Week 10 Responses

Please post your responses to Fleetwood & Nyong’o below.

& some extra materials:
Here’s the sensationalistic article about boxer Queen Underwood that I mentioned last week–we’ll talk about it in class through the lens of the Fleetwood & Nyong’o readings.

The Living Nightmare Quanitta Underwood: A Contender for Olympic Gold and a Survivor

& for a change of tone, an article about two-time olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, written before she became an Olympian by feminist & queer writer Ariel Levy:

A Ring of One’s Own

 

“The Kiss”

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8 thoughts on “Week 10 Responses

  1. Tavia Nyong’o’s “The Unforgivable Transgression of Being Caster Semenya”, an article written for Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, continues the scholarship on Caster Semenya that we discussed in last week’s class. In this essay, Nyong’o brings in the popular comparison of Saartjie (sometimes Sarah) Baartman, a Khoisan woman who was displayed like an animal throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. The combined factors of Baartman’s race and sex made her the subject of tests and analyses, as well as the stares of crowds of people. “Challenging Semenya’s femaleness, people asserted, was imperialism all over again”, writes Nyong’o (Nyong’o, 96). However, Nyong’o critiques this reading of Semenya’s athletic performance and the subsequent questioning of her sex, not because imperialism plays no part in the situation, but because this reading insists that sex remains essentialized and binary. “The real challenge when an ugly, gender-disciplinary inquisition like the one the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) started crops up is not to allow ourselves to be blackmailed into simplistic reassertions of gender normativity…” (Nyong’o, 98). Nyong’o critiques celebrity magazines that presented a made-over Semenya as overtly feminine. “We turn SA’s Power Girl Into a Glamour Girl– And She Loves It!” advertises the front page of the South African Magazine, You. I find it interesting that this South African version of our People Magazine, a celebrity magazine targeted at women, is called You in the first place. It is as if the magazine cover, displaying the dolled-up Semenya in a black dress, bangles, a statement necklace, and with manicured nails, is calling upon all of its female readers to reject any masculine traits in favor of accentuating their femininity. This transformation is not just for Semenya – it is a guide for all women who have been interpellated into late-capitalist notions of femininity: “Hey, you! Buy into womanhood, subjectivity, and cultural legibility”. Nyong’o hopes that we can move away from the insistence that Semenya’s real shame lies in people not recognizing her femininity, and focus more on the shame of perpetuating essentialist notions of sex, “Instead of insisting upon the naturalness of her gender, how about turning the question around and denaturalizing the world of gender segregated, performance-obsessed, commercially-driven sports…” (Nyong’o, 98).
    Nicole R. Fleetwood’s introduction to On Racial ICons: Blackness and the Public Imagination explores the American public’s fixation on black icons, and how that fixation interacts with issues of race as well as sex in particular historical contexts. Fleetwood focuses on the “broad consumption” of “photographic representation” of such icons (Fleetwood, 2). Fleetwood considers the performative potential behind black American icons, “Racial icons, especially in the realm of social and political movements, make us want to do something (Fleetwood, 4) while concentrating on the religious underpinnings of the ways in which icons are depicted, and even the term “icon” itself (Fleetwood, 5, 8).
    In the fourth chapter of her book, Fleetwood discusses the black athlete as American cultural icon. The chapter follows several black athletes of the 20th and 21st centuries chronologically and considers each in the political and social context of the decades in which they were prominent. Each of these athletes’ athletic celebrity, Fleetwood argues, returns to “the legacies and practices of chattel slavery… From the ritual of the draft… to the periodic trade and the declining value of the aging body, the fundamental roots of racial capital are interwoven into the seemingly meritocratic and voluntary market of athletics” (Fleetwood, 81). The chapter begins with an analysis of the boxer Jack Johnson, who was famous during the first decades of the 20th century. While Johnson was able to “[assert] control over the presentation of his body” through performance, he was also seen as a black athlete who “represented the most detestable traits of the black race. He was arrogant and flashy, and his desire for white women established him as a threat” (Fleetwood, 83-84). Fleetwood then makes a comparison to Jackie Robinson, the first man to integrate baseball, who was seen as “the quiet, respectable man who refused to be driven to rage” (Fleetwood, 84). Of course, such an athlete represented less of a threat to white supremacy because he did not stand up to or fight back against the racist jeers of spectators. Paul Robeson, on the other hand, was originally held in high regard for his multiple talents (as a football player, actor, and singer), but was later the subject of investigation by the House Un-American Activities for his leftist politics, “Robeson, who was once idealized as a symbol of national healing, was demonized in his later years as an enemy of the state,” writes Fleetwood (Fleetwood, 86).
    Fleetwood then moves on to more contemporary icons like Michael Jordan, who she argues heavily participated in the construction of the American athlete as capitalist commodity. Jordan, like Robinson, was “[someone] that would sell globally, the gentle, kind, warm, dependable, wholesome, authentic, family man…” (Fleetwood, 88). Lebron James, who was supposed to be Jordan’s successor, did not play so much into the hands of the white owners of city basketball teams. Burdened with the task of improving the public image of the city of Cleveland, James left the Cleveland Cavs in 2010 to play for the Miami heat without apology, and was figuratively crucified for it. Acknowledging the different arenas in which they compete, and the difference in the public perception of black male athletes and black female athletes, Fleetwood goes on to make a light comparison between James and Serena Williams, who has stood out for decades not just in tennis but in international sports in general for her extraordinary talent and winning power, but also for the way she presents herself on the court. In the end, Fleetwood concludes, “Serena Williams and Lebron James are two players who make no concessions or apologies about their sense of self-possession and determination… They claim a corporate appeal– with many sponsorships– and yet do not explicitly attempt to placate white fans and audiences” (Fleetwood, 109).
    In the case of all of these athletes, however, it is important to keep in mind the unfortunate ways in which each has had to undergo scrutiny and spectatorship from white audiences who view them as “representational” of blackness, something that is not only illogical but unjust as well. Fleetwood does not put down athletes like Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan who did not become active in anti-racist politics or who seemed to buy into white white capitalist supremacy, because to not do so would be dangerous to their careers which depend so much on public perception, and potentially to their health and safety, as we see in the cases of the other athletes.

