King Kong and the White Woman: Hustler Magazine and the Demonization of Black Masculinity
Published in Journal of Violence Against Women, 1998, Vol. 4 No 3, (291-307)
by Gail Dines
From the box office success of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to the national obsession with O.J. Simpson, the image of the black male as the spoiler of white womanhood has been a staple of media representation in this country. The demonization by the media of black men as rapists and murderers has been well documented by scholars interested in film (Carby, 1993; Guerrero, 1993; Mercer, 1994; Snead, 1994; Wiegman, 1993; Winston, 1982), news (Entman, 1990; Gray, 1989) and rap music (Dyson, 1993; Rose, 1994). While this image stands in sharp contrast to the feminized “Uncle Tom” which was popular in early Hollywood films, both images serve to define black men as outside the “normal” realm of (white) masculinity by constructing them as “other” (Wiegman, 1993). Although both the “Uncle Tom” and the sexual monster continue to define the limits of black male representation in mainstream media, it is the latter image which dominates, and, according to Mercer (1994), serves to legitimize racist practices such as mass incarceration of black men, police brutality and right-wing government policy.
Recently, scholars have turned their attention to pornography (Cowan & Campbell, 1994; Forna, 1992; Mayall amd Russell, 1993; Mercer, 1994) and specifically how the codes and conventions of this genre (re)construct the black male body, especially the penis, as dangerous and a threat to white male power. The focus of this research tends to be poorly produced, hard-core pornography movies which are relegated to the shelves of “adult-only” stores because of their close-up shots of erect penises, ejaculation and vaginal, anal and oral penetration. What tends to be ignored in these studies is the content of the mass-produced, mass-circulated pornography magazines which, because they can be purchased in bookstores, news stands and airport terminals, have a much larger circulation.
Of the hundreds of mass-produced, mass-distributed pornography magazines the three best sellers are Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler (Osanka, 1989). While these three magazines are often lumped together they differ markedly in the type of world they construct. Playboy and Penthouse, in their pictorials, cartoons, advertisements and editorials depict a “whites-only” world, a world so affluent and privileged that blacks are excluded by invisible market forces. Indeed, even the white working-class is invisible in the Playboy world of expensive clothes, gourmet restaurants and well appointed homes. Hustler however, in its pictorials, beaver hunts (explicit snapshots of readers’ wives and girlfriends), advertisements and editorials, constructs a world populated by working-class whites who live in trailer homes, eat in fast-food restaurants and wear ill-fitting clothes. While blacks are absent from most sections of the magazine, they appear regularly in caricatured form in the cartoons where they are depicted as competing with white men for the few sexually available white women. Hustler cartoons depict a world filled with seething racial tensions brought about by the black male’s alleged insatiable appetite for white women. The competition between black and white men and the ultimate victory of the black male is the source of much “humor” in Hustler cartoons and serves to visually illustrate to the mainly white, working-class male readership, what happens if black masculinity is allowed to go uncontained. Hustler is by no means the first mass-distributed media to visually depict the ultimate white fear; indeed, The Birth of A Nation and King Kong (1933) played similar roles only this time in Hustler, it is the white man who loses, as evidenced in his failure to win back the “girl.” This article will examine how Hustler draws from past regimes of racial representation and articulates a more contemporary myth where black masculinity, having been allowed to run amok because of liberal policies, has finally rendered white men impotent, both sexually and economically.
From “The Birth of A Nation” to “Black Studs”
Theorists such as Wiegman (1993) and Snead (1994) have traced the beginnings of the image of the black man as sexual monster back to the late nineteenth century, as the product of a white supremacist ideology which saw the end of slavery as bringing about an unleashing of animalistic, brute violence inherent in African-American men. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), was, without question, the first major mass circulation of this image in film and was to become the blueprint for how contemporary mass media depicts black males.
The notion of the black male as sexual monster has been linked to the economic vulnerability that white working-class men feel in the face of a capitalist economy over which they have little power. Guerrero (1993), in his discussion of the emergence of this new stereotype in the novels of Thomas Dixon, suggests that the economic turmoil of the postbellum South served to undermine the white southern male’s role as provider for his family; thus he sought to inflate his depreciated sense of manhood by taking up the honorific task of protecting White Womanhood against the newly constructed specter of the “brute Negro” (p. 12).
This encoding of the economic threat within a sexual context, is, according to Snead (1994), the principal mechanism of cinematic racism and is one of the subplots of the enormously successful King Kong movie (re-named King Kong and the White Women in Germany). Arguing that “in all Hollywood film portrayals of blacks … the political is never far from the sexual” Snead links the image of King-Kong rampaging through the streets of Manhattan with a defenseless white woman clutched to his body to the increasing economic emasculation of white men in the Depression years and the growing fear that black migration from the South had reduced the number of jobs available to working-class whites. King Kong’s death at the end of the movie remasculinizes the white man, not only by his conquering of the black menace but also by regaining the woman. In this way, representations of black men and white men are not isolated images working independently but rather “correlate … in a larger scheme of semiotic valuation” (Snead, 1994: 4). Thus, the image of the black male as sexual savage serves to construct white male sexuality as the protector of white womanhood, as contained and, importantly, as capable of intimacy and humanity.
