“Jennifer’s Butt” by Frances Negrón-Muntaner

Jennifer Lopez, Photo: Getty Images

Frances Negrón-Muntaner talks about the way both Selena’s and Jennifer Lopez’s rear ends are viewed by fellow audiences under circumstances that feared the racialized body before popular culture decided that a massive gluteus was cinematically desirable.[1] Latin-American teenagers perceived the uncanny doubling of Selena and Jennifer Lopez as tethered to their somatic features; a unique unifying quality for a demographic set divided by the complexity of language, nation, and hyphenated ethnicity. Negron-Muntaner’s deliberate and often intimately humorous choices that stem from her discourse on “Jennifer’s Butt” also serves as a counter-argument to “serious concepts such as class, language, religion and family—the stuff of sociology and political activism.”[2]

Beginning the narrative of her article inside a half-empty suburban theater in Philadelphia, the witnessing of a large derriere became a point of communitas[3] for Latinx audiences, a ritual space where the author was awakened to the cultural capital associated with her and Lopez’s and Selena’s bodies. She muses how the “culo,” Puerto Rican for butt, “surfaces as a site of pleasure, produced by intersections of power, but not entirely under its own control,”[4] which seems like an academically-worded toilet humor.

            A number of books have been written on American colonial occupation of the Philippines which employ discourse that gravitate around the body, specifically on the study of photographs of Dean C. Worcester, Daniel Folkmar, and a number of other American anthropologists. An upcoming book titled, Empire’s Mistress, written by Vernadette Vicuña Gonzales criticizes the portrayals of Elizabeth Cooper (1914 – 1960), who was a Filipino-American actor, vaudeville dancer, and singer and famously known for being the paramour of General Douglas MacArthur. According to previews by Duke University Press, “Gonzalez uses Cooper’s life as a means to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships,” which I interpret to mean that Cooper was the embodiment of the American colony. Last year, Vicente Rafael, Professor of History at the University of Washington, presented a lecture titled “Duterte’s Phallus: On the Aesthetics of Authoritarian Vulgarity” which covered the sources of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s symbolic authority. Duterte’s frequent references to genitalia—his as well those of his critics—is examined by Rafael using Achille Mbembe’s notion of “aesthetic of vulgarity” that has the effect of establishing a relationship of “conviviality” between himself and his audience. Rafael argues that the effect of this is an “intimate tyranny,” much of it centered on the tales of his self-proclaimed over-sized phallus.

Some aspects of embodied performance runs through the three examples I gave, posing for a photograph in Balce, vaudeville in Vicuña-Gonzales, and the delivery of jokes in Rafael. Negron Muntaner argues similarly that the marginalized Latinx population in the US spoke partly through the body in the same way Selena spoke through it no matter how she repressed it and how Lopez took advantage of it, co-opting the fear of conservative American audiences, not unlike the crowd in the suburban theater where Negron-Muntaner begins her narrative, to propel her music career and intervene in dominant portrayals of Latinx sexuality.

[1] Frances Negrón‐Muntaner, “Jennifer’s Butt,” 2008. 10.1002/9780470753538.ch17.

[2] Ibid., 185.

[3] Victor Tuner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society, Cornell University Press, 1947/2002, pp. 273-4. Communitas “refers either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community. It also has special significance as a loanword in cultural anthropology and the social sciences,” particularly the work of Victor Turner,

[4] Negron-Muntaner, loc. cit.

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