In the video segment of “Brown Skin Girl” from Black Is King (2020)—the third “visual album” by pop star Beyoncé Knowles-Carter—Black girls and women are validated for their physical and inner beauty as Beyoncé’s voiceover proclaims, “We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.” Within the pop star’s pro-Black message we might imagine they to represent a system of power rather than a collective of individuals: a system based in white supremacy, western imperialism, and heteropatriarchal oppression. Such systems reflect the multiple forms of oppression that legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (2017) identifies as “intersectionality,” which have complicated how women—Black women specifically—have experienced the interconnected inequalities of gender, race, class, and other factors. Such experiences extend toward the subject of beauty.
Online Activism / Real-World Change: World Pulse
by Janet Lockhart
World Pulse is an international online community of women who work together to teach digital skills and leadership, share resources and ideas, and mobilize each other to create social change in their countries.
World Pulse was founded in 2004 by Jensine Larson, a traveling journalist, who had the idea after being asked by women in several different countries to “tell their stories” to others. She wanted to use global media technology to empower women to tell their own stories.
As World Pulse has grown, women and allies from nearly two hundred countries now use the platform to share stories and support and work for change—pressuring leaders to respond to issues, starting businesses, running for office, and using their creativity to spark new movements—in the real world.
Women of Africa and the diaspora—especially from those African countries and Caribbean Island nations where skin-bleaching creams are prominently in use—needed Beyoncé’s reminder of their beauty and desirability, as the video unfolds in glorious celebration of the dark skins and cultures of Black and brown women and girls. The video emphasizes Black girlhood in particular, since they are most vulnerable to internalizing negative messages about their beauty potential. So, we see the intergenerational handclap games of mothers and daughters, as well as young debutante queens being affirmed by their community. Even the inclusion of gender-bending girls in suit and tie, posing with featured Nigerian singer Wizkid standing next to a hijab-covered Muslim and an albino, suggests that there is no one way to be a beautiful “brown skin girl.” Celebrated dark-skinned models like Naomi Campbell and Adut Akech, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, and Beyoncé’s darker-skinned bandmate from Destiny’s Child, Kelly Rowland, also make cameo appearances, while the video segment concludes with the song sung by Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, in a gesture toward elevating the self-esteem of the next generation of Black girls.
This presentation, which covers the range of complexions among African-descended women, including dark-skinned South Asian women who are also encouraged to buy fair-skinned creams, signals Beyoncé’s global message. The song’s premiere in 2019 is apropos given how the major beauty pageants that year—Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss World—all crowned Black women winners. It also shuts down the light-skin / dark-skin debates over “Brown Skin Girl” that erupted upon the song’s release on Beyoncé’s Afrobeat album The Gift (2019), which celebrated the African continent and was specifically conceived of as an accompanying project to her involvement in Disney’s live-action remake of the blockbuster animation film The Lion King (1993). Beyoncé’s audiovisual project is exemplary of world media and the various global responses that position it for different transnational and local meanings. First, as a Disney-sponsored project streamed exclusively on its online platform, it is aligned with the global corporation’s dominant commercial worldview that has reshaped world cultures through a US-centric lens. Second, its Afrocentric message complicates the African American imagination Beyoncé brings to its depiction of “Africa,” from The Lion King’s animal story to her own spinoff on African royalty, which is reflected in a romanticized version of an African past from where the enslaved ancestors of African-descended people originated.
Even the challenges of global distribution speak to power differences, since many on the African continent did not have access to Disney’s streaming platform, subsequently forcing Beyoncé to intervene with special screenings. The structural inequalities between continental Africans and an African American pop star—one who benefits from fame, wealth, light-skin privilege, and US nationality—necessarily project multiple meanings of “Africa” in its narrative. Indeed, Beyoncé, who was once hailed in the title of a Nollywood film, Beyoncé: The President’s Daughter (2006), which characterizes the color and nationality of the African American singer as an ideal for Nigerian womanhood, reflects a global and transnational power that inevitably shapes the beauty politics around dark-skinned beauty. The pop star attempts to bring that power to her audiovisual project, using her privileges—which have enabled her own ascendancy to world stardom—to celebrate Black and brown womanhood.
Finally, Beyoncé’s project had a different impact on another region of the world with its reception among her South Asian fans. They had praised the pop star for being racially inclusive of Indian women and girls, who also struggle with self-esteem over their color. For this reason these same fans immediately condemned the song “Beyoncé Sharma Jayegi” (“Beyoncé Will Feel Shy”) from the Hindi film Khaali Peeli (2020) for insinuating that the fair-skinned leading lady referenced in the song, who is praised for being goriya (fair-skinned), would “make Beyoncé feel shy” in comparison.
During a year of the global movement for Black Lives Matter and in which Beyoncé praised the dark-skinned beauty of both African-descended and South Asian women and girls in “Brown Skin Girl,” it was inevitable that many would react negatively to the irony of a Bollywood song extolling the beauty of whiteness and using an African American pop star to serve as a beauty contrast to being fair-skinned. And yet the songwriters insist they intended no insult to Beyoncé, that the invocation of her name was specifically in response to her world status as a globally recognized beautiful woman. They had not thought any deeper about the problematic use of goriya to contrast a woman’s beauty to Beyoncé, which merely reflects how colorism is deeply ingrained in the culture alongside elitism and casteism. As Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan reminds us, “Race and caste are not the same system, but they are parallel oppressions that have the same logic” (2020), the former in oppressing Black lives and the latter in subjugating Dalits as “untouchables” within Hindi culture in India and its diaspora.
by Shannon Garvin
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner in the World Cinema Documentary category was the ground-breaking Writing with Fire. This documentary follows Dalit women in India who work as journalists and the extreme challenges they face—from working from the underside of power (Dalit people are considered the lowest social caste) to struggling to read in English on the smartphones they need to record interviews.
Meeri Devi leads a team of women who report on issues from the perspectives of those on the bottom of Indian society for Khabar Lahariya (Waves of News). While many articles are written in Hindi, some like “For Mission Nari Shakti, We First Need Purush Sanshakti // New Year, Same Old Burden of Safety from Male-inflicted Violence on Women” are written in English and work to educate people living in India and live around the world. In this article, reporters explore why men and boys must also be actively involved in policies to eliminate sexual violence against women. By necessity, journalism needs the voices of all parts of a society—all genders, religions, and ethnicities—or it cannot accurately report or speak to the life of average and ordinary people. Like Khabar Lahariya, it must also report in local dialects so that it can be accessible to all people. Supporting, reading, and learning from local women “on the ground” in rural and poor parts of the world is one way we can engage the world and support the work of women worldwide.
Given these different responses to issues of gender, race, color, nationality, local and global media, and transnational audiences, this chapter explores the evolution of world media and representations of womanhood through this lens. This includes tracing its origins through local shows, world fairs, cinema, music, and commercial media at large. Analyzing such concepts as the “male gaze,” race and racialization, and cultural appropriation, this chapter seeks to illuminate how womanhood has diverse and complex meanings that shift based on the intersections of gender, race, class, nationality, sexuality, embodiment, and disablement.
