Monday, April 30, 2012

Dove takes over "reality:" we are all above average now.

[Video: a black & white Dove soap commercial from the 1950s. A young blond-ish white model with an updo, full makeup and bare shoulders demonstrates in a velvety voice why Dove is better than ordinary soap as the camera lingers on her flawless complexion.]

According to Coco & Crème, Dove-- the moisturizer and knockoff salon shampoo juggernaut-- has conducted a groundbreaking beauty quiz Body Confidence Census of 2012, and concluded that women don't feel as beautiful as they "should." Coco & Crème explains:

When most women were asked to describe their looks and their body, the most common answer was simply 'average.' “Only 2 percent of women are saying, ‘I’m beautiful’ and only 1 in 10 are saying, ‘I feel attractive,’ a Dove spokesperson said. “That’s just not where we want to be.”
Ok, am I going crazy? Because the majority of women identifying as "average," seems like the only logical possibility here. Because that's how averages work. Most people are average. Average means "most people." When you offer people the choice of, "average" along with "beautiful," the clear implication is that "beautiful" means you think you're objectively above average in the looks department. And 1 in 10 women being above average-- "attractive"-- and 2 out of 100 being way above average-- "beautiful"-- seems about right to me. How many of us look anything like Megan Fox or Halle Berry? 2% actually sounds generous to me, considering the vast number of women who are older, fatter, zittier, lumpier, stockier, ganglier, and/or wrinklier than those two. And who set the bar for beauty so high in the first place? Dove, and other companies like them.

[Video: a 1993 Dove bodywash ad. It's lit in blue, giving it a sexy night-time Boyz II Men music video look. "Moonlight Sonata"-sounding piano music plays while a purring female voice describes the product. A tall, thin, young, conventionally hot white naked model demonstrates the product in her slow-motion shower.]

In fact, those sorts of companies intentionally endorse body types that are extremely rare as the only beautiful people. And then they are shocked, shocked! to find-- in their own manipulative study-- that the vast majority of women who don't have that rare type don't identify as "beautiful." I guess we'll just have to buy a bunch of Dove beauty products to catch up. "That's just not where we want to be," says Dove. I call bullshit: that is exactly where they want to be.

Older (early nineties?) Dove print ad. [image: top half is a blonde blue-eyed white model's face who looks a little like Kathy Ireland smiling slyly, wearing makeup and lit softly. Lines are super-imposed over her face breaking it up into sections that are numbered. Below, text reads, "Touch these 4 spots. If even one is dry, it's time for Dove." Smaller text underneath is unreadable, then there's a picture of Dove soap.]

[image: 1960s print ad featuring a sequence of four pictures of a white blond-ish model in makeup with a towel on her head in a bright pink bathroom smiling as she lathers half her face with Dove and the other half with ordinary soap, then pouting as she touches the rinsed ordinary side and exclaiming with delight as she touches the Dove side, then a picture of Dove soap. Text reads, "Lend us half your face and we will prove Dove doesn't dry your skin the way soap can."

A 1960s print ad featuring a smiling white model with brown hair and full makeup, manicure and up-do lathering up her naked shoulders, neck, face and hands with Dove suds and gazing lustily at the bar of Dove she holds, as if about to deliver a kiss. Text underneath reads, "Soap dries your skin but / Dove creams your skin while you wash" followed by smaller text and a picture of Dove soap]

[image: a still from a black & white 1950s TV ad showing a smiling blonde white model with full make-up, manicure and polished hair caressing her face with the words, "Dove Creams" superimposed.]

[image: a 1960s Dove print ad featuring a classic white model with brown hair and full make-up "washing" her face with Dove. Below a sequence of photos shows her rinsing off the soap and being shocked and delighted to reveal smoother skin, then pictures of Dove soap.]
Here are some more recent Dove ads that promote an impossible beauty standard, even as Dove claims to champion "real beauty:"

[image: over a solid baby-blue background, text reads, "Dove hair therapy: Dove Hair Rehab, [illegible] with Marie Claire." Pictures of Dove shampoos next to a thin young white model with thick shiny straight brown hair blowing in a magical wind, smiling with surprise at her own gorgeousness.]

