Black Venus as a Depiction of How Science, Academic Knowledge and Popular Entertainment Supported White Supremacy and Colonialism in the 19th Century
Black Venus is a French film based on the true life of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who moved to Britain with her employer Hendrick Caezar on the promise of a better life, sharing her musical talent. Baartman became a trope for popular entertainment in Britain and France. The movie portrays the traumatic experience she endures after being coerced into letting audience members touch her body, mistreated by French scientists and later forced into prostitution as a means of survival. Black Venus is an effective educational tool because it depicts how science, academic knowledge, and popular entertainment supported white supremacy and colonialism in the 19th century through the vivid portrayal of characters in the movie believing they had a right to Saartijie Baartman’s body. (Black Venus)
The film is an effective educational tool on how science supported white supremacy and colonialism because it revealed to the audience that the science practised in the 19th century was “race science”, focused on distinguishing the white race from all other races. In the movie, the French scientist George Cuvier announces to other scientists that the examination of Baartman’s skull proves that the “Negros didn’t give birth to Egyptians whom the world has learnt science and religion from”. He concluded that the discovery justified the “cruel laws” used to oppress non-whites because the white race’s skull and brain were as voluminous as the Egyptians. (Black Venus) Likewise, in Human Exhibitions: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Ethnic Displays, Rikke argues that the black female body “served to illustrate the underdevelopment of Africans” because it was “considered an incarnation of the past that could be examined to undercover information about the development of humankind” (118). This means that scientists had preconceived notions of black females as primal human beings and believed they could prove that claim by examining their bodies. In Black Venus, the notion is present in how George Cuvier approached Caezar thinking the South African man would allow Baartman to be examined in the name of science. In addition, it is evident how Cuvier pushes Baartman, despite her resistance, to show her vagina to all the scientists because her “guardian” gave permission. (Black Venus) Cuvier’s action is significant because Baartman as a black woman is reduced to a child who can’t give consent. The consequence of Baartman being infantilized is that after her death, she is reduced to just a body for Cuvier and his team to examine, even though it would have been against her wishes. Hence, depicting how the French scientist thought they had a right to Baartman’s body and how science supported white supremacy and colonialism.
Black Venus is also an effective educational tool on how academic knowledge in the 19th century supported white supremacy and colonialism. It makes the audience question the ethics of museum acquisition methods and the ethics of using remains as commodities. In Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era, Simpson argues that collecting activities in the 19th century “were undertaken without regard for the spiritual beliefs of relatives or descendants, and their permission was not deemed necessary”. This means that museums collected and kept human remains without considering how the individual or the community of that individual would feel about it. This is evident in Black Venus from how after Baartman died a painful death from illness, her body was sold to Cuvier by Reaux, who did not have any right over her body. Reaux’s successful action is significant because it highlights the French scientist’s lack of ethical consideration about how Baartman’s body was acquired. In addition, Baartman’s body, particularly her buttocks and genitalia, was cut up and displayed at the Paris National History Museum until 1974, after South Africa asked for them to be returned (Black Venus). The consequence of the display was the museum profiting from having Baartman’s body seen as “abnormal” and “explained as a physical reflection of the inferiority of her race” (Rikke 117). This message that the museum profited on is significant because it questions the ethics of using remains as commodities and highlights how academic knowledge in the 19th century supported white supremacy and colonialism.
Finally, the film is an effective educational tool on how popular entertainment in the 19th century supported white supremacy and colonialism. It depicts a large part of the British public willing to pay money to be entertained by a racist trope. Rikke argues that “Africans were considered less intelligent and more primitive than Europeans…regarded as more explicitly sexual, with more direct and animalistic…sexuality” (115). This meant Europeans felt superior to Africans and thought they were justified too because of their perceived higher intelligence and reserved behaviour. This mindset is evident in the film from how Baartman is described as a savage who Caezar has captured from Cape Town. She is forced to put on a collar, make animal noises, and is fed treats when she listens to Caezar’s command. More so, Baartman is manipulated into allowing the audience members to touch her butt to prove it is real, while Caezar praises them for being brave. The consequence of Baartman being touched and poked at without her consent is emotional trauma and dependence on alcohol. (Black Venus) The fact that Caezar used a racist trope at the expense of Baartman, forced her to be touched by the audience and that the audience abided is significant because it depicts how Caezar and the audience believed that they had a right to her body. Hence, highlights how popular entertainment in the 19th century supported white supremacy and colonialism.
Andreassen, Rikke. “Human Exhibitions: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Ethnic Displays.” Taylor & Francis, Taylor & Francis, 9 Mar. 2016, http://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315587318.
Black Venus, 1 Jan. 2010, tubitv.com/movies/476646/black_venus.
Simpson, Moira G. Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. pp. 173-189.