The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus

by Jean Young
The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus
Jean Young
African American Review
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

The Re-Objectification and Re-Commodification of Saartjie Baartman in Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus

In 1810, amid public sensation, scandal, and debate, Saartjie (pronounced, in Afrikaans, Sar-key) Baartman, a member of the Khoi-San (Khoikhoi and San) peoples of South Africa, was put on near-nude public display in London and Paris. Ironically and perversely dubbed "The Hottentot Venus," she became the main attraction and a thriving business for the London showmen who exhibited her. Baartman's genitalia and the "abnormal" pro- tuberance of her buttocks, or what was termed steatopygia, served as the central model for Black female "otherness" in the nineteenth century. To this day, Baartman's preserved buttocks and genitalia are in a jar at the Musee de l'homme in Paris.l Based on the nineteenth-century exhibition of Saartjie Baartman, the Obie Award-winning stage production Venus, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Richard Foreman, opened at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in May of 1996 to mixed reviews. Critics simultaneously described the work as "a protracted exercise in the obvio~s,"~

a "formidable experience: a gnarly but brilliant meditati~n,"~

and a production that, though it played to "small audiences, many of whom decamped before the final curtain," was nevertheless "remarkable."4 Suzan-Lori I'arks's authorship includes such noted works as The American Play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and the screenplay for the film Girl 6, produced and directed by Spike Lee. Darius Casey's description of Parks's work as a "non- naturalistic meditation on history, identity and culture," a decon- struction of "both the mythic experience of Black America and the history of America" fits Venuswell. But while presenting a "non- naturalistic meditation on history," Parks's historical deconstruc- tion presents a fictitious melodrama that frames Saartjie Baartman as a person complicit in her own horrific exploitation; Parks depicts her as a sovereign, consenting individual with the freedom and agency to trade in her human dignity for the promise of material gain.

This essay focuses on Parks's representation of Saartjie Baartman as an accomplice in her own exploitation, presenting a contextualized reading of Parks's play based on the historical documentation. My historicized reading furthers the discourse that considers the issues of power, choice, and agency. I will argue that a close examination of the circumstances connected with Baartman's removal from the Cape and subsequent exhibi- tion raises serious questions regarding what Parks has described as Baartman's complicity in her own exploitation. Further, Parks's portrayal of Saartjie Baartman draws on cultural images and stereotypes commonly used to represent Black woman in demeaning and sexually debased roles, the objectified opposition-

Jean Young is a scholar, artist, and filmmaker whose ongoing artistic motivation resides in her desire to "pro- mote images that have a pos- itive effect on the way people, particularly Black people and women, perceive them- selves." A faculty member at Dartmouth College, Young recently completed a two- year residency as Assistant ProfessorNisiting Artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Department of Film and the Department of Video. Young recently received the Randolph Edmonds Scholars Award for her essay "Ritual and Rites of Passage in ntozake shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf." She is revis- ing that essay as a chapter in a textbook tentatively titled Black Theatre in the African Continuum: Theory and Praxis, which is forthcoming from the Temple University Press.

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 4 01997 Jean Young

a1 "Other" measured against a white

male "n~rm."~

I will argue that Baartman was a victim, not an accom- plice, not a mutual participant in this demeaning objectification, and Parks's stage representation of her complicity diminishes the tragedy of her life as a nineteenth-century Black woman striped of her humanity at the hands of a hostile, racist society that held her and those like her in contempt. In other words, Parks's Venus reifies the per- verse imperialist mind set, and her mythic historical reconstruction sub- verts the voice of Saartjie Baartman.