[image: black & white photo of a naked thin young tan white brunette model throwing her head back, smiling contentedly and clutching her hands to her heart. She's covered in suds in the shape of an off-the-shoulder fur coat that mimics an old-time Hollywood diva in her bed-chamber. Illegible text and pictures of Dove bodywash across the bottom.]
Dove is doing a "real beauty" ad campaign now, having scrubbed themselves of their dirty beauty industry past and leaving a softer more touchable corporation, hence the "Body Confidence Census of 2012." Dove has done various "Look, I'm a model but I'll give you the straight-talk, girlfriend" and "Women across America-- such as these middle-class white women-- love Dove: here they are in their natural habitats using their words" ad campaigns since the 1950s in addition to the campaigns featured above. But their most recent campaign is a send-up of stupid beauty industry messages that they previously participated in, much like the 7-Up (or Sprite?) commercials in the 1990s that mocked typical soft-drink ads. But beauty cannot be funny. Ever. Because beauty is equal to self-esteem. It is our very being. It is very very important. (For women, anyway.) Here's a sample of the new campaign:
[image: a grinning young white woman in a black tube top who is maybe a size 16 is pictured striking an exaggeratedly glam confident pose. Next to her text reads, "What do you think?" then underneath, next to empty check-mark boxes, "oversized?" and "outstanding?"]

[image: a gigantic cropped close-up of a little girl who is a red-head with freckles, staring into the camera with a level gaze. Overlayed text reads, "Hates her freckles."]

[Image: bottom half of image features 6 women of different races in white underwear standing in a line on a white background lit with studio lighting. They are grinning the slightly embarrassed grins of girls caught being silly and imitating models. They range from about size 6 to size 14. Large text reads, "Real women have real curves" followed by smaller illegible text]

[image: a redheaded young white woman covered in freckles with bare shoulders stares slightly down at the camera with a smirking yet vulnerable expression. Next to her face are two empty check-boxes with the options, "flawed?" and "flawless?"

[image: same deal as above, but features a flat-chested young thin black woman with a short afro and the options read, "half empty?" "half full?"]

[image: in front of a cappuccino-grey background a chubby black woman in her 60s sits with her shoulder to the camera and her knees pulled into her chest, turning to smile shyly at the camera. She is completely naked, revealing stomach rolls. She's lit with soft studio lighting and her hair blowing. Text is overlayed reading, "beauty has no age limit / pro-age: Dove."]

[image: a little girl of South-East Asian ethnicity is shown in cropped close-up like the red-headed kid above, with level gaze. Overlayed text reads, "wishes she were blonde."]
These are great ads. And I hate them. With the exceptions of the ads featuring the kids, which are excellent aside from the inescapable problem that they are plugging Dove, these ads are patronizing and insidious. But this post is long enough already, so if you want to know why I think that just hit me up in the comments. Back to the "Census."

Why does it follow that being average in the looks department is devastating to a woman's self esteem? I mean, I'm not stupid, I know why-- Patriarchy, our society, our consumer culture-- but this assumption is continuously unquestioned. Why do we constantly link self esteem in women with feeling beautiful, in the sense of being objectively attractive? Why is it not okay to state the truth about one's looks? Why is it unfathomable that a woman could feel unattractive (or average) and also feel perfectly fine about herself? After all, plenty of women who do feel attractive have terrible self esteem. What if it were ok for a woman to simply be average in appearance (as most, in fact, are)? What if it were normal to portray unattractive or average looking women living it up? What if unattractive or average looking women were considered viable movie stars at the same rate that beautiful women are currently? What if the "real women" frolicking in their panties in the new Dove ads weren't advertising beauty products but instead advertising a fun new water-park, or a social club for exhibitionists, or an athletic event, something where "real women" can live it up and feel great that is unrelated to improving their looks?

Lots of women are objectively un-pretty. Period. I didn't say they are worthless or unloved or helpless or involuntarily celibate or grappling with their own emotional agony. I said they are not pretty. So if self esteem is linked to feeling pretty, and those women know perfectly well they aren't pretty, what then? Could it be that being average looking, or even ugly, is not the end of the world? If women weren't taught in a million little way that they are synonymous with their looks, would it be so devastating to feel unattractive? Is it possible that our positions on the beauty-versus-self-esteem continuum is not the problem, that the problem is, in fact, the constant conflation of self-worth and beauty for women? In other words, the problem isn't that we're playing the game and failing to win, it's that we're playing the game at all.

