The NYC Newsstand: Black Womens’ Bodies For Sale

NYC Newsstand, April 30, 2011

What do you notice about this photograph of a news -stand at the 34th St Subway platform in NYC?

Have you seen this type of display before?

When I lived in NYC three years ago I walked by news stands like this on a daily basis. Recently while visiting NYC, I walked by this newsstand and  took this photograph.

The other night I showed the picture to my friends and asked what they noticed.

It was a media literacy moment, FAAN Mail style. Here’s some video of the conversation:

What do I notice?

I notice a typical NYC newsstand.   And as I point out in our discussion, I notice a discrepancy between the way white women and black women are represented. To put it bluntly, I see lots of white faces and lots of black booties.

BlackandBrownNews.com (BBN), an award-winning digital news and information distributor, did a fascinating news story  about this in 2009 titled  “New York City Newsstand Vendors: Exploiting Some, Protecting Others”:

We found shopkeepers – many of them people of color – who exploited the images of Black and Latino women while going to great lengths to protect the image of White women on like magazine covers.

This news story led to a campaign and according to the Founder, legislation is now on the table.  I’ll come back to this later.

In addition to observations around representation when looking at this photograph, my friends and I discussed the question of impact. We wondered what we learn from these images. How do we interpret these spectacles (when we do notice them)?

The little boy holding his lunch box, the teenage boys with their book bags, the grown man who is my boss, what do they think when they see this? What does this teach them?

The black girls out there… the teenage sister who is looking for validation, excited to hear someone call her sexy as if it is the only compliment that matters… and perhaps the only compliment she hears on a regular basis. What does she learn from this?

The men who shout, grab and follow…. the ones who throw epithets and glass bottles when their cat calls are ignored… Do they notice the newsstand?   What does it teach them and the men who silently look upon them?

Connections

Street harassment has often made me feel like I am on display…. humanity stripped,  objectified. I remember feeling that way and then walking passed newsstands not much different than this one.  Including a shot of a magazine display in Walking Home, my film about street harassment, was an effort to make this connection visible.

But this connection goes beyond how I personally feel. There is a connection that speaks to our history. This newsstand may appear insignificant, but it is symbolic of a history that is still unfolding, where black and brown women in particular experience a unique form of normalized sexual exploitation and violence, one that is colored by sexism and racism.  It is symbolic of a history where black women go missing and so does the media coverage about their disappearance. A history where black women have been viewed as “unrapable,” where joking about sexual violence in song lyrics is  interpreted as “funny” or “shocking,” but ultimately accepted as pure entertainment by audiences and journalists alike.

It is also a history where men and women have recognized our value and worth and fought to resist this, break the silence and heal themselves and each other.

Then and Now

bell hooks and other scholars have argued that the dehumanization of black and brown men and women’s bodies has been used to justify and reinforce the oppression of black and brown people. In Black Sexual Politics, author Patricia Hill Collins explains:

“For both women and men, Western social thought associates Blackness with an imagined uncivilized, wild sexuality and uses this association as one lynchpin of racial difference. Whether depicted as “freaks” of nature or as being the essence of nature itself, savage, untamed sexuality characterizes Western representations of women and men of African descent.”

It is this narrative that helps explain why it was once acceptable for a black woman named Saartjie Baartman aka the “Hottentot Venus” to be caged, scrutinized and demonized at European Freak Shows. And it is this narrative that helps explain why newsstands like the one above exist all over NYC.

So what do we do with this newsstand, this  symbol?

I wonder how Saartjie Baartman would answer that question.

Let me suggest that we notice it, seek to understand its implications and impact and talk about it.  And then– if we care– we can act.

To all of those arguments that blame women and black women specifically for choosing to objectify themselves (you know, the whole “well she CHOSE to be in that video, magazine, party flyer, etc.”) this newsstand illuminates a reality that those arguments often overlook. Rather than simply blaming women who make those choices, we should be asking in what context are women making those choices?

And for the black women who adamantly distinguish themselves from “those women” and argue that they are not affected by these representations,  I want to know what they think of this newsstand as a symbol. Is there still a disconnect? Or is there a reason to pay attention?

I am curious about the action steps outlined by Black and Brown News which asserts the following:

New York City newsstands are licensed by city government and they are also bound to law. According to New York Penal Code Penal Law Sections:

245.10 Public display of offensive sexual material is defined as showing of the female genitals, pubic area or buttocks with less than a full opaque covering, or the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any portion thereof below the top of the nipple.

245.11 And a person is guilty of public display of offensive sexual material when he with knowledge of its character and content he displays or permits to be displayed in or on any window, showcase, newsstand, display rack, wall, door, billboard, display board, viewing screen, moving picture screen, marquee or similar place, in such manner that the display is easily visible from or in any: public street, sidewalk or thoroughfare; transportation facility; or any place accessible to members of the public without fee or other limit or condition of admission such as a minimum age requirement.

If you notice or think that a newsstand is in violation, please take the time to contact the appropriate authorities.

