On perceptions of beauty and race, with film recommendations

The availability heuristic is often summed up as the human tendency to think that easier something is to remember, the more frequently it must occur. Another neat summary, this time from a Wikipedia contributor, runs as follows:

“The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind.”


It can cause us to make a number of errors, such as overestimating the prevalence of a given phenomenon following an increase in media coverage of that phenomenon. By extension, it also causes us to accept as ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ occurrences or phenomena that are in reality only one version from within a wide range of possibilities. Another error we make for this reason, is the association of groups of people with certain traits or characteristics based on depictions of those persons in the media.


An example might be associating people from the Middle-east with violent extremism because international news coverage for that region is focused on warfare and violence, providing our minds with a disproportionate number examples of overlap between people of a certain religion, appearance or nationality, with those traits.


Similarly, media depictions of certain traits can be disproportionately linked to a given group of people. An example might be when national crime reporting unnecessarily specifies the nationality of a suspect when they are not native to the country, but often omits the nationality (or race) of a suspect when it is in line with majority of the population. Violence, theft or other acts are therefore disproportionately linked with minority races or nationalities in the public mind.


This undercurrent of media influence is what prompts much of the research on gender and media, such as the findings shared in this recent post on the visibility and representation of women in mainstream film.


Today’s post concentrates on a subject equally vulnerable to media-influence, our concept of beauty, particularly female beauty. Advertising, film, television, magazines and so on, heavily lean toward one, very specific, depiction of female beauty. That depiction influences our social norms and our beauty ideals.


We all know the depictions of female beauty in the media are less than genuine. We know about photoshop, professional lighting and make up. We also know they tend towards one body type, including weight range, height, bust etc. Considering how much alteration these images undergo and the very selective representation of women, we also know that the body type depicted is considerably more rare in reality, than it is in our media. These depictions present a fiction as a reality and make it the goal and the expectation.


But what about race? When you think of “female beauty” as depicted in the media, how many of the related images in your mind involve women of colour?


Media depictions of beauty also create another norm; they promote a predominantly white beauty ideal. Depictions that do involve women of colour often represent them as “exotic”, a distinctly “othering” term with highly sexual connotations. Black women in particular are sometimes portrayed as bestial, animalistic and thus quite literally de-humanized, while the implied “wildness” heavily sexualizes them. You may also notice that the media more often displays black women with features more typically associated with whiteness, such as lighter skin and chemically relaxed hair, rather than with natural hair.


This leads us to the first of two documentary suggestions, looking at predominantly female-centred beauty ideals as they intersect with race; Chris Rock’s Good Hair. As informative as it is entertaining, this film explores what is meant by the term “good hair”, the business behind it and the worrying perceptions that some people appear to have of natural hair, considering it less presentable, less professional and less attractive.


For me, the most affecting aspect of this film was seeing women in India have their hair removed, ostensibly for religious sacrifice, only for the hair to be later sold to distributors in the United States and elsewhere. Suppliers will eventually sell the hair to a predominantly female, African American customer base as one means of conforming to the innately prejudiced beauty ideal dominating society.


If you have a particular interest in this topic, you might enjoy reading, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” by co-authors Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps, originally published in 2002 and now updated for 2014.


The second film I want to recommend is entitled Dark Girls, by film-makers D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke.


Dark Girls explores the concept of colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker to describe discrimination and prejudice based on the lightness or darkness of one’s skin. The term is usually only applied to prejudice occurring within one’s own race. The film doesn’t limit itself to the United States; and while it discusses the white beauty ideal in mainstream media as one factor, it also covers the historical causes related to white imperialism and slavery.


Following the release of Dark Girls, a news discussion featured a short excerpt from the movie, showing a brief clip of some telling research on children’s perceptions of others, based on skin colour.

Sadly, the clip is representative of the majority findings of the study, both black and white children displayed a bias in favour of whiteness. The bias was stronger among the white children. And the study also found little difference among the two age groups involved 4-5 and 9-10 years old.

Finally, I leave you with the video below, an award winning short film, entitled “A Girl Like Me”. Even if you watch nothing else recommend in this post, I urge you to watch this.

Despite a running time of only seven minutes, it manages to express the broad scope of its topic. In the interview-based début documentary by director Kiri Davis, a series of young black women express views on physical appearances including skin colour and hair, societal perceptions and expectations, and the impact culture can have on self-esteem and identity.




The rhetoric of gender equality; Emma Watson and other public discourse

As you have no doubt read, seen and heard, UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, recently delivered a speech for the launch of a new campaign, entitled  “HeForShe”.


The speech garnered criticism for several reasons. It framed the solution to gender inequality in terms that many found patriarchal. It extended what many felt was a naive and unnecessary invitation to men, inviting them to participate in the movement for gender equality. Critics also argue that Ms. Watson centred the issue on the benefits men can garner from equality, undermining the moral right and the true value of equality.


This post represents a considered view not only on Ms. Watson’s speech but also the general rhetoric surrounding the issue of gender inequality and feminism. Please note that this opinion is nuanced and as such I urge you to read it in its entirety.



