Hypatia 16.3 (2001) 169-172
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Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French
Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French. By T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.
Setting out to examine "French cultural, scientific, and literary representations of black femininity and the psychosexual and cultural implications of those representations" (1999, 5), T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting's book Black Venus argues that, in nineteenth-century France, black women inspired repulsion, attraction, and anxiety in French men and that black women thus found themselves entrapped in a lubricious image of primitive and excessive sexuality, a stereotype that she names "Black Venus." Drawing on Frantz Fanon, Toni Morrison, and feminist film studies, Sharpley-Whiting insightfully analyzes a series of literary texts and situates those texts in a larger cultural milieu through [End Page 169] readings of scientific, historical, and journalistic documents. If the chapters in this book are short, the advantage of this approach is that it allows Sharpley-Whiting to cover a lot of territory and make more compelling her argument for the widespread nature of the Black Venus stereotype; the drawback is that her analyses recoil from the more complex theoretical issues that they inevitably step into. Thus the value of the book, in my view, lies less in its theoretical cogency, than in its wide-ranging scope and in the dense significance of its evidentiary detail: in the telling facts, for example, that Sarah Bartmann (the so-called "Hottentot Venus") was exhibited next to a rhinoceros and that spectators threw candy at her to encourage her to leap about and sing. Sometimes actions speak louder than theories.
Sharpley-Whiting's study of Bartmann--a Khoikhoi woman put on display so Parisians could gawk at her large buttocks--includes a particularly perceptive reading of a cartoon featuring Bartmann and a discussion of Georges Cuvier's infamous studies of her "monstrous" steatopygia and hypertrophied labia minora (the so-called "hottentot apron")--which he interpreted as signs of overdeveloped sexuality. Sharpley-Whiting also introduces us to a one-act vaudeville, entitled "La Vénus hottentote, ou haine aux Françaises" ["The Hottentot Venus, or Hatred of Frenchwomen"] which was written in 1814 and staged just a few blocks from where Bartmann was being exhibited. She argues that the vaudeville functions to redirect the white male gaze to white women and gives us a translation of the complete, odious text in an appendix.
The book's study of Honoré de Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or (1958) focuses on the "racial" difference, exchangeability, and disposability of the female protagonist Paquita. Sharpley-Whiting reads the novel's violent ending as signifying that "when she [the black woman] attempts to rear her quintessentially different head, to articulate desire outside of the dominant economy of representation . . . she is physically suppressed, bludgeoned out of existence" (1999, 51).
The author then turns to the tale of "Ourika," a Senegalese girl purchased by a colonial administrator as a gift for the Duchess of Orléans, albeit to a less well-known rendition than that in the novel by Claire de Duras. Sharpley-Whiting focuses on an elegy written by Gaspard de Pons entitled "Ourika, L'Africaine," the title of which, as she notes, casts Ourika as the quintessential African female. Indeed, as she demonstrates through a comparison with Duras's Ourika, de Pons depicts the African woman as naturally lascivious, vengeful, and savage and uses her as a site on which to distinguish between (a cultured and normative) Europe and (a primitive, violent, and oversexed) Africa.
The two subsequent chapters of Black Venus, focused on texts by Charles Baudelaire and Emile Zola respectively, explore the disconcertingly common conflation of black women with prostitutes. Tracing the inspiration for Baudelaire's prose poem "La Belle Dorothée" to a book written by his uncle, Voyage [End Page 170] dans l'intérieur de l'Afrique, Sharpley-Whiting contends that in Baudelaire's imagination prostitution is neither sexual oppression nor a survival strategy. It is...