Saturday, April 17, 2021

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V. Importing European Standards of Beauty

The modern definition of race did not appear until the middle of the eighteenth century. During that century, European publications shifted from identifying groups on the basis of their nationality to a preoccupation with race. By the mid-nineteenth century the classification of individuals by race was ubiquitous. However, the current standards for beauty, which reflect and perpetuate colorism, can be traced back into antiquity.

A pale complexion, fine facial features, and light-colored hair became the social construct of feminine beauty during the Classical period *99 of Ancient Greece (ca. 480-323 BC). For example, a female Greek portrait from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is described as possessing finely shaped features: large almond-shaped eyes, beautifully arching eyebrows, a full rounded mouth with a plump and bow-shaped upper lip. During this period, Greek artists made a dramatic advance in the execution of their craft. They learned to express the human body in a life-like and naturalistic manner, characterized by a system of proportions. Their statues were detailed, and with anatomically accurate forms. Consider the nude Aphrodite of Cnidos, by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, as an example. Expertly crafted presentations of the human anatomy and musculature were depicted in marble, stone, or bronze.

Africans, known as Ethiopians by the ancient Greeks, were present in the Hellenic world and were considered exotic. African images of athletes and entertainers were displayed in pottery and vases by utilizing an attractive black glaze. Noticeably, they were not shown in heroic roles or as aesthetic symbols, since the Classic ideal of beauty was entirely Eurocentric. Angela Harris articulated with conciseness the perceptions of whiteness and Eurocentrism that have informed both art and history: "more white is more European, and more European is more refined; less European is more primitive, and more primitive is more dark."

The Romans adopted the Greek standard of beauty. The goddess Venus represented love and beauty and was considered the quintessence of feminine beauty and harmony. The famous statue, Venus de Milo, is exhibited in Paris at the Louvre. Her naked torso has an elongated silhouette and a sensual nudity that contrasts with an impassive expression. The nose is a continuation of the forehead forming the *100 classic "Greek profile." Along with other interpretations of Venus, this image sets the standard by which feminine beauty is measured.

During the Renaissance (ca. 1300-1600), the aesthetics of the Classical period were revived. Botticelli's Birth of Venus depicts the goddess emerging from the sea as a full-grown woman. Her cascading blonde hair accentuates her slender body and alabaster complexion. In another Botticelli, Venus and Mars, Venus lies opposite her lover Mars, god of war, who has fallen asleep apparently after making love to her. Her alertness, as the goddess of love, represents the triumph of love over war. Although it is believed that Simonetta Vespucci inspired the work of Boticelli, Venus was the expression of the artist's ideal perception of beauty. During the Renaissance, realistic interpretation was avoided and positive attributes were highlighted. Venus has perfect skin, a high forehead, and a sharply defined chin. Her hair is strawberry blonde, she has delicate eyebrows, a strong nose, narrow mouth, and full lips. This idealized depiction shows the conception of perfect beauty that prevailed during the Italian Renaissance.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Titian's Venus with a Mirror and Tintoretto's Leda and the Swan are examples of art that celebrate beauty in the "whiteness" of European women. Other Renaissance expressions of feminine beauty were along the same lines: Caucasian women with pale complexions and fine features.

*101 With the advent of the Atlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century and the colonization of the Americas, Asia, and Africa, black skin became the personification of the undesirable. By the early nineteenth century, theories of scientific racism were developed and widely accepted. Samuel Morton, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, published Crania Americana in 1839. In general, Morton claimed that differences in head shapes could predict a racial group's intelligence and other personality traits. An appendix written by George Combe expanded upon the relationship between the natural talents and dispositions of nations and the development of their brains. Based on Morton's findings, Combe highlighted the tendency of the Caucasian race to exhibit moral and intellectual improvement, while referring to the African race situation as one unbroken scene of moral and intellectual desolation, with the exception of some tribes. Combe's opinion about the Native American race was even more critical: the author could not justify the miserable and savage conditions of these individuals, despite the long-term exposure of natives to European knowledge, enterprise, and energy.

Morton's theory of Polygenesis hypothesized that racial groups did not share a common origin. This provided a "scientific" basis for viewing African-descended people as a different and inferior species, thus requiring interbreeding to improve the race. A lexicon emerged that equated "blackness" with negative traits. "Black," "dark," and "sinister" are considered adjectives stemming from the word "evil." Common examples include "black hearts," "black deeds," and "black magic," as well as referring to Satan as the "Prince of Darkness."

