Friday, January 20, 2012

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Part IV: Guinevere, Racism and the Tyranny of Beauty

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

I'm a fangirl. Always have been and, I suspect, always will be. Being a fangirl means (among giggling, obsessive Tumblring and overall silliness) that I allow myself to become immersed in cultural texts in ways that are both insightful and transformative. As I said in a previous post, the reason I'm able to thoughtfully critique culture is because I unabashedly engage it; it's precisely because of my passion for art and culture that I so strongly oppose it's complicity in systems of oppression.
Art and culture are not 'just entertainment': they are powerful tools with which we understand, contextualize and justify the world we live in. Being a fangirl means that I invariably encounter cultural texts that justify sexism. Being a fangirl of color means....a whole lot more.

I've written before about my love for the BBC show 'Merlin', particularly due to the casting of WOC actress Angel Coulby in the role of Guinevere. The show has many problematic elements, as do all cultural texts, but I keep returning to it because it's one of the few media images of a woman of color, especially a Black woman, as beautiful, sweet, desirable, gracious, queenly. Angel Coulby is the reason I watch this show, and the reason I partake in its fandom. It's been years since I've participated in a fandom; the unquestioned racism of Tolkien fandoms drove me away, and the predominant whiteness of so many fantasy texts curtail my ability to empathize with the stories being told. In short, 'Merlin', even with its many pitfalls, is a breath of fresh air, and has reminded of all the reasons I love being a fangirl.

While Angel Coulby as Gwen boasts a devoted fanbase, there are many who virulently dislike her role as future queen; examining some of the reasons cited by those who dislike her, while painful and quite frankly nauseating, help illustrate how deeply white supremacy is embedded in our cultural landscape, and how much decolonizing we still need to do.

I won't go into all the whitesplaining reasons in this post: many other Merlin fans of color have done so superbly. What I'm interested in discussing here is the the question of beauty, and how our cultural definitions of 'beautiful' are interwoven with the stories we tell.

Many (usually white) contend that they have no issue whatsoever with Angel Coulby being Black, rather they insist their dislike is based on purely aesthetic reasons. Some of the comments on YouTube videos can be summarized thus: "it's not her race, I just don't find her attractive enough to play the part. It's not racist! It's my opinion."
I try and understand how some people could simply find her unattractive. Then I look at pictures like this:
Or this:
Clearly, this is a striking woman. Whatever your 'subjective' tastes, it's hard to look at these pictures and unequivocally deem her lacking in the looks department.
Beauty, desire and attraction maybe subjective, but 450 plus years of cultural conditioning that elevated Eurocentric beauty standards over all others has left an indelible mark on our collective conscious. We are all implicated in the colonial, white-supremacist gaze. There's a reason that my teenage self could never picture a Black/African descended man as a Prince. There's a reason that same teenage self unthinkingly coded beauty as white. And there's a reason why women like Angel Coulby are considered ''simply unattractive' while the Kristen Stewarts and Anna Paquins of the world are presented time and again in on-screen roles where their beauty and allure are simply assumed.

I'm not interested in typecasting anyone who disagrees with Coulby's casting as racist (such oversimplified conclusions belie the depth to which racism is embedded in our culture). What I do wish to point out, is that our subjective desires are never innocent, and that they are developed in a context of interaction with a world that is racist, sexist, cis-supremacist and euro-centric. How many images have we, as a culture, been subjected to wherein a white woman was framed as the ultimate object of beauty? In visual media alone I can easily think of 10 off the top of my head, and that's not even scratching the surface. Scarlett O'Hara, Cleopatra, Christine Daae, Snow White, Arwen Evenstar are but a few: in each case, a white, European-descended woman is framed, lit, dressed, posed, highlighted and presented as the ultimate embodiment of beauty. This isn't just happenstance: filmic devices such as camera angles, lighting, makeup and costuming are all employed to create the maximum effect, and coupled with the reality of a world where white equals power, it's easy to accept and internalize a singular standard of beauty against which all others must compare. Anyone who claims to have escaped the effect of these images is engaging in patent dishonesty. I'm affected by these images, and I'm someone who spends every day trying to decolonize my cultural perspectives.

