The Defeminization of Black Women

TW: Mention of rape, mention of someone being shot

The year was 2004. Janet Jackson was set to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show to drum up buzz for her upcoming album. Justin Timberlake was riding the high of his debut album, Justified, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 200. A few days from the Super Bowl, Jackson’s choreographer, Gill Duldulao talked about the performance they had planned in an interview with MTV News. He said, “The dancing is great. She’s more stylized, more feminine, she’s more a woman as she dances this time around. There are some shocking moments in there too.” What Duldulao meant when he referred to “shocking moments” was the surprise cameo Timberlake would make during the performance. What ended up happening was much more shocking. Jackson’s performance started as any performance would. She opened with her single All for You, and after cameos from a few celebrities, she came back and sang Rhythm Nation. The end of Rhythm Nation led into Timberlake’s cameo, where he performed the single Rock Your Body. As Timberlake uttered the last word of the final line of the song, “better have you naked by the end of this song”, his hand snaked Jackson and ripped off the right side of Jackson’s corset, and as his hand fell away, her breast was exposed. If you watch the clip, you can see Jackson look down dumbfounded, and begin scrambling to cover her breast as the screen goes dark as Timberlake stands with the ripped clothing in his hand. Contrary to what the media said at the time, this was not some elaborate scheme thought up by Jackson to get buzz for her new album. It was not Jackson taking advantage of a poor young soul for fame. It was a wardrobe malfunction. In a quick addition after final rehearsals, Jackson and Timberlake had planned for part of Jackson’s corset-style top to get ripped off, revealing an undergarment. When the time for execution came, however, Timberlake accidentally ripped off the undergarment as well as the corset. Nothing about the incident was intentional. And yet, with the way everybody talked about it, you would think it was.

via CNN

Janet Jackson’s breast got exposed for about 100 million people to see for just over half a second. But the impact that this half-second had on pop culture, and Jackson’s career, lasted a lot longer than that. At least for Jackson they did. Jackson released a statement apologizing for the whole ordeal, but her attempt was in vain. The Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation into the event after receiving more than 500 thousand complaints. MTV’s chief executive at the time, Tom Freston, said that “Janet Jackson engineered it”. Jackson was barred from performing part of a tribute to Luther Vandross at the Grammys. When her new album, Damita Jo, was released later that year, it was her lowest-selling album since 1984. Jackson got effectively blacklisted from the music industry, and when she did get a platform in the form of interviews, they were always filled with invasive questions about the nip slip. All the while, Justin Timberlake was doing just fine. After he also made a statement, he was able to get back to business as usual. Not only did he attend and perform at the Grammys – he won two major awards. Other than some uncomfortable interviews, his career trajectory didn’t change at all. He continued to ascend into the obligatory R&B-adjacent white artist we know today. 

This stark difference in career impact is not a coincidence, nor is it an isolated incident. What happened to Janet Jackson after the infamous nip slip is the result of stereotypes that have plagued Black women for centuries. The construction of gendered races, as Emy P. Takinami referred to in their paper, has existed since the 1700s when the enslavement of Black people was legal in much of the United States. White people clearly defined the roles of white men and women in heterosexual relationships. The men were the breadwinners of the family who made all the important decisions; the women were to be subservient homemakers who took care of the children. While white people took care to define these gender roles for themselves, they did no such thing with Black people. Black women could not meet the same idea of femininity as white women because they were doing the same grueling labor as their Black male counterparts. Therefore, Black women were not seen as ‘ladylike’, fragile people who were deserving of the utmost protection – these were privileges only afforded to ‘true women’ (white women). 

