Beautiful Choices, Illusive Freedom

 

According to the ASPCA there are over 70 million pet dogs int he US.    each one, to it’s human, is a little fuzz ball of love.  So how could popele possibly judge the best dog in show in a matter of momments, without even a good ball throw?  Turns out, the best dog in show isn’t, surprise, the best dog there.

8cb640dfb3e7732b6e1e62f5f4076d00.jpgDogs in dog shows are juded against their breed convention.  This means the best dog is defined as the dog that most closely fits the rules for how that breed of dog shoul look.  None of the qualtiies that make you love your dog–fun, cuddly, playful, loyal–matter in the ring.  Its all about fitting the form as laid out by the Kennel club hosting the show.  Critics of dog shows say that the focus on sucha  narrow set of qualities leads to unethical breeding practices, including inbreeding, resulting in harm to the dogs, all in the name of the perfect pup.

Like those dogs in the ring, human beauty takes the shape of conforming to a narrow set of norms.  This comes as no suprise to you smarty pants that you are.  A quick look around our culture shows us just how narrow the ideas of ideal beauty can be.

From magazine covers

vogue covers.jpg To youtube videos that assure us their process is sound in choosing the 100 most beautiful women out of 7.5 billion humans.

To the way models are chosen to represent “every woman of every age”

Since images of women who conform to beauty conventions are everywhere, they become the norm.  We don’t have to read into these convention to know that they are conveying the expectations for those in the culture.  It is explicitly stated over and over that theis is the expectation:

1D274907109615-141029-VS-perfect-body-2001.jpgAnd that meeting those expectations is tied to your consuption of products and services.

Where do these ideas about the body and beauty come from?  Biology, history, culture, art–any number of spheres of human experience influence what you, today think is beautiful.

A biologist might say that many of the thing we think of that make the human body beautiful may be tied to our own desire to mate and procreate.  In the clip below British zoologist Desmond Morris looks at our beauty norms and connects them with our animal nature.

Or we can go farther back, before greeks gods–or greeks for that matter. Anicient indigenous cultures around the world have their own ideas of beauty that have nothing to do with the Greek norms.  Venus, Oshun, and and Lakshmi are all goddesses of beauty in their respective culutres.

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Just like today’s conventional beauties, these goddesses are young, unblemished, shapely and fair of face.  Unlike today’s princesses, they did more than look hot: they invented love, created arts and culture or grew wealth.

These ancient codes come to us from across the world and thousands of years of human civilization.  Each human group, each era puts its own stamp on the idea of beauty as it marches across history.  Whether beauty is desirable for display or designed to remain carefully hidden, the construct remains important, especially in structuring relationships among and between genders.

It’s important to consider who it is that is deciding and defining these cultural norms.  Those that make the definitions wield power over the culture, since values and norms are not held in a vacuum, but are closely tied to societal benefits and consequences.  In western civilisation, early ideas of beauty are debated by the thinkers, writers and artist of the time.  Here from the Ennead Plotinus makes it clear that adherence to form–our dog show rule–is the rule for human beauty as well:

We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form. All shapelessness whose kind admits of pattern and form, as long as it remains outside of Reason and Idea, is ugly from that very isolation from the Divine-Thought. And this is the Absolute Ugly: an ugly thing is something that has not been entirely mastered by pattern, that is by Reason, the Matter not yielding at all points and in all respects to Ideal-Form. But where the Ideal-Form has entered, it has grouped and coordinated what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity: it has rallied confusion into co-operation: it has made the sum one harmonious coherence: for the Idea is a unity and what it moulds must come into unity as far as multiplicity may.

Plotinus, 22 [Ennead I, 6]

Artist of the time were pretty obsessed with the idea.  Polyclitus, a 5th century sculptor wrote a treatise on the perfect form and in case you were unclear, he created a companion statue that showed what he purported to be the ideal human form–and here he is!

