Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Beauty/Appropriation

It’s true, I suck as a blogger. It’s been nearly a month since I last wrote anything, and in a medium dependent primarily on the written word, that makes me pretty crappy at this. I intend to make up for this shortcoming today with a blog focused on two subjects! (Two for one deal, you should consider yourselves thrifty readers…or at the least partially reimbursed for my untimely absence).

I really wish I could say I’ve been away doing something of critical importance: advocating for LGBT equality, saving the rainforest—hell, I’d even settle for practicing my violin (which I’m sad to say I’ve been neglecting). The truth is, though, I’ve been watching Ugly Betty. Watching this show is actually somewhat of an act of subtly irony—the premise of Ugly Betty is focused on inner beauty and adhering to Polonius’ advice (“To thine own self be true”). This theme is embodied in the show’s main character, Betty, who despite an “ugly” appearance (oh my god she has glasses and braces!) is really a beautiful person, and her true, inner self is what makes her attractive and likeable. The irony in this is twofold: first, Betty works at a fashion magazine (and fashion magazines exemplify shallowness and vanity), and second, America Ferrera, who plays Betty, is actually damn gorgeous in real life. I completely support the message of Ugly Betty; it is inner beauty that makes a person attractive, and indeed physical beauty is not much more than an illusion. More than that, people ought to be able to be themselves and be loved for who they are, rather than succumb to a hollow and essentially meaningless societal standard of beauty/value. Initially I was going to tear into this show for having people who fit the societal mold for beauty playing supposedly unattractive characters—on one level the casting makes the show’s critique of beauty somewhat of a farce. But maybe on another level this is part of the brilliance of Ugly Betty: beauty and ugliness are both illusions and can often be easily crafted, but true beauty or ugliness (i.e. who a person actually IS beneath it all) transcends the fa├žade of culturally accepted standards of beauty; that, in fact, ugliness and beauty are little more than cultural constructs. Just as the character of Betty can be constructed to appear “ugly” with the addition of fake glasses and braces (or think of Nicole Kidman’s fake nose in The Hours), appearances can be constructed to be pretty with makeup and photoshop—but all are just construction; lame illusions and artificial to the bone. I’m reminded of the writings of the great philosopher, Margaret Cho:

I am so beautiful, sometimes people weep when they see me. And it has
nothing to do with what I look like really, it is just that I gave myself the
power to say that I am beautiful, and if I could do that, maybe there is hope
for them too. And the great divide between the beautiful and the ugly will cease
to be. Because we are all what we choose.

The reason I started watching Ugly Betty to begin with, however, had nothing to do with challenging assumptions of beauty; instead my motivation centered entirely on one person: Alexis Meade. Alexis is difficult to describe: she’s cunning, competitive, fiercely intelligent, stunningly beautiful, tenacious, and ambitious. She fights to be the best at what she does and she is not afraid to be herself, even though she is not accepted. I’m sure the matter of Alexis being a transsexual had nothing to do with my interest in her. The interesting thing about Alexis is that even though she is the epitome of drop-dead-gorgeous she is nonetheless treated several times as though she were ugliness exemplified. (One episode even involved a man at a bar hitting on Alexis as a joke, later referring to her as a “dude,” saying, “I don’t hit on freaks unless I’m getting paid.”) When I first tuned in to Ugly Betty I had completely expected to be extremely jealous of Alexis—she was everything I wanted to embody. She had killer looks, she stood up for herself, and she was radiant and tenacious, so much so the general atmosphere of a room became brighter, more fabulous when she entered. She is what I want to be: a strong, self-actuated, self-assured woman. But watching Ugly Betty I rarely compared myself to Alexis Meade in these ways; instead her character inspired me to find those qualities in myself. Generally I consider this a major victory for myself, as I’ve historically based my value by earmarking what I’ve seen in others, then comparing what I see in myself to those standards. It’s a terribly unfair way to go about judging oneself; Ugly Betty, the character Alexis Meade, and the wise words of Margaret Cho have been helping me break down this hierarchy of artificial standards of beauty/value—they’ve helped me realize that we are what we choose, we embody those values we find within ourselves.


