The Beyoncé - Saartjie Baartman controversy

Andrew Donaldson notes that on this, and other matters this week, social media was gripped by its customary fury

SO, contrary to initial reports, it would appear the American singer and actress Beyoncé actually has no desire to make a film about Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus.

When the story initially broke there came the customary fury on social media, with much inchoate rage directed at this woman for having the effrontery to appropriate such a dearly held story for her own purposes. It was especially galling as we had our own loveys, right here, who seemingly could do with the work. 

South African Guild of Actors spokesman Jack Devnarain was full of suitably dramatic chatter about cultural sensitivities. “One has to question the intention,” he told Eyewitness News, “and in my understanding, it seems the intention is more for the performative grandstand itself rather than to pay homage to Sarah Baartman.”

The performative grandstand being second nature to actors, of course. But how clever of Devnarain to be on the button so emphatically regarding Beyoncé’s intentions – even though no such film project appears to exist. 

Here at the Mahogany Ridge we were in two minds as to whether she could have pulled off such a role. There were those who unkindly suggested she was perhaps too much of a lightweight.

But we should tolerate no such slurs on the Beyoncé backside. Like many of her peers, she has worked hard at its development. And with good reason. Not since the Paleolithic age has there been such fevered butt worship and the considerably bulbous forms of Kim Kardashian and other minor celebrities are now bouncing all over the culture. As they say in hip-hop, gotta have that junk in the trunk.

There is a tenuous suggestion that all this derrière derring-do – this neo-steatopygism, if you will – is an attempt to reclaim a certain cultural territory. When, for example, Kardashian appeared on the cover of Paper magazine in November 2014 with a champagne glass balanced on her outsized butt it was seen as a direct reference to Baartman, who did similar tricks in London. 

At the time, the British capital was greatly fascinated with backsides. When Baartman arrived there in 1810, smuggled out of Cape Town by those who wished to cash in on her enormous asset, there was much speculation over the so-called “Broad Bottom” conspiracy, and whether Lord Grenville, a former prime minister widely ridiculed for his big bum, and his Whig coalition would take over parliament if George III abdicated. 

Baartman was the go-to metaphor of the day. According to her biographer, Rachel Holmes, “the obsession [among journalists and satirists] with Saartjie’s posterior, posterity and broad bottomedness, and the endless punning on rear ends, rumps, fundaments and fat arses became explicitly tied to the most pressing and topical political issues concerning the decline of King George, the rise of the Regency and which rumps would take over government.”

The exposure also led to her becoming a cause célèbre among English abolitionists who unsuccessfully lodged a case for her freedom. 

Such a setback may seem an ideal third act development in the arc of a tragedy. But had her freedom been secured, what then? A return to a life of servitude in the Cape? Or hang around as an “other” in London? Unhappily, there was a fourth act, which briefly was this: alcohol, France, alcohol, prostitution, more alcohol, death. 

Be that as it may, we still have a movie to make. The temptation to suggest those who, at the very least, could be cast as stunt rumps should be resisted. Given the present hysteria on social media, it is perhaps advisable to keep such ideas to oneself. 

To be “sparrowed” – the term du jour, I believe – and publicly shamed as a stoutist before being lynched by a self-righteous mob on Twitter is not a fate to be wished on anyone. 

Among those who have called for greater tolerance is the South African Council of Churches’ Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, who claims we have this anger “because we are a wounded nation”. Perhaps he is right. But it could also be we are angry because we are childish and get off on indignant outrage. 

The great danger with such behaviour is that it may bolster plans to curb freedom of expression with dodgy laws to “criminalise racism”. The ANC knows, or it really should, that shutting people up doesn’t work; you really cannot legislate against stupidity. 

But a final word on Baartman from the novelist Diane Awerbuck: “[She] is not a symbol. She is a dead woman who once suffered in a series of cruel systems. The best way we can remember her is by not letting it happen again.”

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus