This summer has seen the inauguration of two new “top-model” type of reality shows that expand the concept of beauty in both positive and negative ways. On the plus side, Britain’s Missing Top Model and TVLand’s She’s Got the Look each expand the definition of who counts as beautiful by going against ableist and ageist beauty standards.
However, the better option, if you ask me, would be to do away with the beauty competition paradigm altogether. Expanding the definition of beauty does nothing to question or destabilize the beauty imperative wherein (mainly women) are constructed as chess(t) pieces competing for dubious hotness prizes.
Feminism has critiqued this beauty imperative from way back. For example, Mary Wollestonecraft weighed in against beauty in A Vindication of the Rights of Women back in 1792 while Sojourner Truth rallied against white supremacist, classist definitions of beauty in the 1850s. More recently, in one of my favorites, Sandra Lee Bartky riles against disciplinarian beauty norms and practices in “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.”
Yet, the reality shows that trade in women (from bartering them off to Joe Millionairres or cutting them up Swan style) have no truck with feminism. They pander to keeping the ‘woman as object’ archetype firmly in place. As a case in point, check out the great analysis over at The Feminist Underground of yet another recent reality show offender on FOX, The Battle of the Bods.
Missing Top Model and She’s Got the Look endeavor to get more women to join in the ‘fun’ of defining themselves via their looks. The title of Missing… in and of itself is offensive. It constructs disabled women as not fully human with its use of the word ‘missing.’ (For a good analysis of this shows many wrongs, see this post at WIMN’s Voices.)
As for She’s Got the Look, it trades in the oh-so-maddening MILF narrative-a trend that suggests women of all ages can be subjected to a controlling, penetrating male gaze-how empowering! As Jessica at Feministing quips in regards to “She’s Got the Look,” “why should young women have all that objectification fun!” Yes indeed, why should we limit kowtowing to beauty norms to a select few-let’s expand the playing field so all women can chain themselves to beauty mandates and be defined solely as eye candy!
The problem is that expanding the definition of beauty is an assimilationist move. It does nothing to topple the panopticon of beauty wherein (mainly women) are prompted to police themselves and others while (mainly men) are given the warden keys of control. Similar to gay assimilationist moves that attempt to gain access to problematic institutions rather than to overthrow them (such as marriage and its accompanying 1000plus legal privileges), beauty assimilation merely expands who gets to take part in the oppressive beauty matrix.
This is not to say that beauty can’t be fun, that enjoying the body and its appearance is always oppressive. Rather, it is the current ways that beauty is defined, institutionalized, and capitalized that is problematic. We need to queer beauty, to politicize it, to redefine it, not merely expand the existing limiting definitions of beauty that are capitalist, white supremacist, and heteronormative (among other things).
No, this does not mean enjoying wearing make up or fashion or body ornamentation makes you a ‘bad feminist’ (I disagree with Bartky here). What it means is that as feminists we need to be conscious of our beauty practices and analyze our motives. (This is an old debate, one that has been re-hashed over and over, yet the “if you wear make up you are not a true feminist” stereotype refuses to die). Beautifying and appreciating others beauty should be a fun, pleasureful practice-much like sex. It should not be a stick to beat ourselves or others with. It should also involve consent rather than coercion.* And it should not involve competitions – reality TV based or otherwise. Like the collective voices of a number of feminists in 1968 who penned the classic essay “No More Miss America,” let’s protest the “The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol” these shows perpetuate, let’s say no to “Racism with Roses,” and let’s say NO to “The Consumer Con-Game” of the beauty/pageant/top model paradigm.
*For an interesting post and follow-up discussion about appreciating the beauty/phycisality of others in non-oprressive ways, see “I Objectify Men” over at Feministe.