In an interview, Parks explains her decision to construct Baartman as an accomplice and how this perspective relates to her own experiences:

I could have written a two-hour saga with Venus being the victim. But she's multi-faceted. She's vain, beautiful, intelligent and, yes, complicit. I write about the world of my experience, and it's more complicated than "that white man down the street is giving me a hard time." That's just one aspect of our reality. As Black people, we're encouraged to be narrow and simply address the race issue. We deserve so much more. (Williams C1)

In the quote, Parks describes Baartman as "multi-faceted," then goes on to characterize her as "complicit," as well as "vain, beautiful, [and] intelligent." Parks also offers a reductionist argu- ment that presents the struggle of Black people in America as a matter of the "white man down the street. . . giving [us] a hard time," and she describes the attention that Blacks are often forced to pay to the "race issue" as "narrow." Later in the interview, she characterizes Baartman as a "troubled woman, a sex object"-and states that the play Venus is about Baartman's tri- als and tribulations as she moves through the world. But ~aartman was a victim and not an accomplice, and the portrayal of her as complicit recapitu- lates the travesty of objectification or "Otherness" perpetrated by the nine- teenth-century exhibition of Saartjie Baartman.

Racial and gendered "Otherness" is a significant part of what mainstream fiestern popular culture presents6 in stories of domination, vio- lation, and the exvloitation of women. At the same time these stories are pre- sented, illusions are created that sexu- ally objectified women are really liber- ated women who enjoy their status as sex objects, making them complicit in their own exploitation. Parks frames the scenario around Baartman (The Girl) in this regard: She is a liberated and sovereign individual, capable, willing, and with the authority to con- trol her circumstances and make choic- es, as exemplified in the following example from the play:

The Girl. . . .Ive come here to get rich. Im an exotic dancer. Very well known at home. My manager is at this very moment securing us proper room. We're planning to construct a mint, he and me together. (Parks 18)

In the following scene between Baartman (The Venus) and Cuvier (The Baron Docteur), Baartman is repeated- ly portrayed as having control and options concerning her captivity, and enjoying her sexual exploitation, as the following example shows:

The Baron Dodeur. You cant stay here

forever you know.

. . . Ive got a wife. Youve got a home-

land and family back there.

The Venus. I dont wanna go back inny


I like yr company too much.

Besides, it was a shitty life . . . . (Parks


Unsurprisingly, white male New York theatre critics exalted Parks's framing of Saartjie Baartman for its lack of societal indictment. New York Times critic Ben Brantley praised Parks for not "present[ing] Baartman as just an uncomprehending victim," and he believed Venus to be at its "best when it drops its sweeping condemning his- torical perspective . . . .this woman is clearly an accomplice in her own humiliation" (C3). Likewise, critic Robert Brustein lauded Parks for "wisely avoid[ing] pushing sympathy


buttons" and for "portraying the humiliation of Blacks in white society without complaint or indictment," and, incredibly, he framed the dramatic pre- sentation of Baartman's kidnap, nude exhibition, and sadistic exploitation as an "interracial, inter-sexual and inter- cultural pageant" representing "a major advance for an integrated American theater" (29). Thus, Saartjie Baartman becomes twice victimized: first, by nineteenth-century Victorian society and, again, by the play Venus and its chorus of critics.

"Venus is about a woman who makes choices," according to Parks (Casey interview), a theme depicted in the following passage from the play as Baartman (The Girl) is propositioned by two South Africans, The Brother and The Man:

The Girl. Gold, Sir?
The Brother. Come to England. Dance

a little. The Girl. Dance? The Brother. Folks watch. Folks clap.

Folks pay you gold.

The Girl. Gold.

The Brother. We'll split it 50-50 . . .

Half for me half for you.

May I present to you: "The African

Dancing Princess!"

The Girl. A Princess. Me?

. . . I would have a house.

I would hire help.

. . . Do I have a choice? Id like to think

on it.

The Brother. Whats there to think on?

Think of it as a vacation!

2 years of work take half the take.

Come back here rich. It's settled then.

The Man. Think it over, girl. Go on.

Think it all over. (Parks 14-16)

Concepts of consent and choice are limited to non-subjugated individuals involved in free labor, and Baartman and her peoples were neither. During the time of Baartman's removal from the Cape, the indigenous people of South Africa were being severely reduced by the militarye~~editibns

of the Dutch commandos and by European diseases. British traveler John Barrow found not "a single horde of independent Hottentots" (Chidester 58) and fewer than a score of individu- als not in servitude of the Dutch. By the early nineteenth century the con- quest of the peoples known as the Khoikhoi, Hottentot, and Bushmen was nearly complete. The few remain- ing survivors of this slaughter were dispersed throughout the colony, total- ly subjugated and forced to work as servants for the Dutch. Saartjie Baartman was one of the survivors in service of a South African Dutch set- tler, Peter Cezar; and Hendrik Cezar, thought to be Peter's brother, brought her to London.

