The Real Booty Myth


‘… many adult women cannot bear to be seen from the rear even when they are dressed’ – Simone de Beauvoir, 1949

Well, times have changed – if women’s bums are a measure of anything, that is. There was a time when the disorderly bulge of a woman’s arse was cause for girdle compress and deep daily squats. Elle’s boybum and Kylie’s girlbum shucked any of the bounteousness granted to Marilyn’s womanbum.

Once fully formed a woman’s arse was, for de Beauvoir, the best exemplar of inert flesh. ‘Sunk in immanence’, it was a thing for others. It embodied devalued passivity. Until now this reverse vantage was one few women could face with any confidence. Not anymore.

Thanks to the reshaping of pop by black music ‘from the hood’ we have entered the epoch of Bootylicious, that is, a rezoning of feminine desirability around a gelatinous, rippling, ample arse. Coined by rapper Snoop Dogg in 1992 the word was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004. No longer tremulous, Batty is now an assertion of fleshy will. It’s a moneymaker. It has real cultural valency.

Pop/rap stars accompany their implant bottoms with lyrics of ‘Big Big Booty’ and he ‘don’t want none unless you got big buns hun’. Now it’s ‘all about the bass no treble’. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that this recent backseat craze has been explicitly engineered as ‘ghetto booty’.

Brown women who might never’ve had cause to give thanks for soft furnishings are exhorted to re-inhabit their ‘business class’. Two lines of argument might be run around this newfound display of the purportedly more shapely posterior of Black and Hispanic women.

Firstly it revives the fetishisation of the ‘Hottentot Venus’, Saartjie Baartman, a Koikoi slave who was exhibited for her ‘steatopygia’ (enlarged buttocks) around the British fair circuit in the 19th century. On her death, Baartman was dissected by comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier and her genitals displayed in the Museum of Man in Paris until 1974. Her remains were not repatriated until 2002 after calls from Nelson Mandela, among others.

But it was not merely the racialising of Baartman’s body parts that linked women of color to ideas of sexual primitivism and concupiscence. Her very exposure, that is, the very different terms of public display for white women and women of colour, construed the latter as more sexually provocative by their very nature. Part and parcel of their more overt lasciviousness was their innate exhibitionism, or so it went.

But in terms of Booty this spanking new largesse knows no bounds with white celebrities also redistributing their ballast. Kim Kardashian, of the famed bare-arsed Paper cover (the unphotoshopped version is more proportionate) has Armenian, Scottish and Dutch heritage – though the Kardashian pot may have melted long ago. Perhaps the point of white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s presence in Jennifer Lopez’ Booty clip is to deracialise it. So Booty is predominantly, historically, but not exclusively brown.

Secondly, there is the sheer explicitness of this arsefest, what with its vag proximity. Are we losing interest in bosoms because they don’t go anywhere, they proffer no points of entry? Recent music clips are like watching splatter cheek. It’s as if Benny Hill finally caught his flobbly field bottom, lodged himself up there and refuses to be shaken loose.

In Booty, Lopez is coated in maybe Castrol GTX 3, giving new meaning to peak oil. Just to hammer the anal-lubricant reference home, she sticks a finger in a glistening pot which, in a moment of rare, really endangered coyness, she brings instead to her lips.

Pop stars are now porn stars, says bravura Pretender frontwoman Chrissie Hynde. She sees a ‘definite division’ between porn stars trying to make records and musicians. Singers getting their kit off may be in the ‘wrong game’.

Yet Hynde was no less casting around for the Glad Eye in her Brass Pocket: ‘Gonna make you, make you, make you notice/ I gotta have some of your attention’. But her bottom does not appear on her list of body parts – arms, legs and fingers – by which she solicits the gaze. So the division may be more between permissible display zones, than genres of erm, entertainment (oh let’s just be done with it and call them industries).

Porn is an industry that feigns its own repression to lend Libertarian cred to the Transgression that undergirds its logic. It strategises off the very repressive hypothesis dispensed with by Foucault in 1978, just as the industry was consolidating.

Without getting stuck in the well-worn rutt(ing) that characterizes the debate, it is overwhelmingly women’s bodies that comprise, or are conflated with, the limits to that ‘free’ sexual expression. The feminine body most commonly provides the terrain to enact that transgression, with the bonus added features of race, age, arse-to-mouth, rape, lactation, etc etc, you name it.