Apparently it is possible to report violations to NYC City Officials who can hold vendors accountable.  Of course as BBN has mentioned, enforcement has been an issue.

Let’s keep this conversation going. What are your thoughts? Is this an opportunity for dialogue? action? Where do we take this?

About Nuala Cabral

Nuala Cabral is an educator, activist, filmmaker and co-founder of FAAN Mail, a media literacy and activist project based in Philadelphia.
This entry was posted in FAAN Mail. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The NYC Newsstand: Black Womens’ Bodies For Sale

  1. ladyg says:

    I think that this is a very great conversation to have because dialogue on this topic is rarely heard, in my point of view. I’ve too noticed the blatant sexual images displayed on Newstands and often felt like covering them up. I think that these images affect everyone and can be a reason why some men, don’t respect black women. The logic I see some may have is that, if they’re willing to put themselves out there in that way so blatantly, then they shouldn’t be respected , only valued behind closed doors for sex, which in turn makes me think of the way some black women were treated during slavery. I loved the discussion you and your friends had and I think that it was a very important comment your friend made that those images could be beautiful, and celebrated in another space, because the problem isn’t that black women’s bodies are being appreciated, it is just in the context of this appreciation and public viewing. My final thought is, why aren’t more people talking about this? Why do we silently accept(or ignore) the implications of these powerful images?

    • nualacabral says:

      Thanks for your comment. Those are great questions. I guess it’s up to us who care about this to start the conversations. I think so many of us feel powerless when it comes to media representations… we’re so desensitized to it. Creating our own media images is crucial… but facing what is there in front of us is also necessary. I agree that those mags are destructive. To me the display is just an extra slap in the face. How much are we willing to accept??

  2. Great post all of it…more needs to be done! Thank you!

    • nualacabral says:

      Thank you… i agree. i feel like this could be a thesis. so many layers here. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Chriset says:

    Thanks for posting

  4. Kalimah Priforce says:

    Can you imagine that people from all over the world, when they take the NYC subway, they are exposed to these images. I don’t like it because some of these people have never interacted with Black women, but they are hammered by these images and across the top reads, “Black men”. It’s atrocious.

    • nualacabral says:

      its so encouraging and helpful to have blk men like u have our backs on this. the images and messages are everywhere… and it can feel overwhelming sometimes, when we notice. so when we do– its great to have ppl willing to dialogue about it, challenge it, etc. thank U!!!

    • who are the folks normally working those newsstands? I’ll take a wild guess and say they are not from Iowa.

  5. This is my favorite part:

    New York City newsstands are licensed by city government and they are also bound to law. According to New York Penal Code Penal Law Sections:

    –245.10 Public display of offensive sexual material is defined as showing of the female genitals, pubic area or buttocks with less than a full opaque covering, or the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any portion thereof below the top of the nipple.

    –245.11 And a person is guilty of public display of offensive sexual material when he with knowledge of its character and content he displays or permits to be displayed in or on any window, showcase, newsstand, display rack, wall, door, billboard, display board, viewing screen, moving picture screen, marquee or similar place, in such manner that the display is easily visible from or in any: public street, sidewalk or thoroughfare; transportation facility; or any place accessible to members of the public without fee or other limit or condition of admission such as a minimum age requirement.

    If you notice or think that a newsstand is in violation, please take the time to contact the appropriate authorities.

    It’s on now. I didn’t even know this existed… You just opened up an entirely new volume inside of this conversation for me.

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  7. Marco says:

    Firstly, thank you for writing this, and for challenging us to re/think the role of black somatic images in public spaces. It’s directly tethered to social, economic and political positions which black somas were both allowed to and prevented from occupying. I’m thinking particularly of Jim Crow. Why do I say this? We recall that Jim Crow signs served as social markers which controlled ideas around public space and access to public space. Thus, a sign stating “Negro Entrance” both dehumanized as it managed ideas about ownership of public space.

    What is the function of the news stand (and the publications which sit on its shelves) if not to gain profit from the dissemination of images which by definition carry ideas. Therefore, the news stand was actually a *Jim Crow* news stand. It sends the message that white bodies go here and black bodies go there. And that we will position the black bodies in a historically familiar way so as to ensure that the public recognizes them. In effect, the covers of the magazines become like reincarnated Jim Crow signs.

    These black women’s bodies (and thereby black women themselves) are depicted as things to dishonor, use and lust after. They are represented as commodities to be bought, sold and traded. We must work to enlighten the collective black populace such that they respond to this news stand in much the same way that they would respond to a Jim Crow sign today.