The defeminization of Black women allowed white slave owners to gain sexual access to enslaved Black women in a way that would not fly otherwise. White enslavers would often rape their Black female slaves both as a way to produce more enslaved people for economic benefit and to use them as a sexual outlet while keeping the dignity of their white wives intact. To further justify this, white people concocted the Jezebel stereotype. The Jezebel is a hypersexual, aggressive caricature that became popular in American blackface minstrelsy. She loves to have sex, especially with white men and will do anything to have it. This further masculinized Black women in the sense that the hallmark characteristics of a Jezebel were the same stereotypes placed on men in a white patriarchal society. Black women were seen as an aggressive extension of their male counterparts, who were also painted as hypersexual and were often lynched because of false rape accusations. As a result, violence towards Black women was not regarded in the same light as violence towards white women. Society dictated that it was impossible for Black women to be victims. In fact, they were probably the aggressors. This stereotype was further cemented during the Great Depression when many poor Black women in cities turned to sex work for income. A majority of their customers were white men with sexual tastes that were seen as deviant at the time. This dynamic was reminiscent of that which was created by White men when the enslavement of Black people was legal. People used the presence of Black female sex workers to further advance stereotypes of Black women being hypersexual beings who wanted and initiated sexual relations with White men, which in turn pushed Black women even further away from the standard of femininity.

via WireImage

The legacy of these harmful stereotypes and caricatures lives on today. We see it everywhere – in the treatment of Janet Jackson, in the way Black women are portrayed in the media, and, more recently, in the treatment of famous rapper Meghan Thee Stallion. Meghan Thee Stallion is the rap it-girl. She is the moment – everyone wants a song with her, every brand wants to work with her. And yet, all that social capital couldn’t stop society from treating her like she was less than human when she got shot. On January 12th, 2020, rapper Tory Lanez and Meghan Thee Stallion got into an argument while they were on the road. Meghan got out of the car, and Tory Lanez shot at her several times, wounding her feet in the process. When news of this broke, Meghan was met with an outpour of sympathy, as she should have been. But she was also met with people who didn’t believe her, and even worse, people who believed her and used her trauma as a punchline of a Twitter joke. When she came out and named Lanez as the shooter, she was called a snitch, a liar, an attention seeker. It got to the point where Meghan had to get on Instagram and post pictures of her bloody foot for people to believe that she got shot. And even people couldn’t believe that there was no reason why she got shot. All of a sudden, Tory Lanez had more fans than he’s had in years. “Okay, well she got shot,” people said, “But maybe she deserved it. Maybe she provoked him”. In the eyes of society, there is no way that Meghan was a victim of gender-based violence. She couldn’t have been – she’s a Black woman. 

via Getty Images

Janet Jackson and Meghan Thee Stallion are privileged. They are rich, famous, and conventionally attractive. And yet, they both had to face gaslighting, slander, and defeminization. If they got that treatment in spite of their privilege, imagine what it must be like for Black women who don’t have what they have. Imagine what it must be like for poor Black women, transgender Black women, Black women with disabilities, and Black women who are sex workers. Black women’s femininity was stolen, and their humanity along with it. It wasn’t given back to them with the ratification of the Civil Rights Act, despite what society will have you believe. We do not live in a post-racial society, and the concept of gendered races is alive and well. After all, the dehumanization of Black women is intrinsic to the white-centered, patriarchal system that American society operates under. In our world, Blackness is a crime, Black femininity an oxymoron. So when you celebrate Women’s Day next year, and every year after that, consider whose womanhood you are celebrating, and whose you are not.

ATB,

Fiona

Works Cited

Pfeiffer, Sacha, and Mallory Yu. “Making Sense Of Megan Thee Stallion’s Shooting, And What Followed.” NPR, NPR, 11 Sept. 2020, http://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/912012064/making-sense-of-megan-thee-stallions-shooting-and-what-followed.

Renfro, Kim. “A Complete Timeline of Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Fiasco, and What the Pop Stars Have Said about the Debacle over the Last 17 Years.” Insider, Insider, 5 Mar. 2021, http://www.insider.com/justin-timberlake-janet-jackson-super-bowl-incident-timeline#march-22-2004-jacksons-new-album-debuted-and-it-was-the-lowest-selling-album-she-had-made-since-1984-14.

Stephen M. Silverman Updated February 03, and Stephen M. Silverman. “MTV Says Janet to Blame for Flashdance.” PEOPLE.com, people.com/celebrity/mtv-says-janet-to-blame-for-flashdance/.

Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Rapper Tory Lanez Charged In Megan Thee Stallion Shooting.” NPR, NPR, 8 Oct. 2020, http://www.npr.org/2020/10/08/921902926/rapper-tory-lanez-charged-in-megan-thee-stallion-shooting.

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