Today when we turn on the television, most of the black women we see are the life-size examples of two stereotypes that are centuries old: the mammy and the jezebel. The mammy stereotype, which satiates the antebellum hope that blacks were content with their enslavement, boils down to the following characteristics: overweight, dark-skinned, cacophonic (often growling angrily more than speaking when addressing her own children), a faithful servant to the white family, a form of comic relief, and completely void of any sexuality. On the other hand, often used in order to justify the sexual subjugation of black women, was the stereotype of the jezebel. The jezebel is often portrayed as young, half-naked, light- to medium-brown in skin tone, lustful, and while not completely content with her situation as a slave, easily appeased by way of sexual activity. Jezebel was a threat to the stability of white family, but often met a tragic end to remind us of the dangers of challenging the status quo even with our own bodies. Sitcoms, films, and music videos revive these slavery-era caricatures of black women all the time, sometimes with simple allusions and other times with blatant accuracy.
Naomi Campbell, in my opinion, makes for an interesting case study in that she exists somewhat as a combination of the two stereotypes, but simultaneously defies them. On the one hand, she is viewed as the typical "angry black woman." She fights without provocation, she's demanding, and has a take-no-prisoners attitude toward even the most insignificant of daily activities. Yet why should she expect anything less? She is a supermodel, after all, and much like other celebrities, Naomi may feel she has the right to behave in the manner that she does because of her position in society. In that sense, Naomi challenges a general public that usually tries to silence the "angry black woman" by reminding them that she is fabulous.
On the other hand, Naomi is bona-fide sex symbol. Her romantic relationships cross time zones, she posed nude for Playboy and for Madonna's book Sex, and starred in several music videos as the sexy love interest. Yet in being a sex symbol at all, particularly in the fashion world, Naomi defies a lot of boundaries set up for people who look like her. She has dark skin, which is still not recognized as beautiful by a media that seems to have forgotten that black women, besides those with caramel skin tones, exist. She breaks up this public amnesia with her presence, signified by her remark in a 2003 Essence Magazine interview: "My features are completely ethnic, and I'm proud of them." It's clear that others agree, as the British-born beauty of Jamaican descent was the first black cover girl of French, British, and Japanese publications of Vogue, the first black model on the cover of Time Magazine, and the first celebrity to endorse the Milk Moustache campaign. She has continued to have a solid career, despite her being "old" for the fashion industry at 36, and in a time when you can count more ribs on models than the figures in their salaries, she retains a healthy physical appearance.
While notorious for frequent disputes with her modeling agencies, many of which are often dissatisfied with her behavior, Naomi remains a popular image of black beauty on the international stage and has no trouble finding jobs because the public can't get enough of her. As one of the great sex symbols on the nineties and through the millennium, she never allowed herself to be objectified. She was not just another beautiful girl, and she certainly makes no apologies for existing as a sexual being. However, much like Josephine Baker, another powerful black woman with an interesting international reputation, she managed to balance her sexy image with philanthropic efforts ( i.e. her participation in campaigns for Hurricane Katrina relief and aid to Sub-Saharan African countries) and unrivaled self-assurance. Naomi always seemed to be a woman in complete control of herself.
So when people ask me why I like Naomi Campbell, I am not ashamed to admit it. I think that if you scratch beneath the surface, Naomi shows us that you can be black, beautiful, and get your way at the same time, and I find that message alone to be enough of an answer for young black girls who lack confidence because they see so few images of themselves in the media. So maybe next time we should re-think wearing that "Naomi Hit Me" shirt, and give the woman the credit she is due.
For more about Naomi, check out her site: www.naomicampbell.com