Who Is Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” and Why Would Beyoncé Want to Play Her in a Film?

Yesterday it was reported that Beyoncé, one of the biggest pop stars in the world, has her eyes on a new project. According to the report, she wants to write and direct an adaptation of the story of Saartjie “Sara” Baartman, a South African woman with prominent physical features that led to her being displayed in freak shows in London and Paris, and who for many represented Europe’s view of Africans as sexually savage and racially inferior. 

So who was Sara Baartman? By most accounts, she was a woman born in 1789 in South Africa, of the Khoikhoi tribe. Many Khoikhoi women had what is known as steatopygia, a buildup of tissue on the buttocks and thighs that makes for a dramatically curvy shape. Many Khoi women also possessed elongated labia minora (sometimes referred to by Europeans as the “Hottentot Apron”) that would hang as low as four inches from their vulva. She was married, but by the time she exited her teens, her father was dead and her husband murdered, and she was sold to a black master named Cezar. Fascinated by her shape, he conspired with a British doctor to smuggle her into London, where she would be put on display in Piccadilly for Londoners to gawk at.

The arrangement was supposed to consensual — presented with the decision of returning to Africa to be a servant or remaining in Europe, where she received limited wages and freedoms, Baartman supposedly chose Europe. She testified to as much when European abolitionists made her exploitation a cause célèbre and her case was brought to court. Eventually she made her way to Paris, where she was sold to a man who exhibited animals. She was never displayed fully in the nude, resisting exhibiting her genitals despite her masters’ fascination for as long as she lived. But even that taboo was broken when she died at 26, broken and suffering from alcoholism. Her body was dissected, and certain parts — including her brain and her genitals — were displayed after her death.

Baartman’s story is a tragic tale of colonialism, and one of the more egregious examples of the West’s exploitation of black women’s bodies. Her body had value because it was considered exotic, like any other animal housed in a cage at the zoo. Baartman was likely the first African woman many Londoners had ever seen, and the circus display helped reinforce their ignorant notions of Africans’ inferiority and savagery.

Initial reports of Beyoncé’s involvement in the project have been refuted, but even if she were involved, she wouldn’t be the first woman to play Baartman on film, just the most high-profile. Considering Baartman’s history of exploitation by men, though, it would be quite interesting to see her story told by such an influential black woman, one who capitalizes on her own sexuality with an agency that Baartman could only have dreamed of. If nothing else, and with or without Beyoncé’s participation, the film should spark conversation, particularly in light of the lines that can be drawn between Baartman’s exploitation and the way Western culture treats black women today. Just look at any handful of contemporary rap videos, and see which part of the women’s bodies gets the most screen time. (Hint: It’s not their faces.) The reduction of black women’s humanity to a projection of male sexual desire is ongoing.

Update: Billboard has confirmed with Beyoncé’s representative that she is “in no way tied to this project,” though it “is an important story that should be told.”