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Not your cup of tea?  Philosophers like Humes and Kant believed beauty to be entirely subjective–it’s in the eye of the beholder, so to speak.  Therefore, there were no hard and fast rules about what made someone–or something for that matter–beautiful.  Problem solved—especially for important people who were a little less than hot.  Wealth, status, mothering and godliness could give one the gentle glow of beauty in the 19th century.

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The domesticity-and-godliness school of beauty was faced with growing challenges created by the industrial revolution.  Along with electricity and cars, new fabrics and textiles and  new fabrications methods meant new kinds of clothing came into style.  The wide availablity of cheap cotton along with the invention and eveoloution of the home sewing mchine meant fashion had come to the masses.

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Of course now that you could sew it yourself, why make the same old thing? More form fitting, more comfortable clothes with lighter fabircs took place of heavy mulitlayered clothes.  Whale bone shapers of the 18th and 19th century gave way to steel and then lighter plastic based fabric in the 20th century. New fabrics and new fashions were accopanied by new values that encouraged women to participate in efforts to make themselves more beautiful. Later, an increasingly industrial society meant that women had leaisure time freed up by new inventions like the dishwasher, refriderator and washing machine.

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So far it seems as though it’s not just ideas about beauty and gender identity, but also the cold gears of capitalism that are grinding women into new shapes in the contemporary world.  In our own  time we are seeing again shifting images of bodies that are considered attractive or acceptable.  Is this born out of a new genration’s desire for equality and freedom?  Maybe not.

A typical fashiion model is a size 0, 2 or 4, but the average size woman in America is a size 12-14.  Plus size models are typically a size 8 while plus size clothing starts at 14. Its not just the line between traiditional and plus sizing as well.  The sizes themselves shift with consumer attitudes and the demands of the market.  Vanity sizing is a process by which stores rename sizes to make consumers think they fit a smaller size. Check out some of your favorite retailers below.

dress size 8

In a world where language, image and lived reality are so wildly different no wonder women feel such conflict over body size and shape.  We have no shared way to describe ourselves or each other and our ideas are constatntly being manipulated in order to increase profits.

There seems to be a lot of push back–any number of campaigns that seek to challenge traditional beauty standards by featuring bodies typically unseen or not described in desirable terms.  Dove is most known for their Real Women campaign:

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While people were busy looking at these “atypical bodies” many failed to notice the accompanying product and copy was less celebratory and more antagonistic to those bodies.  The product that was being advertised in the original ad series was a thigh firming cream.  on the one hand, your body is acceptable enough to be a part of the marketplace, and by the way, your thighs are disgusting.  Additionally, later reports show that the campaign had used photoshop for retouching of the women who were size 4-12.

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Lots of ad campaigns have come out to “celebrate” real beauty.  Ads feature women whose size is often invisible on fashion runways.Before you start to celebrate, many of the images of “real women” are as skewed as unrealistic conventional standards. These ads maintain many of the conventions of a desirable body–young, cellulite free, relatively smooth belly, coke bottle shape, smooth skin.

aerie-realI mean, did this woman need to be retouched? No. We are certainly seeing a variety of body sizes, but what is being defined as increaing diversity is merely a slightly broadening of what is acceptable.  Women who are visible constinue to maintain the age-old conventions of beauty and appeal to sexuality.

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Instead we are withnessing a calculated move to expand the customer base in some industries while protecting that wide number of industries that rely on continued unrealistic body images and standards. This is a careful line to walk for multinationals like Unilever who owns both dove and Slimfast.

Which leads us to the idea of choice.  Third wave feminism is born in the debate within the feminst movement about sex, choice, the construction of the body and equality.  Whereas second wave feminist were as a group unwilling to adopt or endorse a sex-positive agenda, the third wave was more willing to engage thesese questions and the varied responses to them.  With several decades of debate over these issues there certainly is no one answer that easily applies across the board.

A deeper issue beneth the skin of body issues has less to do with beauty and more to do with the way that power rewards–or doesn’t–women who are willing to fit hegemonic beauty standards.  The battle between second and third wave feminist over beauty ideals seems to center here.  As women fight for an equal share of finanacial and social captial, does making choices that kowtow to hegemonic beauty ideals set us back or disrup the fight?  Second wave feminist worried that continued forward progress would be halted or at least confused by women participation in a beauty regimine set out by the patriarchy.  Third wave feminists argue for a braoder tent where women with varying beliefs, including around the body, can fight toghether for equality.