In her analysis of black and white masculinity in Hollywood movies, Jones (1993), argues that although black and white actors are increasingly portrayed in terms of a violent masculinity, for white actors this violence is tempered by his sexually intimate scenes with a white woman. These scenes assures the audience that for all his violence, the white male is still capable of bonding with another human being and of forming relationships. For black actors, however, this humanizing quality is absent and thus he can only be defined in terms of his violence. The problem with these types of representations is that, according to Jones, “they suggest that there are fundamental differences in the sexual behavior of black males and white males and are ultimately indicative of the psychic inferiority of the black male” (1993: 250), and the superiority of white masculinity.
Hard-core pornography similarly depicts black men as more sexually dehumanized than white men. This would seem surprising since in pornography all participants, men and women, are reduced to a series of body parts and orifices. However, studies that compare the representation of white men and black men in pornography (Cowan & Campbell, 1994; Mayall amd Russell, 1993), have found that it is black male characters who are granted the least humanity and are most lacking in ability to be intimate. Moreover, in movies and magazines which feature black men, the focus of the camera and plot is often the size of his penis and his alleged insatiable sexual appetite for white women. Movies with titles such as Big Bad Black Dicks, Black Stallions on Top, Black PricksWhite Pussy, and Black Studs, draw attention to the black male body and in particular the penis, a rare occurrence in pornography targeted at heterosexual men. Movies such as The Adventures of Mr. Tootsie Pole (Bo Entertainment Groups) feature a black male and white female on the cover. The text beneath the picture says “he’s puttin his prodigious pole to the test in tight white pussy.” In Black Studs (Glitz Entertainment), three white women are shown having sex with three Black men. Above the pictures, the text reads, “These girls can’t get enough of that long black dick.” The penis becomes the defining feature of the black man and his wholeness as a human being is thus rendered invisible.
The image of the black male as sexually aggressive is a regular cartoon feature in Hustler, one of the best-selling hard-core porn magazines in the world (Osanka, 1989). Cartoons which have as their theme the sexual abuse of white women by black men began appearing in the late 1970s and by the mid-1980s, Hustler was running an average of 2-3 such cartoons an issue. Hustler was by no means the first to produce such as image but it is probably the first mass-distributed cultural product (albeit in caricatured form) to visually depict an enormous black penis actually doing severe physical damage to the vagina of a small white women.
That these types of images have been marginalized in the debate on pornography is problematic, especially in light of the international success of Hustler magazine. Much of the analysis of pornography has focused on the ways in which the text works as a regime of representation to construct femininity and masculinity as binary opposites. This type of theorizing assumes a gender system which is race-neutral, an assumption which cannot be sustained in a country where “gender has proven to be a powerful means through which racial difference has historically been defined and coded” (Wiegman, 1993: 170). From the image of the black woman as Jezebel, to the black male as savage, mainstream white representations of blacks have coded black sexuality as deviant, excessive and a threat to the white social order. In Hustler sex cartoons, this threat is articulated par excellence in caricatured form and serves to reaffirm the racist myth that failure to contain black masculinity results in a breakdown of the economic and social fabric of white society.
“Fuck You if you can’t take a Joke”: Marketing the Hustler Cartoon
In the history of American mass media, cartoons have been a major form for the production and reproduction of racist myths. From the prestigious Harper’s Weekly of the late 1900s to contemporary Disney cartoons, blacks have been caricatured as savages, animals and lazy servants. Cartoons, with their claim to humor, have been especially useful vehicles for the expression of racist sentiments which might otherwise be considered unacceptable in a more serious form. Indeed, in his award-winning documentary, Ethnic Notions (1987), Marlon Riggs shows how the cartoon image of blacks has changed little from the beginning of the century to more contemporary versions while other media forms were forced, in the post-civil rights era, to encode the racist myths in a more subtle manner.
