“They have big butts, that’s the joke,” Ellen DeGeneres said after showing “a very exclusive sneak peek” of the upcoming ABC Family sitcom of Nicki Minaj’s early life in Queens.
The sketch features a young Nicki and her parents who all have huge backsides that knock over plates and lamps as they walk around the house.
This sketch shocked viewers since it’s so unlike Ellen to have anything controversial on her show, and given Nicki and Ellen’s friendship— onscreen at least— did Ellen intend to be offensive? Or is it all in good humour?
In the past when Nicki was on the show, Ellen teased her about her physicality. One time, Ellen put on a pair of large prosthetic buttocks and parodied herself in Nicki’s music video Anaconda. To which, Nicki responded by calling Ellen “hilarious”. And a month after Nicki came onto the show exposing her the bottom areas of her breasts, Ellen donned the same outfit and pairs of large prosthetic buttocks and breasts dressed as Nicki for Halloween.
Given their onscreen friendship and Nicki’s reaction, it seems like Nicki is in on the joke and feels comfortable that Ellen’s portrayal of her focuses on exaggerating her physical features.
However, this isn’t a private joke between two friends because it was broadcasted on national television, which brought on a discussion of race and gender and the representation of the black female body in culture and media. Many people took to Twitter calling Ellen’s sketch “lazy and tasteless at best, racist and a modern day minstrel show at worst” and “extraordinarily offensive”.
These Tweeters have a point. Ellen’s production team may have created the parody without meaning to offend anyone, but once anything goes public, it’s taken into historical and social context.
The context reveals a popular, white television host presented her predominantly white, middle-class audience with a clip that others the bodies of African-Americans.
It’s a race issue due to the history of white Europeans who colonized African countries and fetishized black women’s bodies. One famous example is Sarah Baartman, a South African Khoisan woman, who was taken from her country and exhibited in the nude as a sensation for her large buttocks and breasts from 1810 to 1815 in England and France.
After her death, Baartman’s objectification continued in Europe’s popular press as a caricature. One illustration shows Baartman barely dressed, adorned in war paint and holding a spear, as two European men gaze and discuss her “pair of broad bottoms” as the caption reads on the lithograph.
This image is evidence of how, under colonial domination and possession, white Western Europeans viewed the black body as primitive and abnormally developed. And Ellen’s sketch evokes this memory of a white audience viewing and laughing at black features.
Ellen’s sketch perpetuates racism because it contributes to negative stereotypes of the black female body in popular visual culture, which negatively affect black women in society.
It’s unjust to continue this narrative of black women as over-developed and oversexed beings as our culture and media play on the synecdoche of the black buttocks, standing for hypersexual black women.
Ellen’s sketch holds back black women from claiming the narrative of their bodies, since other people are still deciding what their bodies represent.
What may have started as a joke can’t simply be a joke taken out context, as the colonial representation of the black female body is still identifiable and harmful to black women in the 21st century.
Not looking critically at the context and interplay of issues behind this joke would mean that we are unwittingly buying and promoting a colonial injustice to black women.
To criticize Ellen’s parody is to recognize the harm of colonial injustice that still determines how black women are being seen and treated. To criticize is to start a conversation and take a step toward fixing the negative, stereotypical misrepresentation of the black female body in our popular culture.