Someone else who commented on my Guinevere post said this:
"I have no problem with them casting a black woman as Guinevere, but as an artist, my problem is that Guinevere's beauty was legendary (which led to her subsequent "man troubles") and although I find Angel Coulby cute and pretty, she is not captivatingly beautiful!But a huge part of Guinevere's character is her physical beauty (not skin colour!) and that's why I personally feel this particular casting failed, as much as I appreciate the actress' ability."
That line " Guinevere's beauty was legendary", has rankled me since I saw that comment. Who gets to decide what is and isn't 'legendary'? Aren't codified legends, ultimately, tales that are allowed to flourish because they benefit the status quo? Why do we accept, without question, that all heroes and heroines were physically attractive and why does this seem integral to our cultural capacity to picture those people? The necessity of beauty is particularly insistent for women of myth: Helen of Troy, Guinevere, Cleopatra were all women closely tied to the power-base of history's most renowned empires, and yet whenever we remember them through books, movies or poetry it is their beauty that becomes paramount. We cite Helen as "the face that launched a thousand ships", we speculate that Cleopatra deployed her sexual allure to control Julius Cesar and Mark Anthony, and we love to vilify Guinevere as the beauty who compelled Lancelot to surrender "all his worldly worth" and thus ensure the ruination of Camelot. By reducing these historical figures to their beauty, we not only do profound disservice to a history of powerful women, but we also perpetuate narrow understandings of sexuality, desirability, race and gender.

When we imagine the noble and heroic figures of myth, we shape them according to our own aspirations: we want to feel admiration and empathy, we want to adore them and we want to believe we could be them. In a society where physical appearance is tied to historic systems of power and privilege, it's no wonder we assign beauty to heroic virtue and vice versa. But this cultural association spells real consequences: it's intertwined with legacies of racist colonialism that devalues certain kinds of physical beauty, and the the ravages of disordered eating, unhealthy body image, depression and food addiction are attributable to a cultural fetish for "perfect" beauty.
Furthermore, these ideas of women's beauty as somehow a force of its own also feeds into the myths of rape culture: women's bodies are not our own, rather they're public, cultural objects that we can possess, violate, mark and control. It might sound tragically lovely and poetic to say Helen's beauty ignited the Trojan war or that Guinevere's loveliness would prompt the noblest Knight to throw away a lifetime of vows for a single kiss; strip these memes of their poetic embellishments and it's not so different than saying a rape survivor 'asked for it' because of her appearance, or that men can't help but harass women on the streets because of our overwhelming attractiveness, or any number of misogynist excuses that endorse violent control of women.

I delight in beauty; all sentient creatures do. And I admit that the reason I love Angel Coulby's Guinevere is because I can see an image of myself reflected back to me, which is rare for a woman of color. It's rare to see thick curly hair, honey-deep skin and dark eyes on screen: even rarer to find these traits centered as beautiful. I wonder how my childhood/teenage imaginings would have differed if I had seen images of WOC celebrated as beautiful all around me. I worry about any children I might have, growing up without seeing their skin and hair and eyes celebrated as beautiful. I know many parents of color who struggle with this already.

Beauty and its sensual discernment is powerful: but unless we decode the centuries of meaning embedded within its definition, then we are only constructing an ideal that controls and disciplines our marvelous human potential. We use beauty to police which women we listen to, which women we consider 'real' women, which women we recognize, and which women are 'unrapeable'. Decolonizing our concept of beauty, and disrupting its cultural connection to worthiness, would mean our cultural myths would also have to shift. They would no longer include only the rich and powerful, the white and able-bodied, the heterosexual and cis-gendered. They would include women of color, transwomen, transmen, differently abled bodies.

I think the CrimethInc. Ex. Workers’ Collective says it best: "Beauty must be defined as what we are, or else the concept itself is our enemy. To see beauty is simply to learn the private language of meaning which is another’s life–to recognize and relish what is."