Once in London, Baartman was received amid great awe and specula- tion, and placed on exhibition in Piccadilly by Henrick Cezar to display her steatopygia or "abnormally" pro- truding buttocks, amid much specula- tion regarding her genitalia. Cezar described Baartman's body as the "kind of shape which is most admired among her countrymen" (qtd. in Altick 269), a statement which, as Rosemary Wiss notes, implies that the abnormal female body is normal among the Africans, and implying a form of pathology in African sexuality. The female body is here taken as the essen- tial statement of feminine differen~e.~ Saartiie was exhibited based on this diffeience or pathology, but not with- out controversy and opposition. According to court testimony present- ed by the African Association, a group of upper-class Englishmen, the Association

had every reason to believe that the unfortunate female in question was brought away from her own country with& her consent, was kept here for exhibition without her consent, and that the appearance of compliance which she evinced was the result of menaces and ill-treatment. The object of these most humane and respectable Gentlemen was to release her from confinement, put her under proper ~rotection while she remained here, And restore her to her country by the first conveyance that offered. (Altick 270)

Parks's slippery interpretation of the historical record surrounding the


tragedy of "Venus" (Baartman) is in "This is a sight which makes me


and of itself a tragedy when one con-

My husbands words exactly.

siders that, as Brantley aptly observes,

He was standing at the window. I can the play is at its "best when it drops its see him now.

sweeping historical condemning per- And then he walked away from me, deep in thought,

spective." Parks's blending of truth

and then, totally forgetting his com-

and fiction is both a distortion and an

passion, shouted loud:

historical reconstruction, because Parks "Good God what butts!"

uses the distorted lens of   (rest)
ing: to vortrav Baartman. A; exahple 6f this distor- gender and racial typecast- Parks frames Saartjie him, I think. . . . (Parks 57) Parks does not attempt Thuh shock of her killed
tion can be seen in the com- parison between Parks's iext and an eyewitness Baartman as a person to give agency to Baartman, but simvlv amplifies the I-' Isatirical representations
account of Baartman's exhi- bition by Mrs. Charles Mathews at Piccadilly Street in London, whb describes John Kemble's reaction to Baartman: comp'icitinher own horrific exploitation. and caricatures made of herinthepress,asthis examvle of the court hear- I ing from the play demon-
Chorus.Dont push us. eirl!
"Poor, poor creature! . . .   We could lock iou up Lhe!

very, very extraordinary, indeed . . . . Answer this:
Poor creature!" He minutely ques- Are you here of yr own free
tioned the man about the state of will or are you under some restraint?
mind, disposition, comfort, &c. of the

The Venus. Im here to make a mint.

Hottentot. . . . I had observed that at . . . After all Ive gone through so far the time Mr. Mathews entered and to go home penniless would be dis- found her surrounded by some of our graceful. (Parks 62)

own barbarians, the countenance of the "Venus" exhibited the most sullen I Based on Parks's fictionalized vresen- expression; but the moment she looked I

tation of Baartman, an assessment can

in Mr. Kemble's face, her own became

easily be made of her as a woman who

divergent perspective:

creature! Good God! how very shock- +g!"--and away he stalked, as if mus- One pinched her, another walked ing, and totally forgetting his compan- round her; one gentleman poked her ion until the moment of separation with his cane; and one lady employed recalled his recollection. ( Altick her parasol to ascertain that all was, as 269) she called it, "nattral." This inhuman

baiting the poor creature bore with In the play Venus, Parks offers a recon- sullen indifference, except upon great provocation, when she seemed

struct& representation of the eyewit-

inclined to resent brutality. . . . On

ness account which inverts the sense of

these occasions it required all the the original: authority of the keeper to subdue her resentment. At last her civilized visi-