But here is the rub to balls-out screw-em-if-you-got-em-all-choice-all-the-time feminism:  can choosing the adoption of beauty rituals really be a choice?  Third wave feminists are cut from the same cloth as neoliberal politics which elevate choice and individuality above all else.  Whatever you want to do is up to and on you.   What seems like the freedom of born-this-way ideology though is problematic in a culture where the body is constructed in the media to sell product and reinforce dominnat cultural values.

Stripping, six inch heels, and the makeup counter at Sephora all seem like choices available to the modern woman.  A little nip tuck?  Why not–it is up to you.  But Jefferys and other feminists show us the deep rabbit hole of patriarchal culture we can choose to jump down when we engage in cutting, carving and coercing our body to fit hegemonic ideals.

Before you go hard claiming the cultural artifacts of western hegemonic beauty standards, ask yourself:

If women really do have choice to look any way they want why is there such a narrow set of choices for them in visible culture?

What if you looked perfect right now?  Would you do anything differently?

What would I do with the time and money I spend making myself look presentable?  What if every woman had an increase in disposible income and time–what would they engage in?

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What postitive social outcomes for women and girls could be achieved if the money spent on achieving beauty was used in other ways to enact policies for women?

These questions get under the skin of the false promise of a neloliberal culture.  A year of violence against trans women and women of color and continued inequality in pay show us that many of the fights of all waves of feminism are under attack.  If you want to put lipstick on, go ahead–as long as it doesn’t stop you from fighting for real freedom.

 

 

 

 

Apocalyptic Cinema: Better Living Through Science

Since the beginning of the century, American films have explored stories of the apocalypse as commentary on our own modern challenges.   Stories of the horrors science can create when man tries to play God lurk beneath the most popular zombie shows and in the cool futuristic sci-fi  of super humans.  These stories are equal parts inspiration and warning–a look over the cliff over science to the abyss of possibility that lies ahead of us.  These stories, in turn, look into us, into our longing to be stronger, more powerful and to live forever.

In Apocalyptic America, we’ve been looking at the questions posed to us by the modern world that we live in–advances in science, new technologies and a host of problems caused by the postindustrial human condition–and the answers film gives us.  Apocalyptic movies allow us to seen through a glass darkly at a world that awaits us as a consequence of our now.  So it is with movies about humans tinkering with the laws of nature.

Some things that might get your sci-fi imagination going:

If you could use science to modify your body, would you? If so, how would you modify your body?

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probably not this…

Would you diet or using science to make you super shapely or strong?

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After having 10 cosmetic procedures in 1 day, Montag struggled emotionally, lost her show and is appearing this season on reality tv therapy show with her mother.

Would you choose the sex of your future baby? Or ensure their special skills?

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Gender selection is banned in some countries, but not the US.  Gender selection that occurred less scientifically as a result of China’s one-child-per-family rule is being blamed for a massive imbalance between males and females, having long-term consequences for marriage, births, and elder care

Would you modify your body to survive a disease or environmental crisis?

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Before you say you would never alter your body, think instead about modification on a continuum from small changes like piercing your ears or wearing glasses all the way to the more extreme iterations like lizard man or gene therapy. As futuristic as some modification technology is, altering the body is nothing new. How acceptable these procedures are seems to connect to how much what they provide is “needed” according to cultural conventions and norms.

Medical Augmentations: Altering or adding to the body to compensate for disease or deformity is most acceptable with widespread support for advances.

Cosmetic modification: altering the body to improve appearance according to common beauty conventions is somewhat acceptable, especially if you meet the conventions conventionally.  The more extreme the augmentation, the more unacceptable it becomes.

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Genetic modification: Altering genes to change the structure of the body or object is controversial whether you are a tomato or a zygote.  Genetically modified fruit–sometimes called Franken fruit–is blamed for a host of problems for humans and their environment, but also ubiquitous in our grocery stores.  Modifying human embryos is illegal–today.

