This history lesson via video has been making its way around the Internet quite a bit over the past week or so. The case is a sad one for sure. A woman was taken from her homeland. After being taken from her homeland she was transported to a distant and unfamiliar land. In this distant and unfamiliar land, she was made a public and medical spectacle due to innate physical traits including her skin color. The novelty of her physical traits to a European public was used as justification for slavery and a bevy of other racist practices due to the perceived inferiority and non-humanity of those of her race.
All this is true, angering, and inexcusable. However, comparing the story of “Sarah Baartman” to video vixens of today is inaccurate and ignores major differences between the predicaments of “Sarah Baartman” and those of ladies who are in music videos today.
Firstly, there is the issue of consent. Whereas “Sarah” was taken from her homeland through, at best, coercion and, at worst, outright kidnapping video vixens have given their consent to participate in music videos. They are not the slaves of an invading Dutch colonial class. For a variety of reasons young ladies today choose to dance, model, or act in music videos.
Secondly, there is the issue of professional treatment. “Sarah” was literally treated like an animal. Displayed in cages at human zoos, poked and prodded by medical personnel and operated on even after her death. She was not regarded as a professional employee. Video vixens are treated highly differently in that they are not only often displayed in luxurious surroundings (nightclub VIP sections, poolside, on beaches, in luxury cars, etc.), they are given trailers to relax in while on video shoots, and employed for a finite time–not indefinitely.
Thirdly, there is the issue of compensation. “Sarah Baartman” was not compensated for the job she performed. As a slave, this was not even in the question and if anyone was compensated for her troubles it was either her owner or the doctor who first noticed her in southern Africa and devised the idea to bring her to Europe for continued exploitation. On the low end, up and coming models make a few hundred dollars a day though established video vixens can command up to $5000 for a video shoot. Supermodels or A-list actresses who decided to get in front of the lens of a music video can make even more–upwards of $15,000 a day.
Finally, there is the issue of leverage. “Sarah” did not transition into any career after her time in Europe. She died there from European diseases around the age of 26. She did not support her family with her work nor use it as a springboard to follow her actual life pursuits. Video vixens such as Karrine Steffans have become best-selling authors. Melyssa Ford has transitioned into an acting career in television and film. Jennifer Lopez, rarely thought of as a video vixen, is now arguably the most influential Latina in the world and amongst the wealthiest. Each have transitioned into better-paying and more highly regarded field despite their career launchpads in rap and R&B videos.
To be clear, I find it sad and disappointing that so many young ladies who aspire to enter the entertainment business do so through these means. I’m not a female but I imagine that it is a demeaning profession and that the compensation they derive is paltry in comparison to the short and long-term damage to themselves and other women as a group. Aforementioned video vixens Karrine Steffans and Melyssa Ford are now strong critics of the profession. However, let us recognize the difference between those situations and the situation that “Sarah” found herself in for the her far too short life.
* Quotation marks added due to her original, Khoisian name being unknown.