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Women’s Her-story Month: Why Not Sex Workers (Sofia Maldonado’s Mural)?

There is a “moral panic” that Keysha Whitaker highlights in “Latin Female Artist draws criticism for Times Square Mural” brewing on the streets of Times Square where Sofia Maldonado, a young Puerto Rican-Cuban woman, is under fire for creating a mural that for many embodies the sins of rap videos . . . big booty black women . . . exotic looking Latina women . . . crouch mesmerizing poses . . . and at the end of the day “un-respectable” images of black and brown women. One incensed passerby said the mural harkens back to a time when 42th Street was a “red light” district . . . a place where prostitution . . . drugs . . . and un-catholic like debauchery reign supreme. People are mad not ordinary mad, but “witch-hunt” mad. Men of color are mad not ordinary mad, but I need to protect “my woman” mad. But the question is: why? Why are they mad? Why are they Mad Men?

And all that I can think of to answer this question is that these images are not “respectable” images. They do not paint black and brown women are Supreme Court Judges—Sonia Sotomayor—or as First Ladies—Michelle Obama—or as multi-billionaires—Oprah—or as activist— Linda Chavez-Thompson—or as writers—Sandra Cisneros. Nope . . . as one mural viewer said, “They look like prostitutes.” And in response to this I say [silent drum roll], why not sex workers? Why not a mural honoring sex workers during Women’s Her-story Month? Of course, this is not to say that the mural showcase sex workers, but the way in which people are talking about the images of the mural gives substance to the claim that people see the images as such.


Mind you, on first glance my initial reaction was, “Yet again our brown and black bodies are being commodified in the name of art . . . blah, blah, and more blah.” However, after having a conversation with one of my good sister friends, Jess, I realize that what’s fundamentally at stake in this argument over the mural, is not about the images per se, but it’s about who gets to control those types of sexualized images  and who gets to say when those images are appropriate. And clearly as it shows in Mykwain Gainey’s film, men of color, for the most part are incensed either in support of the mural or non-support of the mural. It’s downright disgusting if not simply paternal to watch them fight over these images because at the end of the day the common Ludacris’ refrain for both parties rings true, “A lady in the street, but a freak in the bed” or  “A freak in the street and a freak in the bed.” You see when all the chips on both sides are counted, “owning” a woman’s freakiness . . . her sexuality . . . is the goal of hetero-male consumption.

So, the black man in Gainey’s film can fuss about how Sophia’s images disrespects his momma, but I bet any money that if he is hetero-male he does not seek to desexualize all women only certain kinds of women . . . kinfolk and women in public . . . women in the daylight [daylight is metaphor] . . . women who are respectable . . . women who are not Eve . . . “good” women. He is more concerned with how Sophia’s images reflect on his momma, kinfolk, and salt of the earth good brown and black women. Yep, I think he and others in the film seek to control what is a respectable and unrespectable imaging of black and brown bodies and when those images are permissible to be viewed publicly or privately. And to that I say with my black feminist attitude, bah hum bug.

I know what I said sounds simple, “a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed,” but it’s not. I know we’re talking about Sofia’s mural, but it’s bigger than the mural.

Because at the end of the day [bout to regurgitate a bunch of academic words] sexual politics, public vs. private, feminine chastity, patriarchy, politics of respectability, class, and racism shapes who gets to be both lady (public) and “freak” (private); who gets to remain a “freak;” and who has the power to label when either term is appropriate or inappropriate. And pushing this further, I think Sofia’s reason for doing the mural is acceptable. Yes, I said it and I mean it. She states,

“The mural illustrates strong New York City women as a tribute to the Caribbean experience in America. Inspired by my heritage, it illustrates a female aesthetic that is not usually represented in media or fashion advertising in Times Square. It recognizes the beauty of underground cultures such as reggaeton, hip-hop and dancehall and incorporates trends such as nail art and Latina fashion. Green organic forms represent the imaginary land that third generation immigrants create in their minds about their countries of origin. I represent the characters and happenings that tourists usually do not see in Times Square, even though it could be a frequent scene in the other boroughs of New York City. These women are strong single mothers or wives who enjoy life and have overcome tough experiences living in and emigrating from a third world country.”

She wanted to pay tribute to a group of brown and black women who are often silenced by society even though they speak daily. Mind you, I am well aware of the politics of hyper-sexualizing brown and black bodies. I get that and perhaps on any other day I would have argued the mural as such. However, after watching Mykwain’s short film on people’s reactions to the mural, I am left with a bad taste in my mouth that fundamentally people’s anger is about who gets to say when those images are appropriate . . . who gets to say when a woman can uncover parts of her body . . . who gets to say! Let’s be honest, we as a hetero-patriarchal misogynistic culture want what these images can perform, but not in public–downtown Manhattan–and not to the point that it disrespects “good” black and brown girls.

It is this element of public and ownership . . . that is at issue. Because I don’t see the same people picketing Google or Yahoo search engines over the pornographic search results when you type the word black girl or brown girl. Because it is normal to consume privately these images . . . . it is normalized violence against black and brown female bodies. Just speaking the truth.

So, once again, I want to reiterate that the mural does not necessarily depict sex workers, but the way that people in particular men are talking about these images in Gainey’s short film gives credence to this claim. And once again I ask: why not honor sex worker during Women’s Her-story Month, women who through the ownership of their body or through the coercion of their body or the blending of ownership and coercion deserve their stories and her-stories to be heard. Why not honor them? Honesty, we cannot have a global women’s movement without sex workers. This is something that was stated repeatedly at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development’s Forum in Cape Town, 2008. And I wholeheartedly agree.

So, today in honor of Women’s Her-story month, I honor sex workers in particular the Sex Workers Project who through their work ensure all voices of women are heard.

Please let me know what you think of Mykwain Gainey’s short film and my blog. It ain’t got be anything deep . . . a word or two.


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