In 2013, the world was shocked at the sight of then twenty-year-old Miley Cyrus provocatively dancing in flesh-colored underwear on the stage of MTV’s Video Music Awards alongside fellow singer Robin Thicke. Previously, Cyrus had been known as the star of a popular Disney Channel show, and had become a child star desperate to shed the innocent image she had developed as a teen. She used the dance called “twerking” to establish herself as a sexualized adult celebrity. Despite our contemporary association of twerking with pop stars like Cyrus, it is actually a dance with traditional African roots, and its sexual associations have arguably been used by white people to eroticize and objectify black bodies as exotic entities for their entertainment. Cyrus is one of many artists who has associated traditionally black dance movements with a provocative edginess, as society has historically classified black people as being more “primitive” or of a lower class than white people. Her correlation of black culture with provocation was cemented when she revealed the inspiration for the album she performed: “I want urban, I just want something that feels black” (Weisman).
Cyrus’s use of twerking and a so-called “urban” sound to turn herself into a provocative performer illustrates how some celebrities have exploited what white audiences consider the “trendy” elements of black culture. This modern example of a singer benefitting from a misconstrued and sexualized image of black culture is not new. Although this example of Cyrus’ twerking cannot be established as having been caused by these past dances, they share the similar perceptions by non-African communities. While this fascination began before the early twentieth century, this paper specifically examines how the origins of contemporary examples (such as Miley Cyrus) can be traced to Josephine Baker. When Baker, an African dancer, brought her traditional black dances—such as the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Shimmy—to Paris during the Jazz Age, she did so to entertain predominately white audiences at the theatre. Baker relied heavily on a French eroticization of black primitivism to achieve immense success and fame that were previously unheard of for a black performer. She was lauded for performances such as her “banana dance,” in which she appeared as a sort of sexualized African tribeswoman, a paradigm of primitivity that exploited romanticized black stereotypes.
Twerking, with its roots in traditional black dances, carries a sexual connotation because of the way it has been performed, similar to Baker’s dances. Baker’s methods also become questionable when compared to how some modern black performers, such as Beyoncé, have created popular art that celebrates a realistic portrayal of black women instead of perpetuating stereotypes. Yet, it is ultimately not performers like Baker who have caused some to misrepresent black dances, and Baker may have been unaware of the possible effects of her performances. Furthermore, she was also able to manipulate fascination with black culture to become a successful icon during a time when societal racism prevented such achievements, whereas Beyoncé benefits from living in a modern era which has seen some progress towards racial equality. Examining Baker’s dances as objects of black culture, I seek to qualify the extent to which she perpetuated African stereotypes (commodifying the black body and appropriating African dances) and in what ways she subverted them as an idealized figure of primitivism for her white audiences, inspiring other minority artists to embrace those elements to find success. Later in her career, Baker would leverage her fame to highlight her work for Civil Rights.
When Baker arrived in Paris in 1925, she was one of many black artists who had come to France looking for economic success and fame. Though Baker had previously performed in the United States, where she was born and raised, she became an icon in Paris. It was not that France was free of prejudice, but rather that, unlike the U.S., the French government had outlawed segregation, enabling Baker to experience “for the first time a society that was not organized around the principles of antilock racial segregation and discrimination” (Dalton and Gates 904). Additionally, in Paris there had been a growing fascination with the idea of primitive African culture in the visual and performing arts. European society was becoming increasingly mechanized, and it seemed as if everyone had to abide by a routine to function in their community. In 1902, the Paris community at the Nouveau Cirque became obsessed with the introduction of “the Cakewalk,” a dance “derived from a harvest ‘chalk-line’ dance, once performed by slaves on Southern plantations” (Dalton and Gates 906). Even before Baker had entered into fame, African dances were already being consumed by white people for entertainment. For many, the Cakewalk’s movements were synonymous with an idealized tribal village of sorts, and its exotic nature “represented for some the capitulation of ‘civilization to the ‘primitive’ and led, many suspected, to irresponsible sexual abandon or even demonic possession” (Dalton and Gates 906). Thus began the eroticization of stereotypical black culture, which Baker would soon manipulate for her performances. The public was already fascinated and excited by the idea of seeing performances that revolved around the idea of an African tribeswoman. Baker’s famous “banana dance,” in which she danced suggestively in a jungle setting in eroticized tribal costumes, appealed to the audience’s desire to see their romanticized image of black people enacted on stage. Most importantly, the public was excited to see such performances in the comfort of the theatre, where they could leave primitive sights on the stage and return to them whenever they pleased.
The fetishization of an inaccurate, primitive image of African people was evident throughout Baker’s performances, bringing into discussion the possible consequences of her dances. Baker heavily relied on the white idealization of traditional black culture to popularize her performances, and, as Anthea Kraut notes in “Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham,” “the fantasy of the primitive only furthered racist assumptions that peoples of African origin were somehow outside of history, permanently suspended in a prior temporal movement” (435). With the growing popularity of her dances, Baker circulated even more images of primitivism, helping to perpetuate the stereotype that black people were part of a culture that was less advanced than European society. By appearing nearly or fully nude emphasizing suggestive elements in her dances, she promoted the eroticization of primitivism, objectifying the black body. Appearing as a sexual object in tribal environments, her performances often sexualized the African body by making it appear more “wild” and “other.” Baker’s manipulation of fetishized and primal generalizations certainly resulted in personal fame and success, but the popularity of these images also encouraged assumptions that black culture was inferior to white society. These assumptions have continued long after her death in 1975.