Witness #2. . . . She once handed my tors departed . . . . (qtd. in Altick 269)

man a feather from her head. Theyre said to bring good luck. Parks's play Venus feeds the audi- A fight ensued. 3 men died. Uh little ence a steady stream of domination

boy went mad. Uh woman lost her

and eroticized humiliation, as the semi-


nude Venus is kicked in her greatly

My man escaped with thuh feather

exaggerated padded buttocks amid the

intact. "Poor Poor creature!" laughter of the Chorus of Human

"Very extraordinary indeed!" Wonders. She is sexually accosted by


The Brother, and later by The Mother Showman, yet seems unaware of her victimization. Venus's "love interest," The Baron Docteur, is ironically played by a Black actor. This attempt at multi- cultural casting by director Richard Foreman suggests that Black men are the primary exploiters of Black women, further distancing white males from a recognition of Baartman's (i.e., the Black woman's) exploitation and dehu- manization. In the play, The Baron Docteur, whose character is based on that of Georges Cuvier-who dissected Baartman upon her death, detailing her genitalia and buttocks-plays out a "love" scenario on a giant,vertical white satin bed amid his own spasms of uncontrollable lust. He stops prob- ing the Venus's monstrous prosthetic posterior only to turn away and mas- turbate:

The Baron Docteur. Dont look! Dont

look at me.

Look off


Eat yr chockluts.

eat em slow

thats it

Touch yrself.



(He's masturbating. He has his back

to her. He sneaks little looks at her

over his shoulder. He cumms.)

The Venus. Whyd you do that?

The Baron Docteur. Im polite

The Venus. Love me?

The Baron Dobeur. Do I ever. (Parks

placid and mild-nay she was obvi- ously pleased. . . . "Now, Mathews, my is "clearly an accomplice in her own good fellow, do you know this is a humiliation." An account at Piccadilly sight which makes me melancholy. I by Mrs. Mathews offers a radically dare say, now they ill-use that poor


In this scene, as in many others in the play Venus, the sexual coercion of Saartjie Baartman is assiduously eroti- cized. Parks's stage representation in Venus creates the illusion that Baartman was a free and liberated woman who enjoyed her status as a sex object and/or was in complete denial of such status altogether. But historical accounts contradict this representation.

The exhibition of the near nude African woman aroused much interest and sensation. as the numerous carica- tures, newspaper articles, and limer- icks written about her depict. Letters of protest also appeared in the Morning

Chronicle and the Morning Post. According to the November 24,1810, edition of The London Times, a Mr. M'Cartney, member of the African Association, petitioned the court for Baartman's "release" and to ascertain whether or not her keeper, Cezar, had sexual access to her. One member of the society who had visited Baartman's exhibit presented an affidavit that described Saartjie as enclosed in a cage on a platform three feet above the floor and indicated that, "on being ordered by her keeper, she came out, and that her appearance was highly offensive to delicacy . . . . The Hottentot was pro- duced like a wild beast, and ordered to move backwards and forwards and come out and go into her cage, more like a bear on a chain than a human being" (qtd. in Altick 270). From her heavy sighs and her appearance of anx- iousness and uneasiness, M'Cartney was convinced that she was totally under Cezar's control. But M'Cartney reported that he was unable to con- verse with her. A Dutch-speaking visi- tor questioned Baartman, asking if "she had any relations in the Cape," if "she felt herself comfortable here," and "if she wanted to go back to Africa." To these questions, "she did not answer" (Altick 270). Baartman's silence is understandable, considering her posi- tion as a captive in London and the genocide committed against her people by Dutch settlers in South Africa.

Some days later, during a three- hour examination conducted by repre- sentatives of the court and the attor- neys for her "keepers," her silence was transformed into "assurances" that she was "happy" in England, that she had two Black boys to attend to her, that she went out in a coach for two or three hours on Sundays and, finally, that "the man who 'shews' her never comes till she is just dressed, and then only ties a ribbon round her waist." The attorney-general ruled that Baartman was "plainly not under restraint," and added that she was pleased at the prospect of receiving one-half of the profits made from her exhibition,


which she seemed perfectly to under-

stand. The ill effect of taking her away

from her "keepers," the court ruled, would be "to let her loose to go back again." A warning against indecency was given to her "keepers" and the case was dismissed (Altick 270).