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  2. In Fleetwood’s Introduction to On Racial Icons, she discusses her examination of how race performs as a social icon. She compares racial iconography to that of almost holy iconography, discussing how the media treats racial icons as near-gods. Using affect theory (arguably), Fleetwood asserts that race has to do more with our association to race than the actual physical look to it, a theory quite similar to that of Fanon’s in “The Fact of Blackness.” Fleetwood uses photos to further exemplify her assertion about race and iconography. Because my whole life is ballet at the moment, I see this especially play-out with Misty Copeland, a quite light-skinned woman who has asserted herself as the first famous black dancer, although many others have come before her like Lauren Anderson and Patricia Johnson; however, please note that there is LITERALLY A WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE THAT HAS A LIST OF BLACK BALLERINAS AND THERE ARE ONLY NINE OF THEM! So Misty is still really important! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_African-American_ballerinas

    In Fleetwood’s second writing, the fourth chapter to On Racial Icons, Fleetwood explores the leading black athletes like Arthur Ash, Paul Robeson, Michael Jordan, Lebron James and Serena Williams who have exemplified the black iconography about which Fleetwood writes. She uses these athletes as examples of how our nation’s reverence and high-interest in black athletes is unusually peculiar compared to white athletes, like, why are we so concerned with what Serena Williams’ wears? Or why are we so dazzled by Lebron James’ choice of team?

