Black Venus

Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French

Black Venus

Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: 5 photographs, 1 table Published: May 1999

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

Black Venus is a feminist study of the representations of black women in the literary, cultural, and scientific imagination of nineteenth-century France. Employing psychoanalysis, feminist film theory, and the critical race theory articulated in the works of Frantz Fanon and Toni Morrison, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting argues that black women historically invoked both desire and primal fear in French men. By inspiring repulsion, attraction, and anxiety, they gave rise in the nineteenth-century French male imagination to the primitive narrative of Black Venus.
The book opens with an exploration of scientific discourse on black females, using Sarah Bartmann, the so-called Hottentot Venus, and natural scientist Georges Cuvier as points of departure. To further show how the image of a savage was projected onto the bodies of black women, Sharpley-Whiting moves into popular culture with an analysis of an 1814 vaudeville caricature of Bartmann, then shifts onto the terrain of canonical French literature and colonial cinema, exploring the representation of black women by Baudelaire, Balzac, Zola, Maupassant, and Loti. After venturing into twentieth-century film with an analysis of Josephine Baker’s popular Princesse Tam Tam, the study concludes with a discussion of how black Francophone women writers and activists countered stereotypical representations of black female bodies during this period. A first-time translation of the vaudeville show The Hottentot Venus, or Hatred of Frenchwomen supplements this critique of the French male gaze of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Both intellectually rigorous and culturally intriguing, this study will appeal to students and scholars in the fields of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French literature, feminist and gender studies, black studies, and cultural studies.


Black Venus presents some intriguing material and suggests a number of fascinating connections. . . .” — Jennifer N. Heuer , Journal of the History of Sexuality

Black Venus represents a significant addition to the growing collection of studies of the production of alterity in European discourses. In an eloquent yet admirably concise manner, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting covers a vast swath of cultural production, from French nineteenth-century vaudeville theater, cartoons, and novels to twentieth-century exotic revues, colonialist film, and postcolonial novels in order to describe and subvert the racist Hottentot Venus narrative.” — Lisa McNee , Research in African Literatures

“[A] much-needed contribution to nineteenth- and twentieth-century French cultural and literary studies. . . . In addition to examining brilliantly the creation and perpetuation of the image of a Black Venus in French cultural imagination, this study is effective in the understanding of contemporary literature by Black Francophone women writers.” — Chantal Kalisa , Nineteenth-Century French Studies

“Represents a significant illustration of and contribution to the debate about the ways cultural, national, and racial identities and systems of identification can/are constructed. It is a sound tool, an intellectually stimulating medium for the well-seasoned or lay person in French, cultural, or women’s studies looking to, among other things, expand, nuance, solidify his/her understanding of culture in its complexities.” — Opportune Zongo, Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

“Sharpley-Whiting sets out to examine sexualized male narratives of the nineteenth century in France, in terms of the cultural, literary, and scientific representations of the black African woman. She seeks to examine their cultural and psychological importance, how they have produced racist-sexist ideologies, images, and institutions that serve to affirm and strengthen patriarchal dominance. . . . Theoretical studies of black women in France are few and far between. . . [and Sharpley-Whiting offers] some insights and interesting new material.” — John Erickson , L’Esprit Créateur

“This is a rigorous work, both engaging in its readability and impressive in its willingness to extend its feminist critique beyond the limits of canonical literature.” — Katherine Gantz , Antioch Review

"If the chapters in this book are short, the advantage of this approach is that it allows Sharpley-Whting to cover a lot of territory and make more compelling her argument for the widespread nature of the Black Venus stereotype . . . . [Black Venus] will . . . be of significant assistance to those teaching the texts Sharpley-Whiting discusses . . . . We are . . . indebted to Sharpley-Whiting for drawing our attention to the significant role that African women have played in the French cultural imaginary and for assembling an important collection of documentary materials that evince it."

— Rebecca Saunders , Hypatia

“A cogently argued study of representations of black women in French literature. In locating the Black Venus and the ideologies surrounding and informing her representations at the center of literary and cultural narratives, this book makes significant interventions in nineteenth-century French studies and current race and gender studies.” — Thadious M. Davis, Vanderbilt University

“Intellectually rigorous, extremely well written, and solidly arguing against the dated French (and European) conceptualizations of black female sexuality. What a refreshing and much needed addition!” — Marjorie Attignol Salvodon, Connecticut College


Availability: In stock
Price: $24.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting is Associate Professor of French, Film Studies, Comparative Literature, and African American Studies at Purdue University. She is the author of Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms and coeditor of Spoils of War: Women of Color, Cultures, and Revolutions and Fanon: A Critical Reader.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Theorizing Black Venus 1

Writing Sex, Writing DIfference: Creating the Master Text on the Hottentot Venus 16

Representing Sarah- Same Difference or No Difference at All? La Vénus hottentote, ou haine au Françaises 32

"The Other Woman": Reading a Body of Difference in Balzac's La Fille aux Yeux d'or 42

Black Blood, White Masks, and Négresse Sexuality in de Pon's Ourika, l'Africaine 52

Black Is the Difference: Identity, Colonialism, and Fetishism in La Belle Dorothée 62

Desirous and Dangerous Imaginations:: The Black Female Body and the Courtesan in Zola's Thérèse Raquin 71

Can a White Man Love a Black Woman? Perversions of Love beyond the Plae in Maupassant's "Boitelle" 86

Bamboulas, Bacchanals, and Dark Veils over Whtie Memories in Loti's Le Roman d'un spahi 91

Cinematic Venus in the Africanist Orient 105

Epilogue 119

Appendix: The Hottentot Venus, or Hatred of Frenchwomen 127

Notes 165

Works Cited 177

Index 185
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2340-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2307-5
Publicity material