But there is something forced and contrived about this discourse that essentially renders Baartman mute. In circumstances where the powerful sup- press the powerless, a discourse of dominance evolves-or what Edward Said, in his Foucauldian analysis in Orientalism, terms the "strategies of power and subjugation, inclusion and exclusion, the voiced and the silenced" (Brantlinger 176). Discourse is power, and this power is self-validating The power over Baartman was created and maintained by a monopoly on dis- course, as the account of the court hearing makes clear. Here, Baartman's voice finds representation almost entirely by silence. The silent "voice" of Baartman is misread, interpreted as acquiescence in this exchange or "dis- course of domination." Baartman is never allowed to speak on her own behalf, her voice interpreted by transla- tors. Hence, the desire for freedom is silenced by a system that views Baartman as incapable of being a moral person by Victorian standards and by the decree of the courts (Wiss 17).

Parks, in her play, frames this sce- nario as complicency, completely ignoring the issues of power and con- trol, as shown in the following dia- logue between Baartman (The Venus) and the Chorus of the Court:

Chorus. Simple questions first.
. . . Were you ever beaten?
Did you like it was it good?
Do you wanna go home?
If so, when?! If so, when?! . . .

The Venus. The Venus Hottentot

is unavailable for comment.

Chorus. . . . Answer this:

Are you here of yr own free will

or are you under some restraint?


The Venus. Im here to make a mint.

. . . After all Ive gone through so far

to go home penniless would be dis-

graceful. (Parks 62)

The play revisits and subverts this court ruling:

Chorus of The Court. Hear ye hear ye


All rise and hear our ruling:

It appears to The Court

that the person on whose behalf this

suit was brought

lives under no restraint.

Her exhibition sounds indecent

but look at her now, she's nicely


Its clear shes got grand plots and plans

to make a mint by playing outside the

bounds so that we find

Her persons much depraved

But she has the right to make her mark

just like the Dancing Irish Dwarf.

At this time the Court rules

Not to rule. (Parks 64)

Neither Parks's Venus nor the London court recognizes the unequal power relationship, as Saartjie, a kid- napped, colonized captive, is forced to speak on her own behalf against her "keepers," who have assumed absolute control over her body and person, sub- jecting her to coercion, trading her along with stacks of animal skins, dis- playing her in a cage, and forcefully subduing her at will. Saartjie Baartman was represented as being able to "speak free from all alarm" and avow her "full consent," and the case was evaluated on the possibility of her receiving income from the exhibition of her body. An agreement of monetary exchange between she and her captors is unlikely, because under Dutch occu- pation of South Africa no contract among Hottentots was considered valid unless made before a magistrate because Hottentots were considered subhuman and "incapable of managing their own concerns." But because of her alleged "consent," Baartman was inconsistently coded as incapable of ~einga "fully moral person," while ;imultaneously represented as "lowest 3n the great chain of being" by the European male bourgeoisie and the sci- 2ntific community (Wiss 18).

Debates over slavery in the early part of nineteenth-century Victorian England represented the institution as a direct extension of African "savagery" (Brantlinger 198), and Wiss states that this displacement resulted in Africans being "re-coded as responsible for slavery by their partici- pation in the slave trade" (18). That is, the victims were blamed for their own victimization, and what could be termed Europeans' "darkest impulses" were projected onto Africans. l'lithin this conceptualization, Baartman, who existed under the most extreme cir- cumstances of physical subordination, was positioned as a participant in her own enslavement-in Wiss's words, "ambiguously situated-judged by the criterion of the knowing rational self, but without the authority of determin- ing her own position" (19). With her subjugatorsf sexual exploitation of her framed in patriarchal and imperialist terms as "compliance," her transforma- tion from victim to active collaborator was complete. In London the court hearing Baartman's testimony was mediated and her essentially rendering her silent, and this silence was interpreted by a nine- teenth-centur~ court, which never once addressed her by name, as "consent." Baartman became the ulti- mate "Other," not only owned and exploited but mediated and rendered powerless through a constructed European discourse that viewed her as primitive, bestial, and irrational. In a case of double victimization, she was treated by Ellenborough's court as a free person in enough control over her circumstances to express her own will and desires, but at the same time a primitive incapable of making deci- sions regarding her own welfare. After the exhibition in London, Saartjie Baartman became a "sensa- tion" of the English provinces. In September of 1814 she was taken to Paris, where an animal trainer exhibit- ed her daily, from eleven in the morn- ing until ten at night for fifteen months in a shed in the Rue Neuve. Later, she was abandoned in Paris by her English "keeper" to a showman of wild ani- mals, and then abandoned again (Wiss 23). By November of 1815 she had grown desperately ill, and her owners were unable to continue her exhibition. But scientists were still interested in her. French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier, despite the gravity of her illness and predicament, commis- sioned a painting of her in the nude at the Jardin du Roi for "scientific" pur- poses.8 On December 29,1815, Saartjie &artman's life came to a tragic end. "She was not rich," reports Rosemary Wiss, "not in the Cape and certainly no less subject to prurient gazing in death than in lifeu (26).