    In the last essay, N’yongo discusses the general media fascination surrounding Caster Semenya’s gender, and South Africa’s over-zealous defense of her gender (obviously missing the key point that it really doesn’t matter!!!). The craziest part of this essay was the picture of the front page article for Semenya. It was most perplexing to see the language “Wow, look at Caster Now!” and “We turn SA’s power girl into a Glamour girl-and she loves it!” as if being “glamourous” is society’s preferred way of performing the female gender. This headline and subtext I found to be disgusting, but classic language of the gender-obsessed media and public.

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  3. Fleetwood’s “On Racial Icons” has definitely been one of the smoothest reads for me. In the Introduction, Fleetwood traces the concept of the “icon” from religious history to contemporary culture linking it to specifically racialized icons, in particular black icons. From Diana Ross to Trayvon Martin, Fleetwood explores “how the combined forces of veneration and denigration animate the black figure as racial icon,” (Fleetwood 10). In the fourth chapter, Fleetwood expands upon black sports icons such as Paul Robeson, Jack Johnson, Serena Williams, and Lebron James. Robeson in particular embodies this double existence as being both glorified and criticized. While Robeson enjoyed a positive social image in his early career, his later engagement with leftist politics eventually drew backlash from white Americans. He was even investigated by the House Committee of Un-American Activities in 1956 because of his antiracist efforts. I can’t help but be reminded of the completely heinous controversy around Colin Kaepernick in today’s contemporary context.

    Nyongo’s essay continues our discussion of Olympic athlete Caster Semenya who, though a racialized icon for South Africa, was again vehemently critiqued — this time for her performance of gender. The South African publication You magazine even features a disturbing attempt to felicitously regender Semenya as female by reiterating conventional standards of femininity. “The headline ‘Look at Caster Now’ can only mean: refer back from this image, which we present to you as the true, real Caster, to the prior, excessive and disturbing image one, and you will somehow have your perception of her gender stabilized. That such stability of gender is never achieved is unfortunately not a good enough reason for people to stop trying. Hence the recurrent panic,” (Nyong’o 96). The example of Semenya reflects the complicated intersections of racial and gender identities and how mercilessly the public can be when discussing them. For specifically black female athletic bodies like Caster Semenya and Serena Williams, a particularized fixation on their ambivalent masculinity or femininity can immediately undermine their status as a sports icon. At the same time, it can be highlighted to show just how far the world of sports has come or just how special and superhuman they are. The same is true of their blackness. While at one moment a black athlete can shine in the spotlight as superhuman, a token of spectacularized social change, they can instantly be knocked down as a betrayer of their public, betrayer of their gender, betrayer of their nation.

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  4. Both Nyong’o and Fleetwood provide a racial through which to understand the role of racialized and gendered bodies in professional sports. The media’s role in sensationalizing professional sports reflects a longer history of racialized bodies as spectacle but both authors focus not on the player as an individual but rather a symbolic marker for the American public to grapple with. The agency of celebrity athletes remains central to their popularity and success but the focus of both pieces in the larger social repercussions of their visibility.
    Nyongo’s essay focuses on a prime example of media panic and social tensions around racial and gender lines. His analysis of public reactions to the scrutiny of Semenya by race officials highlights the ways that athletic bodies and, more intensely, racialized bodies, become issues of the public in determining their validity or level of threat. Nyong’o notes that,“whether devious, or simply deviant, the freakishly virtuosic body is a spectacle and a threat” (Nyong’o 99). Semenya’s public performance of femininity on the magazine cover serves to quell the tension felt by the public but the motivation behind the move is ambiguous. Given Semenya’s ambivalence, was this display a formality which would allow her to compete or is it a repudiation of her gender ambiguity? The public figure of Caster Semenya overshadows Semenya as a self-determined individual and her ambivalence around the issue further emphasizes how athletes’ bodies are objectified and their athletic ability seems at once intrinsically tied to yet devoid of individual identity.
    Fleetwood’s analysis of Lebron James and Serena Williams as black icons offers a critique of the multiplicity and history that black bodies represent and how they are received through media. Particularly in connection with corporate endorsement, the figure of the black athlete exists in complex web of associations with racialized histories and colonialism. Fleetwood touches on the history of black athletes being unable to express political views in public arenas. Denunciation and dismissal in response to political attitudes speaks to the ways in athletes’ bodies are prized for their physical ability over their individual identity. The excessive nature of media misrepresents the figure to fit a narrative rather than focus on the athlete as an individual. Additionally, the example of the live decision made by Lebron shows the ways in which these icons serve a consumer-based approach to fandom and show the transparency of the system which sells James athleticism and celebrity as a product. The quick backlash to his decision to leave the Cavaliers exposes the ways that athletes become icons to be consumed and the public consumers who are dissatisfied with the product tap into racialized stereotypes and historical oppression and “absolved all the corporate interests…in creating and profiting from the corporatized black sports icon” (Fleetwood 95). On the other end, Fleetwood offers Serena Williams as an example of public appearance as defiantly resistant. Her continued success in the face of her difference to the sport and audience of professional tennis has allowed her very presence to fundamentally alter the world of professional tennis.

