A few days ago, images surfaced of intimate boudoir photographs of Beyoncé and Jay Z, which many media outlets have attributed to promotional material for their On the Run II Tour. I saw a wide range of reactions to the photo from social media users. My research generally involves looking at people’s social media behavior, identifying general patterns, and then interpreting the findings through a Black feminist lens. That said, I couldn’t help but interpret this particular pop culture moment through that particular intellectual tradition.
Reactions to the photograph from some Black women social media users reminded me of Black feminist concepts about sexuality. Some Black women felt that the photo was beneath Beyoncé. Others felt that she should reserve such poses and intimacy for her husband, concealing her body and sexuality from the public. Some appeared to feel that Beyoncé bearing her booty reflected poorly on Black women as a whole, playing into stereotypes that we are all a hypersexual Jezebel, despite the fact that the pose and picture are with her husband.
Boudoir photography emerged in the mid-twentieth century, which modern photographers often harken back to by filtering images through a sepia lens. During this time period, social and political culture started to shift in regard to the public-private dichotomy of women’s lives. Once restricted to the privacy of a married woman’s bedroom (boudoir), sexuality started to become the purview of women’s public lives as they entered the labor force and took a more active role in the political sphere.
Advancements in technology such as the camera – both still and moving images – complicated the line between public and private sexuality as well. Boudoir photography is just one iteration of sexually charged imagery that the camera prompted in addition to nude photography and pornography, among other art forms. Nowadays, you might see married couples do a boudoir photo shoot for their wedding (or vow renewals).
The changing landscape of sexual politics in the United States affected Black women in distinct and unique ways. Slavery restricted most Black women’s sexual agency as their bodies were used as reproductive technology meant to generate more free labor. The end of the Civil War placed Black women in the position of developing a set of strategies and sexual politics in a time period where they had few or legal rights including protection from rape. One such strategy is the culture of dissemblance:
Historian Darlene Clark Hine developed the concept culture of dissemblance to describe how sexual exploitation during slavery had a lasting effect on Black women. To protect themselves from rape and the threat of rape, Black women used silence about sexuality as a strategy. Hine argues this tactic served as both an act of resistance and a form of resistance that helped Black women not only combat rape, but also controlling images about Black women’s sexuality.
The culture of dissemblance as a social practice typically coincides with a politics of respectability, a term coined by historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Toward the end of the 19th century, Black women reformers promoted a public silence on Black women’s sexuality. They pointed to widespread rape, abuse, and lynching as a concern, but also considered dancehalls and working-class neighborhoods as places that might endanger Black women’s virtue. Thus, the politics of respectability requires silence on sexuality in order to project an image of virtuous, moral Black women worthy of respect and justice.
Unfortunately, in practice, these politics also rely on stereotypes of Black women’s sexuality to police the sexual behavior of Black women. Black women who deviate from this standard are seen as a threat to the race as a whole. Due to economic inequality within the Black community, the middle class most often deploys these stereotypes against poor and working-class Black women as a means to enforce neighborhood boundaries.
Given this history, the reaction to this particular set of photos of Beyoncé and Jay Z doesn’t surprise me. I do, however, want to encourage a reconsideration of the sexual politics we project onto Black women. Consider the implications of policing Black women’s public sexuality and whether your commentary reinforces rather than redresses restrictions on Black women’s sexual agency. Also, consider alternative paradigms of sexual politics for Black women like Joan Morgan‘s “politics of pleasure” or Shirley Anne Tate‘s “Batty politics.” These approaches center Black women’s sexual agency, emphasizing the need to start from the perspective of Black women’s sexual pleasure.