In "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison, what does the dancer represent? What's tattooed on her belly and why are they afraid to look? In what ways is the men's treatment of the dancer analagous to their treatment of the boys?

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The dancer has an American flag tattooed on her belly. She represents the white America the black young men are forbidden to look at or aspire to.

The young men are afraid to look at her because they know that white women are off-limits to them. Looking at a white...

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The dancer has an American flag tattooed on her belly. She represents the white America the black young men are forbidden to look at or aspire to.

The young men are afraid to look at her because they know that white women are off-limits to them. Looking at a white woman in a way that could be interpreted as desire could lead to being lynched, something the teenage boys want to avoid at all costs.

The stripper is analogous to the youth because both are powerless against the white men who run the town, and have been paid (one way or another) by them to do their bidding and serve their pleasure. The powerful men want to be entertained, and the woman and the youths are there to entertain them.

The white men show little regard for the humanity of either the woman or the black young men. Both are kept in their places through humiliation: had she more power, the woman would probably not choose to be standing naked in a public place, her intimate parts on view to whatever man has the privilege to gaze at them. The young men, likewise, if they had more power, wouldn't choose boxing blindfolded or gathering up fake gold coins on an electrified carpet while they are laughed at and mocked, but both acquiesce to their situations for access to money. In both cases, white male power is reinforced.

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As part of the evening's "entertainment," an exotic dancer takes to the stage. On her belly, she sports a tattoo of the American flag. The symbolic significance of this is not hard to spot. The exotic dancer with the tattoo represents what the young black boys cannot have. The American dream, and all it represents, is not for them.

Furthermore, as the woman is white, she's unavailable to the young black boys forced to participate in this tawdry spectacle. This was a time and a place when racial mixing was considered taboo; many young black men who were even suspected of looking at a white woman in a certain way were unceremoniously lynched. That's why the boys in the story are so afraid to look.

The baying crowd of white men treat the exotic dancer as little more than a piece of meat, an object for them to leer at. By the same token, they look upon the narrator and the other young black boys as there to provide amusement for them. The thought that the black boys, like the exotic dancer, are human beings in their own right doesn't enter the white men's minds for a second.

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In “Battle Royal,” the narrator is concerned with the question of his identity, in how he relates both to himself and to others. He speaks of having been ashamed of how ashamed he felt to be himself. He admits that he spent most of his young years believing that his own “humility was the secret, the essence of progress.” So, when he saw how the white people were treating the fighters, it came as a bit of a shock to him.  He came to the realization that he was only treated with respect because he had stayed out of the way, so to speak; in essence, he had made himself acceptable for the sake of the white people around him.

Eventually, through the actions of the people in the hotel on the night of the battle, he saw that he would always be considered “different” to them, an outsider who is allowed to exist but never to be one of them. In this room, the men came to consume people for sport, whether it was the black men fighting one another or the white woman with the American flag tattooed on her body.  When the narrator saw her, he desired her because she seemed perfect to him, yet at the same time, he also felt that he wanted to “murder her.”

Everything about her is typical of the American ideal of beauty.  She is described as having “pearly” beads of sweat, fine skin, yellow hair, firm breasts, and pink nipples. It is no accident that she has a small American flag tattooed on her belly; for the narrator it symbolizes something perfect—something very desirable yet unattainable for him. It is interesting that the men in the room yelled at the boys for looking at her but also for not looking at her. It symbolizes the catch-22 of their situation; they’ll never be able to please the people in power, because they can never change who they are. They are “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”

The boys begin to sense that they are at the mercy of the men in the room and are transformed in terror. They are afraid that they will be punished for looking at her and that their erections will betray their desire, because they know deep down that she belongs to the men in the room. They begin to faint, to try to escape.  The woman also wants to escape.  The narrator notices the terror in her eyes as the men begin to grab at her.  Together, they are the playthings of these men in power and can do nothing to stop it.

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