The Hustler cartoons, which have as their theme the black male as spoiler of white womanhood, is an outgrowth of the portrait caricature which originated in Italy at the end of the sixteenth century. These portrait caricatures with their distinctive technique of “the deliberate distortion of the features of a person for the purpose of mockery” (Gombrich, 1963: 189), became very popular across Europe and were adapted in the middle of the nineteenth century by cartoonists who used similar methods of distortion against anonymous members of recognizable social groups rather than well known individuals. Gombrich (1963), in his celebrated essay on caricatures, argues that the power of this visual technique is that the distorted features come to stand as symbols of the group and are thought to say something about the “essential nature” of the group as a whole. The black male cartoon character in Hustler is caricatured to the point that his penis becomes the symbol of black masculinity and his body the carrier of the essential nature of black inferiority.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the only place where blacks appear with any regularity in Hustler is the cartoon. To depict black men as reducible to their penis in the more “serious” sections of the magazine might open Hustler up to charges of racism as well as the regular criticisms it receives from women’s groups regarding the openly misogynist content. Indeed, the cartoon has become the only place where Hustler’s claim to being the most “outrageous and provocative” (Hustler, July, 1984: 9) sex and satire magazine on the shelves is realized. Although Larry Flynt (publisher and editor of Hustler) regularly criticizes Playboy and Penthouse for being too “soft” and for “masquerading the pornography as art ….” (Flynt, November, 1983: 5), Hustler’s own pictorials tend to adopt the more soft-core codes and conventions (young, big breasted women bending over to give the presumed male spectator a clear view of her genitals and breasts), than the hard-core ones which specialize in rape, torture, bondage, bestiality, defecation and incest.However, in the cartoons these hard-core themes appear regularly, together with cartoons which focus on leaking and bad-smelling vaginas, exploding penises, impotent penises, disembodied corpses, bloody body parts being used as masturbation tools, and depictions of black men raping, mutilating and pimping white women.
One of the main reasons for the hard-core content of the cartoons is that Hustler has to be careful not to alienate its mainstream distributors with pictorials or articles that might be classed as too hard-core and thus relegated to the porn-shops, a move which would severely limit its sales (Hustler’s success is mainly due to its ability to gain access to mass distribution outlets in the states and Europe). On the other hand, Hustler also has to keep its promise to its readers to be more hard-core or else it would lose its readership to the more glossy, expensively produced soft-core Playboy and Penthouse. Toward this end, Hustler relies on its cartoons to make good on its promise to its readers to be “bolder in every direction than other publications” (Flynt, July 1988: 7), while keeping the pictorials within the limits of the soft-core genre.
Flynt regularly stresses that the cartoons’ boldness is not limited to sexual themes but rather also to their political content. Indeed in his editorials, Flynt regularly stresses that, “We are a political journal as well as a sex publication” (Flynt, 1983: 5). In an editorial responding to critics of Hustler cartoons — titled, “Fuck You if You Can’t Take a Joke ” Ã Flynt tells his readers that his critics are not upset with the sexual content of the magazine but rather with his satire which carries “the sting of truth itself” (Flynt, July 1988: 7). Flynt continues by arguing that he will not allow his critics to censor what is in effect the political content of his magazine since “satire, both written and visual, has … been the only alternative to express political dissent” (ibid).
A strategy that Flynt has used to promote the cartoons to the readers is the elevation of the long-standing cartoon editor of Hustler, Dwaine Tinsley, to a major satirist of our day. The creator of the “Chester the Molester cartoon” (a white, middle aged pedophile who appeared monthly until Tinsley was arrested on child sexual abuse charges in 1989) and some of the most racist cartoons, Tinesley is described by Hustler editors as producing “… some of the most controversial and thought-provoking humor to appear in any magazine” (Hustler, November 1983: 7), and in some cases cartoons that are “so tasteless that even Larry Flynt has had to think twice before running them” (Hustler, November 1983: 65). We are, however, reassured by Hustler that the “tastelessness” will continue since “Larry is determined not to sell out and censor his creative artists” (Hustler, November 1983: 65) because satire “is a necessary tool in an uptight world where people are afraid to discuss their prejudices ….” (Hustler, July, 1994: 108).
Thus Hustler does not position itself simply as a sex magazine but rather also as a magazine which is not afraid to tell the truth about politics. This linking of the sexual with the political makes Hustler cartoons a particularly powerful cultural product for the production and reproduction of racist ideology for, as Snead argues, “it is both as a political and as a sexual threat that black skin appears on screen” (Snead, 1994: 8 ). On the surface, these cartoons would seem to be one more example of Hustler’s outrageous” sexual humor, the black male with the huge penis being equivalent to the other sexually deviant (white) cartoon characters. However, Hustler’s depictions of black men are actually part of a much larger regime of racial representation which, beginning with The Birth of a Nation, and continuing with Willie Horton, makes the black male’s supposed sexual misconduct a metaphor for the inferior nature of the black “race” as a whole.
Black Men and White Women: The White Man Under Siege
During the 1980s, Hustler featured the work of four cartoonists, Collins, Decetin, Tinsley and Trosley. What is surprising is that while these cartoonists had very distinct styles, they all used a similar caricatured image of a black male with an enormous muscular body, undersized head (signifying retardation), very dark skin and caricatured lips. The striking feature of this caricature is that the “man” is drawn to resemble an ape, an image which, according to Snead (1994), has historical and literary currency in this country. Pointing to King Kong as a prime example of this representation, Snead argued that “a willed misreading of Linnaean classification and Darwinian evolution helped buttress an older European conception … that blacks and apes, kindred denizens of the ‘jungle,’ are phylogenetically closer and sexually more compatible than blacks and whites” …
[Read this complete essay at Hustling the Left.