April 29, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jennifer Holness
Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S. and Canada, the documentary film “Subjects of Desire” features a predominantly black group of women discussing the intersection between beauty standards and what it means to be a black female.
Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that black beauty characteristics are often co-opted when white people benefit from cultural appropriation, but the same characteristics are used against black people, who are subjected to racist ideas of what is considered “beautiful.”
Culture Audience: “Subjects of Desire” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an impactful and honest examination of how racism plays a role in how black females are perceived in American society.
The empowering statement “Black is beautiful” first emerged in the 1950s. And since then, a lot has occurred in civil rights for black people in the United States. However, the insightful documentary “Subjects of Desire” shows how black women feel about the still-prevalent and damaging racism in how black females are treated and perceived by beauty standards in American society. Astutely directed by Jennifer Holness and narrated by Garvia Bailey, “Subjects of Desire” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.
Grammy-winning singer India.Arie talks about the impact of her breakthrough 2001 hit “Video,” a song about how she accepts how she looks, even though she’s doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a light-skinned video vixen. “That song taught me a lot about people. The whole time I was writing it, I thought, ‘This is how I want people to understand who I am.’ And then [the song] came out, and people were telling me, ‘That’s how I felt!'”
“Subjects of Desire” has the 2018 Miss Black America beauty pageant (the event’s 50th anniversary) as a central focus of the documentary. The movie includes footage of behind-the-scenes pageant preparations, as well as interviews with several of the contestants. However, the documentary also gives a cultural overview of how systemic racism affects people’s perceptions of what is considered “beautiful” or “desirable” in society. Only black women are interviewed in this documentary, so that their voices are heard and not drowned out by people who haven’t lived the experience of being a black woman their entire lives.
The only exception is an interviewee who has lived her life as a white woman and as a black woman: controversial activist/artist Rachel Dolezal, a woman who is biologically white/Caucasian, but she began self-identifying as black around the time that she wanted to have Afro-centric jobs. Dolezal, who was born in 1977, used to be the president of Spokane, Washington’s chapter of the NAACP, and she taught Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. The controversy over her race made headlines when she admitted in 2015 that she was born to white parents and lived as a white female until sometime in the mid-2000s, when she began living as a black woman.
In 2002, when Dolezal was still living as a white woman, she unsuccessfully sued her alma mater Howard University (a historically black-majority school) for racial discrimination, by claiming the university denied her a job, a scholarship and other opportunities as a white woman. Dolezal doesn’t talk about that lawsuit in the “Subjects of Desire” documentary, but she does complain about being misunderstood, and she compares her situation to experiences of transgender people. “I get a lot of hate from different groups,” she claims. “I cancelled my white privilege.”
Dolezal’s presence in this documentary doesn’t take up too much screen time (only about 10 to 15 minutes in a 103-minute film), and she doesn’t say anything new that she didn’t already say in her 2018 Netflix documentary “The Rachel Divide.” Dolezal seems to have been included in “Subjects of Desire” as part of a necessary but uncomfortable topic discussed in the documentary: White people co-opting aspects of black beauty culture for their own self-benefit. Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian and Kylie Jenner are frequently mentioned in the documentary as celebrities who are guilty of excessive appropriation of black culture to get attention for themselves.
“Subjects of Desire” does an excellent job of explaining the current dichotomy in beauty standards for women in American society, where many white women try to look more “black” and many women of color try to look more “white.” On the one hand, physical characteristics that are usually attributed to women of African biological heritage—darker skin, fuller lips, a more pronounced rear end—have become desired characteristics in how numerous women alter their physical appearance through tanning, lip fillers and butt implants.
African-styled braids or Afro-Caribbean-styled dreadlocks are other Afro-centric beauty characteristics that have been co-opted by people who are not of African descent. Even the hair perms that were popular in the 1970s were based on a desire to have hair resembling black people’s natural hair. It’s pointed out in the documentary that the rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960 and 1970s coincided with the rise in popularity of these hairstyles until they became more accepted in mainstream society.
On the other hand, several people in the documentary point out that black women and women of color are often treated better based on how close to “white” they can look. Skin bleaching, having straight hair (through chemical treatments or hair weaves), having blonde hair and wearing blue or green contact lenses are all mentioned as examples of how black women alter their appearances to try to look more “white.” The natural hair movement (the practice of black people wearing their hair unprocessed and not straightened) has popularity that goes up and goes down. But what hasn’t changed is the fact that how a black woman wears her hair can determine what types of employment or other opportunities that she gets or is prevented from having.
