By Kate Riney
Michelle Gonzalez, in her essay, “The Jennifer Effect: Race, Religion, and the Body,” treats theological aesthetics and body politics through the pop culture phenomenon of Jennifer Lopez. Gonzalez argues that Lopez is the most influential Hispanic entertainer in the world given her multi-industry participation including, music, film, television, fashion, and dance. As a result, Lopez is hotly debated by the media, but also by global feminist theologians who see her as either problematizing or liberating a Latin identity.
For this feminist theologian, the treatment of Jennifer Lopez in the media acutely problematizes the white American eroticization of Latina bodies as exotic and “other.” Deconstructed, commodified, and reduced to her body, and specifically her butt, Lopez stands as a glaring example of objectification of women as a theological issue.
Lopez is the first Latina actress to be paid over a million dollars. Rising swiftly to fame in the 90s, Lopez has built a career on her artistic talents, business savvy, and ability to seamlessly crossover industries. Her most celebrated, albeit controversial role to date, is still that of Selena, in which she played the real-life Mexican-American pop singer. While Lopez, a Puerto Rican-American, argued that her Latin identity gave her enough in common to understand the role and represent Selena well, many criticized the casting of a non-Mexican Latina in the role of such a historical figure.
Lopez's argument reflects “Latinidad,” a global perspective that blurs the distinctions between individual Latin ethnicities, cultures, and politics. This universalizing of the Latin identity prioritizes a focus on the arts, bilingualism, and a close connection or solidarity with the common people. Still this blending of cultures does not have to equate homogenization or essentialism of ethnic identity. Others argue that this concept of a “Latinidad” offers a solution to the shared, if diverse, cultural self-understanding present in Latin culture due to multiple colonizations. Alicia Gaspar de Alba says, it “embodies the very cultural, linguistic, and racial affinities the historical realities of colonialism, mestizaje, linguistic terrorism, cultural schizophrenia, territorial displacement, and organic feminism.” Likewise, for Frances Aparicio, Latinidad is a “decolonial imaginary” that represents the organic development of widespread shared cultural experience due to colonization, immigration, and subjugation.
An analysis of Jennifer Lopez's part in the global imagination of Latino/as, has to consider the treatment of her body. Throughout the 1990s, Jennifer's rejection of the Hollywood ideal body-type (Anglo, slender, and virtually androgynous), became not only a celebration, but a fetishizing of the curvaceous body-type. What is more, this shapely body was equated with people of color (further homogenizing ethnicity) and eroticized the butt.
Men of color were characterized as “ass men,” a construction we still see today with the advent of public figures like Kim Kardashian and revival of lyrics like “my anaconda don't want none unless you have buns, hun.” Gonzalez says, “Lopez's body is a public site where Latina sexuality and Latina bodies are constructed, exploited, and celebrated.” Through the media's portrayal of Lopez and the treatment of her butt, Latin women were homogenized and essentialized as “brown, voluptuous women.” Conversely, Frances Negrón-Muntaner finds in the attention to butts the celebration of Latino/a culture, “it is a sign for the dark, incomprehensible excess of 'Latino' and other African diaspora cultures. Excess of food (unrestrained), excess of shitting (dirty), and excess of sex (heathen) are its three vital signs.” Risking imposing my opinion as an Anglo North American feminist theologian on others, I resolutely disagree with Negrón-Muntaner. Even a celebration of the “excesses” of colored culture is a gross over-simplification that sounds dangerously akin to stereotyping.
Does the subversion of the white gaze, drawing the Latina gaze, constitute a form of empowerment? I do not see a liberating aspect to the objectification of any person, regardless of ethnicity. Whether empowering to Latin identity or not, Lopez's body becomes reduced to the male sexual gaze. She is trivialized and her body takes the shape of a container. The package is worshipped, while the contents, however appealing or entertaining, become accessories to the main event: the sexualized body. Who cares what Jennifer Lopez sings about as long as her butt looks good?
Female body commodification, women's bodies objectified as commodities for sexual use and economic gain, is an issue in virtually every culture, none more so than in the economically robust U.S., however, for immigrant populations like Latino/as, their aesthetic differences are most easily harnessed, exported, and appropriated for sale of goods (if not sex itself), due to their perceived exoticism, and their extreme marginalization.
As residents who often lack political voice, communication abilities due to a language barrier, and diminished economic opportunity, immigrant Latino/as of all ethnicities in the U.S. are reduced to the capabilities of their bodies. For men this often looks like forced or underpaid manual labor, for women this is also often the case, however, even more often Latinas' bodies are appropriated for sex. Their body(ies) stand as a symbol of eroticism for popular Anglo culture and a container for both white and colored men's penises.
This is only further demonstrated by the fetishizing of the large/round butt—yet another avenue for men's sexual pleasure. Jennifer Lopez's body is not sensationalized for dark hair, espresso complexion, pleasing facial features, a delicate collarbone, “thick” thighs, muscular arms, a shapely back, or even wide hips. No, the obsession remains squarely with her ass-et. Would Jennifer Lopez be as famous without the sexualization of her body? Certainly not, but many Latinas would not have to struggle under the gender oppression of body politics in such gruesome ways if not for her butt's singular significance.
Gonzalez reflects on Christianity's response to body politics, noting that, “it is ironic that a religion that emphasizes the importance of the historical embodiment of its savior is so ambiguous about women's bodies.” Thus the theological task remains to restore a right understanding of the physical and material, including embodiment. Still, a far broader witness is required in our U.S. Christian context. The first task requires recognition of the sacredness of life and human worth. The second is to develop a right celebration of embodiment, particularly with respect to women, in which our bodies are equally reflective of the image of God and a part of the incarnation. Third, we must name and denounce the myriad of ways we see women of color, particularly our Latina sisters being commodified.
The signs and stories of Latina oppression and objectification are present in the news, media, history books, our neighborhoods and pews. As pastors, preachers, and theologians we need to use our influence and prophetic witness to call out this evil, minister to the wounds of the oppressed, and transform our culture through rejection of fetishized bodies and an acceptance of a healthy theology of embodiment.
Michelle Gonzalez. “The Jennifer Effect: Race, Religion, and the Body,” in
She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, 87-101. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2012. Ibid., 88. Ibid., 90. Ibid., 91. Ibid. Ibid., 92. Ibid. Ibid., 100.