To be clear, I don't fault women who play the game self-beautification (including myself). It has simply never occurred to many women that there's any other option, for one. And if they have considered the other option, it looks so bleak: fuzzy legs, hair that isn't flowing or exhibiting "multi-dimensional color," un-sexyness, surrendering to the same old body you were born with, practical shoes, less attention from men, less attention from other women, constantly getting judged as a clueless woman who simply doesn't understand beauty, a walking "before" picture with no after, giving up the intoxicating fantasy that there's a wonderful new life awaiting the prettier version of you. That's no fun. Our entire culture portrays the un-winnable game of beauty as a worthwhile past-time-- the only worthwhile past-time. In the sense of being un-winnable, you may win some "battles," i.e. feel good sometimes through self-beautification, but you are guaranteed to lose the "war." But when self-esteem through self-beautification is portrayed as the only game in town, I certainly see why women try to play it, and I admit that for lots of people that's the best decision to make about how to live in our reality. I also have no problem with the original article I linked to, which takes the "census" at face value. My beef is with the game itself and the industry behind it.

And where is the concern that men don't feel attractive enough? If it's so damn important to feel beautiful, why is there no ad featuring a little boy staring plaintively into the camera with the words, "hates his unibrow," and the understated logo of TweezerMan in the bottom corner? No one would look at such an ad and think, "That little boy is in for a world of heartbreak!" or "Wow, TweezerMan really understands mens' struggles." They'd probably say, "so what?" and laugh, because the boy in the picture will grow into a man who is valued by society as more than the sum of his facial hairs. His beauty just isn't that big a deal. People are concerned about men, though. The media has been overflowing with concern that men aren't getting paid enough, that they're getting left behind in the "man-cession," that they're suffering high rates of heart disease, that they're not graduating from college at the same rate as women, that they are plagued by violence. No one has clutched their pearls and cried out, "Most men say they feel "average looking!" Oh, no! Only 2% identify as 'hawt!' That is not where we want to be! Think of the children!"

I promise this is related to portraiture but I don't know how to tie it in in any pithy, or even logical, way. But this is something I really do think about every time a woman sits for a portrait. I know what she's expecting-- an understated homage to her beauty that may, as an afterthought, reflect her personality-- and these issues are something I grapple with. The farther I get down this rabbit hole of resenting the beauty industry, the more difficult it is to depict, let alone identify, what the woman probably values as her pretty assets, because I'm getting more out of touch with the commonly agreed upon standards of beauty. I want to depict character, what makes the person interesting, and that usually conflicts with a pretty, feminine portrait that the customer very likely wants. The customer is always right, she's the one who has to live with the portrait, and I don't want to make her feel bad. I'm feeling a little stuck. What do you think about all this?

ETA: I originally included notes about Dove chocolate in this post, but it's actually a different company. Unilever owns Dove soap; Mars owns Dove chocolate. Even though the logos are virtually identical and feature pitchers of cream pouring themselves into a finished product. My bad.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Moff's Law

I'm a little late for this but I ran across this fantastic 2009 rant and had to share.

Moff's Law: The tendency of art or film criticism/analysis to draw commenters who whine, "jeeeez, it's just a movie/picture/joke. Don't think so hard. Just enjoy it, gosh." [Image: Wayne from The Wonder Years makes a "wtf" face.]

Friday, April 20, 2012

My Superpower.

Jill at In Bed With Married Women wrote this about me, and it is so deeply apt:
I am quite certain that today you have discovered your Superpower. Too bad it's thinking of spot-on names for obscure and unloved contraceptive devices. We don't all get to have X-ray vision.
Just thought I'd brag about that. You know, in case any future employers Google my name and find nothing but un-condemning professional tidbits.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Portrait 4-14-12

Another portrait for a client so I'm only showing a detail [Image: cropped close-up of ayoung white boy's face, smiling. Realistic black & white charcoal.]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Portrait 4-13-12

Just a detail of the portrait since it's for a client. Drawn from life. [image: close-up crop of young white man's face, smiling, wearing a cap, like the military kind with a bill that old-timey Russian poets and coffee house kids wear. Not exactly a newsboy cap but similar. Also less ridiculous and more stylish than I make it sound. black & white charcoal, realistic.]

