Monday, August 01, 2005

Beauty and Power and Race (Three Articles)

Switching gears dramatically, I felt I had to post on several related topics that I'd come across on other Websites. The first is an excellent article by Amina Mire, on Counterpunch, that addresses the currently widening--not shrinking, mind you, but expanding--market for skin-lightening and whitening products.
Mire's thorough and compelling article, "Pigmentation and Empire," however, goes much further than mere reportage, methodically linking colonialism, Eurocentricity, white supremacist, and masculinist notions of beauty and sexualized/gendered (self-)(re)presentation to the global "beauty" industry's--and not just the media's, politicians' or individual ideologues'--centrality in promoting psychologically and physiologically dangerous "anti-aging" and "whitening" products across the world.

As she proceeds, she deftly explores the terrible nexus of racism/racialism and capitalism, the psychosocial and economic power and control embedded in the commodity system, with its reinforcement and stabilization of alienation and false consciousness, and new biological technologies. (In other words, Mire is describing one powerful example of the creation of racist, false psychological and emotional "needs" and the reification and internalization of alienating, monopolistic standards (even upon those who meet it, i.e., wealthy "white" Western women) generated through the industrial machinery of global capitalism system, aided by the mass media (which is a part of that system, of course), that numerous figures have identified and have repeatedly critiqued, resulting in a steady "industrialization of consciousness" that Kluge and Negt so powerfully warned against, functioning to the mental and physical detriment of millions). Aesthetics, as my students and I have discussed extensively over the last few years, do not arise or function in a social, ideological, political, economic, or spiritual vacuum, certainly least of all nowadays.

To quote her:

One of the ways in which L'Oreal enacts the biomedicalization of women's bodies and the racialization of the aging processes of women (gendered degeneracy) is through the visual technology of dismembering women's bodies. A close examination of L'Oreal's advertisings for skin-whitening products shows a systematic fragmentation of women's bodies. Almost all the L'Oreal advertising images which I have came across use cropped faces of women. One of the visual techniques used by L'Oreal is the pairing of two cropped faces: one of which bears certain pseudo-pathologies such as 'age spots,' premature-aging,' 'hyper-pigmentation,' and 'wrinkles.' The other cropped image would feature the whitened, 'smooth, wrinkle-free' face of a woman.

As a result, L'Oreal's advertising often visually conceptualizes the practice of skin-whitening both as a violent technological fragmentation of women's bodies as well as an instrument of bodily transformation. As the following advertising for L'Oreal's skin-whitening brand, Blanc Expert, shows, the visual fragmentation of women's bodies is often reinforced by the claims of the power of these skin-whitening products to penetrate deep inside the body thereby transforming both the inside and the outside of the users of these products.
She ends by linking "whitening" and "white supremacy" to W's War in Iraq and a moment in which an image of Saddam Hussein's face is literally being whitened. (Though she does treat the American experience with skin whitening creams and white supremacy, she does not, however, delve into various ideologies of whitening like "mejorar la raza" and "embranqueamento," which still have a powerful hold and reinforce racist, classist, genderist, and classist hierarchies in places like the Dominican Republic and Brazil respectively.)

This is an article that begs to be read and discussed, especially in light of the steadily expanding reach and power of global industry and capital, and in particular the centralization and monopolization of media corporations like Rupert Murdoch's conservative (and Orwellian) News Corporation, as well as in light of the narrowing focus on racial, ethnic and pigmentary profiling that is resulting from the West's attempts to get a handle on the "War on Terror" (or "The Global Struggle Blah Blah Blah"). It also gibes in keen ways with the pieces that follow.

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The Guardian Online offers a related take in "The Ugly Side of Beauty,"Julie Bindel's review-with-interview of radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys's sixth and newest study, Beauty And Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices In The West. In this work, as in previous texts, Jeffreys focuses on the oppressive, anti-feminist nature and structure of the now expanding (Western) beauty industry, and its ideological and sociopolitical dominance over women. The correlation to sexual and gender oppression is central to her argument. As Bindel notes, Jeffreys, a political lesbian since the early 1970s who is also known as the UK Andrew Dworkin, spends much of the book "arguing that beauty practices - from make-up to breast implants - should be redefined as harmful cultural practices, rather than being seen as a liberating choice." (What is a "political lesbian," those of you not around in the 1970s and 1980s, or not cognizant of the extensive literature on this subject, may ask? A lesbian who consciously chooses same-sexual psychological identification as a lesbian based on her political and ideological views, and not primarily as a result of innate sexual orientation. She may or may not have sex with another woman--or a man, for that matter--but the self-identification and allegiance is a conscious, dynamic and performative one.)

