It’s a special time of year for celebrities.
Awards season may first come to mind with images of glamorously decadent gowns swishing down the red carpet along with perfectly tailored tuxedos.
But for another coterie in this world of the beautiful and famous, it is the season of vacationing in warm locales and, most importantly, showing off one’s impressive body to your many adoring fans through social media.
And for female celebs, no physical asset is drawing more attention than the ass.
Case in point: Emily Ratajkowski of Blurred Lines music video fame successfully caught the eye of the major celebrity tabloids with an Instagram shot of her “pert posterior,” as the Daily Mail put it, barely covered by a pair of black-and-white checked bikini bottoms.
The pic of what The Mirror gushingly described as a “majorly toned rear” even managed to steal the thunder from Ratajkowski’s valorized breasts and “sent Instagram into meltdown,” according to OK! Magazine.
But Ratajkowski’s ability to send social media into a tizzy with a nearly bare shot of her rear has a long precedence that is a testament to the ass’s magnetic, and sometimes dark, power throughout history.
And yes, that is a history that goes back well before Kim Kardashian “broke the Internet” with her shiny derriere on the cover of Paper magazine—which, in conjunction with Nicki Minaj’s booty-centric “Anaconda” led my colleague Kevin Fallon to declare 2014 the “Year of the Butt.”
Certainly, the ass-admiration canon extends back in the annals (pun intended) of Western culture before Sir Mix-A-Lot declared he could not lie about his passion for big butts.
And Sir Mix-A-Lot does not stand alone in his buttocks fixation, though it does not and has not always stemmed from the fact that “when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face you get sprung.”
Centuries, even millennia, of depicting, glorifying, and valorizing the butt through art and culture have been fueled by much more than sexualization. Something about the butt has deeply fascinated Western society, for better and sometimes for worse.
The rear has a certain quality to be both erotic yet playful, one of the sexiest parts of the body yet also one most often utilized as comedy fodder. Even the words “butt,” “bum,” and “ass” elicit laughs in a way “boobs,” “tits,” or the many slang terms for male and female genitalia do not.
At the same time, if one traces the depiction of the female ass throughout history, it’s clear that sexual mores and racial stereotypes have also long surrounded the obsession with the butt.
Rachel Kousser, a professor of art history at City University of New York (CUNY)’s Graduate Center, explained to The Daily Beast that while the Greeks and Romans were comfortable with depictions of nudity, it was the male nude who was more often “eroticized,” while females were nude “usually in narrative scenes when they were about to get raped or injured.”
That changed with the revered Praxiteles’s sculpture, “Aphrodite of Cnidus,” which Kousser called the “first valorized female nude.” Viewers could take in Aphrodite from all angles, including her ass.
Karen Leader, an assistant professor of art history at Florida Atlantic University, told The Daily Beast that she suspects the butt may have been less taboo in antiquity because, simply put, both ladies and gents have them.
“If I think of representations of women from behind, they are usually less sexual because a woman’s body and a man’s are not that different from behind—whereas a female nude from the front is obviously female. The female nude from behind by its nature is less sexual in traditional history. It doesn’t invite the same kind of sexual response.”
Of course, that’s presuming the viewer is a (heterosexual) man, with his “male gaze.”
“If you imagine that for most of the history of art, the presumed viewer is a man, then a man looking at a female body sees breasts and a female crotch as sexual areas [because] men don’t have them,” explained Leader. “So, it’s something they want and enjoy seeing in art. A woman from behind is not overtly sexual.”
That’s the reason Leader thinks that butts have taken on a certain acceptable sexuality—dare we say, a cheekiness. “From behind, there’s something just a little more chaste, and I think it’s not that different from a man’s body,” she said.
“Very often the female nude in the history of Western art has had some little attempt to cover up a bit,” said Anne Eaton, a professor of philosophy and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She cited the pudica gesture, a pose of a woman trying to cover her breasts and genitals—but not her bottom. “You see that [pose] all the way through Italian Renaissance period… There’s an attempt to cover yet reveal.”
This idealization of a woman being both erotic yet chaste in covering the front but flaunting (or mostly flaunting) her rear speaks to a larger double standard that still applies today, said Eaton.
“There’s a really deep tension that runs all the way through Western art and pop culture between these two demands for women: it’s the ‘lady in the street but a freak in the bedroom’ phenomenon,” noted Eaton. “She can’t be a chaste prude, but she’s got to have some modicum of modesty.”
Eaton pointed out that many of our popular brands today play on what she called a “deep sexual double standard.”
“That’s Victoria’s Secret,” she said. “They’re hardly wearing anything. They’re not naked because a little covering is sexy—and that is because modesty is a virtue for women.”
Just as a flirty flash of butt can be considered a sufficiently modest expression of female sexuality, showing too much or having too large an ass has an ugly history of stereotypes about dangerously, excessively sexual women—especially women of color.
“The idea that women of color have bigger behinds and are also more highly sexual is an age-old stereotype and a really vile one,” said Leader.
One of the most obsessed-over female behinds was that of Saartjie Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus.”
Baartman was gawked at by white Europeans in the early 19th century after she was taken from her native South Africa by her slave master, Hendrik Cesars, and British military doctor Alexander Dunlop.
She was taken to London to be in, essentially, a freak show. She—especially her buttocks—became an “object of prurient gaze, scientific fascination and disturbed bewilderment” to leering Londoners as Caroline Elkins wrote in The New York Times.
“There was an association formed between blackness, being African, and having, by European standards, an unusually large rear. But, this is not eroticized. It’s almost the opposite, it’s the beastial other,” Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, told The Daily Beast.
The stereotypes associated with women of color and their butts fueled centuries of racism, serving as “evidence” that these women were more sexual and less modest and, therefore, less deserving of respect.
So, even while Emily Ratajkowski may be able to wrap the world of Instagram around her finger with a shot of her barely-clad butt, there’s a serious underside to the power of the backside, which is far from a laughing matter.