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Portrait 4-12-12

Just a portion of the portrait since it's for a client. She sat (extreeeemely patiently) while I drew this. [image: cropped close-up of a white teen girl's face smiling slightly. Realistic black & white charcoal.]

Monday, April 16, 2012

Portrait, April something. 11th?

Self portrait in bathroom mirror before getting ready for bed. I look psycho on this, or as an artist I guess I should say, "tortured." Really though I look this way in most of my self portraits because I'm glancing up from my drawing pad at the mirror. The direct overhead lighting isn't helping things either. Still I think the drawing goes well with the video below. [Image: head and neck of a white woman with head tilted down looking directly up at viewer. Contour line drawing in blue and orange marker, somewhat unrealistic.]

Video: black & white close-up film of a cat, an obvious spoof of French 1960s existentialist cinema. A man narrates the cat's "thoughts" in French while subtitles appear. Melancholy piano music plays.
[cat sits in window]
Well... I'm still here.
I have grown my fluffy coat for the winter... like a Tsar's robe it requires... [owner snips fur around the cat's butt] a delicate maintenance.
I'm free to go. [Looks out window] Yet I remain.
The fifteen hours a day I sleep have no effect... I wake to the same tedium.
Immortalized on the wall [looks at vintage poster of the Chat Noir]. Forgotten on the floor.
When my caretakers step here [sits on a bathroom scale] they feel irate... yet I feel nothing.
They leave tasty snacks just out of reach. [Eyes two birds and a mouse in a cage]. They taunt me mercilessly. I alone feel this torment.
[Another cat, white, wiggles.] The white idiot writhes on his chair, begging for cheeseburgers.
I'm surrounded by morons.
[looks at "beware of cat" sign.] "Pay attention to the cat." Not that they ever do.
Still I have learned the few things.
The whipped cream in the bathroom is not whipped cream. [Tastes and rejects a blob of shaving cream] We cannot escape ourselves. [Gazes at self in mirror] And sometimes the cat door... [runs for the cat door but bonks into it when it fails to open] is closed.
un film de Will Braden.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Portrait 4-10-12

Another portrait for a client, so I'm only posting a portion of it. [image: detail of the side of a white man's face who wears glasses and is smiling. Realistic black & white charcoal.]

Friday, April 13, 2012

Portrait, 4-9-12

Since it's for a client I'm only showing a portion of the portrait. [Image: the face and neck of a white woman with thick pale hair and glasses drawn in realistic charcoal.]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Portrait, April 7

Since this was for a client I'm only posting part of the portrait. This woman sat for me at the first Farmer's Market of the year (hooray! I love drawing from life!). [Image: shoulders up to forehead of a white woman with long blond hair wearing earrings and a bunched up draped neck scarf. Drawn in black & white charcoal, realistic with sketchier lines for the scarf.]

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Last Psychiatrist on "Hunger Games:" feminist or not?

[Hunger Games movie SPOILERS!]

After I wrote about Hunger Games blogstress Ariel (who totally knows I love to spew opinions) asked me what I thought of The Last Psychiatrist's take on Hunger Games. TLP makes the case that while HG is (apparently) being hailed as a great feminist movie it is in fact anti-feminist in that the plot happens to the female protagonist rather than her taking actions (i.e. kills) and making decisions (i.e. kills), which takes away her agency. TLP likens HG to Cinderella in the sense that it is a fairy tale in which a passive girl is chosen as princess. Mentioning the recent outrage on feminist and anti-racist sites that many hardcore HG fans had reacted negatively when black actors were cast as Thrush and Rue, TLP calls this issue a sideshow meant to distract from the larger problem of Katniss' lack of agency. In closing:

That's why The Hunger Games is such a diabolical head fake.  [...]  It has managed to convince everyone that a passive character whose main strength is that she thinks a lot of thoughts and feels a lot of feelings, but who ultimately lets every decision be made by someone else-- that is a female hero, a winner. [...] in order to allow you to like an anti-feminist story, it is necessary to brand it as a vampire story or a female Running Man.   Regardless of how you phrase it, the purpose is to get you to like this kind of a story. It wants you to think this is the next step in female protagonists.  But it's a trick: nothing has changed since the royal ball. 