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  5. Nicole Fleetwood’s Introduction to her book On Racial Icons, and the fourth chapter, The Black Athlete: Racial Precocity and the American Sports Icon focus on a case-by-case understanding of the intersecting pressures of the black athlete as iconic figure, and the relationship of their bodies to the media, the audience, and their sport. She begins by clarifying that fundamental concepts of sports bolster racial precarity and inequalities as it is involves the most base forms of competition, such as the “ritual of the draft”, devaluing the aging body, and commentary and speculation upon bodies. The “superstar athlete model” within capitalism then supplements competitive modes with intense sociopolitical backwash, and outright profiling. The spectacle of the black athlete cannot be admired without derision for the arrogance of that spectacle. She cites Jack Johnson, who we will be discussing more in-depth next week, arrested under the Mann Act for crossing state lines with his white wife as an african american man, after his rise to fame as the best boxer in the country. The public is ready to worship an underdog black figure, but goes to great lengths to check and surveil that physical power by social means.

    I especially liked the tokenizing that Fleetwood discusses, especially in the early years of integrated sport (such as with Jackie Robinson): “black integration of professional athletic has been interpreted in two dominant frameworks: representation politics and racial achievement”, meaning that black icons “serve as a counterweight to the forces of racial subjugation”.
    The public making use of racial icons, a clear objectification, as in the case of paul robeson, making use “of racial icons at different historical and political moments”.

    As far as the public is concerned use of platform is fine for ‘integration’, but the active use for the fight for racial justice is heavily scorned by white americans and ruinous to their careers, keeping black athletes surveilled and checked within certain lines of freedom.

    Fleetwood continues with a breakdown of popular athletes and their social signifiers, setting up Michael Jordan as capitalist golden boy, family man, jesus figure, and countering his success with athletes whose public personas have faced rockier reception.

    Fleetwood explains that Serena Williams and Lebron James have a history of “public sentiment of racial resentment toward both because of their seeming unwillingness (at times) to perform an accommodating, conciliatory posture, a gratitude for their stardom. Instead both embrace their sheer domination, physical prowess, and a sense of racial and self possession that can cause great unease to many non-black audiences” (Fleetwood 89).

    Some BULLE T POINTS!! Lebron: highly religious-ized (?) early in his career with standards similarly high, god-like, “king james” , free agency causing public outcry.

    The differences in tennis as an elite or upper class pastime and Williams’ defying of that narrative, vs. james’ fulfillment of the rags-to-riches narrative in a sport with a rich ac=ssociation in the african american community, as well as clear gender differences.
    The way in which williams presents “produce(s) affective responses that play into polarized discourses where such choices are embraced by many of her black and progressive fans while questioned by the normative american public as markers of the black figure’s unwillingness…to conform” (Fleetwood 100), specifically her fashion lines, her grunting and strength, her fun.
    “Williams not only performs to expectation but performs with such dominance and presence that she forces us to witness our investment in the signs that we reply to make sense of her athleticism and embodiment” (101), which, because of the complexity her ‘case’ (existence), left her more easily pushed aside, as an athletic superstar and record breaker, who is somehow still not beloved.
    Both Williams and James are unapologetic about the ways in which their body occupies roles and spaces, and the ways in which they now have the raw power to be un-policed, living in defiance.