“Subjects of Desire” has footage of a group of black teenage girls (of various skin tones) who discuss how beauty standards, particularly when it comes to hair and skin color, affect their self-esteem and any sense of power that they might have. The girls give some real and raw insight into how acutely aware they are that how they wear their hair will affect how a lot of people will treat them or perceive them. And the “white preference” bias doesn’t just come from white people. It also comes from many people of color who’ve internalized the racist belief that anything to do with non-white culture is inferior to white culture.
Although there are people of many different races, beauty standards in the United States are often seen in terms of black and white. Broadcaster/author Amanda Parris explains: “Because of racism, that [beauty] binary also included the binary of black and white. And that led to black women being on one end, and white women being on the other.”
Because the Internet has provided larger mass communication than ever before, today’s young people have grown up more accustomed to cultural differences than previous generations. And therefore, society’s views of beauty are more intertwined with race and political issues than ever before. The rise of Instagram, YouTube and other social media—where everyday people can become their own influencers instead of leaving everything to the usual elite gatekeepers—have also caused a massive shift in who gets to define what is “beautiful.”
“Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal” author Heather Widdows, a professor of global ethics at the University of Birmingham in Alabama, comments on this cultural change: “Appearances were becoming more and more dominant in young women’s lives. And this was an issue of justice too. Beauty has become an ethical ideal.”
However, old stereotypes remain. Dr. Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University and the author of “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture,” has this to say about the racism that still exists in beauty ideals: “In beauty culture, black has to be minimized as much as possible, or exoticized in a certain way, so that you really see the difference.”
Thompson says that this racism has been taught for generations because of the United States’ shameful history with slavery and how that has affected people’s perceptions of white women and black women: “Getting married was kind of difficult [for black people] during slavery, so we’re already seen as ‘immoral’ and not holding the sanctity of womanhood … The history of black womanhood and white womanhood, it is so overlayed with labor and issues of purity and domesticity.”
Lighter-skinned black women in the slavery era were more likely to be chosen to work in the home, while darker-skinned black women were more likely to do the hardest labor outside. The repercussions of white slave owners enacting this favoritism based on skin color (also known as colorism) can still be seen and experienced today. Several people who comment in the documentary point out that black people who rise to the very top levels of high-profile professions tend to be lighter-skinned than the average black person.
Beauty pageants have come a long way in being more diverse and inclusive, when it comes to race. Black women weren’t allowed to compete in the Miss America Pageant until the 1950s, but the pageant didn’t have its first black contestant until 1971. It’s why the Miss Black America Pageant (founded by the black entrepreneur J. Morris Anderson) launched in 1968.
“Subjects of Desire” mentions that 2018 was a historic year for black women in beauty pageants: For the first time in beauty pageant history, Miss Universe, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA were all black females in the same year. However, the Miss Black America contestants interviewed in the documentary say that these breakthroughs don’t mean that they do not experience the same racist prejudices inside and outside the beauty pageant circuit.
Miss Black America 2018 winner Ryann Richardson says that she learned early on in her beauty pageant experiences to put on makeup that would tone down her African-looking ethnicity, such as contouring her nose to look thinner. She makes no apologies for it and explains: “It was a means to an end. I never believed that I needed to look that way to be beautiful, to be Ryann, to be great to be excellent. But I did it to win.”
Richardson acknowledges that even though some judges still might prefer black contestants to look as “white” as possible, black women in beauty pageants are now given more freedom to wear their hair in different ways, compared to the hair restrictions that black beauty contestants had to adhere to in previous generations. Richardson adds, “I am a product of what Miss Black America inspired [by launching] in 1968, so it’s really interesting and really cool to think that 50 years later … I could be part of that Miss Black America legacy.”
Other contestants from the Miss Black America 2018 pageant who are interviewed in the documentary are first runner-up Alex Germain and second runner-up Seraiah Nicole. Just like the other contestants interviewed in the documentary, they both say that the best way a contestant can approach being part of a beauty pageant isn’t to see who’s judged as more “beautiful” than others but to build confidence and appreciation for an individual’s unique qualities. A beauty pageant is supposed to be a learning experience on how contestants, whether they win or lose, want to present themselves to the world.
Germain reveals another motivation for her to enter the world of beauty pageants: “I needed to feel as though I mattered and my voice mattered.” She remembers experiencing racist bullying when she was a child, when some boys from her school lined up and made monkey noises at her.
Germain comments on these painful memories and any racism she still experiences: “I had to be strong in myself and let those voices go … There are times when it still gets to me. You have to be your biggest motivator.” She adds, “You see the shifts in the North American beauty standards, but on the backs of black women.”
