Thursday, January 2, 2020

I Think My Biggest Problem Is Being Young and Beautiful

ARNOLD: It's my biggest problem because I've never been young and beautiful.  Oh, I've been beautiful, and God knows I've been young, but never the twain have met.
-- Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy
I just reread Erica Rand's Barbie's Queer Accessories (Duke, 1995), an excellent book not only about popular culture and how consumers use it, but about how to think about such matters.  It is even better than I remembered, in fact, and that's unusual.

Here's something that I thought was worth dwelling on.  Toward the end Rand quotes a poem by the late gay African-American poet Essex Hemphill which uses Barbie as a sign of white supremacy.  The lines
Barbie never told Black girls they are beautiful.
She never acknowledged their breathtaking Negritude.
are repeated several times as a refrain.

The trouble is that Barbie never told white girls they are beautiful, either.  Only Barbie is beautiful, the platonic idea of Beauty, and no human being can look like her.  Rand discusses several of the official Barbie stories, in both print and comic-book form, that Mattel licensed and produced, and this was a recurrent theme: Barbie has numerous friends who are pretty and talented, but they all come in a distant second to Her Barbieness.

That's leaving aside the fact that Barbie can't tell anybody anything: she's a doll. As an object she signifies, but as Rand shows, what she signifies is complex, and different people read her differently.  People read messages into her like a Median mage reading portents in entrails. I know, this is a poem and I shouldn't take it literally.  But granting that, and recognizing that Barbie in that couplet is a synecdoche for white America, my objection still stands, because white America throws most girls and women under the beauty bus.  Despite a few token big-boned white women in mass media, most of whom are comedians, the ideal beauty is still skinny with cheekbones you could cut yourself on, and breasts by ... Mattel, courtesy of breast implants.

Black America seems to do a little better by black women, but skinny women still stand out in music videos and film (see this video for some background), and conspicuous consumption with lots of expensive clothes and other accessories sets the standard.  Big buttocks are often fetishized, and that says it right there: a fetishized woman is not a person but a sex doll.

Rand also quotes another poem:
"No Images," written by Waring Cuney in 1926, about a woman whose does know the beauty of her brown body: 

If she could dance Naked, 
Under palm trees 
And see her image in the river 
She would know. 
But there are no palm trees 
On the street 
And dish water gives back no images.
Transpose this into a fantasy of a white woman dancing naked in an ancient forest of Teutonic Germany or looking at her reflection in an icy blue Nordic lake, and you can see it for what it is.  As for "palm trees/On the street," there are palm trees on streets in places where palm trees grow, and women are stuck with the dishes in Africa too.  I might try to find the full poem sometime so I can see if these lines are less offensive in context, but far as I can see it's another man's fetishistic fantasy about women.

My point is not that the beauty Barbie represents oppressed white girls as much as black or brown ones; it's that both Hemphill and Cuney sentimentalize "native" lifeways and models of beauty in exactly the same way white people have often done, a tendency Rand criticizes elsewhere in the book.  Would white girls be better served if they danced around trees in the ancient Teutonic forests?  Are young black African girls free from worries about being beautiful enough?  Ideals of beauty militate against the actual, quotidian beauty of real women (and men), and a politically engaged poet like Hemphill could still believe that the answer is as simple as Barbie telling black girls that they are beautiful.  Not if it just replaces constrictive white models with constrictive black or brown ones.

It's not clear how people are actually affected by the commercial media's marketing of images defined as beautiful, and Rand does a good job on that problem.  I think that many if not most people compartmentalize it: in their actual love and erotic lives they are perfectly content with people who don't look like Barbie or Ken, but somewhere in the back of their minds they feel inferior themselves, and believe that they are making do with second-best in their partners.  This, I think, makes it difficult to combat the media imagery.  But there's little doubt that some people respond in self-destructive ways, trying to make their bodies conform to what they've been told, and agree, they should look like.  Twentieth-century advertising and mass media may have made things worse, but they didn't invent the problem: cases of harmful beauty nostrums (whalebone corsets, belladonna, footbinding, etc.) are much older.

I recall a review of Carolyn Heilbrun's biography of Gloria Steinem which described adult women sighing, "She's so beautiful!" and expressing their bafflement that such a beautiful woman would be a feminist.  Myself, I have never thought that Steinem was particularly beautiful, but what I lament is that grown women should think that a woman's beauty is so overarchingly important.  I don't think that men, as guilty as we are, get all the blame for this belief; I think that women are responsible too.  And how odd that it never seems to occur to them that Steinem became a feminist because she was beautiful.

People are torn between the platitude that everyone is beautiful if you can see their inner beauty (but who cares? what people want is outer beauty), and the desire to be the most ideally, uniquely, beautiful.  This contradiction can't be resolved, and we need to get rid of both parts of it.