Cuvier sought and received official permission to dissect her at the Jardin du Roi, where he had her entire body ,-,st in plaster, and her genitals and anus "moulded separately in wax" (Wiss 26). ~~t the cause of Baartmanfs death at the age of twenty-six incurred much less attention than her life. Cuvier indicated that he might be will- ing to ,,dascribe her death to an excess of drink to which she gave herself up during her last illnessf (qtd. in wiss 26). ~~d ~i~-,~~d reading of

~lti~kf~ contemporary reports states that

she possessed, in addition to the fond- ness for trinkets, customarily attrib- uted to savages, an even greater one for the bottle. Thus debilitated, she was in no condition to fight the small- pox, which, in collaboration with a doctor who mistakenly treated her for "a catarrh, a pleurisy, and dropsy of the breast," killed her . . . . (272)

Wiss states that Saartjie Baartman was perceived as "naturally degenerating the way 'savages' customarily do when corrupted . . . . her own body destroyed her life, not contagion from those around her, or her [lack of] med- ical care" (28). "Misdiagnosed," Baartman was not treated for smallpox, an acute, highly infectious, and deadly disease characterized by widespread eruption of pimples that blister and produce pus. Smallpox decimated


indigenous populations such as native Americans and the Khoi-San of the South African cape, when it was intro- duced into those areas.

But Parks does not present this sce- nario, or the effect that it had on Saartjie Baartman. Instead, Parks ends Venus as it began, with the death of Baartman. Parks overshadows white male complicity in Baartman's death by framing the scenario around Baartman's illness and death as an uncaused misfortune, even implicating Baartman, "a shameless sinner," rather than Georges Cuvier, Alexander Dunlop, Lord Ellenborough, Peter Cezar, and Hendrick Cezar, et al., and the wrongs perpetrated by them:

Hur-ry Hur-ry Step in Step in
Thuh Venus Hottentot iz dead.

The Venus. Tail end of the tale for there must be uh end. Is that Venus, Black Goddess was shameless, she sinned, or else

Completely unknowing thuh God- fearin ways, she stood showing her ass off in her iron cage.

When Death met Love Death deathd Love and left Love tuh rot Au nature1 end for thuh Miss Hottentot. Loves soul, which was tidy, hides in heaven, yes, that it Loves corpse stands on show in muse- um. Please visit. (Parks 130)

Here Parks renders invisible the sadism, racism, misogyny, and exploitation per- petrated on the Khoi-San woman because of her physical difference.

The social construct of the white prostitute, the "Other," also came to represent the embodiment of deviant female sexuality. The icon of the Hottentot and the body of the white prostitute, both with "oversized" but- tocks, were inextricably linked in a fusion of race, gender, and social class.9 The iconography also served the need for a subhuman African Black: If slav- ery were to be defended and if Black sexual parts could be shown to be inherently different, this would be proof that Blacks were a separate (lower) race.

