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Adviser Criticizes Eleganza

ABHW adviser says show reinforces sexual stereotypes

By Evan M. Vittor, Contributing Writer

The faculty adviser to the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW) sent an open e-mail Monday to the black community at Harvard, writing that she was “shocked” and “disheartened” by the reinforcement of sexual stereotypes of black people and physical objectification of models at the 10th annual Eleganza fashion show on Friday, April 23.

Vanessa Tyson, a graduate student in the government department, wrote that she felt much of Eleganza was “little more than a sex show,” and found the “Pimps and Hos” segment particularly offensive.

“There were parts that I was definitely impressed with, but overall I think there seemed to be a theme of sexual exploitation that I didn’t like,” Tyson said.

Brandon M. Terry ’05, president of the Black Men’s Forum (BMF), said that Tyson sent the e-mail him and ABHW President Helen O. Ogbara ’05 late Monday night and asked them to forward it to their respective open lists.

In the lengthy e-mail criticizing the show, Tyson wrote that the show promoted negative sexual stereotypes of black people and that students should have been smarter about putting on such a show.

“Black people, throughout history, both in the United States and abroad, have been subject to repeated hyper-sexualized stereotypes and complete and total physical objectification,” she wrote. “And now we’re doing it to ourselves....I guess I was hoping we were all smart enough not to buy into that bullshit.”

Tyson said that she used the term “bullshit” in reference to the sexually exploitative behavior.

“If I had a 16-year-old daughter I would not have felt comfortable taking her to this show,” Tyson said. But Derek R. Melvin ’05, the executive producer of the show and the President of BlackCAST—the student theatre group that organized Eleganza—said the sexual aspects of the show were merely intended to celebrate a small segment of culture.

“The sexual elements that were in the show really celebrated beauty, diversity, and it celebrated selected aspects of movie culture,” Melvin said. “It was not meant to express reality; Eleganza never is.”

He added that the show was not any more sexually explicit than in years past.

“I think every year there is an edgy component to Eleganza, and that’s one of the things that makes it special,” Melvin said.

Ogbara agreed that the show was not more explicit this year, but said there were aspects of it that should be changed.

“I think it was pretty status quo in terms of its sexual content, but every year the same questions come up in the black community of whether or not Eleganza needs to be that risque,” Ogbara said. “I think there are ways of being sexual and entertaining without calling up these degrading and exploitative images.”

Several of those interviewed said that while they disagreed with Tyson’s over-arching criticism of the show, they did feel that the traditional “Blaxploitation” scene depicting pimps and prostitutes—a part of the show every year—was offensive and unnecessary.

“I think that Vanessa made a mistake in the sense that she reduced the show to one part, but her criticism[s] of that particular scene, the blaxploitation scene, were extremely valid,” Terry said.

Lauren N. Westbrook ’07, a model in the show and an ABHW member, said Tyson overlooked the fact that the models chose their own outfits and in some instances pushed the directors to enhance the sexual nature of their performances.

But she said many of the more explicit scenes may have detracted from other acts intended to reinforce the empowerment of women.

“I definitely felt like the girls who kissed or who were wearing a lot more skimpy clothing got the loudest shouts,” Westbrook said.

Tyson, who works at a Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and a girls’ detention center, wrote that young African American women need role models and that African-American Harvard students participating in Eleganza failed to live up to that.

“There are a very small percentage of African Americans who are lucky enough to make it to college, let alone the Ivy League, let alone Harvard,” Tyson said. “I think that with the privilege comes an extra level of responsibility.”

But Melvin said Tyson’s criticism ultimately boiled down to artistic disagreement, and that he wished Tyson had e-mailed the Eleganza executive board prior to submitting her letter to open lists.

“When it comes to artistic expression, people are always going to disagree. It just would have been more conducive if she had addressed anybody on the executive board first,” Melvin said.

Tyson, who included advice in her e-mail for the students about protecting their futures—particularly, by avoiding recordings of such performances—said her primary goal in writing the e-mail was to help students as much as possible.

“I honestly care about these students. If you must insist in behaving in a sexually exploitative fashion, at least don’t tape it,” Tyson said. “My intent with this letter was not to change Eleganza policies, it was really to try and reach out to Eleganza performers.”

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