World Views on Women
In 1992 the Cuban American feminist performance artist Coco Fusco sought to create with fellow Chicano artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña a satire during the quincentennial celebration of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America with their mock exhibit “Two Undiscovered Amerindians.” Fusco and Gómez-Peña used performance art to commemorate the time Columbus brought Indigenous Americans back with him from the Americas to exhibit at the royal court of Spain, which subsequently spawned centuries of similar human exhibitions that are arguably the first examples of “world media” in the western world. While the majority of the public missed the satire of their artistic aim—reading the “Two Undiscovered Amerindians” exhibit literally and thereby eliciting charges that the performance deliberately misinformed the public—Fusco suggests that such efforts at literal interpretations erase the colonial violence that was whitewashed through the Columbus Day celebrations and further re-creates “the concept of cultural diversity fundamental to this understanding [that] strikes at the heart of the sense of control over Otherness that Columbus symbolized” (Fusco 1994, 145).
Such constructions of Otherness through the exhibition framework of non-Europeans also shaped representations of disability via the “freak show” display of white disabled and/or disfigured bodies, which inevitably formed a parallel between white disabled “Others” and their non-white able-bodied or disabled counterparts. A powerful example of this was in the display of Sara Baartman, a Khoisan woman from the Cape of South Africa who was infamously called the “Hottentot Venus.” Baartman was publicly displayed to create a spectacle of the size and shape of her buttocks, which subsequently turned her into a sex object exhibited among the other “freak show” curiosities at London’s Piccadilly Circus. Placed on display in both England and France from 1810 until her premature death at the end of the year in 1815, Baartman was constructed both as a “freak” and “perfect specimen of her race” (Hobson 2005, 36). She was both an abnormality for Europeans and a normality among the “Hottentot” she was understood to represent, although her racial/ethnic group was already labeled as the “missing link” between humanity and animality by Europe’s race scientists, thus leading to the posthumous dissection and inhuman medicalization of her cadaver by the anatomist George Cuvier.
Present-day echoes of the Hottentot Venus can be traced through the spectacle of women’s behinds, especially among hip-hop stars like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion (whose nickname literally derived from men comparing her booty to a horse, thus perpetuating the typical animalization of Black women). And while certain white women, such as the Kardashians—who monetize their looks through racial appropriation via darkened makeup and surgically enhanced lips and behinds—have attained the look of the “exotic other,” we must distinguish between the dehumanization of an African woman’s body in the past and the present-day spectacle of highly visible celebrity women who willingly display their assets for fame and fortune. Having said that, we may notice how both historical and contemporary depictions of womanhood are premised on similar sexual objectification.
Baartman would certainly not be the last “racial curiosity” in the western world to elicit interest both as a pop culture entertainment show and as a scientific specimen. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues, her freak-show display—much like P. T. Barnum’s later exhibit (and the first among his various “freaks”) of the African American elderly woman Joice Heth, falsely billed in 1835 as George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid—illustrates the intersectionality of race, gender, nationality, and disability. Garland-Thomson thus suggests, “the language and assumptions of the ability/disability system were implemented to pathologize and exoticize [these women, whose bodies] . . . invoked disability by presenting as deformities or abnormalities the characteristics that marked [them] as raced and gendered” (Garland-Thomson 2002, 7).
Another of Barnum’s “freaks,” Afong Moy, was the first Chinese woman to enter the United States in 1834. Her bound feet and Chinese dress were placed on display alongside other trade goods from China, including tea and porcelain, which ultimately objectified and fetishized the “Oriental” woman, who was imagined to be exotic, submissive, and sensual (Davis 2019). This trope of “Orientalism” (Said 1978), which collapses the cultures of East and South Asia as well as west Asia (or the Middle East) into simplified narratives and stereotypes, eventually led to the criminalization of Asian women, who were presumed to be prostitutes. They were subsequently the first group to be banned from the United States in the Page Act of 1875, a precursor to the 1882 Chinese Immigration Ban.
Human exhibitions proved an effective tool in promoting western imperialism and power, as they were eventually included in world fairs that advertised not just the “advancements” of the industrialized world in the West, reflected in technological innovations, but also the “regression” or “unchanging” cultures of the non-western world that such human exhibits conveyed by contrast. One of the first world fairs in this vein included the 1851 Crystal Palace World Fair in London, organized by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, which introduced to the public the technology of photography alongside small exhibits from some of the British colonies. Over forty years later, in 1893, Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition, which marked the quadricentennial celebration of Columbus’s “discovery,” introduced the world to electricity while enhancing displays of non-western cultures through the ethnographic exhibit. During this decade the light of electricity would combine with photography to birth cinema, a new tool to perpetuate world media via western imperialism and the ethnographic display of other cultures.
While leaving a lasting legacy that is still felt in the twenty-first century with our ever-evolving electronic revolution via digital culture, there are other legacies stemming from the World Columbian Exposition. Women—white women specifically—were relegated to a “Women’s Building” that showcased women’s various contributions to arts, education, and home economics, thus promoting ideas and beliefs about appropriate behaviors and standards for a respectable womanhood that often excluded women of color. Indeed, Ida B. Wells joined her soon-to-be-husband, Ferdinand L. Barnett, and Frederick Douglass to disseminate the pamphlet The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not at the World’s Columbian Exposition, while only one African American woman, Fannie Barrier Williams, was permitted inclusion at the Women’s Building exposition.
Women of Courage in Journalism
by Shannon Garvin
Around the world, female journalists offer a necessary voice to the experiences and perspectives of women in extraordinary events and everyday circumstances. Women often do not experience life as the men in their cultures, and reporting a more accurate picture requires the voices of all—women and men, as well as various religions and ethnicities. The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) supports the work of women in journalism around the world. Each year. they offer Courage in Journalism Awards. Courage is often needed by women—whether their efforts are sidelined or mocked by coworkers and local male-driven media or whether they literally put their lives on the line every day, reporting from countries devastated by war or where women have no voice in society.
In Afghanistan, three young female journalists (ages 18-20) were gunned down and another injured after leaving work on March 2, 2021. The Afghan Journalists Security Committee reports that fourteen women journalists were threatened or killed in 2020. African Women in Media (AWIM) offers a place for women to write and educate the world on women’s issues in Africa. Women have also been at the forefront of educating Africans across the continent on health and COVID-19. To learn more about the courage and commitment women journalists embody to report the experience of all people and to make the world a better place, follow the links above and look up specific countries that interest you.
