Images in the media
I’ve been talking a lot to friends about the topics we discuss in class. I was explaining the exercise we did, associating images with the theory we’ve been learning. For some reason the connection between the images in the magazines of the 50’s through the 80’s seem to go very well with the ideas of the super-masculine menial the Amazon and the ultra-feminine jezebel. I don’t know whether or not the magazines, Jet and Essence, were promoting the desires of the people reading the magazines, that is to say the desires of blacks as a result of the pressures put on them by the society, or an attempt to craft the desires of the readers; but it is clear from the magazines that there was an overwhelming trend towards problematic understandings of blackness. The women who were supposed to be beautiful in the magazines were all light skinned. The darker women were all depicted as mothers, exhibited by their involvement with children, a plant or some other object that requires nurturing. Though the magazines did have lots of images of white people in advertisements, the implication was clearly, if a black person can acquire the material wealth of a white person than the black person has “arrived”. Similarly achieving the physical characteristics of a white woman would make the black woman beautiful. The advertisements promoted “good,” straight hair, light skin, a particular fashion sense and so on as marks of beauty. The ubiquity of the images of the attractive light skinned black woman and the absence of an attractive dark skinned black woman lends credence to the idea that the white woman was the ideal attractive woman. It’s unclear whether or not the black man desires the ideal or is being made to desire the ideal but either way the ideal was present
As an aside: I’m interested to know how it is that black men escaped the societal pressure to change their looks. From the magazine covers alone it appears that the dark black man was often represented. Lighter skinned black men were portrayed in advertisements but so were dark skinned men. Dark skinned men were also in charge of the movements that the magazines were presenting. I would like to explore the idea that black men, and maybe more generally men, were required to portray an idea while black women, or women, were expected to portray an ideal, where an idea is expressed in words and ideas and an ideal is expressed in visual cues. The fact that there were educated, strong black women in the magazine might just mean that the magazine is a land of inherent contradiction, simultaneously promoting the black Amazon and the black woman desiring to be ultra-feminine, aka. white. Or I suppose the magazine could also be a media form with a singular end, the promotion of tropes without a clear opinion on the legitimacy of the category.
The exploration of older magazines served to show the clear connection between the theories of the conceptions of race in America and the practice of these conceptions, in particular the promotion of a white beauty ideal. In Black Macho and the Myth of the Super Woman and in Soul on Ice both Wallace and Cleaver propose the idea that the black man views the white woman as an image of salvation. In Cleaver’s work the white woman is both an object of hatred and attraction. The black man hates that he is attracted to her and views her as property of the white man to be used and defiled. The desire narrative in Wallace’s work is less violent. The white woman is something that the black man hasn’t ever had, he’s never had access to her thighs. Black men’s sex with the white woman is an indication of the progress of the black man’s, and the race’s as a whole, struggle to rise from slavery. Whether in an attempt to solidify masculinity for the black man or to serve to show that black man is considered an equal (though Wallace does say that the white woman often desires the black man due to her perception of him as the super masculine menial, i.e. beneath her. One could argue that the white woman desires to have sex with this beast and that debases him more but that’s another topic which hilariously might be expressed by another image of Gisele Bundchen, the one with Lebron James) it is clear that the acquisition of the white woman was viewed as a sign of upward mobility, progress, power, freedom.
Need I say more?
While discussing the image association exercise with a friend, she showed me the first image of Gisele Bundchen. I immediately saw four black men holding up an image of their salvation, a sign that they had won the war. I gasped as the image of the soldiers planting the flag at Iwo Jima was superimposed over the image of the 4 black men in my mind. Obviously my association was crafted by the readings but the similarities between the two images are eerie. I hope so badly that the photographer, Sølve Sundsbø, has read Michelle Wallace or Cleaver or someone who has explored the idea of the white woman as the standard of freedom. If he has, then this is an amazing piece of artwork, one that speaks to history and the present. Regardless of his beliefs on the idea of the white woman as the black man’s salvation, i.e. whether or not he thinks that black men desire the white freedom woman, that she is a sign of his salvation, etc., if this piece of art is an informed commentary then it is great. If, as my short research on the artist seems to suggest, the image was not thought of in terms of the history of race in America then this image is just scary. It expresses that the idea of the black man as the super-masculine menial and the white woman as his salvation is so ingrained that one need not be conscious of the issues in order to recognize and use these tropes. There is no way to justify the image as just serendipitous artistic choices. Why is it necessary for the men to be black and the woman white? Why are they muscular? Why are they naked? Questions like these must be asked of the photographer and if his answers are less than critical then it seems undeniable that the image represents the way in which associations with race can be sublimated into the general culture. Even today the predominantly black super-masculine menial attempts to capture the overwhelmingly white ultra feminine beauty to solidify his masculinity.
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