After rumors circulated that Beyoncé would write and star in a movie about Saartjie Baartman, also known as the "Hottentot Venus," the singer's representatives denied her involvement. This news might be for the best; although we're big fans of Queen Bey, she's not the right woman for the job.
A representative told Billboard that Beyoncé “is in no way tied to this project,” but added that Baartman’s legacy “is an important story that should be told.”
Baartman was a South African woman captured, sold, and sent to London in the 19th century to serve in a human-oddities show. She is deserving of a historical biopic that discloses the true horrors behind being the "Hottentot Venus."
A member of South Africa’s Khoikhoi population, Baartman was only 20-years-old when her owner sold her to Cesars and Alexander Dunlop, according to Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. The brothers told Baartman she would find fame and fortune in London, and smuggled her into the European city in 1810.
Almost immediately, Baartman was exhibited in freak shows as the "Hottentot Venus." Hottentot is a slur used against the Khoikhoi, while Venus is the Roman goddess of beauty, so the name positioned Baartman as both unworthy and beautiful. It was a tragic paradox she had to navigate for the remainder of her short life.
European audiences gawked at Baartman’s large buttocks and elongated labia as she danced in a cage, while donning African beads and a flesh-colored suit. The original five-year contract Baartman signed guaranteed her a percentage of the profits, as well as a return to South Africa once it expired.
But Baartman never returned home alive or received her earned share of money.
Rachel Holmes, author of The Hottentot Venus: The life and death of Saartjie Baartman, told the New York Times that Baartman was “a symbol of the alienation and degradations of colonization, lost children, exile, the expropriation of female labor and the sexual and economic exploitation of black women by men, white and black.”
Abolitionists were unsuccessful in the fight to free Baartman, but they were able to secure a better contract for her. She earned warmer clothes, better wages, and safer conditions, according to Holmes.
Still, Baartman continued to be exploited. She was sold to a cruel man named Réaux who transported her to France in September 1814. He forced her to perform in cages with animals, pose like a circus animal, and wear a loincloth instead of the flesh-colored suit that she wore in London.
Further treating her like an animal, Réaux allowed zoologists, physiologists, and other scientists to examine and study Baartman’s body. Naturalist George Cuvier experimented on Baartman while she was still alive to find a link between animals and humans. He concluded that black people were inferior to white people based on his experiments.
During this time, Baartman became ill and developed an alcohol addiction.
In December 1816, Baartman died at the age of 26. Her cause of death is still unknown, though Holmes speculates that alcoholism contributed to her sudden decline. What is known, however, is that death did not provide an escape from her mistreatment.
Cuvier dissected Baartman’s corpse, removing her brains and genitals to pickle them in jars. He then encased her body in plaster in order to preserve her shape, and sold her remains to France’s Museum of Man, where she was displayed until 1974.
After Nelson Mandela won the South African election in 1994, he petitioned the French government to remove Baartman from the museum and return her body to South Africa for a proper burial. It took eight years, but in March 2002, Baartman's remains were returned to Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. She was buried in August of that year.
Though she died almost 200 years ago, Baartman's story still resonates, especially among black feminist scholars.
Jennifer Christine Nash, an assistant professor of American studies at George Washington University, found a connection between the perceived sexual deviance of black women and the scientific obsession with Baartman’s buttocks.
“Baartman became a symbol of a symbol, the primary metaphor for imagined racial and sexual difference,” Nash wrote. Her butt was literally considered evidence of “aberrant sexuality,” she added.
As gruesome as Baartman's story is, the true horror is that she was only one of thousands of African women who experienced similar terror in the 19th century. These women were removed from their homelands, stripped of any agency, and forced into subservience.
Given Beyoncé's prominence, it's understandable why she was a person of interest in bringing Baartman's story to mainstream media.
After the singer's surprise release of her fifth album, Beyoncé, Bill O'Reilly said that her clothing encourages teenage pregnancy. She has been criticized for her clothes, sexuality, and videos. As a black woman, Beyoncé is no stranger to being denigrated in the media, but she has control over her image in ways Baartman never did.
She's been named the "World's Most Beautiful Woman" by People Magazine, and has light skin and signature blonde tresses. Had she starred in the film as Baartman, Beyoncé might have employed the techniques Zoe Saldana was criticized for in the Nina biopic: using makeup and what some deemed blackface to get darker skin, a wider nose, and a larger posterior.
These methods would have been a disservice to Baartman's legacy. Her physical appearance is exactly why she was abused, and it would be vital to tell her story accurately and authentically.
If we don’t learn Baartman's story, we’ll be apt to forget her.
Bringing her into mainstream discussions is important, but maybe it's a good thing Beyoncé won't be the one to play her.