This past Sunday, Gap Kids released its latest ad campaign featuring Ellen DeGeneres and the members of Le Petit Cirque, a pre-teen dance group. The print campaign features a picture of four of the troupe’s girls posing, three white and one Black. Two of the white girls are in extravagant dance poses on the perimeter, while the tallest white girl stands in the middle, leaning her body and elbow on top of the Black girl’s head.
When Black girls and femmes are positioned as subordinate or as a prop to whiteness or white people (especially in contrast to a white girl or femme), it is inherently violent. This ad not only suggests that the Black girl is a literal object to support a white girl’s body, it recalls the mythologies of Black girls and femmes. In these mythologies, Black girls and femmes are animalistic, subordinate to whiteness and white beauty, and also inherently angry — yet emotionless.
The dehumanization of Black girls is constant, consistent and always varying. From the murder of Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Gynnya McMillen to the high rates of suspension and punishment of young Black girls in public schools, Black girls and femmes are not safe.
So, yeah, the ad is racist. No doubt about it. But it’s not just racist, it’s specifically anti-Black misogyny — known as misogynoir. Often, anti-Black misogyny is codified in passive and implicit ways throughout society. Within advertising and media, anti-Black misogyny acts as a specific and intentional illicit violence, dehumanization, shaming or othering of Black women and femmes to maintain, uphold, enact and sell white supremacist capitalist violence.
A great example is Kim Kardashian’s famous “Break the Internet” photoshoot for Paper Magazine. Unbeknownst to most, it was inspired by a photo from Jean Paul Goude in his book Jungle Fever. The original photo of Carolina Beaumont, a dark skin Black woman, objectifies and exotifies Black women’s bodies and humanity, especially because of the extravagance of her behind. The primary model in Jungle Fever is Grace Jones, who was his lover and partner at the time.
Goude told People Magazine in 1979, “Blacks are the premise of my work.” Alluding to his “jungle fever,” he went on to discuss why Jones was such an integral part of his book and his work around Black women and Black bodies. “Men think she’s sexy. Women think she’s a little masculine, so they’re not jealous. Gays think she’s a drag queen … She’s the manifestation of all my fantasies. She’s the face of the ’80s.”
These quotes speak volumes about the relationship Goude had with Jones. Not only did he use Jones as a muse for his work (inspiration as exploitation and anti-Black voyeurism), he clearly uses her as a sexual experiment, revealed in the way he describes her identity to the world around her. He not only photographs Jones in a cage, but constantly pits her skin against stark whiteness to showcase and display the otherness of her Black female body, challenging the viewer’s comfort.
Now, it’s evident that Kardashian is not seen as a Black woman, nor is she treated like one. But it’s irresponsible to re-enact such a violent image (for Black women) as an empowering reclamation (for a non-Black woman). It, too, is rooted in the erasure of violence and dehumanization that Black women and femmes face every day.
Black women and femmes experience violence and voyeurism around their bodies in a very unique, direct and nuanced way. So when we discuss misogyny in media, it’s important to distinguish what is rooted in anti-Blackness.
A good example is this ad for Sony Playstation that displays a white woman emulating strength and power grabbing a dark skinned Black woman by the chin, forcing her into submission. This ad promotes the release of white Playstation consoles, which it suggests is the new competition for black Playstations.
The problem is, white women and whiteness already operate this way, seeking to control or civilize the conceptualized and imagined idea that Black women and femmes are primal and animalistic, while also demeaning our worthiness. [Also, peep how this ad suggests that Black women and femmes are expected to give our labor, our time and our attention to white women and femmes at all times in everyday life.]
Media works in multiple ways beyond just print advertisements. Nicki Minaj’s wax figure at Madame Tussauds’s was constantly being objectified and defiled by visitors and patrons. It took months for the museum to try to protect Nicki’s statue; no one sees the value in celebrating or keeping Black women’s images safe. The lack of security around her wax figure reflects how unsafe Black women and femmes are in society.
To further contextualize the mythologies around Black women and femmes, it’s important to mention the lineage of anti-Black misogyny that long predates these advertisements. One of the most important figures in maintaining the enslavement of Black women and femmes to white supremacist violence is Aunt Jemima.
In Maurice N. Manring’s Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, he explains that Aunt Jemima reinforced and symbolized the devaluation and dehumanization of Black women. The role of Aunt Jemima within caricatures, art and advertisements preserved the idea of Black women in service to white people after slavery.
Knowing this history is key to understanding the violence against Black women and femmes that remains both invisible and pervasive. The history of our erasure, dehumanization, fetishization and exploitation is what provides the deeper context for GAP’s ad campaign. In fighting back against these violent gazes and mythologies, I hope we are able to shape new ways to envision beauty, humanity and labor and to dismantle the white supremacist capitalism that maintains current power structures.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, agender, Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet and the creator of Free Figure Revolution, a body positivity organization. She is currently working on her M.A. in Africana Studies at Morgan State University. Read more at Facebook.com/AshleighShackelford.