While sitting under the hair dryer Friday afternoon, I grabbed a stack of magazines that were haphazardly scattered on the small table to my right and began sifting through them for suitably mindless, I-work-hard-all-week-so-let-me-catch-up-with-fashion-and-entertainment chatter.
Apparently, the Universe decided that a mind was a terrible thing to waste because featured on the front inside cover of my magazine of choice was an advertisement for Hot in Cleveland, a sitcom starring the legendary Betty White, along with actresses Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves.
The premise of the show seems innocent enough. The lives of three white, 40-something American women — enroute to Paris to get their groove back — are forever altered when their plane is diverted to Cleveland, Ohio. They immediately form a contentious bond with White’s weed smoking, “grandmotherly” character, Elka Ostrovsky, and television-approved raunchiness and hilarity ensue.
Nothing to see there, right?
In the advertisement, the three younger cast members, in the white equivalent of coonery, pout prettily in festive Christmas sweaters with “Ho” emblazoned across the front, while White clutches her ball of yarn, oblivious to the shenanigans of her castmates. Some may wonder why this presented an issue for me and the explanation is simple:
Not in this lifetime, nor the next, would three Black women flank the sides of an elder basking in their promiscuity, unfettered by the leeches of societal judgement and scorn. What this advertisement showcases is the perceived innocence of white women — and hidden within the folds of that unspoken privilege, the lingering fear that mainstream media harbors for Black women and our alleged “hyper-sexuality.”
Let me be clear: Being cast as “hoes” is not a role that we should aspire to; however, it is a role that has been thrust upon us nonetheless. From the bold attire of Serena and Venus Williams to the objectification of random video vixens on BET, there is a fear, an anxiety, a powerful magnetic attraction that apparently makes Black women unsuitable for viewing audiences, yet in high demand just the same. Our marginalization as Sapphires, Jezebels, and Mammies, incapable of escaping the historical demonization of our wombs and sensuality — nor the disrespectful caricatures of our strength — is a reflection of how we are perceived in society at-large.
Throughout history, our sexuality has proven to be so fascinating and hypnotic, that Black curves can only be shown with the strict caveat that they should never be honored nor respected. With this is mind, I find it no small coincidence that both our motherhood and womanhood are consistently under attack. How better to make us doubt our collective self-worth than to trivialize and taint our most sacred, while simultaneously manipulating the media so that we’re perceived as weapons in our own communities?
The fact that acclaimed actress, Viola Davis — who many expect to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for her stereotypical Mammy performance in the controversial film, The Help — will arrive in all her evening finery, while still being identified as a mere servant by all in attendance, proves one thing:
The asexual Black woman, unwilling to break the mold that has been cast for her, satisfied with bursts of rebellion that do nothing to challenge the status quo will always be deemed worthy of veneration — while our sexuality will continue to be suppressed and villianized.
We could cast the lion’s share of the blame on a color-blind misogyny that serves as the foundation of this nation’s patriarchal socio-political constructs — but that would be a superficial claim at best. There is something more sinister lurking in the shadows; a danger in acknowledging the innate sensuality of Black women that lives beyond strip clubs, porn and reality television. Since the days of slavery, and subsequently Jim and Jane Crow, the devaluation of Black women has been systemic, malicious and purposeful.
Because we are the backbone of our communities. Whether we are sisters, daughters, mothers, lovers or friends — or a hybrid of all five — a Black woman confident in her sensuality, comfortable in her strength, secure in her beauty and in love with herself is perceived as the key to the continued progression and elevation of Black communities, thus rendering us a threat to the intrinsically racist status-quo in this country.
White women in entertainment and in America, as a collective, have been granted license to portray themselves as “hoes” and “sluts” without the negative historical implications associated with the names; and, quite frankly, that’s their business. If they want to disrespect themselves for a chuckle and chump-change, then a power fist to them. What they choose to allow themselves to be called is only relevant here because it reveals a blatant hypocrisy.
Disrespect implies transferred ownership.
It is considered disrespectful to call a Black person a “nigger” because many of us accept ownership of the word and all it’s violent implications. It is disrespectful to call a woman a “bitch” because many of us accept ownership of the word and it misogynist undertones. It is considered a flagrant offense to call a Black woman a “ho” because that is a label that has been branded in our psyches since plantation owners crept through the fields and into our beds uninvited. To feel disrespect, one must feel that the word is abusive, and to experience that abuse on a visceral level, one must feel that even if it’s not true of them as individuals, it is often true of their kindred in the collective.
White women can refer to themselves as “hoes” tongue-in-cheek, because they do not accept ownership of the word — it is not disrespectful, because, in our twisted society, it is a word that does not belong to them — it belongs to us. They are free to sexually express themselves, without fear of judgment and repercussions, because their sexuality has been ruled safe for mass consumption; conversely, the power that is sheathed in the sexuality of Black women cannot, and will not, be harnessed, and that will continue to affect our presence in the media until our economic conditions reflect our true value.
Do I believe that being labeled a “Ho” in a national multi-media campaign should be a goal that Black women strive to achieve? Absolutely not. From being cast as the “dangerous” face of abortion, STIs and teen pregnancy, to hyper-sexed gold-diggers who dream in dollar signs, our sexuality is consistently shackled and stoned in the court of public opinion. We don’t need to wear garish sweaters spelling out the words in bold print; to be considered whores, all many of us have to do is step beyond our front doors — or, unfortunately, remain locked behind it with men who do not appreciate our worth.
These three white “Hoes” illuminate the toxic, double standard that suffocates Black women in the media in a way that no Hip-Hop video nor reality show ever could. What becomes evident upon cursory inspection is that, in our society, “Ho” pertaining to white women is considered safe comedy, while for Black women it remains a sweeping condemnation.
And there is absolutely nothing “hot” about that — in Cleveland nor anywhere else.