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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Feminist Camp: Reclaiming the Booty in a Digital Age

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Feminist Camp: Reclaiming the Booty in a Digital Age

I grew
up with thin white girl icons—with angry girl rockers like Fiona Apple crawling
half naked and hungry all over the floor, and Poe’s deep sultry voice, shifting
from ethereal to mad, everything about her skinny-armed longing. The feminist
rockers when I was a teen wilted and cried and clawed and spit. In the late 90s
a loud voice was always about rage, and female artists often sold a seemingly
contradictory image—a strong heart and fragile body.

My
mother, who emigrated from Cuba to America in the late sixties, could never
understand my obsession with thinness as a teenager. She drank water with heaps
of sugar in it to try and put on weight—curviness was seen as a sign of
sensuality, of sexiness. Certainly, there were curvier icons I could have looked
up to. The waif craze was in many ways a reaction to the aerobics-inspired look
of the 80s, with super models like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell and pop
sensations like Madonna ushering in an era of sexuality that was large-bosomed
and muscular. And throughout the 90s, pop stars from J-Lo to Beyonce were famous
for their impeccable curves.

The waif
look appealed to me because it seemed defiant and dangerous. In reality it just
offered a different type of body as a fashion accessory.

To my mother,
my preference for thinness was more than a trend; it represented a kind of
cultural abandonment, a desire to be perceived as WASP-y and white, rather than
who I really was: a daughter of immigrants, a Latin American Jew. Two specific
markers of American assimilation—my thinness and blond hair, coupled with my
not having an accent, seemed to grant me access to things my mother never felt
she had access to.

But I
never felt as though I had complete access either, even if on the surface I
seemed to have it. I always felt like an imposter, as if I was wearing a mask I
could never take off.

We are all reduced to
our body parts.

The past several months
have been particularly depressing for anyone with a female body. Headlines
describing rape and sexual assault are virtually everywhere, from the numerous women speaking out against Bill Cosby, to the attention placed on
college campuses and how they could be doing more to prevent rape and sexual
assault.

In his essay on the rape
allegations against Cosby, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on the horrors of rape,
saying, “Rape
constitutes the loss of your body, which is all you are, to someone else.”
Likewise, in a recent essay, Roxane Gay considers the language of a sexual
assault from a Rolling Stone article that chronicles the experiences of a UVA
student who describes being gang raped at a frat party, how she was reduced to
an object and referred to as an “it.” In her essay, Gay implores her readers to
think long and hard on that word, to let that “it” haunt us.

What does it mean to acknowledge that our bodies are all that we are?

And where does this “it” stand in relation to the droves of young,
female pop stars today commanding us to look at “it,” to check “it,” to
smack “it,”—“it” being, in this case, their twerking behinds?

To
some, these close up images of the booty dehumanize and victimize women,
reducing us to sexual playthings. But I actually see something else here: a
reclaiming of the “it,” a defiant assertion of bodily autonomy, a demand for women
to be able to be as big and sexual as we damn well please.

The recent big booty craze is still fashion, of course, and some aspects
of the current trend, from Miley Cyrus’s use of black women as props in her
2013 VMA performance to Kim Kardashian’s photo spread for PAPER Magazine, are
infuriatingly disrespectful to black women in particular. And, of course, while
songs like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” preach body positivity, the
big booty trend really only praises a particular brand of curve, one belonging
to Kim Kardashian rather than Melissa McCarthy.

Yet
there is something also exciting about the way that some female performers are
reclaiming and celebrating the female body, about the way Nicki Minaj takes parts and
pieces of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s ode to women’s backsides in “Baby Got Back” and
transforms the booty from an object to be admired to a symbol of female sexual
appetite in “Anaconda.” The playful,
kitschy, over-the-top big booty shenanigans on Nicki Minaj’s video for the song are about self-love and swagger. “You love this fat ass,” she
manically cackles. It’s that cackle—wild, unhinged, defiantly unpretty—that
made me grow to love “Anaconda,” where the big booty becomes a symbol of
excess, sexiness, and silliness, all at once. Minaj’s “Anaconda”
doesn’t offer women a kind of empowerment fantasy, where women’s sexual
liberation will bring about a feminist revolution, but it does give women the
chance to reclaim that “it”: rather than being an object of someone else’s
consumption, it becomes a symbol of female sexual appetite and power.

The same thing could be said for Beyonce’s video for “7/11” where the
self-described feminist is seen hanging around in her underwear, having fun and
being silly, throwing her hands in the air and shaking her butt. Unlike her
classic ballads, or even her sexually explicit songs about getting it on with
her husband, this video focuses instead on women just having a good time, being
as loud, ridiculous, and playful as they want to be.

For the female body to be perceived as a source of pleasure, rather than
an object that is always on the brink of violation, is an incredible subversion
of our expectations about what it means to live in that body. The act of
reclaiming a word or an image is, of course, always fraught. I’m sure many
people feel there is simply no difference between a male-gaze-centric focus on
female curves and the booty-centered fashions surfacing in all sorts of media
today. Certainly, J.Lo and Iggy Azalea’s collaboration on the video for “Booty”
is no work of high art, and is replete with product placement and traditional
artifacts of the male gaze, but the delightfully campy videos of Nicki Minaj
and Beyonce, which showcase the female body as a source of unending amusement,
happiness, and power, are in fact changing the way we see that body. They
dare us to not only appreciate greater female involvement in the creative
process, but also challenge us to see a woman’s body as something inherently
powerful—as something, which can, and should, take up space.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

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