The treatment of Black women's bodies in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States is considered the foundation upon which Black women's commodification and objectification is based, and the racist iconography of the sexuality of Black women's bodies emerged from these contexts. Representing Black women as the "Other," or outside the "mythical" norm in terms of physicality and alleged sexual behavior, served to legitimi; e the commodification of the Black woman and to mask contradic- tions in social relationships (Collins 71).As "Others," Black people could be marginalized and affixed to negative characteristics, in opposition to and inferior to those of whites. The posi- tioning of Black women as the "ulti- mate other" allows the overall ideology of domination and race, gender, and class oppression to endure. Stereotypes and myths about Black women support the underpinnings of gender-specific "Otherness" and maintain a system of oppression based on oppositional dif- ference. In this respect, rape becomes an impossibility, given the myth of the Jezebel or Black women's rampant and deviant sexuality. This ideological jus- tification of sexual violence and rape allows the entire history of Black wom- en's sexual subjugation and exploita- tion, including sexual assault during slavery, domestic abuse, incest, and sexual extortion, to be denied.

Therein lies a central premise of Western psychology and psychoanalyt- ic theory that much of what determines a person's behavior is located within the internal psyche or the unconscious. Parks's representation of the Venus or Saartjie Baartman tells us little about Baartman. Critic Robert Brustein is quite correct in his critique of the play; it does without argument portray "the humiliation of Blacks in white society without complaint or indictment" (29). Whether or not this portrayal repre- sents a "major advance for integrated American theater" (29)is entirely another issue indeed.

1. The exploitation of and controversy over Saartjie Baartman has not ended. Satirical prints of her Notes
published during her "tour" of London and Paris can still be purchased. Three jars labeled une  
negresse, une peruvienne, and la Venus Hottentotte contain the dissected genitalia of three Third  
World women at the Musee de I'Homme in Paris. French anatomist Georges Cuvier dissected  
Baartman upon her death in 1815. He, along with pathologist Henri de Blainville, had two intentions  
in their written autopsy published in 1817: to make a comparison of a female of the lowest human  
species to the highest ape, the orangutan, and to describe the anomalies of the Hottentot's genitalia.  
The Griquas, a South African tribe that inhabited the area long before the Zulus, Xhosa, and other  
indigenous tribes, accuse the Musee of exploiting Baartman's remains and want them returned in  
order to establish tribal legitimacy in South Africa. Museum officials claim they were removed from  
display more than two decades ago, but in 1995 they were brought out for a display depicting the  
racist portrayal of aboriginal peoples in nineteenth-century Europe. Museum officials say they might  
consider returning the remains if the request is high-level and diplomatic. The Griguas are lobbying  
the French government.  
2. In his dramatic review of Venus, critic Ben Brantley describes the play as lost in "the singular  
limbo land of Richard Foreman," "unusually accessible," and "strangely flat." It is at its best when "it  
drops its sweeping condemning historical perspective" and focuses on the personal. He adds that  
Venus is "rich in dramatic potential and social reverberations" and goes on to praise Parks for pre-  
senting Baartman as not 'Tust an uncomprehending victim . . . [but] clearly an accomplice in her own  
humiliation" (C3).  
3. John Lahr, in his dramatic review of Venus, describes the production, then goes on to describe  
the play as a "well-directed, opaque tale" and the play's tragedy as the "Venus Hottentot's inability to  
understand the role she has played in her own oppression" (98).  
4. Robert Brustein believes that Venus "needs editing," but is an "interracial, inter-sexual and inter-  
cultural pageant represent[ing] a major advance for an integrated American theater." He believes that  
Parks "wisely avoided pushing sympathy buttons" and lauds her for managing to "portray the humilia-  
tion of [Bllacks in white society without complaint or indictment" (29).  
5. Rosemary Wiss states that the European perception of difference was partially informed by  
exhibits of indigenous people brought back to Europe by colonial scientists and entrepreneurs of the  
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She sites Derrida's and Foucault's respective ideas of those  
depicted as different being the "other" and subsequently constructed and devalued with regard to  
their difference from white European male body types. These "others" are represented in terms of  
pathology. Prevailing scientific discourse characterized Baartman's "race" as hovering on the border  
between animal and human, based on the emergent scientific classifications based on race and dif-  
ference. Baartman's "abnormal" body also implied a form of pathology in African sexuality.  
6. Black female characters in the mass popular culture of theater, film, television, and print are too  
often represented as stereotypes-portrayed in demeaning, sexually debased, and exploitative roles.  
Feminist critic Patricia Hill Collins further asserts that this iconography of Black women as "stereotyp-  
ical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mamas has been essential to the political  
economy of domination fostering Black women's oppression" (67). Exploitative stereotypes such as  
these present a complete and extreme historical reconfiguring of the representation of Black women  
through Western popular culture and can be seen as an attempt on the part of white society to justify  
its dehumanization and exploitation of Black women by making these demeaning images appear to  
be "natural, normal, and an inevitable part of everyday life" (Collins 67).  
7. According to Rosemary Thompson, Baartman's exhibition became "inextricably linked to the cul-  
tural productions of gender and race" (70). Baartman was cast in opposition to the "ideal" representa-  
tion of gender and sexuality, as a deviation from the "norm" which was represented by the "cult of  
true womanhood" and exemplified by social constructions of white femininity. To the Western mind  
Baartman's body signified savagery and physiological inferiority, the antithesis of femininity. This  
obsession with physiological difference and racial classification served white supremacy by legitimiz-  
ing colonial expansion and racial exploitation. Thus the "ape-like" body of the female Hottentot was  
projected to the lower dark fringes of humanity, where it could justifiably be appropriated for the  
needs of colonialism and presented as a spectacle-the "Other" that is owned, exploited, mediated,  
and subsequently silenced by white males of the "civilized" culture of Europe (Thompson 71).  
8. The cultural interplay between entertainment and the emergent scientific discourses of the West  
located Baartman as the "true missing link," the lowest of the low on the "great chain of being." The  
Systema Naturae, introduced by Carl Linnaeus while exploring the flora, fauna, and humans of the  
Cape, declared natural science as the science of classification. Human beings were divided into four  
distinct groups in terms of complexion, physiology, and disposition: Americanus, red and choleric;  
Asiaticus, yellow and melancholy; Afer, black and phlegmatic; and Europaeus, white and sanguine  