Miley Cyrus, the genius, melding music, soft pornography and self-parody.

As we’ve seen with the Western failure to compute possible meanings of Muslim veiling, conflating exposure with liberation exacts its own limits on our cultural and political imaginings. We’re already habituated to the ready-to-hand idea that this newfound rear-vision is an exposure that liberates, I guess, larger bottoms.

This asinine equation between exposure and liberation, or visibility and cultural/political presence, overshadows any critique of how porn conventionalises new zones of display. Like ill-fitting knickers, the edge of explicitness is creeping into new production values and genres, namely music videos aimed at tweens and teenagers.

Sure, they’ve already clicked their way into the inner reaches of the explicit anyway, but the legitimacy lent by the music video context erodes the divide between public and private, a divide that porn upholds, for all its ready internet access. Splayed twerking arse cheek becomes legitimate public display.

Not coincidentally, De Beauvoir wrote extensively about the taboos and inhibitions through which girls were taught to inhabit their flesh. She thought their active embodiment, their transendence, depended on their capacity ‘to see their bodies through their own gaze’ – logistically tricky when it comes to looking at your own behind.

Maybe De Beauvoir was right. Maybe what’s intensified this body part in an era of intensified visual access to women’s bodies is precisely that it’s inaccessible to girl’s own self-appraisal. And what teenage girl hasn’t taken a good long look at herself before she goes out the door, on display by dint of her age whether she likes it or not.

Minaj, Lopez, Azalea etc might simply be giving some assurance over an uncertain viewpoint for girls, bringing to the fore a vantage on themselves that inherently belongs to others. They could simply be saying: This is how you are seen in public from behind, when you can’t see you are being seen – only they are saying it mostly to girls who aren’t yet fully formed. And they are saying the only way to overcome your insecurity is to overexpose yourself.

Rezoned as the terrain of active display, the soliciting of male attention and desire through the once inert, passive flesh of women’s bums becomes an assertion of sexual will. What is being conferred on women’s bums, with all that flexing, thrusting, rippling and gyrating is active, operational cultural valency. Can that be such a bad thing?

Well, the racialisation of body parts is clearly a problem, though as we’ve seen it’s not absolute. The stealthy stampede of the explicit under the noses of younger audiences is undoubtedly creepy. Is it outweighed by the permissing of active full-sized bums?

Let’s go back to the original meaning of Booty. It derives from pirate treasure, or ill-gotten gain. What’s being solicited here is more than a desirous gaze, it’s visual capital. Self-managing one’s visual transactions reconfigures the relation between body and market. Booty is a niche market. Booty is the latest means to deregulate the marketplace of the young feminine body.

Women pop stars and celebrities calculate, audit and self-assess their visual capital, adjusting their body types and parts as if they are constantly exposed to market risks. Yet this free market in visual transactions is also pinned to impermissible forms of exposure such as public breastfeeding, rising intolerance of veiling, ageing and other visual expressions notably unrelated to finagling.

Property in one’s visual effects, deregulated, unconstrained, along with these notions of self-governance, has delimited the value of young women to their market value as visual capital. The fulfillment of an ideal of feminine identity is concentrated on visual exchange.

Booty is a visual asset, recuperable under the identity contracts of neo-liberal self-governance. Yet women still carry the burden of self-regulation. They realise their market worth through a language of property in the self, enacted mostly over their visual effects.

Women might overcome the ongoing uncertainty of their market value through flexing their booty. Sure, this assertion of imputed autonomous visual identity might offer some security against the constraints on their full labour-market participation as carers, and their vulnerability in a casualising workforce.

But in the end, women’s liberation takes the form of liberating young women’s entrepreneurial skills, which are invested in their visual assets, through media transactions.

Booty is the latest infiltration of quasi-market mechanisms into the processes of girlhood, increasingly concentrated on the visual. In the end what’s most exposed is that liberation has been delimited to transaction.

Even when it makes a handful of young women very rich, even when it sanctions young women growing into their real-sized bottoms, even if a well-shaped bum is, in turns, supremely riveting and adorable, in music videos kids are watching, I’m not buying Booty.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.