Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Whiteness Makeover

Last weekend I was watching "Do The Right Thing" (an incredible film that should be required viewing for everyone) when I saw Rosie Perez's name pop up in the credits.

"I don't remember seeing Rosie Perez in this, did she have a minor role?" I asked my boyfriend.

"No, she was Tina, the leading female character."

"Oh man!" I thought, "How'd I miss that?"

Here's a screenshot from the film:

And here is what Rosie looks like now:

There's some resemblance, but you can see why I wouldn't recognize her. I'm always a little disturbed when I come across a photo of a famous actress or model whose appearance has changed so drastically since becoming famous, but something about the change in Rosie bothered me more than usual. It reminded me of the experience I had re-watching Selena last year and how shocking it was to see Jennifer Lopez look so, well, recognizably Latina.

That isn't to say she's more attractive one way or the other, but it's pretty obvious to me that as her career has grown, she's lost most of her defining Hispanic features and to most eyes, appears Caucasian. Celebrity plastic surgery websites have speculated that J.Lo has undergone multiple surgeries to lessen her ethnic features (lip reduction, rhinoplasty to create a more aqualine nose, etc) on top of superficial changes like highlighting and straightening her hair and lightening her skin.

And she's not the only megastar who looks like she's had surgery to look more racially ambiguous. Both Beyonce and Halle Berry have smaller, more Caucasian-looking noses than when they began their careers. And let's not even get into Janet Jackson or Lil Kim. So why do these gorgeous, talented women feel compelled to drastically alter their appearances to look less racially definable?

An article in Sunday's New York Times doesn't answer that question directly, but suggests that minorities in film, television and music are at a disadvantage if they have strong, identifiably ethnic features, and those who are able to "pass" as racially ambiguous or white have the best chance at success. The article discusses the struggles Asian-Americans face in breaking into American pop music and can be summed up by the line, "Of all the factors that have shaped his career in a fickle industry, Mr. Lee said he is sure about the one that has hurt him most: looking Chinese." Far more than racial identity, it's appearing a certain race that has hurt minorities trying to break into the entertainment industry.

It appears to be a chicken and egg situation, whereby managers, producers, agents, talent scouts and casting directors tell actors and singers that they "don't look right" for a part, based on the belief that a movie or album won't have widespread appeal if the star doesn't look racially ambiguous or white. But is that true? If Beyonce had an afro or J.Lo kept her wide nose and thick lips, would they not be the crossover superstars and major sex symbols that they are today? I don't think movie studios or record labels are going to take that chance, and most stars are willing to go under the knife (or at least get a major makeover) to improve their chances of success.

I hate to think that the message Hollywood is sending girls and young women is that there are only a few types of beauty, and if you stand out too much, you won't be considered attractive or sexy. At a time when our country has never been more racially diverse and our access to actresses, models and singers of other nationalities is unparalleled, it's extremely disappointing to think that our ideal of beauty continues to be narrowly defined by Caucasian features.

It makes me grateful for the efforts of bloggers like Afrobella who continue to resist hegemonic beauty ideals, and for women everywhere who refuse to alter the way they look to meet someone else's standard of beauty. Hopefully Hollywood will follow in their steps and acknowledge the fact that beauty comes in all shapes, colors and sizes.


Adrian said...


very great site. Interesting stuff here!
Would you be interested in a link exchange?

- Adrian

Annie said...

Meg -
This is a great post! I too remember when Rosie Perez was more, well, Rosie Perez...that is, spunky, a little off-kilter, loud, and Latin!
I forget about JLo sometimes too, but I have to say that "Out of Sight" is a pretty old film (not as old as "Selena") and she doesn't look quite as *ethnic* in that one either.
She gets cast as Latin, Italian, and sometimes White-*ish* characters in her films, which I think is great. She shouldn't be pigeon holed into just being the "Latina" superstar for the ages.
The progression is definitely interesting however, and worth worrying about in the long-run.

Distar said...

very interesting post. It's something I think about often.

I get irritated when the likes of Lopez spout poetically about being role models for minorities and having people thanking them for seeing someone like them on the screen... What nonsense. By the time they become stars, they've morphed into a mainstream ideal of what minorities should look like.

It's everywhere.

I can't think of one Asian/Black/Hispanic actress that really represents the wider population. And what makes me even more angry is that the men don't have that same pressure.

Why are female standards of beauty so homogenic?

Anonymous said...

I remember a time when that pure Latina or pure Asian look was considered "exotic" - not that there were decent parts for them in show nor did they have good crossover careers. Now the new exotic is ambiguity. I read about this Canadian show was looking for "someone exotic" and they thought and cast Kristin Kreuk (half German, half Korean, or something) for the part. And she recently was cast as a Pakistani Muslim woman in Partition! WOW.

You raise a fascinating conundrum. It currently appears as if minorities are pressured to "look more white" and there's an outcry and you don't want them to lose their roots. There is no doubt they are more intriguing because you ask, "What are they?" While it's an exciting glimpse at how people of the future-world will look, it's ultimately really sad right now that the minority women have to change their appearances today.