That these "adolescent girl" stories-- Twilight and THG-- have women who are essentially lead by men, circumstance, and fate-- whose main executive decision is "do I love this guy or that guy"-- is a window on our culture worth discussing.  [...]  That Jezebel is distracted by the racial angle here strikes me as an unconsciously deliberate avoidance of the larger issue.  Oh, the audience is racist, that's the problem.

This is the kind of criticism that steps back and dispassionately surveys a phenomenon-- my favorite kind. But the big glaring problem with this post is that TLP didn't step back far enough. Again, I saw the movie but didn't read the books; but since TLP's post is mostly about the movie, which stands on its own, I'm going to respond, focusing on how the movie portrayed things.

Many HG fans have already beat me to it in TLP's comment section pointing out that Katniss did in fact make kills: cutting down the wasp's nest while her would-be killers slept below, shooting Rue's killer through the heart, and shooting Cato (depicted as a mercy killing) as he is devoured by mutant dogs. TLP waves these kills aside as not pro-active, as well as waving aside her decisions-- volunteering for the games, suicide berries, affecting love for Peeta so they can both win-- as not really hers to make since the god-like author and Hunger Games officials whisk away consequences for the last two.

I actually accept TLP's argument waving aside these kills-- the movie did portray them as non-proactive which is status quo dramatic female protagonist behavior (see my criticism of the American Dragon Tatoo's plot twist [SPOILER] where Lisbeth pulls out a gun to shoot the baddie in the end but-- whoopsie-- the car bursts into flame on its own. Such killing-but-not-really tactics remind me of boobs with the nipples blurred out: they are now somehow different and acceptable cause they're not technically explicit... but we still get to see boobs, or as per the analogy, violent revenge). But pro-active killing is MURDER. Is that what TLP would prefer? Would that make the movie more feminist? A major goal of feminism is that we're able to lead our lives apart from the see-saw of coercive domestic / institutional violence and our reactions to it.

Another major goal of feminism is to treat women not as pseudo-children or pawns in the game of Men, but as a vast assortment of autonomous people whose decisions to each live as she sees fit are unremarkable to the rest of society. But unfortunately every decision a woman makes in the public eye is seen as an invitation for scrutiny-- a much higher level of scrutiny than for (white) men. From tabloids to cliques, from churches to offices, women are subjected to a special public opinion poll-- should she have done/said/worn that? Would you have done it differently? What did she do wrong? How could you improve her? How does her behavior serve others? Not only is this directed at women from men, but also from other women-- known as "internalized misogyny." It can be a problem even among groups of Feminists. Leaving aside legitimate complaints of failures to include marginalized groups of women from within the movement, feminists tend to hold each other and their allies to an extremely high level of expectation of perfection. Even while Rush Limbaugh and other outsiders call women who use contraception "sluts," special ire is reserved for those within the movement. But because there are as many ways of being a woman as there are women and thus many ways of interpreting and advancing feminism, each feminist (or ally) tends to have his or her own idea of what other feminists should be doing. So the goal posts are always changing, the flame wars are raging and women are picked apart-- just like in the rest of society. Considering that people and their ideas are flawed this is bad news for celebrating feminist icons, organizing, blogging, and legislating. This isn't intended as a take-down of feminism, which has been pretty damn effective in its time, but rather a critique of how internalized misogyny can play out within the movement. And therein lies the problem with the post: TLP didn't step back far enough to consider this.