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  6. Chapter 4 of Nicole Fleetwood’s On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination begins with her highlighting the similarities between the ways that black athletes are spoken about and treated now with the way that black slaves were treated in America’s early history, including a comparison between the draft and slave auctions that literally made me gasp in shock on the subway because of the obviousness of it and the fact that I had never noticed it before. She then goes briefly through the history of the way that black athletes have been viewed in America, using Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos to form a narrative that mainly revolves around respecting those who are quiet and take their racism with a smile and shunning those who begin to use their platform to try to make change. She then goes into how Michael Jordan changed the game. His godlike abilities created the “quintessential black athletic icon,” but his endeavors in the business world are what make him so different. He brought the NBA itself to new global heights of fame and brought in so much money for himself and his sponsors that every black NBA player since has tried to emulate it in some way. According to Fleetwood, James and Williams do not fit this mold because of their unwillingness to become what White America wants them to become.
    From a young age, Lebron was bred by capitalism to become the second coming, and to once again, as Jordan had done before him, grace the pockets of his white rulers with the glory of the almighty dolla bill. When he didn’t do what they wanted in 2009, they shunned Lebron. She illustrates this period best with a letter from the boss of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, who, desperate to own Lebron’s body and skill, published a venomous letter calling him a “former hero” and labelling his announcement “narcissistic.” She points out that Gilbert acknowledged nowhere that he and the other interests were the ones who turned Lebron into a “hero” in the first place, not to mention it most likely wasn’t Lebron’s idea to have a television special of his announcement. No, that seems a bit more like something a corporation would think up. She claims it was this decision that motivated Lebron to be more of his own person and to speak up about his beliefs, like those related to Trayvon Martin and Donald Sterling.
    She begins the part about Serena by disclaiming that there are many differences between tennis and basketball when it comes to iconography, but the biggest one is that basketball is a black man’s sport, while tennis belongs mainly to the white upper crust. She cites Williams’ “unflinching boldness” within this atmosphere of whiteness and elitism as the thing that makes her stand out. Like how she caused a shift in the tennis norms of dress, she has essentially forced the tennis-watching masses to accept her in all her blackness and to change their expectations of what a tennis player is, instead of changing herself to fit the mold of what they want. And she’s so damn good that they simply have to accept it.
    Nyong’o explores the panic that occurred on the sides of both the accusers and defenders of Caster Semenya during the 2009 Olympics, and the need that South Africa felt to feminize her to make her fit the mold of society, despite their words that it was insulting to think she wasn’t a woman. She closes with a reminder of Leni Riefenstahl’s pictures of Jesse Owens in 1936 and relates the language and sentiments in the conversations about Semenya to their not-so-distant history of eugenics. The same can certainly be said for James and Williams.

