The Price of Exotification

Submitted by Jason Chu ’08

This image (an advertisement for VH1′s newest celeb-fronted “educational” vehicle) is problematic.

Or is it?

Probably.

Why?

Three “ethnic” women – arrayed in traditional/ceremonial garb worn rarely, if at all, in modern-day Africa, South Asia, and East Asia – stand, heavily-made-up, behind Jessica Simpson, whose muted clothes and “natural” makeup suggest that she is the default – absent symbols of “color” or “ethnic” culture, we see her as the de facto norm, the standard by which “regular” beauty is judged.

The shot – progressing from “darkest” to “lightest”, including a white-painted Asian woman – also supports the very unhelpful concept that race is reducible to skin color, which falls on a continuum between two extremes: Black and White, and everything in-between is precisely that, caught in between two points. The Asian woman isn’t White, you see, but her face is painted white – with the White woman placed in front of the others, on the right side of the continuum, the implicit suggestion is that there is a progression, from native, uncivilized, exotified beauty, to the civilized, progressive, and modern.

Of course, Asian and African women very often do not dress like the women portrayed in the shot. But actual trends and fashions in Asia and Africa would actually clothe women of all colors similarly – and that just won’t do, because this is a show about a White woman – who is, you know, normally beautiful – serving as tour guide on our little television expedition to the wacky, exotic ideas about beauty that those other cultures hold to.

If Ms. Simpson were to be wearing, say, a corset and lead facepaint, this ad would be significantly less problematic – simply a cross-section of historical fashion trends from all points across the globe. But as it is, Jessica Simpson stands, our modern (read: White, Western) touchpoint against the costumed, made-up exotic women of Somewhere Else.

What do you think? Do advertisements like this project normative images of beauty onto the readers’ consciousnesses – and if so, how effective are they at altering, whether conscious or subtly, your (our?) conceptions of the ideal body, the “normal” image of beauty, and ethnicized individuals? Is this just another ad for a trashy VH1 show, or is it more offensive than that? Let’s talk in the comments.

[originally posted here]

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