While any person can be sexualized, it is fair to say that women and femme bodies are most often the subjects of this gaze. Historically, women in media have been portrayed and understood as sexual beings, often there to please men. Many women have not chosen this for themselves; in fact, it’s literally been thrust upon them. Yet in order to be present within media, these are often the types of roles they have to play.
If you are a woman of colour, this state of affairs is even more challenging. The sexualization of “woman” meets the hypersexualization of “ethnic background,” leading to gross mischaracterizations and exaggerations of their bodies and their attitudes towards sex.
If you were to try and understand WOC purely based on media, you would probably “learn” the following. Black bodies are promiscuous and sexually dominant, with deeply desirable, exaggeratedly curved bodies. Latina women are fiery and hot-blooded, constantly thirsting for sex. Asian women are either docile and submissive, or secretly super kinky and dirty. Indigenous women are exoticised and reduced to sexy Halloween costumes. If you are a multiracial woman, you are some exotic cocktail of ethnicity, wrapped in a lightskin package that is understood as the end to all racism.
All of these stereotypes are rooted in ideas created by the dominant culture to justify the mistreatment of women. These stereotypes are then perpetrated and disseminated within the context of media representations of these women.
The Blaxploitation era of film in the 1970s was steeped in characterizations of strong black women as prostitutes or users of sex as a weapon. Sofia Vergara’s character on Modern Family is a super sexy and sassy Latina woman with huge breasts, a hot temper, and a hard-to-understand accent. In Rush Hour 2, one of the biggest fight scenes in the movie takes place in a Hong Kong massage parlour — yet not before Chris Tucker’s character ogles all of the silent girls as they attempt to draw his attention in bikinis and lingerie. (A note: Tucker’s character is also hypersexualized in this scene, as it is meant to reflect his insatiable sexual appetite.)
Yet this often transcends media into real life and causes real problems. As an example, many WOC face uncomfortable interactions based on their race, resulting in deeply painful experiences. On a personal note, when I am approached by men (which in and of itself is very rare) many often begin with comments like: “So is it true that black women have big asses?” or “Yo, what are you?” Upon learning that I am of mixed ethnicity, the conversation immediately turns to how hot mixed girls are.
Yes, I’m fly and finer than you’ll ever be. That doesn’t warrant any kind of mistreatment or stereotyping of how I think about sex. I don’t have a super curvy figure and I’m not “an easy lay.” Even if I did fit that characterization, it still does not mean that I am there to be an object of sexual gratification.
If a woman choses to present her image as sexy, she should be allowed to do it with no issues. It is her body and her choice. However, systemic racism and sexism often do this terrible dance of oppression and women of colour are caught in the middle with the media as it’s biggest supporter.
That said, I’m grateful for shows like Insecure, Jane the Virgin, Grown-ish, and The Mindy Project for presenting women of colour in stories and narratives that allow them to be fully realized women who are in control of their sexuality while simultaneously focusing on not perpetuating stereotypes. While these kinds of shows aren’t always perfect, they do provide a balance to the hypersexualized narratives that we have come to accept as normal.