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  7. Fleetwood’s “On Racial Icons” focuses on the examination of the ways in which images, particularly those of black bodies and public figures, are received and processed within society. To tie together a quote from the introduction of Fleetwood’s book and a concept from the fourth chapter; Fleetwood states in the introduction that “Black activists and artists have used image as weapon to fight racial oppression” (2). In chapter four, Fleetwood uses several black athletes as case studies for the way in which they have used their status as highly visible public figures to make statements about certain mechanisms of society. Given the previous quote from the introduction, I would like to draw attention to the ways in which black bodies are often viewed as being able to endure excessive labor and that in turn makes people perceive them as being able to further exceed in physical feats such as athleticism. Given the heroism that is bestowed upon athletes, when athletes (namely black athletes) take a stand for something that falls outside of the realm of the confines of sports or fitting into the projected role that has been assigned to them there is backlash. For example the display of protest against police brutality that Colin Karpernick took by kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem at football games, he was disrupting the spectacle of blackness that is assigned to him through the NFL as a controlled spectacle of blackness. He received backlash for his nonviolent actions because they fell outside of the confines that are forced onto and expected of him as a black athlete. Much like when Fleetwood addresses the way in which Serena Williams dresses and how this paved the way for making a significant change in the approach of tennis attire and dress code, I find it interesting and somewhat upsetting that when it comes to female athletes (again particularly black female athletes), their evaluation almost always without fail involves critique of their appearance. Nyong’o pointed out that “world-class female athletes have long made people anxious, particularly gorgeous muscle-bound black ones” (96) and maybe this is in part why they are constantly minimized and picked apart based on their looks. An example of this is during the 2012 Olympic games when Gabby Douglas, a black gymnast, was constantly critiqued for the way in which she wore her hair despite the multiple gold medals she was winning as she represented the United States. Again, in Fleetwood’s analysis of Williams’ influence on the tennis world is heavily focused her appearance and the public’s fascination with her body, whereas the analysis of LeBron and Jordan come to reflect upon their journey to positions as icons and the widespread dilemmas that they faced within their careers.

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  8. In Nicole Fleetwood’s On Racial Icons, Fleetwood discusses the ways in which the the black athlete is internalized within the media. She writes, “within the broad category of public images, I am interested in those that are normative to our understanding of race in the United States; these are images that have a common sense meaning to them in terms of the national imagery and a broad Public’s familiarity with them. They are interwoven into the dominant, media saturated American public understands race as interstitial to the formation of the nation”(Fleetwood 3). Fleetwood argues that black bodies are constantly “strive for that which is never quite reachable” (Fleetwood 10). The doors for opportunity are constantly being closed. When an opportunity opens another hurdle is placed in front of them. There was one component of Fleetwood’s work that really stood out to me. Fleetwood writes, “from the ritual of the draft by which many athletes professional team sports the periodic table and the declining value of the aging body, the fundamental roots of racial capital are interwoven into the seemingly meritocratic and voluntary markets of athletics” (Fleetwood 81). This reminded me of the line in Testo Junkie where the Preciado argued that all work is sex work. Are all athletes sex workers in a way? They are selling their bodies for the consumption of others. People are dependent upon them for pleasure. If all work is sex work is all work. In Tavia Nyong’o’s “The Unforgivable Transgression of Being Caster Semenya”, Nyong’o writes specifically about the athlete Caster Semenya and the way in which her body is viewed due to her blackness. Nyong’o focuses on the way she is criticized in the media, saying “[y]oung though she may be, who is to say Semenya cannot you know and enjoy who she is? Who is to say that her “proudest sense of self “lies with being considered and treated like a “girl”?” (Nyong’o 96). I thought about this during the Jack Johnson week as well, but why is the black athlete not allowed to be proud? Why instead are they limited and cut down for not embodying the neutered standard that is set for them. Nyong’o continues by saying “instead insisting upon the naturalness of her gender, how about turning the question around and the nationalizing the world of gender segregated, can the performance-obsessed, commercially-driven Sports, a world that can neither seem to do with or without excessive body’s like Semenya’s and their virtuosic performances?” (Nyong’o 98). Her performances are once again seen through a specific lens. Nyong’o proposes “[o]ur challenge then, is to think against this ongoing regeneration of eugenic ideas, based on bodily capacities that black people are supposed to possess in excess (to the detriment of our intellectual capacities), while sustaining hope in the imminent possibilities Gilroy also sees infrahumanity, possibilities which I’ve tried to identify here with Semenya’s virtuosic performance of gender” (Nyong’o 100). As a society, will we ever be able to break beyond the limits that we have set for certain bodies? Are utopias real or even possible?

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