On Monday I found myself walking downtown through the heavy snow and ice; stupidly I had decided to wear a skirt (though intelligently I was also wearing knee-high boots). The music of the Tossers (a Celtic punk band, go check them out) rang through my earbud headphones in eager anticipation of the coming St. Paddy’s day. As I walked I slowly began to slip into my alter-ego (who I hope to someday make more prominent, and I swear I don’t have multiple personalities): Adeline, the French-Irish gypsy. I love this alter-ego because she is the essence of all those qualities I desire to see in myself (as I just outlined in my discussion of Alexis Meade), but lately I’ve been seeing a couple issues with Adeline. First is the obvious: she is not my primary ego. Why should all my desired traits be relegated to a semi-fictional character in my head? I would prefer to break down those barriers and manifest those qualities in my primary self (shyness and humility be damned!). The second issue I have with this character is that she is a French-Irish gypsy. My entire life my mom had told me that I was of French, Irish and German descent, but I recently came to learn that none in my family are of French heritage. For a Francophile, such as myself, this was a horrible blow. I’ve generally dismissed my German heritage, not really wanting anything to do with Germany as the Germanic culture doesn’t become me. But I was always so content with my Irish and (now fictitious) French ancestry. The addition of “gypsy” to my title was really more of an attitude, a Kerouacesque quality that is romanticized in our popular culture and pulp fiction (think Carmen, Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or “La Vie Boheme” in RENT). Obviously pop culture has equated gypsies with Roma, an ethnic group originating from medieval India that has a long history of being oppressed and persecuted. While I know a good deal about the Romani people, I’m far from an expert and I am certainly not of Roma descent. This makes me wonder if my incorporation of this attitude and thought pattern—something I (along with this culture) have come to describe as gypsy—reeks of cultural appropriation. Is this any better than blackface? Or have we (me and my fellow bohemians) simply been drawn to these customs and ideas that are now associated with gypsies; have these qualities melded with our own? As the world shrinks I feel that some level of cultural appropriation is to be expected, perhaps even encouraged. In a blaze example, a lot of Caucasian people have been attracted to Japanese anime, and in that medium have incorporated a lot of Japanese culture into their lives. In America I’ve seen similar appropriation of Native American culture—hell, I’m partly guilty of this, having been raised in New Mexico and exposed early on to a lot of indigenous culture. On one level, cultural appropriation demonstrates a willingness to experience and integrate with cultures and ideas outside those we’re raised with. On the other hand, it can also easily become the rape of marginalized cultures without proper understanding of the cultural nuances and history of systemic oppression. I’m not going to pretend to have any answers on this one because I understand all too well both sides of the issue.

I’ve never been comfortable with destiny—the notion I have no consent events or conditions essential to my life seems to me like rape of my free will and right to self-determination. As a geneticist I am aware that certain aspects of life remain outside my control, though in the case of genetic fatalism I can take some comfort knowing that destiny comes from within me. It’s these exterior definitions of qualities that unsettle me. I was told I was French only to find out I don’t have a drop of French blood in me. I desperately want French heritage, but does that desire give me authority to simply claim it? Would I be any more or less French if I had never been told of my true ancestry? Is it only the most technical of constraints that prevents me from defining my own heritage? Would choosing my heritage for myself be tantamount to denying who I supposedly am—even if that identity is in complete contradiction to who I am? This question is, in many ways, reminiscent of the questions many parents ask their transgender children. If a child is born one sex but cross-identifies as another, is acting on that identification any sort of denial of the self? Arguments have been made that trans women appropriate the bodies of women, an action some feminists have described as rape. These Raymond-esque arguments are eerily familiar to the arguments denouncing cultural appropriation. And while I’m very much aware cultural and ethnic heritage are greatly different from sex and gender, I’m left with the question of whether or not cross-cultural identification is an unethical appropriation.