Instead, women of color framed three distinct exhibits at the world fair. One display included an African American woman, Nancy Green, who performed in the debut of “Aunt Jemima,” selling pancakes and advancing an early version of mass marketing around a commercial brand, one that relied on the myth of the Old South and its plantation romance, where big, dark-skinned Black women “knew their place” in positions of slavery and servitude. The stereotype of Aunt Jemima promoted the belief that such women were more than happy to provide comfort and comfort food for the white American consumer, a belief that was so deeply ingrained in the culture that pancakes and syrup under the brand name Aunt Jemima continued to sell until its removal in 2021. A different exhibit featured “Dahomey Amazons,” fierce African female soldiers defeated by the French, who had colonized Dahomey (present-day Benin) and placed these women on display as a commemoration of the “savage” and “unfeminine” Africans they were able to subjugate in the interest of colonialism. In providing both domestic and foreign examples of Black female subjugation, the male dominance of western imperialism is affirmed, as represented in the contemporary “Scramble for Africa” among European nations in the late nineteenth century, also coinciding with the violence of the US post-Reconstruction era and the “manifest destiny” playing out in the American imperial wars in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
An intersectional analysis lays bare how gender politics collides with these racial politics. For example, these exhibits based in Black “primitivism” found a parallel in the “Orientalism” of the racial/ethnic others from Asia and the Middle East, as displayed with the “Snake dancers” of Egypt, which was colonized during this period by Great Britain. This third display of otherness at the World Columbian Exposition introduced an early version of the belly dance to the fair’s audience. This dance eventually formed the “exotic dance” of the strip tease.
Indeed, various women performed as “Little Egypt,” constructing a striptease performance based on the snake dancers seen at the world fair (Bentley 2005, 36). Moreover, the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” imagined in the operatic Salome and based on the titular biblical seductress—who infamously requested the beheading of John the Baptist after dancing sensuously for King Herod—situates dangerous female sexuality through the lens of Orientalism. The dance was re-created in Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis (1927) to convey the femme fatale quality of Maria, the false cyborg invented to lead the working-class masses astray but who is eventually burned at the stake like a witch, a spectacle steeped in a general misogyny affecting all women. The striptease of the veiled Oriental woman, via the “exotic dance,” is in effect a colonial project in which “The inaccessibility of the veiled woman, mirroring the mystery of the Orient itself, requires a process of Western unveiling” (Shohat 1991, 57).
Such sexual and racial differences became a fixture in the culture, so much so that early cinema routinely constructed exotic Others in positions of servitude or villainy. D. W. Griffith’s early silent films are exemplary, from his depiction of cinema’s first trans character in Judith of Bethulia (1914)—included to exaggerate the “strangeness” of the “Oriental” biblical setting and the transgressive behavior of its female hero—to his infamous celebration of the Ku Klux Klan in his cinematically innovative Birth of a Nation (1915), with its construction of Black male rapists and white female innocence, to his orgiastic biblical drama Intolerance (1916), which trades in Orientalist fantasies. These representations framed and maintained the normalcy and dominance of whiteness and heteropatriarchy, which was eventually broadcast to the world through colonialism. Fortunately, African American filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux invented their own innovative styles to create cinematic counternarratives, as he offered with his film Within Our Gates (1918), an ambitious feature-length narrative that undercuts the heroism of white supremacists in Birth of a Nation. Micheaux opted instead to intercut the horrific scene of the lynching of a Black family with one in which a Black woman is sexually assaulted by a white man, who is later revealed to be her father in an incestuous storyline that undermines the era’s racist sentiments of racial difference that a legacy of enslavement exposes through interracial and interfamily relations.
Between the “exotic dance” of Little Egypt during the late nineteenth century and later performances in 1920s Paris by African American entertainer Josephine Baker, who similarly performed “black primitivism” through her own nude performances, the racial Other is routinely sexualized in contrast to the idealization of a pure and chaste white womanhood. Baker’s performances both on stage and in film reiterate these racial divides, in which her wild, libidinously driven “primitive” persona serves as a foil to white male subjects, who are often enticed but inevitably resist the charms and dangers of racialized women when they leave the colonized space of Africa or the “Orient” and return to their proper place and home of the white heterosexual family.
Despite such messages, the popularity of entertainers like Baker among the French was such that white French women bought “bronzer” creams and powders to emulate her dark complexion, a reversal of sorts of the racial order. Similar to present-day entertainers and social media influencers, such as the Kardashians and the white Instagram “blackfishers” bronzing their skin tones, these acts of racial otherness, through “blackface,” suggest the fantasy and desire to “eat the other,” as bell hooks describes, in which Blackness represents a heightened form of excitement, pleasure, and danger that whites can consume in temporary escape of their own conventional whiteness (hooks 1992, 21). Indeed, the racial bifurcation that constructed chaste, virginal white womanhood in opposition to Black and/or brown female sexuality inspired white women to appropriate the Orient/Primitive in order to assert the existence of their own sexuality, hence the “bronzer,” hence the “Little Egypt” exotic dance.
Such racial politics complicate the analysis of feminist film theory, with Laura Mulvey identifying the “male gaze” as the dominant gendered structure framing the lens of the movie camera, with women’s bodies consumed for their “to-be-looked-at-ness” status as objects and sexual spectacle, while men assume their positions as “bearer of the look” (Mulvey 1975, 11). It is not just the camera’s gaze that is masculine-oriented, but so too is the movie lighting and focus, as Richard Dyer argues, oriented toward whiteness. Observing the ways that camera lighting creates a translucent quality around white skin, Dyer suggests, “the aesthetic technology of the photographic media, the apparatus and practice par excellence of a light culture, not only assumes and privileges whiteness but also constructs it. . . . [Idealized] white women are bathed in and permeated by light. It streams through them and falls on them from above. In short, they glow” (Dyer 1997, 122).
Through this culture of “light”/whiteness, Dyer further argues that racial and ethnic hierarchies are inevitably constructed among white subjects, from the Aryan ideal of blonde hair and blue eyes to its denigrated opposite in the “darker” white races of Jews and Roma, who were targeted for deportation and extermination during the World War II era of Nazi Germany. While this regime made explicit their white supremacist and eugenicist aims, the same ideology shaped the western world’s media. Within Hollywood cinema, the young, blonde white woman, ingenue or leading lady, would be cast as heroic, virtuous, or angelic, in contrast to her darker-haired villain. A glaring example is the horror movie Dracula’s Daughter (1936). While Vito Russo argues that such films subliminally depict queer representations owing to the Hays Code during the mid-1930s until the 1960s that forbade scenes of “sexual perversion” along with other taboos such as interracial romance, we may also recognize how the monstrous villain is not only queer but also foreign, dark-haired, perhaps even stemming from an Orientalist background as a racial and exotic “Other.” The dark and queer femme fatale is doubly coded for unacceptable womanhood. As Jane Caputi and Lauri Sagle have observed, “No matter how insistently white and heterosexual the classic femme fatale may appear, it is the dark woman/lesbian whose mythos and potencies—deepened due to her distance from and disloyalty to white heterosexist patriarchy—energizes her” (2004, 93).
While these racialized depictions of womanhood are based in ideologies of biological difference requiring the eugenics (“well born”) approach to a racial hierarchy, several movie stars and entertainers altered their bodies, names, and cultural backgrounds to construct idealized white femininity. As Judith Butler would say, gender is performative, meaning that our gender roles and behaviors are not biologically ingrained nor tied to a specific sex (Butler 1990). “Man,” “woman,” “transgender,” “cisgender.” These all mean different things, historically or from different cultures. Gender is also a social construction, as is race and nationality, for we learn these cues about roles and behaviors through a given society and can achieve different appearances based on these cues. Several of the famous “blonde bombshells,” from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe, were actual brunettes, and women of color were often expected to “pass” as white, while Jewish stars might “gentilize” their names.