Like it or not, perceptions of beauty also spill over into how people judge other people’s personalities and intelligence without even knowing them. For black women, the stereotyping goes back to slavery and is often perpetuated by images in the media and in entertainment. “Subjects of Beauty” mentions three main stereotypes of black women, with video clips and photos used as examples:
- Mammy: Nurturing, subservient (usually to white people) and sometimes sassy. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is usually a maid, housekeeper, nanny or some other type of servant.
- Jezebel: Sexually promiscuous, usually dressed in revealing clothing and obsessed with being perceived as sexy. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is often a singer, actress, model, stripper, prostitute or other sex worker.
- Sapphire: Quick-tempered, usually hostile and often a bully. In entertainment and media portrayals, she is the “angry black woman.”
Dr. Carolyn West, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, comments on these stereotypical images that don’t apply to all black women: “The Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes are deeply rooted in history. They haven’t gone away. They’ve just changed and morphed into different stereotypes.”
In “Subjects of Desire,” it’s pointed out that the Mammy physical stereotype (as illustrated by the controversial Aunt Jemima logo) is historically inaccurate because photos from the slavery days show that the house servants who helped take care of the kids were usually young and thin, not middle-aged and overweight. “Subjects of Desire” director Holness wrote the script used in the movie’s voiceover narration, which mentions that the Aunt Jemima brand “wasn’t just selling pancakes. They were selling the Mammy fantasy.”
The voiceover continues: “The de-eroticization of Mammy meant the white wife and, by extension, the white family [were safe]. But in truth, the Mammy was re-imagined to hide an extensive history of sexual violence and rape against black women.” The Jezebel stereotype was created to justify this sexual violence. The documentary mentions that it wasn’t until 1959, with the Betty Jean Owens case in Florida, that white men in the U.S. were given life sentences for raping a black woman.
And the Sapphire stereotype comes with a whole other set of issues. If a black woman is confident and asserts herself in the same way that men are frequently allowed to do, she is labeled “difficult.” Men can yell and scream on the job, but if a black woman does the same thing, she’s labeled a “problem” and is more likely to be fired because of it.
Simply put: The “angry black woman” stereotype has worse repercussions than the “angry white man” stereotype. In the documentary, black actress/singer Jully Black recalls the heated debate that she and white TV journalist Jeanne Beker had during the 2018 Canada Reads event (which is televised in Canada) as an example. In a clip shown in the documentary, Beker was quick to try to label her as an angry black woman on the attack, even though Black was being calm, articulate and reasonable.
“Subjects of Desire” asserts that white women also benefit from white supremacy when it comes to what is considered “attractive” in American society. A woman’s physical appearance can determine how she’s perceived and how much agency she has in public settings. White women can cry on the job, but if a black woman does it, she’s more likely to be labeled “out of control” and “unprofessional.” Crimes against white females are given higher priorities in media coverage than crimes against non-white females. And there’s no need to rehash obvious statistics of how black women are rarely allowed to advance to the top levels of an organization.
And that’s why representation matters. When people see only one race dominating as the gatekeepers of an industry, it creates a vicious cycle of racism where people think other races are not capable of doing just as well or better than the dominant race. And when it comes to female beauty standards, the general consensus in “Subjects of Desire” is that there’s been some progress in racial representation in front of the camera, but not enough progress behind the camera with people who make the major business decisions.
Thompson comments, “There’s a quote by [American feminist] Peggy Phelan: ‘If representation equaled power, then white women should feel like the most powerful people in the world, because that is actually the [beauty] image you see the most. White women are everywhere.'”
India.Arie says, “We all feel insecure about something. We live in this world that tells us that somebody is perfect, and you’re not.” The documentary mentions the Black Girl Magic movement, created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013, as a big leap forward in celebrating black female beauty. Black Girl Magic includes mentorships and other programs intended to help black females embrace themselves for who they are and not believe the racist lies that people are superior or inferior because of skin color.
If there’s any takeaway from this documentary, it’s that real change can only come when people push for it and stop supporting the people and practices that demean one race in order to elevate another. Cosmetics, hairstyles, clothing and plastic surgery are all personal choices. However, they shouldn’t come at the expense of people feeling devalued because of their race.
Germain says in the documentary: “The eyelashes, the lipstick—that doesn’t mean anything. I think when people see a pretty girl, you think they don’t have issues. But when you don’t love yourself, you don’t love anything.” And that’s why self-respect and healthy self-care are probably the biggest beauty assets of all.
UPDATE: Starz will premiere “Subjects of Desire” on February 18, 2022.