06 June 2011

On Black Beauty

The nature of blogging necessitates that each Monday I dedicate my time to commenting on the most recent news that I care about to varying degrees.  That said, I thought I'd take this first June entry to say something about an issue that I didn't have an opportunity to discuss because I was busy hating on Common and famous gay people.

Last month, a few completely different, yet not altogether unrelated issues made a blip on my pop culture radar.  Briefly:

  1. Rap group, Dead Prez released the video for "The Beauty Within," a track off their latest mixtape.  The song is both a celebration of "natural" black women and a response to the Bruno Mars track it samples.  The Mars' video celebrates those women who live in Omniracial City or its near suburbs.  Dead Prez give the brown sisters a shoutout, and crunchy women everywhere ash├ęd for forty days.
  2. Psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, did his best John Mayer imitation by publishing an article wherein he presents "scientific evidence" that black women are the least attractive, but tend to think of themselves as more attractive than they actually are.  The internet nearly blew up until someone decided to start a petition, instead.
  3. A 9-minute clip for the new Bill Duke documentary--and perhaps I should say I use the term loosely--Dark Girls began circulating the internet.  Dark-skinned black women, accompanied with music from the Save a Starving African Child soundtrack, recount their (horror) stories of growing up in color struck (Black) America.  The interviews came off as melodramatically pathetic and, frankly, fake; some of them seemed more actress auditioning for a Hollywood revamp of Imitation of Life than dark girl recounting the trauma of elementary school.
The overarching commonality between these three pop culture bites is quite obvious.  All, in some way, are invested in highlighting black women's beauty--or lack thereof--and its value within a larger social context.  Each is a response to, in one way or another, prevailing notions of white (women's) beauty and the effects it has on others, namely men and black women.

What also comes to mind, though, is the way in which this investment in women's beauty is rendered.  Each assessment of beauty--whether positive or negative--is filtered through the male gaze and is thusly dependent upon male (dis)approval.  Even the Dead Prez validation, which attempts to celebrate "natural" black beauty, is contingent upon a male perspective in its celebration of this particular aesthetic.  The Duke film, which relies very heavily on black women's testimonies, is both the vehicle of a male (Duke), and seems sort of incomplete and perhaps unbelievable, until the viewer watches a young black man brashly discuss his dating preferences.  And so, it seems to me, that black women's response to each of these--whether it's excitement over the Dead Prez clip, a signature on a petition, or expressing a desire to see the complete version of the Duke film--reflects a substantial belief and investment in the importance of these points of view.  In other words, the overwhelming response to each issue reinforces the significance of a male's perspective in determining the value of black women's beauty.

Second, each works as a reaction to prevailing notions of beauty in ways that don't question the core norm black women's beauty seems to circulating around and working against.  None of these work to disrupt or even adequately trouble the uninterrogated norm  of white beauty, but rather work from (the pathology of) black women's assessment of their physical qualities.  Which, in effect, looks at black women's understanding of their attractiveness as some sort of problem: Dead Prez wants to assure black women that they're beautiful even though society tells them they're not and just in case that influence rubbed off on them; Kanazawa wants black women to know they're hardly as attractive as they think they are, which is a problem; Duke's clip, the young black man notwithstanding, pays substantial attention to the mothers and light-skinned black girls who made dark-skinned black girls feel bad about themselves.  All because, of course, they are men and have the authority to make you feel better or worse about your face and body.

I say all of this not to suggest that black women's beauty and the way that it is appreciated isn't an issue worthy of discussion, but rather to point out the way in which that discussion has been framed.  Is it possible, for example, for black women to talk about this subject without getting all sad and self-loathing--and be listened to?  Can black women discuss and/or respond to discussions about beauty in a way that is not contingent upon (over)valuing male desire and validation?  What about a response to Dead Prez' borderline fetishistic ode to natural black women that reads something like, "Thanks, but we knew that already"?  Isn't that much more empowering?

I understand that my position as a queer, masculine of center person (or whatever the correct language is) significantly colors my perspective on this.  Yet from my (somewhat distant) vantage, so often it seems that discussion of black women as it pertains to beauty or their inability to find an upwardly mobile good black man can be articulated as a perpetual quest for admission into a club that would never have them in the first place or even treat them very well if they were allowed in the building.  So why, I wonder, do black women respond with such surprise when a representative from the set that has been saying that they were ugly for the last 400 years or so says, well, that they're (still) ugly?  Don't we know this already?

How can the energy spent responding to the denigration or exaltation of black women be shifted to a place where male desire and validation is of lesser significance?  Is Dark Girls going to tell us anything we don't already know? Aren't Kanazawa's words little reflex hammers, reminders that, fake science or not, it still really stings that mainstream society doesn't find black women beautiful?  We've been discussing this so long we should have automated responses to issue when such moments occur.  That way we can get so caught up in the real work of telling ourselves, each other we are beautiful with such adamant vigor that Dead Prez' background music and this other, racistly familiar chatter sounds like nothing but a bunch of unnecessary white noise.


dustdaughter said...

Great post. Like Chris Rock with that Good Hair movie, men are making it a habit of defining black female norms and culture and packaging it for mainstream consumption.

I wish this didn't strike such a nerve in black women collectively. I wish we were valuing each other's intelligence or creativity. Worrying so much about beauty and other people's perceptions of it feels like a sticky trap to fall into.

Lena said...

I agree with Dustdaughter, it's unfortunate that women have to be define by cultural standards and that it bothers us so much. And why is it not males that get defined and have to stand up against what mass media says. Why does it feel like women are always fighting a revoluntion about their womenness.

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