Jeffreys' study, Bindel notes, questions much as Dworkin's 1974 volume Women Hating did the fall-off in feminist critiques of what she views as a insidious system,, and the notion among some liberal feminists that affording women the option to adopt practices and modes of self-representation that only decades ago were seen as oppressive is somehow liberatory or freeing. (In defense, perhaps a "liberal" feminist would argue in favor of the very fact of women having multiple choices in and of themselves.) Though I haven't read Jeffreys' book yet, from Bindel's article book Beauty and Misogyny does seem to be more than an extended one-note harangue, enfolding within its arguments a potentially enlightening history of the beauty industry.

Bindel indicates that the study also looks at the larger context of social and political gender hierarchy, and finds much to be upset about. As in earlier books, Jeffreys even assails some of the sexual practices of LGBT people; she specific criticizes BDSM, which she appears to be saying reproduces and eroticizes the dominance and degradation in force in traditional male-female sexual relations. She also writes up transpeople who reinscribe what she feels to be masculinist notions of femininity. Bindel, for her part, doesn't stint on presenting the comments of many of Jeffreys' opponents, who include not only right-wingers but many contemporary feminists as well. In addition to being called angry and full of rage, she was mocked by having a dildo ("The Spinster") named after her!
Sheila Jeffreys
As I read Bindel's piece, I was reminded of a conversation I had last year while flying home during a university holiday break. A very sharp and funny, punked out young White man and his girlfriend were seated next to me, and when he noticed that I was intensely reading--what I cannot remember--he decided to strike up a conversation. Usually such interruptions annoy me to no end, but I was happy to be heading home and ended up chatting with him. At some point, he started talking about makeup, and asked me if I knew that most female beauty products, like blush, lipstick, eye shadow, and so on, aimed to recreate, at least to our brains, the appearance of women at the points of arousal or during and after orgasm. (I immediately noted that his girlfriend was wearing none I could detect.) I had heard a little of this before, but he went on to say, as Jeffreys's history suggests, that makeup was initially popular with prostitutes, and that other related products and artifacts, like nightshade-derived eyedrops to dilate the pupils and high-arched pumps, also aimed to mimic and replicate this same state. I believe he was passing this information on to me to affirm his political progressivism, since we'd been discussing politics in a general way, and I jotted down some of it, but I couldn't find my notes just a week later. So it was fascinating to come across Bindel's discussion of Jeffreys' critiques, which in effect restate a lot of this, though in a more encompassing way.

I'm not sure when I'll get to Jeffreys' book, but Bindel's overview jibed in keen ways with Mire's article, and has really gotten my brain spinning.

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The other day I'd posted on Amy Harmon's New York Times article on Black Americans and DNA testing as a means of understanding and completing our geneologies. I then came across Patricia J. Williams's Diary of a Mad Law Professor column in the June 20, 2005 issue of The Nation. Patricia WilliamsTitled "Genetically Speaking," Williams assails Emma Daly's April 13, 2005 New York Times article, "DNA Tells Students They Aren't Who They Thought." Instead of exploring the relationship between genetics, ancestry and race, and the fact that there are no specific genetic markers for specific "races" per se, or that "race," as we usually understand the term, is a politically, ideologically and socially constructed concept mapped onto external physical differences and traits shared by specific groups sharing ancestral heritage, thus becoming a contingent, unstable ontological reality--that is, race is a real but unfixed political and social reality that doesn't correlate specifically with biological inheritance--the article, Williams notes, presented only three, intellectually unsatisfactory and problematic "columns" that failed to query longstanding notions about race, conflated race, ethnicity and nationality, and, as I read it, revealed the kind of racialist discourse that frequently and still passes without comment. As she says about the Pennsylvania State University sociology class study that used its students' DNA samples

"About half of the 100 students tested this semester were white," according to another instructor. "And every one of them said, 'Oh man I hope I'm part black,' because it would upset their parents.... People want to identify with this pop multiracial culture. They don't want to live next to it, but they want to be part of it. It's cool."

