Over the years, black entertainers have struggled to exist under the exploitative eye of the mainstream American media. Recently, rapper, reality star, and influencer Sukihanagoat attended the VMAs, where she received backlash for her “On All Fours” Photo Opp captured live from the show’s carpet. Sukihana, known for her outlandish and highly sexualized image, poses a question to media advertisers, public relations professionals, creative decision makers, and the culture alike: what is the social damage of the “Urban or Black Spectacle”?
As black media outlets began to respond to the photo and videos with questionable critiques of the moment, some called her choice to “embarrass” black women and black culture as a whole at the award show, a disgrace.
As I think about this, I think back to other moments in black entertainment history where African American entertainers were seen “performing” outside of the desired norm. I think of the 1920s “race music” being performed at the Cotton Club to an exclusively white audience. Hattie Mcdaniel’s controversial “mammy” performance in “Gone with the Wind” in 1940, which was boycotted by the NAACP. Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine’s interracial romance that was censored in 1968 in “Island in the Sun.” Even the international burlesque show of the iconic Josephine Baker in “Le Revue Nègre” of the 1920s.
In American history, the heightened performance of race and sexuality has proven to be a cash cow for producers, studios, black actresses and actors alike. Famously, black talent has struggled to tow the line between conservative respectability politics, desired by the black middle class intelligentsia, and the exploitative nature of Hollywood fame and fortune within western media. While some embrace the weight of the bright lights and cameras in a more dignified fashion, others choose to be bold, outrageous, and even “offensive” in an effort to garner maximum media attention and fame.
In a digital world run by algorithms, impressions, likes, parasocial relationships, and click-through rates. The thoughts and philosophies surrounding the “black spectacle” are in need of an intellectual facelift. While more established gossip outlets like TMZ became the distributors of such spectacles, we now have urban social media blog sites like TheShadeRoom, SpiritualWorld, and other independent media platforms, like Zeus, successfully arresting the hearts and minds of millions. Coercing black users into believing that the images of “ghetto” black life seen in the public ARE the reality of black life as a whole.
More uniquely, black audiences have consumed images of themselves with the reality of racial anxieties and ethnic stereotypes that mock and threaten their existence. Creating a sense of both stress and frustration about the image of “themselves” in the media and their place in the world. As their outrage drives engagement and revenue for these exploitative platforms, they simultaneously build the market needed for Sukiannas to exist.
When I look at these spectacles, both as a consumer of media and a creator of media. I think about the very few people who consume and understand that what they see is not “real life” . When I see the Sexyredd and Sukiannah “From the Block” performance, I know that I am really watching millions of dollars worth of potential brand sponsorships, reality show day rates, concert ticket sales, and future booking fees for both artists. Others see years of microaggressions, symbols of anti-blackness, misogyny, racialized violence, sexual exploitation, the crippling pathologies of “ghetto culture,” and even the undoing of progressive civil rights policies and pro-black social movements.
The looking glass self is a well studied and documented sociological phenomena that paints a vivid picture of what many are feeling when they see videos like this. And struggle with the mere symbolic existence of a “hoodrat” within the public lexicon. I suspect that when many see these spectacles of black womanhood and sexuality, that black woman entertainers like Sukiana exhibit on red carpets and music videos. They are sometimes frustrated with how these black women portray themselves. Many might feel that these symbols of “black woman’s sexuality” are a real reflection of themselves and in a way, some of them would be right, unfortunately!
While the image of black life that we see on television and in the void of black gossip blogs is vastly different from the image that we might see of ourselves. The spectacle doesn’t always see themselves as an intermediary between society’s stereotypical perception of black life and their own individual brand identity.
A Youtuber TeeNoir does a pretty good job of offering a black, queer woman’s perspective on the sexual politics of black female artists in entertainment. However, I also raise a philosophical question about the role of “respectability” and the more existential concerns related to the soul of black audiences. Is the agency and freedom within black entertainment just an illusion that many naively embrace? Is freedom only in an artist’s mind or a part of their material reality? Furthermore, how can we embrace a more idyllic version of freedom within our black existence if our entire existence is shaped and warped by the confines of our limited perception of ourselves?
The reality is, “black” entertainment isn’t always built on freedom and liberation of the artists or their audiences. It feels like truly an absurd idea to toll over, but THIS is the reality of the “black spectacle”. The more entertainers who are willing to accentuate stereotypes and play into tropes, the more they rise to fame. In today’s media landscape, artists don’t just create content, they BECOME the content to be consumed.
So, how does one cope with these two ideas, the freedom of artistic expression and the commodification of those expressions?
Maybe, instead of fighting against these harmful narratives, black entertainers are starting to lean into the novel idea of becoming the black spectacle. Maybe the industry has created symbols of people who accept and poke fun at their own disenfranchisement, giving up on the need to “transcend” these common stereotypes!
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