By Ayana Byrd
When “12 Years a Slave” was released in October, Time magazine wanted to go that extra step. Instead of a review or a 300-word treatise on how this was the hardest and the best film they had ever seen, the publication decided to get tough in an online piece called “The True Story of ‘12 Years a Slave.’” It promised to “break down what’s fact—and fiction—in the new movie about slavery in the antebellum South.” And so writer Eliana Docterman did just that, summarizing key plot points and labeling them as “fiction,” “fact” or “mostly fact” based on the memoir written by Solomon Northup. Only two moments are written off as fiction, one involving the cause of death of another man on the ship that took Northup to the South (he did die, but not in the way the film said). The other fictional flight of fancy, according to Time, was the plantation owner’s wife’s violence against an enslaved woman Patsy.
In actuality, Northup did detail this abuse in his book; it was not added by screenwriters who wanted to garner more sympathy for Patsy or outrage against Mary Epps. And yet, even though all they had to do was flip through the pages of the memoir, Time instead implied that in real life the body of a (black) woman would not be enough of a threat to drive this (white) woman to violence. Ignoring commenters who let them know—repeatedly—that they were wrong, the site did not add an update or correction to the article. Patsy’s abuse at the hands of the wife of the man who owned her by law and raped her without remorse is still officially listed as “fiction.”
It is a fitting reminder of the continued collusion of the mainstream media and other sources to label the crimes visited upon black women’s bodies as either “fiction” (because, the argument goes, she was being too sensitive) or “mostly fiction” (she was exaggerating, it wasn’t that bad) or, in a category Time could have also used, “legally justifiable.”
In years past, a look back on the ways black women and girls’ bodies were misused and assaulted would be able to focus heavily on pop culture. And while 2013 is not without its examples, they are far from the real problem. Miley Cyrus’s video and MTV Awards performance of “We Can’t Stop” were poorly choreographed reminders of the music industry’s shameless dependence on black female bodies to sell records and get much-desired street cred. And Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video is guilty of an astounding lack of introspection. The clip, which satirizes Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop,” doesn’t account for the fact that it is not ethical or even ironic hipster cool to critique men’s sexist treatment of women while using ass-shaking, crotch-grabbing black women as props. But neither Cyrus nor Allen was original, as much as they both believe themselves to be. And at the end of the day, their dancers went home with a check and the rest of us could focus on the real issue at hand: how 2013 emphasized how black women’s bodies are becoming synonymous with danger that must be stopped or controlled.
Read More Black Women and the Body Police – COLORLINES.