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Tackling Multi-Faced Racial Fetishism

For many decades the word “racism” and “fetishism” evoked negative sensations and connotations due to well-known factors. These delicate topics were never something to be easily dealt with. Nowadays we observe the reverse. Not that they are approved of, they are clashed together to reveal an interesting but nonetheless frightening combination of ‘racial fetishism’.

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Both born in Africa and highly perceptive to universal issues, now acknowledged academics, Kobena Mercer and Anne McClintock have made a significant contribution to the apprehension of fetishism at large and racial fetishism in particular. Highly complimented, their books look deep into the core of this phenomenon, trying to define the motive forces behind racial fetishism, to analyze and advance the comprehension of it. Indeed, they approach the issue from different angles: Kobena Mercer specializes in the study of the works of artist Robert Mapplethorpe, whereas Anne McClintock has made research on Victorian soap advertisements. This work resulted in two books Reading Racial Fetishism and Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising correspondingly.

Let’s now take a closer look at these writings and try to single out the key elements the authors concentrate on, to identify the similarities and the discrepancies.

At first, it is essential to define the notion of fetishism and fetish. Anne McClintock tries to supply the reader with various definitions of fetish, providing Freud’s definition from psychoanalysis who see a fetish as “a non-sexual part of the body or an object that, for a fetishist, is highly charged with sexual energy”, her own viewpoint of fetishistic British and the colonized countries, who worshiped inanimate objects endowed with magical powers (anne 13-20). According to Marks’ theory fetish is a commodity a person gets for their work, though he argues that the value of commodity, i.e. fetish, is implemented in it and doesn’t depend on the work as such (McClintock 21-23).

Anne McClintock states that in imperial Britain the advertisers posed themselves as a means that stimulate the Empire’s expansion all over the world and captures it to posterity. Not surprisingly, they resorted to various ways to encourage consumption within the country as well as outside the borders. Thus, they appealed to the viewer’s and potential purchaser’s ‘nationalist feeling’, providing the royal associations in the advertisements of soap and other goods, royal symbols of Britain, increasing the ‘feeling of superiority’ of Britain (McClintock 30).

What’s more, the imperial soap advertisements endowed the soap with magical powers and thereby making it a fetish transmitting the idea of purity, not only in its direct meaning but the purity of labor, environmental and social purity, racial, moral and ethical purity. An advertisement depicting a white child reproaching a black child for his dirtiness or trying to clean him, beyond all doubt with ‘the best soap’, was a common case in imperial Britain (McClintock 38-43).

As for Kobena Mercer’s view on Robert Mapplethorpe’s fetishistic photos, in his book the researcher singles out three main objects of artist’s fetishes: flowers, Sado Mazo, and the nude black people. This is for sure not the only fetishistic topic of Mapplethorpe’s work, but the ones that disclose the core motives and intentions.

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It goes without saying that the first look you take on these pictures you can’t take your eyes off them. They are intercrossed with partially explicit sexual and racial motives aimed at tickling your nerves thought very thought-provoking and provocative.

The photos of black men uncover the way the white guy looks at them having sexual fantasies of a male black body and so present people as fetish, the same as with flowers and gay sado mazo men.

Kobena Mercer highlights the ambivalence of Mapplethorpe’s works and his rippling “between sexual idealization of the racial other and anxiety in defense of the identity of the white male ego” (Mercer180). Following this principle, Kobena Mercer distinguishes ‘3 representational poses’ of Mapplethorpe’s photos of black men: the sculptural code, the code of portraiture, the code of cropping and lightning (Mercer 180). Among all these codes the pattern “nude, black and aesthetically beautiful” is traced.

In the first code, black models are sitting for the pictures as the ancient statues of Greek gods displaying the gorgeous fit body and muscles and so reinforcing the established stereotype of black sports heroes adding an erotic background to it. However, as well as in imperial soap advertisements, the black men are raised high above the white people only to show the blacks as ‘the threat to the white society’.

It’s worth mentioning that similar to the advertisers of soap in the British Empire Robert Mapplethorpe operate the inner inclinations and stereotypes of the audience. However, while the white colonizers explicitly expressed racism towards black people Mapplethorpe “gets lost in admiration” to them. As it can be easily seen he substitutes “the nude (white) female body, the conventional subject for depicting beautiful things in the History of Art for a black nude male body shifting the priorities and shaking the stereotypes (Mercer 435).

As opposed to black men in the imperial soap advertisements, totally belittled and depicted as a contrast to white “clean” people, the black nude men in Mapplethorpe’s works are presented as the bearer of pure sexuality, which according to the author is the essence of the black people (Mercer 221).

In other words, Mapplethorpe aims at “regulating and fixing commonplace racial stereotypes and the process of erotic objectification in which the black man’s flesh becomes burdened with the task of symbolizing the transgressive fantasies and desires of the white gay male subject” (Mercer 179).

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This draws us to the conclusion that these two perceptions of racial fetishism is similar in that they both handle the fetishes of black and white people and the correlation between them. Contrary to imperial advertisements which swept half the world carrying the idea of racism at the scale that never has been seen before and representing the black as denigrated, the fetishism in Mapplethorpe’s works present the black people as a beautiful object.

Works Cited

McClintock, Anne. Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising. Routledge, 1995.

Mercer, Kobena. Reading Racial Fetishism. New York: Cornell University Press: New York, 1993.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Tackling Multi-Faced Racial Fetishism." December 17, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Tackling Multi-Faced Racial Fetishism'. 17 December.

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