This week’s post was inspired by this article from the Australian publication The Age, which talks about Angelina Jolie as the “gold standard of beauty.” It seems that plastic/cosmetic surgery patients often request a look like hers. What struck me most, however, was this statement from Prof. Ava Shamban, a cosmetic dermatologist:
“Angelina Jolie, with her exquisite looks, is the current gold standard of beauty in the states and in the West in general right now and that’s not about to change. The exotic look, like (actresses) Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz, is here to stay, and Angelina is the ultimate embodiment of that.”
The thought that Angelina Jolie represents a current standard of beauty in our media and culture is not new, and it’s bad enough. Exoticism itself is no great thing, since it’s tied to objectification and fetishism. However, the thought that Angelina Jolie is considered the “ultimate embodiment” of an exotic appearance is even more problematic. Even if you cite her French Canadian heritage or her claim that she is a tiny part Iroquois, Angelina is one of the whitest, slenderest, richest, most American (born and raised in the U.S.) women around. Her beauty is largely traditional, if striking. Although it’s great that we can incorporate “exotic” features like larger lips into conceptions of beauty now, this acceptance seems to happen at the expense of a wider range of skin colors and other nontraditional/nonwestern types of beauty.
Moreover, Angelina’s type of beauty is not a standard easy to attain for anyone (even with cosmetic or plastic surgery). In the aforementioned article, health psychologist Prof Jane Ussher even says that she “is arguably a human representation of a cartoon character, similar to those Bratz dolls*, and virtually no one looks like that,” and added that if “you buy into the idea that that (look) is perfect then you’ll never feel good about yourself because you’ll never attain it.”
Of course, the debate about Angelina’s “exotic” look is not new. Angelina’s appearance and performance of racial identity have already created controversy, particularly in discussion of her role as Daniel Pearl’s Afro-French wife in the upcoming film A Mighty Heart. Although Mariane Pearl herself has expressed admiration for Angelina’s work and satisfaction that she (Jolie) was going to play her character, the response from publications and blogs has not been entirely so positive (for varying perspectives on this issue, see this post from Racialicious, this article from This is London, or this post from hecklerspray.com).
This casting decision might not have been so problematic if actresses of different races had equal opportunities for roles. Unfortunately, there is a long history in Hollywood of giving the majority of female roles to white actresses, regardless of the race of the character being portrayed. Only relatively recently has the desire for “racial authenticity” been actively pursued, and even now, there are relatively few desirable main roles for women of color. The issue is not whether Angelina can portray Mariane Pearl; Pearl’s racial identity is only one part of the identity she performs in real life and, according to a lot of contemporary theory, “race” and other parts of identity are largely performed anyhow. However, the portrayal of another race is a thorny issue, especially since the racial transformation through acting still does not work both ways. In the rare cases a nonwhite actress is allowed to “pass” as white, she has to be naturally lighter-skinned and perform her assumed “white” identity both on and off stage. Darker women, not given the chance to pass as white, seem to always be locked in roles that actively represent some notion of “blackness.” The very mark of dark skin acts as a limiting factor in our appreciation of their beauty; whether the audience admires their appearance or not, it cannot help but identify them as “black.”
If Angelina, simply because she has fuller lips, is the most acceptable form of “exotic” beauty, what does that say to women who are actually dark? Even if her acting ability or star power justifies the choice to have her in the role, we can’t forget that her meaning to us as a star is precisely linked to the star system itself, which is apt to package whiteness and beauty together. And while fuller lips cue sensuality and sexiness to us (and apparently to plastic surgery patients), skin any darker than a white woman’s tan is still largely not accepted as beautiful. Until that changes, there will be controversy about white actors and actresses portraying other races.
I’m reminded of an old post from Maddox’s “Best Page in the Universe” that criticizes The Last Samurai for once again representing a white man as the savior or last representative of a “dying race,” as if this white character somehow represents the samurai more truely than the original samurai do themselves. In his critique, Maddox imagines three similar movies with equally ridiculous premises, including my favorite, The Last Inuit starring Julia Roberts:
Angelina’s portrayal of Mariane Pearl may not be as ridiculous as this example, but the point still stands. Exoticizing whiteness on the basis of facial characteristics creates an unrealistic standard of beauty for all of us and unrealistically limits beauty to just a few women and skintones, placing a greater burden on nonwhite women to attain a standard of whiteness while nonetheless performing an “exotic” identity.
*I chose the Bratz doll in this postcard simply because it was the only picture I could find online of one that explicitly signaled exoticism.