*102 Whites expressed what it meant to be Black by portraying negative stereotypes of Blacks in entertainment and popular culture throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, White performers darkened their faces with burnt cork, painted exaggerated White mouths, donned woolly wigs, and performed minstrel shows. The common themes in these performances were jokes highlighting laziness, ignorance, and other negative traits using crude versions of the Black dialect. Characters such as Jim Crow, a na ve and clumsy slave, exemplify this stereotype. With the advent of motion pictures in the early twentieth century, negative depictions of African-Americans moved to the screen. Furthermore, the negative connotation against Blacks became available to children through cartoons. For instance, the 1941 animation, Scrub Me Mamma with a Boogie Beat, depicts the life of a Black river community called Lazytown. With the exception of some Mammies, all men and animals appear sleeping or slacking during the day. The crude scenes of laziness and abandonment are suddenly changed when a modern riverboat arrives and the beautiful White ladies from the crew bring their energy and good manners to the town. This cartoon highlights the cultural preferences of Whites and displays many of the negative stereotypes of Blacks described so far.

In Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, Donald Bogle identified other stereotypes depicted in popular films. Toms were always loyal, never turning against their White masters or employers. Coons, in contrast, were irresponsible, lazy, and dishonest. The Mammy was depicted as outspoken, overweight, and cantankerous. The Black Buck was a large, fearsome, dark-skinned, and hyper-sexualized male. The *103 Tragic Mulatto was a fair-skinned female attempting to pass for White. She was a sympathetic character confused by a divided racial heritage. More recently, the "Jezebel" was depicted as seductive, promiscuous, and predatory. Racial stereotypes were a staple of films, cartoons, comic books, and novels well into the 1960s.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement altered the legal status of African-Americans. The official regime of state-sponsored discrimination was eliminated by Civil Rights legislation. For a brief period during the Black Power era, Blacks embraced their African heritage. A rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty and the establishment of the politics of representation were encouraged. Women were urged to abandon hair strengtheners and skin-lightening creams. The "Afro" hairstyle became fashionable, and African-inspired clothing communicated the wearer's racial consciousness. The prevailing sentiment was captured in James Brown's popular song, "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud."

The Black Arts movement introduced a "Black Aesthetic" to art, music, and literature. A revolution took place, which allowed Black artists to look at their social order from their own perspective. The 1960s were a time of protests, demonstrations, and urban riots; a *104 turning point in the way African-Americans perceived themselves. However, their hopes for a permanent transformation were too optimistic. By the late 1970s, the Black Power Movement declined. Opposition to Eurocentric standards survives today in the Black Studies Departments at Universities and in some "Afrocentric" organizations and charter schools, but it has largely disappeared from popular culture.

The commercialization of negative stereotypes has re-emerged and the entertainment industry is exploiting them for profit. Rap music is a multi-billion dollar industry. In the 1990s, "gangster rap" glamorized a ghetto subculture. This was reflected in behavior and attitudes that rejected mainstream values and glamorized dangerous and self-destructive behavior. Conspicuous consumption, ostentatious displays of jewelry, fast cars, and scantily clad women are the images that still predominate in music videos and magazines. Complexion Obsession: A Hip Hop Documentary is a two-part documentary created by Joy Daily. Using filmed interviews of several entertainers, the documentary shows how deeply colorism is embedded in the ethos of hip hop.

In a contemporary representation, the "Jezebel" character is the video vixen, a prominent character in gangster rap songs. Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj are current manifestations of this stereotype: they employ exaggerated expressions of femininity and sexuality in their performances; they present images that commodify Black female sexuality; and they are bound by an old stereotype in which Black women are predisposed to *105 sexual deviance and lewdness.

Rap's product is an extravagant image of life in inner-city neighborhoods. Tough ghetto youths are shown driving luxury cars and wearing oversized shirts and baggy pants while displaying a menacing visage. The "thug" image that many rappers project is merely an updated version of the "Buck" character: a large, threatening, and hyper-sexualized Black male. The old expression "I don't want nothing black but a Cadillac" conveyed African-American males' preference for light-skinned women. This attitude persists in hip-hop culture. According to Patricia Hill Collins, the values of individualism, personal expression, and material well-being have prevailed in the hip-hop culture, while issues of racial failure have been overlooked.

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