Rather, the possibility of imperfect feminist activity seems to raise a flag and pique TLP's inner critic; they have done it wrong. HG has depicted a teenaged girl surviving, something that has clearly rung true for thousands of teens who actually don't have that much agency, a tactic employed by centuries of oppressed wives, prostitutes, daughters, workers, slaves and moms. But to TLP that is the wrong way to do womanhood. HG has chosen to examine oppression, coercion and lack of agency, to present a girl as a complicated character who sometimes fails, -- but for TLP it is not feminist unless we see a perfect woman in a choice-y utopia. HG offers Katniss a chance to use traditionally feminine skills-- networking, empathy, childcare, physical endurance and beautification-- while remaining mainly androgynous, to subvert an arena valuing brute strength, competition and violence, and bring it to a grinding halt (as opposed to using her feminine wiles and skills to achieve dominance or approval within the Patriarchy *cough-LegallyBlonde-Evita-GentlemenPreferBlondes-cough*). Despite the starkly coercive nature of the rules of the Hunger Games rendering both the decisions to kill and to flee as void of agency, TLP would have preferred Katniss succeed on masculine terms of the arena-- on TLP's terms.

Consider the reactions if the film weren't associated with women. Harry Potter similarly "lacks agency" by being acted upon and saved, constantly.  Likewise conscientious objectors have been depicted historically as having made that decision, with draft-dodging being a choice. The Shining was about a man lacking agency (being sort of possessed). Good Will Hunting featured a guy buoyed by fate and outside pressure, his only decision being to fall in love. No one asked, "What is Will teaching boys?" Because "girls" en masse are the ones in danger of being narrowly pigeon-holed by negative media messages. And because of this they must be shown only a narrowly prescriptive version of themselves on-screen. Wait, huh?

While these criticisms of HG could have broadened the discussion if they'd come from a place of respect toward other women and feminists, TLP's critique is not an empathetic one for the feminists at Jezebel, the young HG fans or, tellingly, women in general:

That's the system, it wants you to participate in your own marginalization so you don't dare unplug.  It's exhausting being a chick.  I mean girl--  woman.  Jesus. (5)

Though this is an example of the feminist agency problem, you should note carefully that the "society" that forces this false choice on women is actually other women, not men, and it starts with the overly invested way mothers reproach their daughters to "dress like a lady."   Certainly the original energy for this madness comes from men, from "the patriarchy", but if every man was executed tonight nothing would change tomorrow.  It's on autopilot.  Case in point: this story of a girl robbed of agency was written by a woman.

Of course, if this racism was attached to a Transformers movie you can be sure that Jezebel would pronounce all of the Transformers audience racist.  But in this case, it's only some of the audience who are racist, because progressive Jezebel likes The Hunger Games, and they're not racist.  How can they be?  They're post-feminists, i.e.  the racism for Jezebel is merely an opportunity to criticize the bridge trolls who live in Central Time, just in time for the elections.
[...] What's interesting is how Jezebel seized on the racial controversy, but completely avoided the one bludgeoning them in the face for two hours: this is a book for females, written by a female, with femalist themes, gigantically popular among females, yet is more sexist than a rap video.*
The "feminist/antifeminist" either/or trap is a tricky one when critiquing movies or fiction. What is a feminist movie, anyway? If the filmmakers break silence to present women facing realistic difficulties this can be immensely valuable to many women. But for others the film is antifeminist because it punishes the female characters for their actions. Or a film could present a female character as a fully realized character who is interesting because of her own struggles rather than her relevance to men. But such a flawed character is often critiqued as a poor role model. And a perfect role model is often critiqued as a flat stereotype. Or a character could be a kick-ass superhero-- but she'd be thoughtlessly written as a "man with boobs." (This last category is supposedly about positive "kick-ass" role models for girls but I don't see how aspiring to prosecutable violence and impossible superhuman abilities is any more realistic than aspiring to be a princess. Fun, yes. Useful, no.) A film could manage to walk the line perfectly-- but it features only straight white people.

Sure, when people claim some absurd thing is feminist because it's "empowering," you've gotta raise your eyebrows and raise your voice. When feminism is co-opted by the status quo it's galling. Feminism allows people to make choices but not all choices are feminist, it's true. However TLP's view of what is feminist is so narrow that it crosses the line into authoritarian.

*I find it pretty short sighted of TLP to imply that the racism is a minor disingenuous distraction to the real problem of the movie not catering to TLP's idea of feminism. Both issues seem to be on the same level of slap-in-the-face-but-not-the-end-of-the-world, so why would the racism not be a real issue for feminists of color? Or every feminist? It's not like women of color don't care about racism until it can be used to throw wrenches into the works of mainstream feminism.