Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Price of Exotification

This image (an advertisement for VH1's newest celeb-fronted "educational" vehicle) is problematic.


Three "ethnic" women - arrayed in traditional/ceremonial garb worn rarely, if at all, in modern-day Africa, South Asia, and East Asia - stand, heavily-made-up, behind Jessica Simpson, whose muted clothes and "natural" makeup suggest that she is the default - absent symbols of "color" or "ethnic" culture, we see her as the de facto norm, the standard by which "regular" beauty is judged.

The shot - progressing from "darkest" to "lightest", including a white-painted Asian woman - also supports the very unhelpful concept that race is reducible to skin color, which falls on a continuum between two extremes: Black and White, and everything in-between is precisely that, caught in between two points. The Asian woman isn't White, you see, but her face is painted white - with the White woman placed in front of the others, on the right side of the continuum, the implicit suggestion is that there is a progression, from native, uncivilized, exotified beauty, to the civilized, progressive, and modern.

Of course, Asian and African women very often do not dress like the women portrayed in the shot. But actual trends and fashions in Asia and Africa would actually clothe women of all colors similarly - and that just won't do, because this is a show about a White woman - who is, you know, normally beautiful - serving as tour guide on our little television expedition to the wacky, exotic ideas about beauty that those other cultures hold to.

If Ms. Simpson were to be wearing, say, a corset and lead facepaint, this ad would be significantly less problematic - simply a cross-section of historical fashion trends from all points across the globe. But as it is, Jessica Simpson stands, our modern (read: White, Western) touchpoint against the costumed, made-up exotic women of Somewhere Else.


  1. i think you bring up a great point. why do the women have to be dressed in their cultural wear in this advertisement? shouldn't they just be wearing modern clothing and be standing next to each other not behind one another? anyways, great find and reflection

  2. Also, why is the black woman the only one with a different nose?

  3. That's a very interesting point, Caroline, I didn't even notice the physical similarities.

    It makes sense, though. Again, the implicit point is: Caucasian is normal, and anything difference is an exotic twist on the Anglo norm.

  4. Shouldn't they all be wearing GAP clothing to show the hegemony of American pop culture?

  5. i stumbled upon this article and im glad someone noticed how messed up this ad is. i saw it on the subway and i was thinking, how can they put something like this in a neighborhood full of hispanics? they forgot a hemisphere it seems. also, not all black people are african. this reminds me of those pictures they have in schools of the world with all the "children of the world" holding hands around the globe. if people keep growing up to think this way, human beings will also be looked at in groups rather than individually.

    one more thing...where do all the mixed people fit in all these racial profiles? in america, everyone who isnt white is an people who are of multiple backgrounds are more than alien?? no wonder i didnt have anyone to sit with at lunch in high school.

  6. You know I really wish the West would get it straight once and for all that Africa is CONTINENT (infact, it is the second largest continent in the world) with over 52 countries. This advertizement presents women from two distinct parts of Asia - South Asia and East Asia, thereby at least aknowledging that there are some distinct cultural/racial differences within Asian societies. However, when it comes to Africa, cultures, countries, racial demographics etc. are too often collapsed together. Most people in North Africa look very different from those in West Africa. It is incredibly asinine and ethnocentric to use a picture of what Western audiences assume the typical African woman to look like in order to represent one of the most diverse reigons on Earth.

  7. Sometimes non-white women are also guilty of exotifying themselves to please white men. In my country Hong Kong, women don't really wear the traditional clothing anymore except very rare in wedding banquets. But then you'll see some women dressed in the traditional clothing holding hands with old white men, walking on the streets and doing shopping etc. From what the white men wear, they definitely did not go to a banquet.