Hedy Lamarr is an interesting figure as a Jewish star, changing her name from Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to sound less anglicized and more exotic. She was often typecast as a raven-haired femme fatale, most notably as the biblical temptress in Victor Young’s Samson and Delilah (1949). Prior to her Hollywood films, the Austrian-born actress was infamously depicted in the Czech film Ecstasy (1933), in which her onscreen orgasm was a first in cinematic history, with a close-up shot of her face. Lamarr’s legacy is more of the scientific kind, however, as she used her offscreen genius to invent a frequency-hopping technology in her aid of the United States and their fight against Nazi Germany. This technology would later be used in such digital technologies as Bluetooth, wireless, and GPS.
Hedy Lamarr: Star of Silver Screen, Mother of Wi-Fi
by Rebecca Lambert
As we talk about media and critique it for the ways in which it maintains power structures, it can also be an incredibly useful tool for sharing forgotten stories and writing people back into the history from which they were erased.
The documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is an example of finally giving a woman the credit she deserves. Alexandra Dean, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, director, and producer, tells the story of Hedy Lamarr, an iconic 1930s film star who is now being credited as “the mother of Wi-Fi.” She collaborated with composer George Antheil to create a “frequency-hopping technology . . . that used rolls of perforated paper—like the ones in player pianos—to quickly switch between frequencies.” This communications system was the foundation for current technology such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
Dean found interview tapes from 1990 that Lamarr did with Forbes magazine, which she used to tell Lamarr’s story. These interviews helped shape a project that allowed the inventor and actress to tell her own life story, giving visibility to a history that had been erased.
How have you already seen media used to resist oppression and what new information did you learn?
What other ways can media be used to disrupt systems of oppression?
How can you hold media accountable while also using it to fight for social justice?
Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell (2017), which explores Lamarr’s life and her scientific invention, notes how such genius did not “fit” the image created by the film studio system of its glamourous movie stars, women who were to be seen and constricted by the male gaze while downplaying any other complex character that lay beneath the pretty face. This documentary, premiering a year after Theodore Melfi’s feature film Hidden Figures (2016), based on the history of African American women who worked alongside white women at NASA as human “computers” (the precursor to the computer machine that replaced women’s labor in a system of automation), is a reminder of the ways women’s labor and intellect are made invisible in the interest of promoting their physical attributes concerning beauty and desirability, which are highlighted for a white heteropatriarchal system.
by Shannon Garvin
The 2016 movie Hidden Figures revealed stories of gifted and incredible women who had been ignored in the history books. It showcases some of the African American women who worked at NASA as “human computers” and eventually engineers, and the breadth of social challenges they faced.
Before computers, people with excellent math skills were sometimes employed as “human computers,” working out calculations in their heads and on paper in ways that seemed impossible. The stories of Christine Darden, Annie Easley, Mary Jackson, Miriam Mann, and Dorothy Vaughn now spark the imagination of young girls and boys of all ethnicities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
A handful of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) women also worked at NASA. Helen Ling supervised the women-only human computer group and created her own form of maternity leave—by rehiring pregnant women after they gave birth, at a time when marriage and pregnancy were a death knell to careers. The work of the women in this group opened doors for women to transfer into engineering jobs and for female engineers to apply for and be hired at NASA in the decade running up to America’s first orbital flights and landing on the moon.
In 2015, President Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in honor of her work and that of her peers who had been overlooked. On February 26, 2021, NASA livestreamed the naming ceremony of its building after Mary W. Jackson. Hired in 1958 and now in her eighties, Sue Finley continues to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the longest-serving female human computer and engineer.
Of course, not all women fit the standard, and in Hollywood, Black women were often erased in film narratives or marginalized as servants or slaves. Unlike the white woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” status, Black women by contrast represented what Jane Gaines describes as the “paradox of being,” in which the Black female body “did not signify ‘woman’” (Gaines 1988, 12). And for those light-skinned Black women who were in closer proximity to whiteness, they were encouraged to deny their race altogether.
The multi-talented Lena Horne was once encouraged to “pass” as an “exotic” Latin American woman. When she refused to identify as anything other than African American—and refused maid roles—her film career was cut short. Horne spent most of her career in music and on the stage, but her cinematic legacy is preserved in “soundies” (musical numbers that could be cut from the film when it was shown in Southern states that forbade positive representations of African Americans) and in all-Black 1940s film musicals such as Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, and The Bronze Venus.
Likewise, the lesser-known actress Fredi Washington received several offers by Hollywood studio heads in the 1930s to turn her into a movie star on par with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford—provided that she pass for white. Like Horne, Washington refused, and as a result she was relegated to the margins. Studios felt she wasn’t “black enough” for the usual maid roles offered to Black women. When performing in a rare non-maid role in the film Emperor Jones (1933), she would be forced to wear dark makeup to prevent audiences from viewing her as a white woman, because a romantic entanglement with the Black leading man (Paul Robeson) would have violated the Hays anti-miscegenation code. Washington is best known for the “tragic mulatta” role of Peola in the film Imitation of Life (1934), based on Fannie Hurst’s sentimental novel and starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. Peola passes for white and rejects her mother (Beavers), who depicts the Aunt Jemima stereotype on which Colbert’s white boss-mistress can exploit for her own success. Washington’s famous portrayal would be erased from cultural memory with Douglas Sirk’s remake from 1959, in which Susan Kohner, a white actress of Mexican descent, plays Washington’s character.
Limited in her roles, Washington instead took up the mantle of theatrical activism and racial uplift. In 1937, she helped to establish the Negro Actors Guild, an advocacy group for Black actors onstage and onscreen that fought for better scripts and working opportunities (Woodard 2020). Had the Negro Actors Guild not existed, one of the American Film Institute’s top ten movies of all time, Gone with the Wind (1939), would be a much more blatantly racist film (and may not have become such a classic) than the one we know today. With the help of the Guild, Hattie McDaniel, who plays Mammy in the film, for which she became the first African American to win an Academy Award, successfully lobbied for studio heads to erase the N-word from the script (Sturtevant 1999). She also refused to do a scene that expected her to shine the shoes of her master while on her knees. Likewise, Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, wouldn’t do a scene in which her character ate watermelon. McQueen also refused to be slapped onscreen by actress Vivien Leigh, who portrayed the film’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara.
Even as Black women like McDaniel and McQueen worked with the Guild to agitate behind the scenes, their willingness to take stereotypical roles subjected them to scathing critiques by leading Black voices such as the NAACP.
Washington, who would later serve as a major critic and columnist for the radical Harlem newspaper The People’s Voice, was not quite as condemnatory toward McDaniel but did challenge the actress to stop defending her right to play the “mammy” roles.
Washington also called on Hollywood to offer McDaniel better roles and urged Black audiences to support Black political theater while boycotting Hollywood movies featuring the traditional Black stereotypes of toms, coons, and mammies (Bogle 2003).
