orientation) has long been synonymous with the concept of invidious consumption. branding has a history that mustn't be ignored as we attempt to make sense of this photograph.
[The origin of branding may lie in the] literally dehumanizing treatment of a slave as mere livestock: just a biological entity owned and sold for arbitrary use and abuse (as agricultural work unit, house slave or toy). [Branding] was practiced by the European slavers as well as by African slave catchers. To a slaveowner it would be logical to mark his property on two legs just like cattle, or even more since humans are more adroit at escaping.
due to the function of branding as means of a punishment or imposing masterly rights over a legally subservient inferior, there is some question as to who owns the body that we see here.
the absenting of kim's clothes effectively blurs the lines between model and product in ways that beg the question: what (or who) does this advertisement ask us to consume? what objects (and/or bodies) are for sale and who is eligible to sell them? how do the elements of this photograph teach us to assign value to the (black female) body?
note how the blonde swoop threatens to obstruct her vision. it appears to be so tenuously situated that kim must remain perfectly still if it is to remain intact. an errant blonde lock hushes her pursed lips. they, too, must remain still as not to interrupt or soil our optical feast upon her nude body. for this moment, frozen in time by the snapshot, her vision -- her ability to see the world -- is decided and mitigated by where her blondeness happens to fall.
blondeness, then, catalyzes (or, at the very least, carries with it the possibility of) a temporary blindness of sorts. it goes beyond literally covering up black roots and actually obstructs the clarity of vision. this obstruction might be read as this black female subject's (willful?) subjugation to a vulnerable (disempowered?) position. this subjugation is an uncanny one though: it is enacted for pay and for a visibility that will result in more pay (in the form of album sales). the question: is there an element of volition present for kim that saartjie did not enjoy?
with her black nude airbrushed body, kim invites us to join her and to do away with the pretense of clothing... we too can forego such trifling formalities and mark our very flesh with the sovereignty of her french colonizer.
oh, i know... you want me (a self-avowed black feminist) to read some agency on kim's part. after all, her gaze meets the [white normative] gaze of the photographer/viewer, intense and unsmiling. uninviting, even. she decides how much of her body will be seen.
yeah, but homegirl is already marked... and that means homegirl laid down and allowed herself to be printed upon. once the inscription is made, i contend, agency is circumscribed in significant(perhaps irrevocable) ways.
and if i've learned anything in my time here at princeton, it's that the white supremacist project is quite willing to make some concessions if it means furthering its long-term interests. that is to say that sometimes white supremacy will allow you to act out (i.e. be black, bold, militant, agentic and even sexy) if you only agree to hand over your body to be marked by its primacy. if only you agree to occasional/temporary silencing.
and where are my girl's ears? tucked conveniently under that flesh-toned helmet, that's where. yet another sense forfeited.
visible, but nearly blinded.
inaudible and unhearing.
sexualized but circumscribed.
limbs forced to do the work of shielding her genitals from view when the colonial (LV) emblems fail to offer any protection.
this body is conquered terrain.
but that's just my reading...
i'm open to hearing yours.