Race, Representation, and Desire: Black Panther and Fetishization 101

This post was originally published via the Sex-Positve Blog, run by the Houston-based adult retailer Mystiq. Check them out on Medium and Twitter @MystiqStores!

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Marvel’s Black Panther changed my life, and in only the best kind of ways. From the cinematography to the costume design, the writing, the social themes addressed by the movie, I am thoroughly impressed with Ryan Coogler’s storytelling. It was incredibly refreshing to see people like me on screen saving the world while still having human flaws. It’s something that we don’t see often enough, especially on the scale of Marvel/Disney.

I could go on and on unpacking every piece of the movie, but you can read those takes in another (thousand) article(s). Suffice it to say, I was thoroughly impressed with the story, and possibly more impressed with how ridiculously attractive all of the actors were. As problematic as his character was, Killmonger is my imaginary boyfriend, and no one can take that from me. More than that, the movie wasn’t all about the characters running around being hot. There were moments of sexual tension for sure, but that’s not all there was to the story or the characters’ motivations.

 

                                                                     *licks screen*

                                                                    *licks screen*

As a Black woman who exists at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, seeing sexuality as a normal part of the character’s lives instead of either their primary or sole motivation, or conspicuously missing entirely…shocking, because of how infrequently it happens. I attribute it, in part, to the dearth of popular media in which Black people are allowed to tell their own stories authentically without having something to prove to the mainstream (read: white) gaze. Historically, Black actors are mostly cast in roles designed to either completely desexualize or oversexualize them, perpetuating stereotypes about gendered and racialized sexuality.

It’s important to acknowledge that anyone can have (and share) feelings about who they find attractive, but when those people are part of a historically marginalized community, it’s important to tread lightly and analyze where some of those feelings come from. For example, Winston Duke (M’Baku) is attractive as all get out. However, for someone who isn’t Black, finding him attractive doesn’t mean it’s okay to refer to all large Black men as M’Baku or make references to wanting to be taken to his cave in the mountains. The previous references are paraphrases of tweets I have seen since the movie came out, which got me thinking.

It’s hard to explain how uncomfortable it makes me feel to see things like that. It’s something that has to be lived to be understood. I’ve always had to reckon with either not being seen as attractive at all because I’m a Black woman, or only being seen as attractive because of racist sexual stereotypes and prejudices. Even in the sex-positive community, I see racist sexual stereotypes proliferate under the guise of “sexual freedom.” Freedom for whom, exactly? While Black Panther can open the door to important conversations about who society considers desirable, the fetishization of Black people is a media-driven continuation of racialized violence that has existed since slavery.

Think of the Black servant archetype such as Viola Davis’ and Octavia Spencer’s Abileen and Minny in The Help or Morgan Freeman’s Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy, not meant to be seen as a sexual beings at all, despite normally being parental figures. On the other hand, there are Black characters whose ravenous sexual appetite drive most of their actions. For women, these are characters such as Halle Berry’s Leticia in Monster’s Ball or Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope in Scandal.

For men, there are fewer examples in modern media because the Black Buck stereotype tends to be overtly violent more than sexual when present at all. Think of the generic criminal in any major crime drama. The violent Black man will show up sooner or laterHonestly, take a trip down the “interracial” category of any porn site and the sexual aspect of the Black Buck stereotype makes itself apparent, especially when paired with the “pure” white woman.

I’m speaking specifically to Black fetishization since that’s where I have the most experience (personally and academically), but members of all nonwhite cultures have to reckon with racialized sexual stereotypes. The Spicy Latina and the Demure Asian Woman, for example.

I should clarify — it’s not inherently racist or fetishistic to be attracted to people of other races, but when your attraction (or lack thereof) is rooted in stereotypes about sexual prowess, they should be reevaluated. There has to be a middle ground between completely rejecting people of a certain race based on stereotypes and exclusively being attracted to them for those same reasons. We don’t live in a vacuum. Even the most socially aware of us are still influenced by the society in which we were raised and inside of which, we learned to view the world. Having these kinds of perspectives is not a sign of a character flaw, but unpacking them indicates an openness to be honest with ourselves as we work towards a more sex-positive future.