Other women of color were reduced to stereotype or erased altogether. An example is the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, who fit stereotypes of the “Oriental” femme fatale and the “dragon lady” but was infamously overlooked to portray the struggling Chinese farmer O-Lan in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s critically acclaimed novel The Good Earth (1937). The white actress Luise Rainer was instead selected for this role, for which she won an Academy Award. This film specifically used the racist practice of “yellowface,” in which white actors would tape their eyes to create the stereotypically “slant-eyed” look of an East Asian.
Latinas faced similar restrictions. If they were not light enough to pass as white—such as the Latina actress Margarita Carmen Cansino, who became the famous redhead Rita Hayworth—they were relegated to performing all the brown and foreign characters, as was the case with Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno. Even when Moreno was cast as the only Latina in West Side Story, for which she won an Academy Award, her own light skin was deemed inauthentic and was subsequently darkened to portray the Puerto Rican character Anita, much to her chagrin. Not all Latinas in the movies were depicted in “brownface,” but they sometimes functioned as caricatures, such as the Brazilian entertainer Carmen Miranda.
Miranda’s stereotypical depiction of the Latin woman in numerous Hollywood technicolor musicals turned her into a “Good Neighbor” policy with Latin America and the banana industries emerging from the region, resulting in her proudly proclaiming, “bananas is my business” (Enloe 1989). Her iconic look—the bananas she carried on her head, the headscarf, and bejeweled costume—was directly appropriated from the local Bahiana woman, an Afro-Brazilian woman whom she emulated while her musical band popularized the local “samba” music associated with Afro-Brazilian culture. Miranda’s light skin made this Black aesthetic palatable for a white American audience, even if Miranda herself could not quite escape the caricature that she had become, which lived longer than her own brief life when adapted for the Chiquita Banana logo.
Black music has often occupied critical sound space in Hollywood cinema when the Black bodies performing such art were themselves marginalized, from the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer (1927) featuring its white star Al Jolson in blackface, to the “soundies” referenced earlier. As Julie Dash demonstrates in her film short Illusions (1983), film studios would use the voices of playback singers, some of whom were African American, and match these with the white female bodies onscreen for the various movie musicals produced during Hollywood’s golden age of cinema. Hindi cinema, however, also known as “Bollywood,” established a system for their numerous movie musicals that enabled the playback singers to emerge as stars in their own right. This occurred with famous playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, whose high-pitched soprano voice is recognizable as the “quintessential voice of Indian femininity” (Sundar 2008, 145). This was best aided when her voice was the star vehicle in the film Mahal (1949), which featured a ghostly figure who is not seen but only heard. Without a corporeal presence to distract from her vocal presence, Mangeshkar’s voice emerged as the film’s central feminine figure.
In the same era of 1950s Hollywood cinema, the studio system began to ease up on some of their racial representations, as Black women singers popular in the music scene made cameo appearances in key films and expanded such movie roles beyond the stereotypical maid. Such examples include the international gospel star Mahalia Jackson, who performed the spiritual “Soon We’ll Be Done” in Sirk’s Imitation of Life, and before that, jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, who performed a secularized version of the gospel song “Spread the Word” in the comedy musical film The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), starring Jayne Mansfield. Lincoln specifically occupied space as a Black sex symbol—similar to her actress peers Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt—when she wore the same red evening gown that Marilyn Monroe had worn in her iconic film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). But Lincoln claimed that she had burned that dress, thus ushering a new era in which she and her jazz drummer husband Max Roach promoted Black liberation and “Black is Beautiful” when she hosted in 1962 the first “Naturally” fashion show in Harlem, New York, that featured “Grandassa” models who emphasized Black women’s beauty around dark skin, natural hairdos, and African-based fashions (Ford 2015).
The Beauty of the Self
by Sarah Baum
All women are beautiful, but not all beauty has been accepted by mainstream culture. For too long, beauty has been judged through a Eurocentric lens—blonde straight hair and pale skin. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the “Black Is Beautiful” movement began, celebrating the beauty of African women, their various skin tones and natural hair. Photographer Kwame Brathwaite documented this movement with his camera, and in 1962 he and several others formed Grandassa Models.
Grandassa Models promoted positive images of beautiful Black women by featuring curvy bodies, natural hair, a range of skin tones, and African-style fashions. They started in Harlem and spread across the United States, all the while encouraging Black women to embrace their own natural beauty. This was a radical idea in a time when the push to assimilate with European styles was almost mandatory across the country in both social and work settings. Black women had conformed by straightening their hair or wearing wigs in an effort to fit an impossible standard of beauty. Brathwaite and Grandassa Models held fashion shows and exalted the growing Black Is Beautiful movement.
While Grandassa Models may no longer be holding shows, the push for acceptance of all forms of beauty continues. Modern activists are working on the Crown Act, a law that would prohibit discrimination against race-based hair styles in employment, housing, and education. It’s been written into law in seven states, the most recent being Virginia in 2020. We’ve reached a time where all our voices should speak up and declare that all women, no matter their race, are beautiful, and most of all that ethnic and racial differences are beautiful because beauty isn’t about vanity, it’s about self-expression and acceptance of all.
The Grandassa movement continued the practice of local Black beauty shows and pageants that have existed within Black communities, but prior to this focus on Afrocentrism, such women often emulated the beauty and glamour of white womanhood: from being light-skinned to engaging in hair straightening products. The embrace of Black women as dark-skinned, Afro-wearing subjects of beauty reflected the social and cultural shifts that also took place in the 1960s and 1970s with the US civil rights movement and colonial independence movements abroad.
Such shifts also disrupted gender politics, as one of the first American feminist movements involved protesting the Miss America pageant in 1968, which was lambasted for its racial exclusions of non-white contestants and its adherence to a narrow definition of womanhood based on white heteropatriarchal standards of beauty, femininity, and respectability. Curiously, this mainstream protest paralleled the protest event of the first Miss Black America pageant the same night, which reinforced how Black women’s protest against the sexism of the beauty pageant includes the right to even be seen as beauty subjects, if not beauty objects. Interestingly, in 1970, local feminists in England staged a similar protest of the Miss World competition, which incidentally crowned its first Black beauty winner, Jennifer Hosten from Grenada. Such conflicts between the protest of the patriarchal construction of beauty and the embrace of a non-white beauty queen to challenge the white supremacy inherent in the patriarchal beauty construct remain fraught for a multiracial women’s movement.
Indeed, beauty pageants in 1970 began embracing Black women in a superficial demonstration of racial acceptance, including the first Black contestant in the Miss America pageant, Cheryl Browne, and the first Black semifinalist in the Miss USA pageant, Jayne Kennedy. By the time Vanessa Williams became the first Black Miss America in 1984, her win revitalized interest in the beauty pageant and helped salvage it from cultural irrelevance. Williams was controversial, however, not just as the first Black beauty queen, but also as one who was light-skinned with blue-green eyes and was therefore considered in proximity to whiteness and less representative of women in Black communities.
