Alongside exploring racial stereotypes, The Sellout also confronts stereotypes relating to race and gender. In particular, it explores the hypersexualization imposed on black people—meaning the racist stereotype that black people are aggressively or excessively sexual—and the way this affects their experience of their own sexuality. As a black man, the narrator is perceived as sexually aggressive by the outside world. While the only woman the narrator has sex with in the novel is Marpessa, his childhood sweetheart, he does at times appear to have internalized stereotypes about his own hypersexuality and sexual aggressiveness. At other times, his behavior directly contradicts these assertions, for example when he calls himself “frigid.” Overall, the novel subtly critiques both the hypersexualization of black people and the sexual aggression often associated with masculinity.
In parts of the novel, the narrator acknowledges and even appears to embrace sexual stereotypes about black men. The prologue is filled with phallic imagery, and in the first paragraph the narrator refers to “my gigantic penis.” Elsewhere, he notes that in Dickens, “penis envy doesn’t exist because sometimes niggers just got too much dick.” This suggests that perhaps sometimes people are happy to embrace stereotypes that are positive or advantageous to them. On the other hand, there is certainly irony in the narrator’s tone here. Rather than truly embracing stereotypes about black men’s large penises, he is arguably making fun of these stereotypes and taunting those who feel threatened by them. After all, stereotypes about black men’s penises arguably reveal far more about the insecurities and fantasies of nonblack people than they do about black men themselves.
However, stereotypes about male sexual aggression are sometimes shown to be more plausible. The narrator’s father, for example, is presented as a lothario who had a habit of sleeping with his students. The narrator’s mother, Laurel Lescook, remembers his father as a creepy man who harassed her. Similarly, Foy Cheshire is said to have blown all his money on drugs and women. For both the narrator’s father and Foy, fame and success are ways of getting women to sleep with them. Indeed, the narrator’s father has a particular penchant for young women, including his own students and teaching assistants. In this way, the narrator’s father is shown to be rather predatory. Similarly, at one point in the novel the narrator admits: “like most black males raised in Los Angeles, I'm bilingual only to the extent that I can sexually harass women of all ethnicities in their native languages.” Even Hominy, who is otherwise meek and emasculated (he even requests that the narrator cut off his penis and stuff it in his mouth, as was sometimes done during lynching), enthusiastically flirts with Butterfly, the sorority girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Almost all the men in the novel display some kind of sexually aggressive behavior, often directed at women much younger than them, and these details suggest that there may be some truths in stereotypes about male sexual aggression.
At the same time, masculinity is subject to critique in the novel, through the book’s depiction of how masculinity forces the narrator to conform to a way of being that feels alien to him. Toward the end of the novel, he admits to being “frigid,” using this word in the same “obnoxious way men in the free-love seventies projected their own sexual inadequacies onto women.” This sentence shows how society’s idea of masculinity can be an oppressive force that attempts to mask “inadequacies” through the imposition of negative stereotypes about others. By applying these sexist negative stereotypes to himself, the narrator embraces his own “inadequacies” while suggesting that there is no room within masculinity for him to admit these openly. The only way to express his feelings of insecurity is by comparing himself to a woman.
Despite the narrator’s self-deprecating analysis of his frigidity, Marpessa assures him that she likes that he is not as aggressively masculine as other men. She confesses that she fell in love with him when they went out to eat together and, unlike the other black men she knows, the narrator did not insist on sitting facing the door. Marpessa finds it appealing that the narrator does not feel the need to aggressively assert his own masculinity and appear tough and dangerous. Furthermore, her love of the narrator’s satsumas and her use of his childhood nickname, “Bonbon,” indicate that she prefers the sweet, nurturing side of the narrator, qualities that are typically associated with femininity more than masculinity.
Both sexual stereotypes about black people and masculinity are under critique in the novel. As a result, it can sometimes appear that the narrator accepts stereotypes about black men as true—however, the reality is more complex. Sometimes the narrator embraces such stereotypes ironically in order to lampoon the insecurities that created the stereotypes in the first place. However, at other points the novel critiques black masculinity not as a specific phenomenon but as a part of masculinity in general, showing how the demands of masculinity can have a constricting, damaging effect on both men and women.
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization ThemeTracker
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Quotes in The Sellout
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I've never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
But I don’t feel responsible anymore. I understand now that the only time black people don't feel guilty is when we've actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief. In the way that cooning is a relief, voting Republican is a relief, marrying white is a relief—albeit a temporary one.
Those pompous Dum Dum niggers wanted to ban the word, disinvent the watermelon, snorting in the morning, washing your dick in the sink, and the eternal shame of having pubic hair the color and texture of unground pepper. That's the difference between most oppressed peoples of the world and American blacks. They vow never to forget, and we want everything expunged from our record, sealed and filed away for eternity. We want someone like Foy Cheshire to present our case to the world with a set of instructions that the jury will disregard centuries of ridicule and stereotype and pretend the woebegone niggers in front of you are starting from scratch.
"That's gay," countered her Latino nemesis, who was juggling the gonads with one hand.
"Juggling is gay!"
"Calling people who call you 'gay' just because you called them' gay' is gay!"
"Okay, that's enough." Charisma scolded. "My God, is there anything you kids don't think is gay?"
The fat boy thought for a long moment. "You know what's not gay...being gay."
"You're supposed to wolf whistle! Like this…” Recklessly eyeballing her the whole way, he pursed his lips and let go a wolf whistle so lecherous and libidinous it curled both the white woman's pretty painted toes and the dainty red ribbon in her blond hair. Now it was her turn. And my father stood there, lustful and black, as she just as defiantly not only recklessly eyeballed him back but recklessly rubbed his dick through his pants.
I'm frigid. Not in the sense that I don't have any sexual desire, but in the obnoxious way men in the free-love seventies projected their own sexual inadequacies onto women by referring to them as "frigid" and "dead fish." I'm the deadest of fish. I fuck like an overturned guppy. A plate of day-old sashimi has more "motion of the ocean" than I do. So on the day of the shooting and drive-by orange-ing, when Marpessa stuck a tongue suspiciously tangy with satsuma tartness into my mouth and ground her pudenda into my
pelvic bone, I lay there on my bed—motionless.