Because life is boring, and there wasn’t always such a thing as Netflix, and—let’s face it—good entertainment is way too hard to find, Saartjie Baartman, a young South African slave woman, was brought first to England and later to France, where in the early nineteenth century crowds gathered with the sole intention of looking at her butt. She was called the Hottentot Venus. It was large, Ms. Baartman’s behind, astonishingly big, and for a public held rapt by several spells – phrenology, white supremacy, and, in all seriousness, probably just a crippling amount of boredom—it proved irresistible, if only for a moment.
But every pop confection runs its course: Once the Europeans had had their fill of Saartjie Baartman, freak (one imagines they graduated to Coleridge or something), Saartjie Baartman, human, languished in Paris, where she teetered between prostitution and the bottle until she died.
Some 200 years later, in September 2014, writers at Vogue and the New York Times made a near-simultaneous discovery: the female posterior, at long last, as sexual site and fashion statement. As evidence for this development, both outlets cited the growing fame of Jen Selter, a woman whose Instagram profile has gained more than 4.6 million followers, all attracted by the shape and protrusion of Selter’s Spandex-clad bottom.
The pieces were roundly and rightly mocked, sometimes snarkily and sometimes achingly, but what continues to interest me about the episode, and others like it, is America’s limitless (and maybe unique? I can’t call it) capacity for forgetfulness.
I mean: it is good, maybe, that our agreed-upon models for physical beauty seem to be expanding, however slowly, and it is probably neutral-to-positive, but in any event pretty arbitrary, that this expansion might now include the occasional big ass, but none of this explains how the weird dissonances of the past became, as a category, a thing worth skipping over.
A culture more inclined to acknowledge history’s little flits into the present might see in Jen Selter a neo-Baartman, a funhouse Hottentot. Such a culture might enjoy a cruel humor in the comparison: Selter white and willing; Baartman black and coerced. Baartman a case of genetic happenstance; Selter a willful creation of the perfect squat.
I went to an all-boys Catholic school for 6th and 7th grade, uniformly Black and Latino except for a kid whose name I perhaps predictably still remember (Alex, white, suckered into fights just about once a week), and one of the facts of life in those days was that you couldn’t be considered a man unless you talked about asses quite a lot. Ass was an organizing principle, a way of life. I remember “conversations” whose main, accusatory gist was:
- An ass that had passed us (us: a gaggle of kids, beketchuped shirts, rumpled ties) on the street,
- One of us who hadn’t taken the proper time, and exercised sufficient eloquence, to appreciate said ass, and
- How irretrievably “gay” this neglect made the offender.
There’s an entirely different column, I understand, to be written about the lousy sexual politics of 12-year-old boys. But imagine my surprise upon arriving at prep school for 8th grade—an almost complete demographic flip-flop—and learning that a goddess in Harlem was fat—I heard that word, “fat,” a lot; it wasn’t ever a compliment—on the Upper East Side and beyond.
Jennifer Lopez is not a martyr. But neither has she always been a beneficiary of the new NYT-Vogue consensus. When the former In Living Color dancer insured her famous backside, she did so as an exception, a departure. For this reason, I watched the music video for her song “Booty,” featuring Iggy Azalea—who is, well, more Selter than Selena—with the perhaps naïve hope of a covert social, or racial, or feminist critique. At least an “I told you so” of one kind or another: two women reporting from either side of a recently toppled taboo, both celebrating its erasure. Something like that.
But no, not close. In the world of “Booty,” booty is an apolitical space; it calls attention to itself and nothing else. The song is stupid, OK?, and so is the video, and a butt is just a beautiful butt, always has been, nothing to see here, world without end, Amen.
This is probably what I get for expecting from pop something it is vanishingly equipped to deliver. I can’t tell if I should experience it as a relief.
After her death, Saartjie Baartman’s body was dissected like a frog’s. Her skeleton, brain, and embalmed vagina stayed happily on display in a Paris museum until the 1970s, and even then it took Nelson Mandela—Nelson Demigod Mandela, Nelson Biopic Mandela!—to get these remains sent back to South Africa and laid to rest.
There’s nothing to do about it, of course. Some people were bored, and things went down, as things do. What I’m saying—all I’m saying—is that it happened.
More information on Saartjie Baartman.
Jen Selter’s Instagram.
J.Lo and Iggy’s “Booty” video.
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