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The gene-ie (ha! I got jokes in writing!) is already out of the bottle. Like our exploration into artificial intelligence and technology, the question is really no longer would we or wouldn’t we, but to what degree should we. Sadly, ethics around biological advances in science are far behind the technology.

Films approach a few of the ways that changes in human engineering could play out in our culture, affecting power, capital, and social relationships. Many movies prior to 2000 focused on the disastrous consequences of genes gone bad. Human-made monsters because of the lack of control of genetic processes.

As we move into the era of apocalyptic dread the stories shift a bit.   As humans become more skilled at making changes to nature and potentially humans, we explore—and fear—the possibilities of what we might create. Here are some examples and the questions they ask

If we make humans, what rights do they have?

Human cloning hits new levels of skill—and for new reasons in this upbeat thriller. If we could make people, would we grant them the same inalienable rights we claim are for all? Note: we do have a hard time ensuring humans rights for all humans now a days. On the plus side, so far we have no structure for identifying babies born using genetic enhancements or fertility treatments.

How would capitalism manage the availability of advances in health tech?

Repo Men is the story of a world where people can buy organs to replace failing ones. Like a new car, if you don’t pay, the corporation sends someone to retrieve your organs. Healthcare costs are already a leading cause of bankruptcy. How much would a heart cost? Probably not less than Wheelock.

What would we do with Superhumans?

A host of movies like Lucy and Limitless and, of course, Xmen find ways to hack the human brain to open up our full potential. Oddly, the movie never ends with a world peace accord. Overwhelmingly advances in humans are coopted to earn capital or fight battles. How culturally hegemonic.

The ideas about what it means to be human and how easily we can lose all that we think we know is nothing new to your COM250 experience, Apocalyptic Americans–these are the common questions that underpin lots of Apocalyptic movies, and, truth be told, they underpin humanity’s grand story as well.  The questions about how to navigate the boundaries of power, class and privilege in an era of evolved humanity are also the same questions about how to restructure society in the wake of wokeness that we have seen all semester. Just as we can’t imagine an end without us, robots without us, so we can’t imagine a new breed of super-humans without us either.

So what’s new in human engineering?  Is there truth hiding inside these movies or is this boogie man solely in the mind of Hollywood?

Cosmetic Alteration

Paying a surgeon to give you the body of your dreams becomes more popular every year–the number of procedures is up in 2015. Cosmetic augmentation is common with more than 15 million cosmetic procedures performed last year. The most common procedures are botox, fillers, and chemical peels–all aimed to turn back the hand of time.  Speaking of turning back, butt implants continue to be one of the fastest growing invasive procedures.  Yeah, Kim!

Medical Augmentation

From 3d printing new limbs to growing new organs in a lab, medical science is moving ahead by leaps and bounds. Pop star Viktoria Modesta and her fantastic light up leg shows how transformative new technology can be in redefining ability. Advances in medical technology will increase your lifespan, but many ethical questions—including who can afford it—abound.

Genetic modification

Since the human genome was first mapped in 2003, our knowledge of the role genes play in making you you has expanded rapidly. If we can manipulate the genes of fruit to make the fruit we desire, might similar techniques be used to create the children we desire?

All of these futures before us are rife with the kind of possibilities that come with consequences we can only dream of.  Far more serious than a few butt implants, the implications of all this tinkering are beyond even Hollywood’s wild mind.  The challenges couldn’t be more real. Just a few months ago a US based organization, endorsed by over 150 experts int he field called for a moratorium on human  genetic modification, warning that once we begin, the irreversible process can have implications beyond the boundary of any of these movies.  Truth, it seems remains stranger than fiction.

I teach a course called Apocalyptic America where we explore film and TV about the end of the world and find out what they tell us  about the challenges of our own world.  The above is a makeup blog lecture (a blecture?) from a recent class. If you made it this far, you get an A for the day.