The publishing, without her consent, of explicit nude photos of her in sexual poses with another woman in the racy magazine Penthouse forced her to relinquish her crown, as the scandal disrupted the “ideal” of Miss America, implicitly understood to be ladylike, proper, and sexually chaste. That the first and only Miss America to give up her crown was also the first Black Miss America certainly highlights how intersectionality redefines womanhood. The Miss America pageant, which in 1937 had issued a clause that required all contestants be “in good health and of the white race,” invoked the “ideal” Miss America at a time when it sought to rehabilitate its image from a risqué pageant that displayed women’s bodies in skimpy bathing suits into one that was appropriate for young ladies (Ades 2002).
That respectability somehow equated with whiteness and able-bodiedness reinforced the unspoken eugenicist and white supremacist ideology of the pageant. Heather Whitestone, the first disabled Miss America in 1995, visibly fit the image of the white ladylike beauty queen because her disability—being hearing impaired—was invisible and unnoticeable until she spoke. She was allowed space to be disabled without disrupting the racial and able-bodied tenets of beauty on which the pageant relied. Such respectability politics undergirds why those who disapproved of an African American Miss America would seek to undermine her reign through the publication of explicit photos that reinforced stereotypes of Black female hypersexuality. To again rehabilitate its image, the Miss America pageant selected a blonde, “squeaky clean” Mormon as the successive winner after this scandal and after another light-skinned Black woman, Suzette Charles, who was the first runner-up to Vanessa Williams, briefly served as the second Black Miss America when Williams was forced to relinquish her crown. It took another six years before the pageant safely crowned another Black woman, this time the dark-skinned and born-again Christian Debbie Turner, in 1990, in order to rectify some of the criticisms of Vanessa Williams’s win: from selecting a winner who was undeniably Black to one whose religiosity would have prevented her from engaging in similar sexual acts.
These racial and sexual politics via the beauty pageant especially highlight what Yaba Blay calls “commodity racism” through commodities—namely, soap—that “advertised whiteness as the color of civilization” (Blay 2011, 13). If soap advertisements specifically created links between the cleanliness of white skin in contrast to sullied Black skin—hence the popularization of skin-bleaching creams as exemplary of upward mobility and racial advancement—the same corollary applied to sexual mores, hence the “sullying” of the racial purity of white culture through racial integration, miscegenation, and diversity and inclusion. The Miss America scandal surrounding Vanessa Williams implicitly reflects this anxiety of racial contamination.
The “Black is Beautiful” movement was seen as essential in combating racism and doing so on a global scale. Similar to the Grandassa models show, the pro-Black carnival block Ilê Aiyê, which was founded in 1975 in the northern state of Bahia in Brazil, began hosting the Noite da Beleza Negra (“Night of Black Beauty”) in 1980, during which the Deusa de Ébano (“Ebony Goddess”) is crowned during the country’s carnival season (Moraes-Liu 2010). Such local representations of Black pride countered the sexualized and often nude bodies of carnival “samba dancers,” which reinforced stereotypes of Black women’s hypersexuality that was broadcast to world media.
Such global images enticed European sex tourists to Brazil in a system that, as Erica Williams argues, continues the legacy of the early twentieth-century project of embranquecimento, or “whitening,” in which state officials “encouraged Europeans to settle and hopefully, intermarry with the descendants of enslaved Africans . . . to ‘dilute’ the black population” (Williams 2010). The sex tourists—usually from European countries such as Italy and Germany to visit Brazil for Black and brown women—contrasted with the model scouts who visited the southern part of the country, specifically Sao Paulo, in search of the white ideal for the next top fashion model. For instance, Brazilian models like Giselle Bundchen and Adriana Lima dominated the global model industry in the first part of the twenty-first century. In this racial twist, “women of African descent in Brazil may be considered ‘hot’ or ‘sexy,’ [but] they are not considered ‘beautiful’ enough to be models” (Williams 2010).
Indeed, world media has continuously traveled the world in search of “white” ideals of womanhood to construct a “global norm” around women’s bodies while relegating non-white women as exotic and racial others, reduced to the same “racial curiosities” that have shaped the first human exhibitions in the western world. The international beauty pageant exemplifies this dichotomy, in which women are paraded from around the world but are expected to adhere to the same global standard based in white, western concepts of femininity. Miss World 1994, Aishwarya Rai, for example, represented Miss India, but she was fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and incidentally became one of the biggest Bollywood stars who shaped her nation’s idea of beauty. Reflecting both colorism and casteism—and outside influences such as its colonization under Great Britain—the Bollywood ideal in India resembles the Hollywood ideal, hence its preference for goriya. Even when African women are selected for pageants like Miss World, in the case of Nigeria’s Agbani Darego, who was the first Black African to be crowned in 2001, they must conform, if not to the fair-skinned ideal, then the body ideal of thinness, which was a departure from Nigeria’s full-figured preference.
Aishwarya Rai, Superstar, Miss World 1994, and Humanitarian
by Sarah Baum
Born in Mangalore, India, Aishwarya Rai never could have dreamed of the life she would eventually lead. Her original goal was to become an architect, but while in school to learn her trade, she won an international supermodel contest in 1991, and that changed her life. In 1994, she competed in and won the Miss World Pageant. After she was crowned, she spoke about her desire to be an ambassador for peace during her yearlong reign. Miss World led to more modeling, which led to acting, and Aishwarya excelled. She won critical acclaim as well as the hearts of millions of fans.
Her massive success would have been enough for most people, but not for her was the quiet path. Instead, she used her fame to be a spokesperson for many worthy causes. She became an ambassador for the Eye Bank Association of India, reaching out to prompt eye donations across her home country and registering herself to be an eye donor. She also served as ambassador for Pulse Polio, a government organization that works to eradicate polio from India. At the same time, she served as spokesperson for the Year of Microcredit, a United Nations effort to end poverty.
All of this would have kept anyone busy enough, but Aishwarya’s humanitarian heart called for her to do more. She lends her time to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of India and has been a spokesperson for Smile Train, an international organization that provides free cleft palate surgeries to children in need in more than seventy-six countries. She has also been appointed a Goodwill ambassador to UNAIDS, a United Nations organization dealing with the HIV and AIDS crisis. Her focus as Goodwill Ambassador is raising awareness of infant and newborn infection rates, with the goal of making sure no child is born with HIV, as well as prompting access to antiretroviral treatments for mothers living with the virus.
Aishwarya Rai’s dream of working toward peace has moved her to help many people in need, and she uses her fame to shine a spotlight on causes that move the entire world a little closer to that dream.
These global expectations inevitably shape global markets in which neoliberal capitalism finds a new frontier through women’s bodies. As Kathryn Pauly Morgan (1991) argues, the “colonization of women’s bodies” is reflected in cosmetic surgeries, from Jewish women fixing the shape of their noses to appear less Jewish to Asian women seeking double eyelid surgeries to appear less Asian. These capitalist desires parallel the phenomenon of cultures that once traditionally embraced full-figured beauty now preferring thinness, as well as the popularity of skin-bleaching creams among African and South Asian women. This trend is perhaps best expressed in the consumption of Fair and Lovely creams from Unilever, which also sells Dove, an inclusive brand that embraces “real beauty” in advertisements highlighting different-sized women across all races and ethnicities, including cis and trans women. While US culture is careful to not promote skin-bleaching directly, the ideology is definitely reinforced through advertisements that craft their own skin-lightening techniques through airbrushing and light filters, as had occurred with L’Oreal advertisements featuring whitened images of Beyoncé and Aishwarya Rai, both of whom were already light-skinned in their racial categories.