It is odd, this insistence that there is no such thing as race even as we wouldn't want it moving in next door. There is, too, a remarkable persistence in re-inscribing race onto the narrative of biological inheritance. This science is always pursued for only the noblest of reasons: in Shriver's instance, "the potential importance of racial or ethnic background to drug trials." I will save for later my concern about the commercial competition for "race-specific" medicines. For now, consider the description of one student who "discovered" she was "58 percent European and 42 percent African." Yet the "parent populations" tested for were described only as "western European" and "west African." The young woman "has always thought of herself as half black and half white because her mother is Irish-Lithuanian and her father West Indian." But Lithuania is generally considered a part of Eastern Europe, and therefore not technically part of the population tested for. And while "West Indian" is clearly used as a cipher for her African ancestry, one can be "white"--like Alexander Hamilton--while being West Indian. And the Irish were not considered white in colonial times.

These are excellent points, and have led me to critique the concept of biracialism, a particular idée fixe over the last decade, which assumes, for example, that there is either white or black racial purity, and that race and racial groups are somehow static, when extensive genetic intermixture has marked the history of all of Europe, and certainly the history of Africans in the Americas. On top of this, the notion that race is the same thing as ethnicity or national identity or identification is highly problematic, though the New York Times, in its series on race several years ago, sloppily, lazily or misinformedly approached these three related but different categories as if they were the same thing. (Its recent series on class was not much better for similar reasons.) Then there is the issue of identity and identification; how people view themselves or others doesn't develop in a vacuum, so the failure to mention the larger historical, sociopolitical and economic contexts, while not surprising (the right-leaning New York Times assiduously shies away from such difficult thinking), Cubanasmeans that the classroom's discussion is, by default, operating on faulty premises. As Williams makes clear, the politics of race and racism, and white supremacy have not only affected Black people, but Whites as well--for example, the Irish, that is, who constitute the second largest European ancestral group in the US (after Germans), but who were not always considered "white," particularly in certain parts of this country and Britain. (Theodore Allen's The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control, Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White, and Karen Brodkin's How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America all explore this and similar processes of racial construction and transformation in booklength study form.)

Moreover, the US government, and interested parties, have worked overtime to transform the blanket Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, which actually consists of people of different racial, ethnic and national self-identifications, into what amounts to a racial category, which is particularly confounding, as if as soon as people from Spanish-speaking countries (though not from other linguistically similar nations or regions) stepped onto US shores, whatever racial or ethnic identity they had in their native countries disappeared into an altogether new racial stew. (I once asked on a Website if the Hispanic category held why didn't Anglic or Gallic, all three of which reinscribe colonialist categories of nationhood, weren't also used, and met with silence; the answer, of course, lies in historical fallacies and fantasies, and also in nationalism and racism.) Fascinatingly, this concept, via the US media, has been shipped back to the countries of origins themselves, as have other US concepts, such as "African-American," which I read some Black Brazilians using on a Website a few years ago, though the term is supposed to name a specific ethnicity (as opposed to racial group) in the US.

But back to Williams; she later points out:

The jumble of who we are, particularly as residents of the New World, with its centuries of rapid, recent migrations, is not explored in the Times article. The single mention of migratory patterns is misleading: The students whose DNA revealed both African and European ancestors were described as "members of the fastest-growing ethnic grouping in the United States...mixed race." But to the extent that a DNA swipe shows "mixing," there is nothing "new" about it; our ancestors have been mixing it up since the first mothers left central Africa--in the long-ago, ancient sense, we are all "African." Moreover, genes show neither race nor the cultural practices we usually refer to as ethnicity. The absurdity is highlighted by one of the Penn State students, a warm-brown-colored young man pictured in cornrows, who says that even though he tested at "48 percent European" he values his blackness, since "both my parents are black." He goes on to muse: "Just because I found out I'm white, I'm not going to act white." The article ends with an observation that "whatever his genes say," the young man will likely always "be seen as black--at least by white Americans." Consider the narratives herein: Genes "speak" race, whiteness is a biological inheritance that can be consciously "acted," blackness is defined by the eye of the white beholder.

Even though I've excerpted much of her column, it's still worth checking out. I recommend it, and as you think about it, try to meld it with the other articles I've cited above. A lot of headwork for a Monday, I admit.

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