Disclaimer: This article contains racially fetishised images.
TIME Magazine has just announced its annually anticipated Person of the Year. No, it isn’t Donald Trump, but a composite of women deemed the ‘Silence Breakers’, acknowledged for their contribution to the ongoing conversation regarding the #MeToo movement. Having written about this previously regarding Indigenous Australian women, I feel the ongoing sexualised narrative of these women should be considered and called out too. And a part of this calling out must be directed towards the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour that pervades current popular culture in today's society.
Recently hip hop artist Nicki Minaj posted a picture on Instagram of herself as a reimagined Pocahontas. In three highly sexualised representations, Nicki is portrayed as the Native American woman who has been previously dramatized for the Disney audience. Pocahontas was not however what was conveyed on screen, but rather a rape victim forced to marry an Englishman named John Rolfe and move to England where she died at the age of 20. Originally her post was entitled ‘Hoecahontas’ and promptly removed from view.
Minaj should know better. Yes, it's suprising that a black woman is actively engaging in and contributing to a narrative of objectification, sexualisation and fetishisation of women of colour and specificially, Indigenous women. The long history of this sexualisation has been heavily documented and traverses across generations and locations across the world. The ‘naked savage’, black women seen as sexual objects for the taking throughout slavery and colonisation, black velvet paintings of natives and general discourses of ‘promiscuous’ black women have been prevalent within different forms of Indigeneity, and a modern-day suggestion that this is somehow paying homage to these women is utterly horrendous.
None of this is homage or celebration, but rather a form of control and domination, and a perpetuation of a stereotype towards black and Native women. A pre-cursor or permissible act that negates black women and their power and strength. The reality of these images is far from rosy, and far from titillating.
... a modern-day suggestion that this is somehow paying homage to these women is utterly horrendous.
To quote Native American writer, Abaki Beck, "To ignore sexual violence against Native women is to ignore Native women", a statement that is also true of our own First Nations' women. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make up a terrible statistic in terms of violence, with and Professor Marcia Langton stating on the ABC’s QandA program that the figures of violence against Indigenous women are 34 times that of the national figures. On White Ribbon Day, it was suggested that one in five Australian women experience sexual violence, and for Indigenous Australian women, their experiences of such violence is ranked higher than non-Indigenous women.
Media reports have concentrated on the prevalence of such violence, including that of Lynette Daley, who was brutally attacked and died on a remote beach in New South Wales in 2011. The evidence brought before the courts was indeed harrowing, containing details of aggravated sexual assault which led to her bleeding to death. One of the men charged with her manslaughter was heard calling her a ‘thing’, and in one of the court proceedings, was quoted as saying “Boys will be boys and girls will be girls”. Media reports, such as one from The Daily Mail, reported the assault as a ‘wild sex session’, negating the issue of no consent, and presenting a discourse of promiscuous mutual behaviour, was grossly incorrect.
The words and images used to stereotype black women have become part of the discourse, used both within legitimate or wide-spread formats like the media, and also in the colloquial, everyday terms used against us. The term 'gin' is one such word of weaponry, used to oppress Indigenous women to imply promiscuity. A white man sleeping with an Indigenous woman was deemed a 'gin jockey', whereby our Aboriginality and womanhood is used as a sexual object for the services they could provide to white men.
The viewing of our women as somehow ‘icons of sexual deviance’ has been discussed many times by Indigenous academics, as has the perpetuation of black women as domicile victims. Academic Dr Chelsea Bond, wrote an article for New Matilda in 2015 that referenced former Labor minister Gary Johns’ comments regarding Aboriginal women, welfare and “cash cows”. When discussing statistics, which stated that Indigenous women were 34 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-Indigenous women, Mr. Johns, speaking on The Bolt Report, stated, “Look, a lot of poor women in this country, a large proportion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows, right? They are kept pregnant and producing children for the cash. Now that has to stop”.
In the eyes of many notable Indigenous Australians, Mr. Johns’ comments were offensive and stereotypical to say the least. Bond's response for New Matilda, stating:
Aboriginal people have long been depicted as animalistic, not quite human, and accordingly were counted among the flora and fauna up until the 1960s. The depiction of Aboriginal women as cows more specifically suggests that we are not just animals, but that we are the most docile creature lacking agency over our own lives.
These portrayals of black women as victims, domicile, compliant, or as willing sexual objects for the taking, undermine the reality of strong, determined and forthright women creating change. It ignores Indigenous women’s agency to build from difficult moments in shared and individual history, to cut a swathe and make something of tragedy. It appears blind to Indigenous women and the power and courage they hold within.
We must consider in this modern era what empowerment means for all Indigenous people, but more specifically, what our understandings are of empowerment as Indigenous women.
We must consider in this modern era what empowerment means for all Indigenous people, but more specifically, what our understandings are of empowerment as Indigenous women. The message sent out from popular icons such as Minaj, Beyonce or the Kardashians require viewing with a discerning and critical eye. It isn’t that the selfie age contributes to the objectifying stereotype, but rather that when images are portrayed of black, Native, Indigenous women, we must think beyond the surface to what message we are putting out there to the world.
When Minaj chose to ‘reimagine’ or pay homage to Pocahontas, she chose a real person, a notable in terms of Native American history and someone who has already been portrayed within the media as something other than the historical accounts have suggested of her. Like Chinese whispers, the more something is reimagined, the different perspectives and meanings given, the less authenticity lies within the narrative. If this is witnessed within an Australian Indigenous construct, our communities need to call this out, to change the representations out there so that there be no mistaking our Indigenous women and their ultimate power, which is something to truly acknowledge and celebrate.
Tess Ryan is a Biripi woman from Taree, New South Wales and is a Melbourne-based writer and academic. She has worked in areas ranging from children and out of home care, people with disabilities and aged care. Tess has recently completed her PhD, focusing on Indigenous women's leadership in Australia through the University of Canberra, and is currently a Post-doctoral fellow with The Poche centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. Follow @TessRyan1