Interestingly, in 2020, Fair and Lovely attempted a name change with “Glow and Lovely,” a nod to solidarity with Black Lives Matter. But this name change does not alter the “culture of light” that “glow” suggests in its translucent qualities of whiteness, as Dyer (1997) argues. Perhaps a glaring example is Latina entertainer Jennifer Lopez and her “Glow by JLo” fragrance ads, which literally whitened her body to convey the “glow” of her appearance.
As a multinational company, Unilever seems to be able to have their cake and eat it too, by promoting diversity and inclusion through Dove while also promoting whiteness through its skin-bleaching creams. Incidentally, the company has been accused of providing unfair wages for its workers and toxic work environments. Indian rapper Sofia Ashraf raised global awareness of these problems in such Global South areas as Kodaikanal, India, through her rap song “Kodaikanal Won’t” (2015), a parody of rapper Nicki Minaj’s immensely popular “Anaconda” (2014). Here, Ashraf shrewdly appropriates the popularity of hip-hop to address the problems of globalization while also highlighting how localized hip-hop cultures have enabled political performances by rappers and spoken-word poets, from Ashraf to Sri-Lankan-born M.I.A. who engages in complex South Asian and Muslim music and videos, to Afro-Cuban duos like Krudas Cubensi embracing queerness, to Muslimah rapper Mona Haydar, who once defiantly embraced her hijab to contest rampant Islamophobia with her rap song “Wrap My Hijab” (2017). These women rappers occupy subversive but marginalized space in comparison to the more visible and commercialized rappers represented in the performance of Nicki Minaj and her booty-enhanced twerking in “Anaconda,” as well as similar hypersexual performances from chart-topping rappers like Iggy Azalea, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion.
Unilever: Diversity and Inclusion, or “Beauty Is White”?
by Rebecca Lambert
How well do you know your favorite brands? Have you thought about the messages they send? How about the messages of the major corporations to which they belong? The Dove brand has gained attention in recent years with its campaigns to challenge beauty standards. In keeping with this strategy, Dove announced they would be removing the word “normal” from their beauty products as an attempt to disrupt the construction that beauty standards based on whiteness are “normal.” But further research illuminates that Dove’s parent company, Unilever, still markets and sells the skin-lightening cream Fair & Lovely (now renamed Glow & Lovely). These creams inherently promote whiteness and white beauty standards by promoting the idea that lighter skin is more beautiful.
Do more research about Unilever and their brands. As you learn more, does the company act in a way that supports their statement that they promote “positive beauty” and “taking action to drive positive change . . . setting out to transform the systems that hold individuals back”? What actions could corporations and other media take to accomplish positive change?
Share what you learn with your friends, class, or group. What is one small step you can take together toward equity? It is important to question media and to critically think about the connections between messaging and the systems of oppression in which they, and we as a global community, operate.
From the ladylike beauty queen to the more vixenlike commercial rapper, womanhood is still dichotomized into good girl / bad girl imagery and broadcast around the globe in world media. And even when the category of womanhood is broadened to include gender nonbinary women, they are conveniently placed into this bifurcation, as demonstrated through highly visible and femme-appearing Black trans women entertainers like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, or Miss Universe transgender contestants like Jenna Talackova (Miss Canada 2012) and Angela Ponce (Miss Spain 2018), who can all visibly pass as cisgender and thus be rendered as “acceptable” women. This is quite similar to representations of same-sex desire in which mostly feminine-appearing lesbian couples are depicted in media, especially in “girl-on-girl” pornographic constructions for the heterosexist male gaze. Attempts have been made to complicate these representations through more complex engagements with beauty and sexuality, however. For example, Barbadian-born pop star and fashion icon Rihanna (née Robin Fenty) has promoted the full embrace of diverse genders and races through her Fenty Beauty cosmetics, offering foundation shades for every complexion, as well as her Savage X Fenty lingerie line that is inclusive of bodies across sizes, disability, cis- and transgender identities, races and ethnicities—succeeding where Victoria’s Secret, in stubbornly excluding plus-sized and trans models from their fashion shows, has failed.
These changing representations and beliefs have flourished through our digital revolution, which travels globally. As mentioned above, our first “computers” were women, whose labor was eventually replaced with the computer machine. The first computer programmers were women until the personal computer industry flourished and placed this technology mostly into men’s hands within the western world, subsequently erasing women’s computer history, including that of Hedy Lamarr. Women’s representations were instead re-objectified through online pornography, human trafficking networks (such as “mail-order brides”), and misogynistic video games, perhaps best represented by the “Gamergate” controversy in 2014, which targeted and ostracized women game developers through online and offline violence.
How Is Doxxing Used as a Tactic of Misogyny?
by Victoria Keenan
Doxxing is a method of online harassment in which a targeted individual’s identity or personal information (such as their telephone number, address, photographs, emails, etc.) are released without their consent, generally for the purposes of intimidation or to call on others to threaten harm. Another use of this tactic is to undermine the credibility of the person being victimized, which can affect them professionally and financially, as well as sabotage legal allegations and serve to silence marginalized voices. This was the case in 2016 when Jessica Leeds accused Donald Trump of sexual assault, and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs retweeted Leeds’s personal information.
The motivation for doxxing often has misogynistic, racist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory overtones, and women are more likely to receive sexualized forms of harassment as a result of being doxxed. This gendered abuse also intersects with other categories of identity, with women of color and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex plus (LGBTQI+) being disproportionately affected.
Doxxing can be incredibly dangerous, as it can negatively affect the victim’s mental health, lead to death by suicide, or provoke intimate partner violence or “honor” crimes. Another alarming trend is known as “swatting,” whereby a false police report that warrants a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team response is made to the police at the victim’s address. One example of this happened in 2017 when Kansas State Police killed Andrew Finch after his address was doxxed in retaliation to an online dispute.
The “digital divide” widened among those who could not financially or culturally access the Internet. Nonetheless, developing nations found innovative ways to incorporate mobile telephones, and social media widened this outreach, enabling a variety of voices to formulate progressive ideas about gender, race, class, and nationality—right alongside those on the more extreme, conservative side. In other words, voices from the margins can now shape those in the mainstream via global information networks, as represented by Rihanna’s fashion show, which demonstrates how much she is listening, learning, and willing to incorporate the diversity that is representative of this world audience and to offer an inclusive vision of women’s beauty. Such visibility, however, can only serve as the starting point for a political movement. As Sarah Banet-Weiser (2018) reminds us, popular feminisms often coexist with popular misogyny. “Body positivity” must therefore transcend the individual at the neoliberalist consumer level to constitute the wider body politic of a collective movement focused on dismantling systemic oppressions.