Yet, it is wholly unfair to dismiss Baker as an individual who perpetuated stereotypes and did nothing for black people, given that she also became an important cultural icon that many have argued subverted the image of primitivism. Baker’s fame from her original performances later enabled her “to play the music halls descending long staircases in elegant gowns in the kind of role previously reserved for white stars” (Dudziak 547). Thus, she was able to use what images were available to her at the beginning of her career to become an entertainer that transcended race. Despite its problematic origins, her success underscored how the black community could find success in their careers, establishing her as a cultural icon. It is important to note that as a dancer in Paris, Baker “neither wrote nor directed nor produced the shows in which she appeared, and choreographers were customarily brought in to create routines for her. Her ability to assign her own meanings to the dances she performed was thus limited” (Kraut 436). Baker only had so much control over her career and had to take the roles that were available to her. As noted by Mary L. Dudziak in “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War,” Baker “had to cater to white fantasies about race” in order to find success as a black entertainer (Dudziak 547). Though Baker performed as the stereotypical primitive African, she also became one of the few black celebrities at the time, paving the way for black representation in art. Further, she assumed some control over her dances in order to make them not just a reflection of the white man’s view of Africans, with “her clowning antics and notorious eye-crossing [which] assume fundamental importance,” as these acts underscored that she was performing a comical and overdramatized act, ultimately revealing the absurdity of racialized stereotypes (Kraut 438). Her small rebellions illustrated the ways in which she subverted the image she purportedly portrayed. While adoring the image of a primitive African woman, Baker became an incredibly successful icon, and her frivolity indicated to her audience the ridiculousness of such idealized stereotypes.
Not only a black person in the pre-Civil Rights era, but a black woman, Baker faced societal limitations which arguably led to a need and desire to utilize her sexuality as a means to success. As a female performer, she was almost certainly aware that she would need to use her sexuality to become a famed dancer, as during the 1920s, performing and visual arts were often created for male spectators. While many women have traditionally been objectified for male gratification, black women, like other minority women, have additionally been burdened with the eroticization of an “exotic” foreign culture. Black women’s bodies were fetishized for being “different” than the bodies of white women, particularly in regard to their curves. Appearing either completely or mostly nude on stage, Baker’s body certainly became such an eroticized object. She embraced the white community’s sexual fantasies in her dances. Her fearlessness in accepting her sexuality—even a misconstrued image of black female sexuality—represents a sort of empowerment for black women, an encouragement to embrace bodies so often dismissed as foreign or below white beauty standards.
Though this essay focuses primarily on Baker and her dance performances, it is important to contemplate her later years where she became a civil rights activist and publicized member of the NAACP. Following the beginning of World War II, Baker began to place more emphasis on representing the black community than in gaining personal fame. She received several accolades including the Legion of Honor for assisting the French Resistance during the War when she was motivated by the fact that “in fighting Nazism she was fighting racism” (Dudziak 548). Perhaps her most significant contribution to the Civil Rights Movement are the essays she wrote after she went undercover in the American South to understand life as an average black woman. These essays were essential in galvanizing the public against racism.
Baker’s actions following her success in Parisian entertainment exemplify that she was not simply a performer who mindlessly exploited primitivist stereotypes. Yet, what Baker’s legacy means today can be difficult to discern, given that her career can be seen in both the appropriation and continued fetishization of black culture and also the growth of black representation in the media.
Throughout this essay, I have sought to qualify the extent to which Baker might have perpetuated primitive images of Africans by objectifying their bodies and dances. I have attended to the impact of her success and how she subverted those image and used her fame to advocate for her community. Baker’s methods bring to mind the centuries-old question of whether or not one can disassemble the master’s house with the master’s tools. The answer is conflicted: although we cannot ignore Baker’s manipulation of many problematic stereotypes that have continued to leave inaccurate impressions in our society, we must also recognize that she became one of the first African celebrities, and she would inspire future stars such as Beyoncé.
Few artists can combine art and politics without such a tension. While an artist like Beyoncé has brought the complexities of the black female experience into mainstream discussion, she has also been criticized for embracing a pro-capitalist view of feminism. Baker was a politically active figure for the black community and gave representation to her culture during a time in which that was unheard of. She has also remained an important figure in all of the dance community with her modernized performances. Though Baker’s legacy as a black female performer has had some socially problematic repercussions such as the way it may have been interpreted by those like Cyrus, she has also paved the way for future strong, female African American artists.
Dudziak, Mary L. “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War.” The Journal of American History 81.2 (1994): 543–570. Web. 04 May 2016.
Karen C. C. Dalton, and Henry Louis Gates. “Josephine Baker and Paul Colin: African American Dance Seen Through Parisian Eyes.” Critical Inquiry 24.4 (1998): 903–934. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
Kraut, Anthea. “Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham.” Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003): 433–450. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.
Weisman, Aly. “Miley Cyrus Wanted A ‘Black’ Sound For Her Latest Racy Single.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 21 June 2013. Web. 04 May 2016.