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Jezebel, Sex Work and Black Erotic Futurism...

Updated: Apr 4, 2020


Picture Source: Netflix.com


Thanks to social distancing, binge watching Netflix has become one of my new pastimes. Besides catching up on Love is Blind and AJ and Queen, I finally watched Jezebel. An indie film set in 1990s Las Vegas, Jezebel depicts the real life of writer and director, Numa Perrier. The film is centered around a nineteen-year-old black woman named Tiffany who is forced to pull her weight around the household that she shares with her big sister Sabrina, brother Dominick, niece Juju, and Sabrina's boyfriend, Dave. Responding to an internet model advertisement, Tiffany decides to step out into the sex industry with the encouragement of Sabrina who already works as a phone sex operator. Tiffany, who chose the alias Jezebel, takes us through a journey as she "pops her cherry" as an internet model and explores her own black sexual womanhood.

First and foremost, I must share my utter disgust with the derogatory names of Jezebel, Mammy and even Sapphire. These damaging sexual stereotypes have haunted black women since slavery, and we should do everything in our power to erase their harmful perpetuation. Black women are either ignored and deemed undesirable or hyper-sexualized and fetishized in the eyes of white women and black men, and especially by white cisgender heterosexual men. I am sure it was no coincidence that Perrier casted everyone to be white besides Sabrina and Tiffany to exemplify the whitewashed sex industry. Even Sabrina's boyfriend and former phone sex client, Dave, is a white guy who is obsessed with her "chocolate". Tiffany was not only trained by white women, but she was the only black internet model at the agency. Assumed to be white or non-black, the male clients shamelessly requested Jezebel night after night to fulfill their black girl fantasies. Eventually, Jezebel's overshadowing "special treatment" caused tension with the white models. One controversial moment arose when Jezebel was referred to as a "Nigger Bitch" by one of the agency's top clients and neither the white models nor the white male owner, Chuck, wanted to ban him. Tiffany tried her best to stand up for herself against this blatantly racist situation, but the others nonchalantly compared their so-called similar experiences in efforts to calm her down. Basically, they felt that being called a "Dirty Bitch" and a "Nigger Bitch" are in the same context and that Tiffany should grow thicker skin. This unfortunate yet unsurprising moment in the film demonstrated how black women are often objectified, exploited and fetishized even in a realm where we should be free to express erotic autonomy.


The yearning for erotic autonomy is what convinced me to at least appreciate how Perrier reveals a morsel of sexual liberation that black female sex workers taste for self-definition, self-care and survival. By selecting Jezebel as her alter ego, Tiffany attempts to self-define the namesake and return control back to the otherwise historically tarnished stereotype. Referencing Saba Mamood's theory of non liberatory sexual agency, black female sex workers have an opportunity to rewrite their own sexual narratives. But these new narratives are still written within a systemic sex industry that fuels the oppressive intersection of race, gender and class which heavily affects black female sex workers. Another concept called illicit eroticism coined by Mireille Miller-Young, allows black female sex workers to use this fetishization and hyper promiscuous label to their financial advantage while gaining some form of erotic autonomy. In other words, I'll let you fetishize over my black body but on my terms and on your dime.


Aware of the problematic sexual history between black women and white men, Sabrina encouraged Jezebel to refer to all of her clients as slaves which makes her their new “sex master.” While attempting some form of payback, black women are unknowingly intensifying the black female fetish and stereotypes strategically built by what bell hooks coined as imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy. Sabrina even demonstrated how she uses her "chocolate" to sexually control Dave while they have a moment together in bed. But now with a second "chocolate" sex worker in the house, Dave gave subtle sexual innuendos toward Tiffany as well proving that the master-slave fetish is nothing more than simple role play. Tiffany began to experiment with her own masterful power by demanding client loyalty and extra financial gifts. She even entertained an ongoing close connection with one of the agency's best clients, Bobby, who obsessed over her feet and sheer existence. Bobby eventually sent Tiffany a pair of black patent leather thigh high boots which were actually more for his pleasure than for her approval as her slave.


Within the oppressive intersectional boundaries described by non liberatory agency and illicit eroticism, Tiffany appeared to blossom sexually throughout the film. Starting out in "granny panties", she happily upgraded her lingerie, shoes, nails and make up. At one point, Tiffany made enough money to move out on her own which heightened both her physical and sexual independence. Specifically, there was a scene where Tiffany enjoyed an intimate bath while caressing her body and pretending to seduce one of her clients. She seemed to carry herself more confidently as she started to take over the group chat rooms while demanding high paying private shows from potential internet clients. Her sexual conversation with these clients became more natural and less forced and awkward. Lastly, Tiffany showed off her newfound sexual empowerment when she got fired for breaking a rule but returned shortly after in hopes of a second chance. During a heated but necessary conversation with the owner, Tiffany not only negotiated more pay but also compromised for a procedure that punished racist clients regardless of their importance to the agency. She made it quite clear that she deserves respect and dignity which come very rarely if at all for sex workers, let alone black female sex workers.


Jezebel was critiqued by other black women including Ineye Komonibo from Refinery 29, who commented that this film is a “textured and carefully constructed film that manages to make an extremely personal story into a relatable and thought-provoking narrative. And its creator hopes that it will add nuance to the way Black women are viewed (and view themselves) in media.”[1] Kellee Terrell from Zora by Medium shared that Perrier’s response was to “redefine the weighty stereotype of jezebel by flipping it on its head. By doing so, she carves out a rare and needed space for a young Black woman to own her sexual awakening without shame, even if it’s happening in the sex work industry.”[2] Both of these black female writers from well-known and respectable online publications were aligned with my own media analysis. Despite the historical and controversial Jezebel controlling image, Perrier and her all black female crew boldly created a work of art that exposes how some of us unabashedly navigate through our own sexual womanhood.


All in all, Jezebel encouraged a feminist methodology that provides a visible platform for the standpoint of black women through a provocative yet inspiring lens. Not only did Perrier courageously share her own story with the help of Ava DuVernay, she planted some much-needed seeds that will hopefully initiate long overdue discussions regarding the future of sisterhood, self-definition and black female sexuality. Introducing the term black erotic futurism, I envision a future of black feminism, eroticism and Afrofuturism that incorporates more sexually progressive media like Jezebel. Black erotic futurism focuses on getting rid of respectability politics; self-defining sexual narratives; exploring all sexual identities and expressions including celibacy and asexuality; healing from sexual trauma; and engaging in healthy sexual practices in a sex-positive, intersectional and inclusive environment. Inspired by bell hooks, if black women are to truly promote sexual liberation, it is absolutely mandatory that we not only end sexual oppression but do so through coalition building with everyone including those of us who engage in sex work.


Out with Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire... In with Cupcake Noire...


XOXO, Shawna


1. Komonibo, Ineye. “The Personal True Story Behind Numa Perrier’s Jezebel Makes It Even More Powerful.” Last updated January 22, 2020. https://www.refinery29.com/en- us/2020/01/9249319/numa-perrier-jezebel-netflix-true-story

2. Terrell, Kellee. “Netflix’s ‘Jezebel’ Is the Film We Need to Combat Sex Work Stereotypes.” Last updated January 17, 2020. https://zora.medium.com/netflixs-jezebel-is-the-film-we- need-to-combat-sex-work-stereotypes-2a92f8c0f57



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