Is Your Search Engine Biased?
by Shannon Garvin
I come from a family of mathematicians. I grew up in an era when research meant books. Today, in 2021, I love to use words to make the Google algorithms work for me. It’s a kind of game—where I can be in control of the results, rather than the results of a Google search randomly leading me to who knows where.
Most people born after 2000 do not realize that search engines are not magical, fact-spitting machines allowing us to skip learning the “how” of research. By necessity, they are the results of human-written algorithms and AI (artificial intelligence) learning software. Billions of searches are made each hour without human supervision.
As a result, there is something called “search engine bias.” Google and other search engines rank results. When you type a search, you are more likely to see ads and opinions that reflect cultural bias rather than content or research. Most people do not read past the first few entries, meaning the best information is almost never read.
Importantly, results also reflect dominant culture, rather than the voices of everyone. This leads people to believe they are getting the best data but they remain ignorant that most facts are missing from what they are quickly skimming. Today, the best place to learn how to research using Google or another search engine is the same best place it has been for hundreds of years: the library! Your local librarian can help you understand how words produce results.
In the neoliberal global market, diversity sells. Disney had already learned this lesson in its collection of animated Disney princesses from around the world: from the Indigenous American Pocahontas to Chinese woman warrior Mulan to the more progressive Moana of Polynesia. On the one hand, various cultures revel in this global attention from such a dominant commercial enterprise. On the other hand, they are ever cautious whenever Disney threatens to colonize their culture outright, as Disney once did when attempting to trademark Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead when creating Coco (2017), the Pixar animated film centered around this annual festivity. There is always the tension between what is cultural appreciation and what is outright cultural theft.
This brings us full circle to Beyoncé’s Black Is King, which has been accused of appropriating African cultures. But the pop star utilized the big budget provided by Disney to construct a glorious vision of African people, cultures, and music, including the celebration of Black women’s beauty in “Brown Skin Girl.” And yet, as bell hooks once critiqued of her use of glamour to aestheticize the Black female body in a previous audio-visual project, Lemonade (2016), such emphasis on beauty is “all about the body, and the body as commodity. This is certainly not radical or revolutionary” (hooks 2016). While embracing dark skin in a reversal of white supremacist ideology, the Black body as commodity does not dismantle other ideologies, such as classism and ableism. In this reclamation of racialized aesthetics, the Black body beautiful can only be maintained through capitalist consumption and adherence to able-bodied physique and wellness.
And yet there is a power of sorts in this Disneyfication of restoring Black people’s humanity, especially in the pop star’s spinoff of The Lion King, a film based on the traditional animalization of Black people, a feature for which Disney is known. Not only that, but Beyoncé restores the original recording of South African Solomon Linda’s “Mbube” (1939), which had become “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as heard in The Lion King, generating millions in royalties that neither Linda nor his descendants had received. In adapting the Disney lens and splurging on wealth and glamour to reclaim and visualize African-descended people beyond the images of widespread poverty, ugliness, and suffering, Beyoncé subverts Disney’s commercial worldview to make space for a radical and rarely seen depiction of Blackness.
Finally, the use of drone technology in Black Is King to pan in and out of shots of Beyoncé in the desert or in the middle of the ocean, or zooming through Earth’s atmosphere, is a reminder of how the pop star has accessed the ultimate global vision that was once the preserve of western colonizers. As Shohat reminds us about early cinema, these films “often superimposed illustrated maps on shots of landscapes, subliminally imposing the map’s ‘claim over the land’” (Shohat 1991, 53). Rather than lay claim to the land—either of Africa or the planet itself, which is shown spinning in eternity from a celestial point of view—Beyoncé eschews the secularized western colonial gaze to envision a transnational Black feminist worldview in its place, one based in a spiritual sensibility.
Taking a page from Toni Morrison, Beyoncé “charts a map . . . without the mandate for conquest” (Morrison 1992, 3). Colonization is not necessary when feminist reclamations can subvert the commercial gaze of world media.
Abeer Abu Ghaith
by Shannon Garvin
Abeer Abu Ghaith is referred to as Palestine’s “first female high-tech entrepreneur.” Abeer grew up in the Madaba refugee camp. When she was 12, her family moved to Doura, near Hebron, in the occupied Palestinian territory (West Bank). As a traditional Bedouin family, they expected her to marry. Abeer had another passion. She wanted to work and help others. She graduated from a local Palestinian university with honors, but when she returned to teach, many of the male students would not agree to be her students. She turned to the Internet to gain additional skills in tutoring and specific computer coding languages. She also worked hard to develop her English.
She launched StayLinked, which matched Palestinian women with computer skills with companies seeking help with projects. Abeer’s business grew, and when her programmers were able to keep working and deliver projects even as their homes in Palestine and Gaza were under siege, her family became proud of her work. By 2014, Abeer employed more than 350 Palestinians. She expanded her business under the name MENA Alliances.
Today, she continues as a speaker, trainer, visionary, and volunteer to educate and connect Palestinian women and men to meet the challenges and opportunities of a globalized world. She has received numerous international awards for her innovations in work and social justice. She faces many challenges, including personal safety while living in her family home in the West Bank, but she is proud to be empowering Palestinians and opening opportunities for companies to support Palestinians with paid employment. She believes that business and social justice should always work hand in hand.
- Hobson uses Beyoncé’s video “Brown Skin Girl” to frame her discussion of intersections of race, gender, beauty standards, colorism, cultural appropriation, and capitalism within a transnational feminism framework. Take a few minutes to read the lyrics, and then watch the full video of “Brown Skin Girl.” As you watch, jot down any ideas you have about it, including the people who are featured, clothing, song lyrics, settings, dance moves, lighting, and so on. What do you notice? What is your overall impression of the video? Next, watch the video again, keeping these questions in mind:
- In this chapter, Hobson traces a history of the ways that live viewings, performances, films, and the like sexualize, exoticize, erase, and/or stereotype women of color while equating whiteness with beauty and acceptability. What aspects of that history seem most important to you? Why?
- How does Beyoncé refute that history with “Brown Skin Girl”? How do other famous women of color engage with and refute that history?
- What is “commodity racism,” according to Hobson? What examples does she provide? Can you think of additional examples of commodity racism?
- Do you think “Brown Skin Girl” engages in “Disneyfication” and “cultural appropriation”? Why or why not? Use the terms and concepts from this chapter to support your argument.
- How are queer and trans bodies and voices represented in this discussion? How are they erased?
- Working in a small group, continue to add to the glossary you started in the previous chapter. Here are some key terms from this chapter: diaspora, male gaze, racialization, cultural appropriation, commodity racism.
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2.4 “Gone With The Wind (1939) – Vivien Leigh & Hattie McDaniel” by Rossano aka Bud Care is licensed under CC BY 2.0
2.8 “Ilê Aiyê no Campo Grande – Segunda-Feira 11.02 – Foto: Tatiana Azeviche – Setur” by turismobahia is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
- Samples of such bronzers were exhibited in the historic Le Modèle Noir de Géricault à Matisse, curated by Denise Murrell, at the Musée D’Orsay, Paris (2019). ↵