Loads of Love

Recently this Ariel laundry soap ad, titled #sharetheload , from India crossed my desk (thanks, D!) and brought a little tear to my eye.

The touching story of a father who learns–not too late–the importance of balancing the second shift at home is more than just bubbly suds.  When women entered the workforce, the talk was all about being able to bring home the bacon AND fry it up in a pan AND of course cater to your mates masculinity.  After years of all y’all trying to have it all, it’s time to concede:  work-life balance is a struggle if the partnership follows the plotline of Leave it to Beaver or today’s patch of modern sitcoms with dope dads and super moms.

The Don Draper uber-masculine scotch drinking dad of yesteryear is dead.  Cold distant dads are out.  Today with a wide variety of family structures and work commitments, the old school gender-role  driven division of labor is giving way to more balanced homes.  What’s more, sharing chores with your mate is good for more than clean laundry.  Here sociologist Michael Kimmel talks about the many benefits shared home-work.

So don’t wait till you’re a silver fox to pitch in at home.  Who knows, dinner might not be the only thing you get cooking!

The Most Interesting Whitewashed Character in Advertising

Bon Voyage to the Most Interesting Man in the World. Loved by saints and sinners and far more than his fair share of women, he has played  with popes and wrestled with animals; he mastered the art of being the man. Mexican beer brand Dos Equis announced the retirement of the much-loved man-scot or, to be exact, they’ve announced the most interesting man is headed to another world on a one-way trip to Mars.

The Most Interesting Man in The World (MIMITW) has been a good look for the Mexican beer brand since 2006.  The introduction of the MIMITW has resulted in an appreciable uptick in sales and spawned a thousand memes.

Dos Equis decided it was time to update the brand, make it more modern and tighter fit with their upcoming sponsorship of college football, but at smntks, I suspect they decided to dump the undumpable MIMITW before fans woke up to this most agreeable of whitewashed characters.

Listen, how could you not love a guy that wrestles lions and charms queens?  But step too close and catch the faintest whiff of racism. In an industry with few opportunities for Latino actors, why is this juicy role whitewashed?

The MIMITW is actually played by Jonathon Goldsmith, a Jewish actor born in New York in 1938 who made the round of a number of popular 70’s and 80’s  shows including  Perry Mason and Dallas. How did he become the most recognizable Latino brand spokesperson?

That’s right, the spokesperson for Mexican beer is the one white guy in a room full of 500 Latino actors they decided was more Latino than any of the Latinos.  How could this be?  Goldsmith wasn’t being a latino in his audition–he played a Latino filtered through the white gaze: success! Goldsmith recounts the details in a 2012 Ad Age interview:

“Basically it was just a cattle call,” he said. “I got into the room, and there were hundreds of people and a big crowd waiting outside, and everybody looked like Juan Valdez. And I said “This is crazy—they are not looking for me.’ I went in when it was my turn and all I could think about was “My God, I’ve got to move my car by 4 o’clock or I’m going to get a massive ticket. “

Goldsmith says that he based the character of the most interesting man in the world on his close friend and famous Latin Lover actor Fernando Lamas.  You may not remember the actor in old movies like The Violent ones or this gem, Dangerous When Wet:

But you may remember the Saturday Night Live Skits based on the actor called Fernando’s hideaway.

All the hallmarks of the stereotypical latin lover are here:  sultry accent, swooning smooth talk, tall, dark and handsome. Way more machismo than the marrying type.  Doesn’t sound too terrible, being reduced to a man-whore, a literal Don Juan.  Yeah, no exoticizing there. Definitely better than the king kong stereotype, but a stereotype still.

Funny how in the movies the brown-skinned lover is seen as sexy and dangerous, but in real life they’re just seen as dangerous.  The hot fantasy of the latin lover is, like Jonathon Goldsmith’s latin lover pedigree, just a fantasy.  SImilar to stereotypes of black men, the stereotype of Latino men in American media boils down to this: hot in the sheets, shot in the streets.

