To understand the commodification of the body we must ask ourselves what the body is — what it represents, what it means. Each body means and represents different things to different people. For the professional athlete, for the manual laborer, for the sex worker, for the tv news anchor, the fashion model, it can be relatively easy to imagine ways in which bodies become commodified. Within these and other bodies certain fault lines may lurk, serving to recategorize or differentially commodify certain bodies.
Diane Tober writes in Semen as Gift, Semen as Goods: Reproductive Workers and the Market in Altruism of the ways in which professional sperm donors are viewed as altruistic, and contrasts this against female sex workers. Even the idea of sperm “donation” for pay, as she points out, presents a logical fallacy, a sort of hazy window into a possible fault line that redefines the nature of ‘orgasm for pay’ differentially based on the gender of the payee. The sperm “donor” is altruistic; seen as concerned with offering the chance to start a family that otherwise might not come into being. The female sex worker, submitting her body to significant intrusion, as well as more than insubstantial risk, is cast in a wholly different light despite many places of overlap between the nature of these two occupations. Chrissy Caviar pushes the overlap one step further, offering a “donation” (for pay, of course) of reproductive commodity while simultaneously using sex appeal to vend this commodity.
Analyzing popular culture for commodification and fault lines, I’m struck by two interesting yet inverse examples.
Die Antwoord rose to internet fame a few years ago with the release of the video for their single, Enter The Ninja. This video garnered so much attention so quickly because of its unusual nature — the usual subject matter, the race of the rapper (white), the nationality of the rapper (South African), and the overt portrayal of the rapper, “Ninja”, as being affiliated with Cape Flats gang culture. Die Antwoord assumed a liminal status of being simultaneously more preposterous than Baron Cohen’s “Ali G”, yet also being an order of magnitude more serious. Adam Haupt instructively unpacks some of the imagery in the video while considering Is Die Antwoord Blackface?,
Although his accent may mark Ninja, Jones’ character, as white, Afrikaans-speaking and working-class, the tattoos allude to Cape Flats gang culture. In fact, the references to the knife, Richie Rich and the graffiti image of Casper the Friendly Ghost wielding a large penis are reminiscent of prison-gang tattoos and gang graffiti. The term ‘‘pretty wise’’ alludes to ‘‘raak wys’’—a call for people to become wise or ‘‘get with the programme.’’ To become wise, in this context, means to become streetwise or to obtain the knowledge that is needed to gain the respect of the gang members. The aesthetic of the tattoos on Ninja’s body mimics those of prison-gang tattoos, too, in that they appear to be hand-drawn—as they are in prisons, with the makeshift materials at gang members’ disposal. Ninja’s tattoos allude to prison tattoos connotatively without actually making denotative connections; the band does not refer directly, but alludes to the numbers gang, the 26s and 28s, via tattoos and the graffiti that appears in the background of their set.
Clearly Die Antwoord believes that success involves repetition of themes, as virtually every music video involves Ninja shirtless, passively if not actively flaunting his tattoos. In short, Ninja capitalizes on his non-normativity. The tattoos, gold teeth, gutter language, all serve to convey a tough image, but also serve to differentiate his work from “standard” rap music. His success is rooted in standing out, and his standing out is deeply rooted in the whiteness and markedness of his body within the occult economy of international pop culture.
This situation contrasts interestingly against that of black South African and professional runner Caster Semenya. In 2009 she faced IAAF-imposed “gender testing” after winning both the 800m and 1500m races at the African Junior Championships. Although Semenya was ultimately allowed to continue running, one has to consider to what extent this was allowed because she proactively worked to portray herself as feminine, normative. It is easy to see that for professional athletes the body is a commodity, but the ways in which it is enhanced usually involve building muscle, cutting bulk, performing faster, not turning a “power girl into a glamour girl” — even though we are assured by magazine covers that, “she loves it!”
The disapproval of the social body,
“These kind of people should not run with us,” Elisa Cusma of Italy, who finished sixth, said in a postrace interview with Italian journalists. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.” Mariya Savinova, a Russian who finished fifth, told Russian journalists that she did not believe Semenya would be able to pass a test. “Just look at her,” Savinova said.
Spurs the political body (the IAAF) into motion against the individual body (Caster Semenya). The message: she is to conform, or be excluded.
*It also does not escape my attention the extent to which Yolanda, Ninja’s female counterpart, uses sex appeal as commodity. This phenomenon, however, has been much more thoroughly examined in various realms. For this reason, I choose to focus above on solely Ninja. That said, I believe part of why Ninja’s visage is so striking is that its ugliness is offset by the surreal attractiveness of Yolanda, which is intentionally at once sexually appealing and offputting. Both Yolanda and Ninja tacitly acknowledge the caricatures they’ve created, often with subtle thematic elements, such as when Yolanda chooses to shake her ass at the camera during Fatty Boom Boom‘s line, “money, money, money,” or even through the entire storyline of that video, where Lady Gaga (another blatant commodifier) and South African stereotypes clash head on.