(Chidester 59). The infant science of ethnology saw "primitives" or "savage" races as prime raw material.

9. Sander L. Gilman states that, by the eighteenth century, the sexuality of Black females (and males) became the icon for deviant sexuality, and that nineteenth-century physicians and sociolo- gists linked the iconography of the two "seemingly unrelated female images-the icon to the Hottentot female and the icon of the prostitute" (225)-two models of sexual deviancy, with prosti- tutes having a "peculiar plumpness" and excessive weight. Further, he explains, case studies by the student of sociology Abele de Blasio in the early 1900s of the steatopygia, or the perceived protuber- ance of the buttocks of the prostitute, meant that prostitutes were, quite literally, Hottentots. Thus the image of the prostitute in the late nineteenth century merged with the perception of the Black, based on the perceived physical difference and primitiveness of the primary (labia) and secondary (but- tocks) sexual organs. These "primitive qualities" of the Black female became those of the prostitute.

Works Altick, Richard D. The Shows of London. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. Cited Brantlinger, Patrick. "Victorians and Africans." Critical Inquiry 12 (1 985): 166-203. Brantley, Ben. "Of an Erotic Freak Show and the Lesson Therein." New York Times 3 May 1996, late

ed.: C3. Brustein. Robert. "Robert Brustein on Theater." New Republic 20 May 1996: 29. Buchwald, Emily, ed. Transforming Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1993. Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist.

New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Casey, Darius. "Arts and Entertainment Interviews Suzan-Lori Parks." Arts and Entertainment 21 June 1996. Chidester, David. Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa.

Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1996. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 1991. Gilman, Sander L. "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality in the

Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature." Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 204-42. Lahr, John. "Freak-Show Drama, Roman Farce, and Hip-Hop Energy." New Yorker20 May 1996: 98. Parks, Suzan-Lori. Venus. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1997. Thompson, Rosemarie G. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and

Literature. New York: Columbia P, 1997. Williams, Monte. "Suzan-Lori Parks: From a Planet Closer to the Sun." New York Times 17 Apr. 1996, final ed.: Cl. Wiss, Rosemary. "Lipreading: Remembering Saartjie Baartman." Australian Journal of Anthropology 5.1-2 (1994): 11-41.


  • Recommend Us