Problematic Phrases

Rephrasing the problem of gender inequality in the terms of patriarchy, which is the social system of primarily male dominance that is responsible for the cultural mindset that passively or actively supports unequal treatment of women including their objectification and victimization, is not the solution.


We see this use of patriarchal language in President Obama’s response to a prominent domestic violence case, which used several problematic phrases,


“Hitting a woman is not something a real man does..”


Attempting to update or redefine the term “real men” only serves to maintain the fiction that there is one way to be a man. By definition, the term “real men” requires there to be men who are less than real. This reinforces rigid gender roles and more specifically, it promotes socially approved scripts that ultimately encourage homophobia and transphobia, that fuel peer pressure and that breed insecurity.


Speaking on the same subject, a White House representative issued another phrase which in this context, becomes somewhat problematic:


“The President is the father of two daughters.”


Though intended to be reassuring, this statement implies that a personal, vested interested is required in order to truly care about violence against women. For me, it was reminiscent of the phrase “someone’s daughter” as often used to discourage mistreatment of women.


“Someone’s daughter” belongs to a group of similar phrases, such as “Someone’s wife or girlfriend” or “What if that were your sister?” and so on. These phrases all attempt to re-humanise women to the hearer, by reminding them of a woman’s social connections and her significance to others. The worrying implication however, is that women are not fully fledged human beings in their own right. Their humanity is granted by association, often by association to male figures.


Women should not need to be contextualized. Humanity is not bestowed by virtue of belonging to a larger social or familial group. Equality is not deserved by association. The reason it is wrong to demean or assault a woman is not her association with some other human being, male or otherwise.


There is a similar statement in Ms. Watson’s speech,

“I want men to take up this mantle, so their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice…”


Whether intended to mean that men should strive for equality because of their “vested interests” or to mean that Ms. Watson’s wish that men to join the movement is caused by her own desire for women to be free from prejudice, this statement defines women by their roles in relation to men. It prompts empathy, but in a diluted form, encouraging men to think of women in relation to themselves.



“Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”


In connection with this statement, Ms. Watson makes the case for male participation in the movement based on the benefits that gender equality holds for them as men.


Certainly, the best advocates of equality are not those who seek personal gain but are instead driven by a sense of justice. That applies to all of us, not just men. We ought to strive for equality for those from whom we differ, as much as those with whom we share obvious commonalities. That sense of justice is the force behind truly inclusive, intersectional feminism.


In addition, this rhetoric places the emphasis on male-centred issues, when we know that the vast majority of gender inequality is to the detriment of women.That is not to say that there is no room within feminism to discuss areas of inequality that affect men, such as unmarried fathers’ rights, to give an example. Rather, it is to say that our conversations should reflect the work that has to be done, most of which involves primarily female-centred issues.


However, there is a common misconception that feminism is a synonym for misandry. Perhaps this is the reason that Ms. Watson refers to many men feeling unwelcome in the movement. This misconception is the product of misogynistic detractors, poor research and the sad but undeniable fact, that some people with misandric views do identify themselves as feminists. Given all of this, it doesn’t hurt to assure people that feminism is fundamentally about equality.


Some criticise Ms. Watson for extending an “invitation”, citing the thousands of years that the majority of men have been indifferent to or in favour of inequality and accordingly ignored the open invitation.


While this is very true, it has very little meaning to a seventeen year old boy from Lancashire, England, for instance. Surely he can only be held responsible for his own choices and certainly, for events within his own lifetime. However, upon seeing one such critic regard all men as an apparently immortal, collective consciousness, he may very well feel unwelcome. Such statements only perpetuate the misconception that feminism is rooted in reactionary misandry.


Many feminists are apprehensive to discuss any male perspective or experience. It’s an understandable fear too, since the main narrative within this community should generally be centred on the issues of those who have the least voice in wider society.


That being said, keeping the main narrative focused, does not require that we employ prejudice, deny the existence of other forms of inequality or display a lack of compassion and respect in our treatment of them. We can learn about those inequalities, we can even discuss those inequalities without losing all perspective or allowing them to eclipse other issues.


We shouldn’t allow fear to decide our discourse. We shouldn’t allow a fear that looks all too like anger, to become the public spokesperson of our community.



Considering the Speech in Context


Emma Watson is a highly influential figure, particularly to younger people. And while her UN speech uses the familiar phrases of patriarchy, it is an introduction. For the most part, it uses language and terms appropriate for an introduction, appropriate for its audience.


People engage with feminism on different levels. We rarely approach any new or unfamiliar ideology at the highest level. Introductory level conversations of feminism will make use of the familiar language and concepts of patriarchy because we must begin somewhere. We must begin with a common language and tangible, graspable concepts.


Ms. Watson’s speech speaks not to established feminists, but to the next generation of feminists and those not yet versed in feminism. Her speech encourages people to engage with this movement. From there, they can investigate, explore (find out that not everybody falls into one of the “HeForShe” titular categories) and learn that there is so much to feminism that we have yet to discover a “highest level”.