  8. Kalvin Jefferson says:

    I am a Black man and let me say that those images are not aproriate to display were children or some people might be offended by obvious sexual material.I am in Riverside,California were the images are also usually displayed in the adult section under plastic to block out certain images.I am also a libertarian who believes in free speech no matter how unpopular and that includes pornography.The women on the magazine covers did make a choice as grown women what and how to display their bodies and no one forced them into it.If men one day said :We will not tolerate these images are far as we will stop using or viewing porn then that would be a good thing provided that it was an personal decision based on that man,s values and not imposed by the state.We are in a society where we have freedoms inshrined inthe constitution and latter by court cases to affirm these rights.I know that this is a troubling image and my own moral compass does not let me to partake in the viewing of these magazines,but it is my decision to not view these materials and not the states.Until Black men infact all men stop or leave these sexualized images and music alone and respect the dignity of womanhood and human sexuality,this will continue.Sex sells.

  9. Tony says:

    Supply and demand for marketable “goods” and the mentality of gettin it at all cost underly these results. The women DO make the decision to pose this way,for money,fame,notoriety leading to money/fame.The same way poverty creates the idea of crime that would otherwise seem utterly ridiculous. Beauty need be redefined. You can always find someone who will do things for gratification of some sort.These women are doing this. Are they,disgusted with the photos? Do they feel dehumanized? These are piercing questions that would most likely produce very provocative answers. One fact that need be mentioned as well is that,in most cases these women are virtually unknown. And even Haile Berry resorted to cinematic prostitution for which she won an Oscar in Monsters Ball,with Billy Bob Thornton,no less! Not much of an example from someone of color,who surely didn’t need the payday.(Despite acknowledged difficulties in Hollywood…….how many other meaningful films did this sacrifice spawn……..seen Haile lately?) There are too many questions to answer.Like the world we live in.

  10. this screams: Ignoratio elenchi hard core! I got some bad news to break it to ya however sex sales and well now the body images of black women sales too! These are mainly hip hop esk magazines that I can take a wild guess what the content is going to be (rims, blunt raps, sneakers and eye candy) and you know what: its what makes this nation great. We are so busy giggling over a Congressman’s bulge in his pants however get bent out of shape when we see a newsstand try and generate business? I hope you never happen to walk into an Adult Video Store, they have even in “interracial section,” oh the horror.

  11. Sexuality is a tricky subject for women especially black women who are told in one ear that we’re not attractive and unsexy but then in the other ear that we’re oversexualized as long as we have the big ass and such. Honestly I think that black women have been told so many times that we don’t make the cut that many of us see these magazines and hip hop culture as the only way to bring the attractiveness of black women to light.

    Unfortunately in a patriarchal society that dictates that sex devalues the woman we lose even more respect. It’s a catch 22 for black women. We just can’t win!

    PS: jibreel riley, you’re missing the point entirely. I hope you don’t have daughters.

  12. I get it. As we all know, sexism and racism are huge problems, in America and around the world. Considering the great weakness of the womens movement, the movement for African American human rights and the broader progressive movement as a whole in this country, you despair of ever ending American institutional racism and sexism.

    So, as a substitute, you moralistically condemn soft core porn magazines aimed at Black and Latino men, and call for a government sponsored campaign of censorship and police repression against the South Asian businesspeople that own most of NYC’s newsstands.

    Yes, I’m sure that will be totally effective!

    Straight Black and Latino men will stop having sexual fantasies about women, immigrant business owners won’t supply their customers with the magazines they want, all sexism from the catcalling jerks on the corner all the way up to the anti choice majority on the Supreme Court will end and all will be right with the world.

    Good luck with that, sister!

    Real talk, I wish that eradicating sexism really was that simple.

    Also, demonizing the sexuality of straight men of color isn’t going to win you any male allies (except for the puritanical Christians – who are also anti gay, anti choice and oppose womens rights)

  13. Lauren says:

    Well I live in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood where and train station that is used by 5 schools from a college to a public school, and i have confronted the news stand owner, called my assemblyman, called MTA about the images in the magazine on display. I have seen very young children looking at the magazines in that train station. The news stand owner and I have gotten into arguments about this. Here we are again and its still going on. If the women want to exploit themselves this way fine, and good for them, but at least the news stands are operated by Indian men who would not sell theses magazines if they were their daughters in them. I asked him this question too. They need to be fined for violating the law. In the end of the day its the young girls who will be exploited.

  14. Al says:

    They have these at 23rd street too. I’ve seen this and been offended too — but I thought “black women want to pose like that, not white women, and black men buy those magazines, that’s why they sell them” so it fosters racism too. Because honestly if I stop and think I know white women pose like this too, but for some reason pics are not on the magazines covers. Newstands here in New York don’t put the white women posing like this on display – why? Because the black men are buying these magazines. They make money off of them. White men use the internet for their porn.

  15. Brings me back to the day I discovered Bell Hooks

  16. Obsidian says:

    Hello Nuala,
    It occurs to me that the solution to this problem is a very simple one:

    1. Don’t buy those things you don’t agree with

    And

    2. Black Women need to put out their own magazines (and Hip Hop, and whatever else they’re complaining about)

    It’s not like it’s never been done before – we’re all familiar with “O” and “Essence” magazine for example. Why can’t more Black Women simply do that?

    O.

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