Okay, okay, I’m not trying to rain beer on your Mars launch. Let me be the first to admit the MIMITW is a fantastic character.  The commercials are all hilarious.  …..You know what’s coming, though, right? His devil may care, love them and leave them fantasy man is as stinky a stereotype as Pepe le Pew.  Choosing the old stereotypical image of machsmo-mad latinos makes Dos Equis a little skunky too.  Sigh.  Something that is true, even if it makes you sad, is that sometimes stuff you think is funny is racist.

But it’s 2016, and in our increasingly diverse and woke world, whitewashing characters, not matter how well loved is no bueno. Woomp woomp, Most Interesting Man in the World–take your ass to mars.

Dos Equis reports that the campign isn’t dead, just being retooled. When casting, don’t forget the many talented and truly Latino actors–like The Strain’s Miguel Gomez–looking for a juicy role.  Do us a fovor, skip the Rico Suave stereotype and give us a crisp modern Latinx vibe–now that’s refreshing.

 

 

Happy International Women’s Day B’s and S’s!

Today is International women’s Day, nestled snuggly inside Women’s history month. We could point out–similar to black history month–that women make up roughly 50% of humanity but all we get is one lousy month, but hey, we try to keep it positive at smntks. Instead, we’ll take a moment to celebrate some of the wins for women.  Three cheers!

Our ranks of sisterhood have expanded beyond the binary-based boundaries previously known as womanhood. As our culture becomes more enlightened about the broad spectrum of gender we get more broads in our spectrum: we move past times when trans people were thought of as other and become instead sister (and brother).  No justice can be won till we win it for everyone so standing in solidarity with all our sisters makes us stronger.

 I can safely predict that we are gearing up for our first female President of the United States.  I’m confident that if I’m wrong, and Trump is elected president we will all surely be destroyed, so you won’t be fact checking smntks–either way I win.  We know from 8 years of an Obama administration that electing someone from a previously “unelectable” group certainly doesn’t end discrimination of all the people in that group.  It’s easy to argue that racism in America has gotten noticeably worse in the last 8 years under our first black president.  It won’t be different with our first female president. To quote Douglas, there can be no progress without struggle, so electing a female president shatters a boundary we’ll need to cross on our way to a gender neutral culture.

Speaking of broader spectrums of broads how about broader broads’ bods. This year we have seen a host of  curvy beauties in places typically reserved for a more narrow body type.  From the Victoria secret runway to the pages of Sports Illustrated, a rounder feminine body made it into the rotation of typical male fantasy fare.  While this win lands squarely in the column of the objectification of the female form, we’re still going to chalk it up her as a victory for increasing acceptance of all kinds of sisters. Besides the broader spectrum of beauty was also featured in everything from fashion to fame.

With all these wins to celebrate, where’s the work going forward?  Everywhere–you’ll remember that even our wins come with their own losses.  The glass ceiling may be shattered for Hilary but remains stubbornly intact for many women, not to mention that legions of women around the world struggle at the edges of or in extreme poverty.

Malala Yousafzai has done amazing things to call for the education of all girls across the world.  Even with the solid strategies, she has provided for world leaders, her vision remains a work in progress.  Girls around the world are kept from getting the  education they for a variety of reasons  from economic to religious to cultural.  In the US, girls do not face legal barriers to school, but with the US ranking 39th in education overall, making America great is going to take a substantial improvement in education.

Even with all the strides for equity and individual choice, women still walk a razor line between saint and sinner in order to avoid social judgement.  Women have won the right to abortion, sex outside of marriage and the right to choose not to have children but struggle to exercise these right without being shamed.  Slut shaming, attacking abortion patients and poo-pooing women’s personal life choices is still very 2016.  In this video released by Anna Wise of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp  Butterfly fame, she sings sweetly about the not so sweet double bind of the modern woman.

If you’ve ever been called a bitch or a slut, count yourself among the massive number of women stigmatized for nothing less that their own agency and freedom.  It’s hard to walk the thin line drawn for women in our culture, but I have just the fabulous strut for this.  Raise your glass for women today and take your victory stroll–broad horizons are ahead.

[header illustration by Lauren Campbell]