Not only does it take time to integrate feminism into our worldview, but even then, it is an unending education. Perhaps Emma Watson has more “to learn” as critics around the web have stated, but so too have all of us.


And perhaps, when viewed in context, her speech, which has moved its intended audience and started them on what we can only hope will be a lifelong endeavour to learn and engage, is not quite so naive as some have suggested.


Higher-level or in-group rhetoric on any ideology only appeals to those who are already familiar with its concepts, its terminology and so on. This speech, appeals to those who possess its sentiment, its sense of justice.


Furthermore, it brings a more positive representation of feminism into the public awareness, counteracting those misconceptions and lazily trotted-out stereotypes.


Yes, we should discuss the issue of patriarchal solutions to a patriarchal problem. But it’s not necessary to personally attack Ms. Watson, as some have done. The same is true of any high-profile figure who attempts to challenge stereotypes, spark interest in feminism or represent this multi-faceted movement in one neat bundle to an uninitiated audience. There will be errors, their feminism will differ from our own and so on. We ought to take a balanced view of these contributions, consider them in context, assess the positive and negative effects, not just the aspects we consider to be in error. In this case, one positive effect may have been to engage a previously disengaged audience, many of them younger people and men of all ages.


Personally, I welcome the next generation of feminists. I do so knowing they will hold different opinions, accepting that they will have different perspectives and personal experiences. But knowing too, that the learning process is ongoing for all of us – yes, their views will evolve as they engage more with feminism, but feminism will evolve too, in part because of their input. I welcome the next generation of feminists, knowing that we all share a common starting point, our sense of justice.

Postscript & Update

Some readers have heard of Iceland’s announcement regarding a UN-supported male-only gender equality conference on women’s rights and violence against women. While this Jackson Katz style approach can be beneficial in educational settings, excluding women from important dialogues between empowered leaders regarding gender equality and discussing women’s rights without women, strikes me as counter-productive, as I’m sure it does many others. Some newspapers have represented Ms. Watson’s speech and this announcement almost as cause and effect. While they share a use of patriarchal models of male protection and one has certainly popularised the notion of male-involvement in this issue, I feel quite strongly that it’s only appropriate to hold the conference organisers responsible for their own choices, their interpretation and over-stepping of that involvement and from the information currently available, what appears to be their major oversight of an inherent flaw.

Update: Following criticism, the conference organisers have decided to include women, full story here.

New Research: Only 30.9% of all speaking characters on-screen are female

For films made cooperatively between the US and the UK, that number falls to 23.6%.  These are the findings of the latest research from The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which compared visibility and representations of women in mainstream films globally.

“Research reveals that the percentage of female speaking characters in top-grossing movies has not
meaningfully changed in roughly a half of a century.”

-Smith, Choueiti, & Pieper (2014) Executive summary: Gender Bias Without Borders

The research examined G, PG and PG-13 movies from the United States and equivalent movies from the 10 most profitable countries internationally as reported by the Movie Picture Association of America, all with a theatrical release date between January 1st 2010 and May 1st 2013. Taking into account the success of US and UK film collaboration, an additional sample of these US/UK hybrid films was created.

120 global films were examined. Every named or speaking character (one or more words, discernibly uttered on-screen) was evaluated for “demographics, sexualization, occupation and STEM careers”. Read the report and considering sharing the following infographic from the Institute’s website and following @GDIGM on Twitter and Facebook.

Readers with an interest in the representation of women in mainstream media may also be interested in the documentary film, Miss Representation.

Sexual Assault on Public Transport

Sexual assault on public transportation is a prominent issue, though there is considerable evidence to suggest that the majority of instances are not reported. Recently two South American countries have been in the news on this issue.

The first story can be read here: Can Undercover Cops End Sexual Assault on Public Transportation?

That story comes via Slate and Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo.

The launch of the small task force in Bogotá, Columbia, gave rise to a variety of reactions with some commentators questioning just what constitutes sexual assault in crowded conditions where physical contact of some kind may be inevitable. According the Miami Herald however, the officers “said they’re looking for more clear-cut cases — when there’s intentional grabbing and groping.”

The operatives are predominantly, though not exclusively, female and this has cause some to question how ethical the small-scale operation is and whether officers are being used as ‘bait’ or a form of entrapment. Entrapment requires an officer induce a person to commit an offence that they would otherwise not have committed. An officer’s physical appearance or simply being female, hardly constitutes inducement to commit a sexual assault. In addition, Bogotá’s police force has highly publicized the operation in attempt to deter such behaviours by forewarning potential perpetrators that there may be legal consequences for their action.

Neighbouring country Peru recently considered a similar operation, but abandoned the idea a short time later, fearing that it would subject their female officers to undue risk. Head of the Terna Group police force, Jañovi Chuquiyanqui reportedly stated that, “No lady of any profession or occupation should be touched.” Chuquiyanqui also said that he remains committed to tackling the issue.

For more information on this topic in general, I suggest this article by Ann Friedman, which also highlights some interesting socio-economic factors.