What is the symbolism of the stripper in "Battle Royal"?Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
The "magnificent blonde" with the yellow hair of a kewpie doll" is simultaneously a symbol of the oppression of the young black men in the group—she becomes the tool of their sexual humiliation and possible punishment, if they dare to return her gaze. She is also an object of the white men's sexual exploitation—the white male spectators place her in the ring to arouse their own lust and to arouse that of the young black men while also forbidding the young men from expressing that lust.
In this scene, Ellison luridly illustrates the sexual hegemony of white men—that is, the way in which they ensured their own sexual dominance through the violent control of black male sexuality and exerted control over white female sexuality through the promise of racial privilege.
The blonde is a caricature of femininity, with her heavily made-up face, and, as a blonde, an exemplary form of white womanhood. In the era in which Invisible Man was published (1952), the most celebrated Hollywood icons were blondes. In my imagination, whenever I read the scene, I imagine Marilyn Monroe. Like the star, the blonde in Ellison's scene is both vulnerable and very aware of her magnetism: "She seemed like a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea" (19).
The American flag tattoo on her belly, just above her genitals is a brand, declaring whom she belongs to. The fact that the white men have sexual access to her and are able to objectify her—something made clear when they toss her around, as though she were an actual doll—means that they are entitled to a form of citizenship that the young fighters will never have. The blonde is a metaphor for the relationship that the young black men have with their country: tentative, fearful, wanting to possess it, but knowing that they cannot lay claim without fear of retribution.
In Ralph Ellison's first chapter of his novel, Invisible Man, the "Battle Royal" creates a vivid portrayal of the inequities between whites and blacks. Ellison's character is invited to give his graduation address at a hotel; however, when he arrives, he is asked to join a group of men who are issued boxing gloves and "fighting togs." The are ushered into a large, mirrored hall to fight for the amusement of some of the important men in the town.
Ellison's nameless narrator states that there is a dead silence as the young men notice facing them, a "magnificent blonde--stark naked." Fearing that they be accused of looking at her, many lower their heads. The narrator feels guilt and fear as his teeth chatter. The stripper, who has an American flag tattooed low upon her belly stares at the narrator with "impersonal eyes." Symbolically, Louis Althusser contends that the flag represents an iconic image, exerting power over the males who see the stripper's tattoo. seeming to address each one individually. The narrator states that the stripper seems to stare at him with "impersonal eyes." The stripper is free to look without fear at the black men as "Old Glory" reminds them. So, even in her being the object of exploitation herself--the flag often represents the sacrificed body. As such, no one attains the satisfaction of touching her.
The purpose of the naked white dancer is to demonstrate white society's control over African Americans. Historically, black men had been persecuted for even looking at a white woman, so the white men of the narrator's society are telling him that social equality will never be a realization for him. The white woman represents forbidden freedom, "stripping" the narrator of his decency and innocence. By taunting them with the woman, the white spectators put the young man in a no-win situation. If he doesn't look, he must not be a man; if he looks, he is just another black man desiring what he cannot have. The white spectators are essentially saying that if black men do not fight for equality, then they are cowards. If they do fight for equality, it will be denied to them.