QM said...

Jeez, Jlo DOES look totally different! And do you think Halle and Beyonce have had surgery?? Why would you ever want to hide or disguise a Hispanic heritage and more importantly why should you? As a 'caucasian' (well, more accurately a blueish tinged Scot) I long to look more 'exotic'. My fathers heritage is Dutch but that's hardly exotic. Latin looks are beautiful and desirable in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

i have asked the question if beyonce get any lighter will she change her name to casper (the friendly ghost. As a african-american woman with french , indian and italian roots, it disturb me to see that these women want us to buy their music, but they don't want to be considered as one of us...anymore!!!

ambivalent said...

I see what you're saying, up to a point. Does it suck that the industry/society in general favors "white" looks and "white" looks only? Yes. But when it comes to makeovers, who are we to judge the reasons behind why these women choose to get surgery, or dye their hair, or whatever? I mean, JLo gets highlights and she's somehow denying her racial identity... does that mean only white women have the privilege of going blonde?

AfriBlack said...

Black people are born with exotic looks as well. Africa is a beautiful place full of beautiful people. I get so tired of people acting like black is not good enough or not as special as latin, asian, persian etc... It's a bunch of malarkey! If certain ethnicities choose to change their appearance to appear more caucasian that's on them. But, no star or individual will make me feel like being black isn't enough or that my looks aren't beautiful.

People need to be ethnic role models for their own children, not depend on some "star" to show them that being a "minority" is beautiful. No one race is more attractive than the other, although, the media would have people think otherwise...

quatorzejames said...

oh my gosh, you girls are about 40 years too late.
angela davis looked good.
diahann carroll looked good.
irene cara looked good.
whoopi goldberg looked goo...
oh, that's right, she was "hideous". my bad.
have the decency to allow non-"white" women to define themselves.
rosie perez looks exactly the same now as she always did.
in the second picture she is older and has long hair and makeup.
your whole premise is tired and lopsided.
remember - non-"white" women are allowed to have cosmetic surgery and
processed hair at the same rate as "white" women.
don't forget - when jessica simpson and britney spears get nose jobs
and wear hair extensions, they are trying to look "white", too.
the fact is, "whiteness" is a construct.
the beauty ideal is a barbie doll - not real life.
before you get all het up about jennifer lopez and beyonce "looking
white", why not ask women of color if they recognize themselves in
those stars' faces.
remember, *all stars" get plastic surgery.
(although i never heard that about beyonce.)
virtually all african americans are an admixture of african, american
indian and european descent.
if you walk down the streets of berkeley, california or brooklyn, ny
you will definitely see women with features and coloring like beyonce
and tyra.
they may be normal height and weight, but those types are plentiful
and more are born all the time.
open your damn eyes.
when Black women "do" their hair (which they have been doing for
hundreds of years) they are PARTICIPATING IN FASHION.
that fashion may be afro, braided, colored, straightened, waved or
sound familiar?
just like the real housewives of orange county!
americans like long hair like barbie.
it's great when musicians like lauuren hill, india arie, erycka badu
etc wear explicitly afrocentric styles, but they are doing a bohemian
thing that has nothing to do with the miss america ideal that the
buying public embraces to such a degree.
when entertainers like tyra and beyonce and rupaul rock their lace-
front wigs, they are literally doing drag.
they are paying homage to GLAMOUR.
they like it and the audience likes it.
when artists like queen latifah or the chicks on "girlfriends" iron
their hair and work tasteful weaves, they are simply partcipating in
normal, everyday fashion.
fashion is a language, and in our era, long silky hair reads:
wealthy, clean, ladylike.
do you really expect thes ladies to parade in dreadlocks so you can
feel comfortable as your stunted consciousness shifts ever-so-slightly
to the left??
good luck!
Black ladies are doing their thing and participating in the american
do you want them to ditch christanity too, because their ancestors
were converted by "white" society?
i'm not trying to be didactic(!), BUT REALLY.

quatorzejames said...

the default setting until very recently has always been "white" and christian.
americans are programmed to view "white" as right and best.
"whiteness" has traditionally connoted status in america.
that extends to fashion looks like "eurocentric" hair weaves, but Black entertainers like beyonce or normal Black women competing in the workplace the "beauty sweepstakes" can't be expected to sacrifice their ambition or even their mixed-culture identity as "americans" to make squeamish "whites" feel better about some vague, pc ideal.
hair can be political, but in our current competitive, commercial era, "personal" will trump "political" almost every time.
if you are truly concerned about "white" cultural hegemony, you need to start with yourself.

look at advertising.
notice how they space out the Black models and actors.
generally, the Black characters are placed to the right of the screen or page.
the more mainstream the product or image, the more closely this formula holds true.
consumers read an image "left to right" and advertisers pander to the "white" gaze by reinforcing the unconscious notion that "white" comes first.
SNL did a skit about this last year, you may recall.
they actually suggested that Black characters are traditionally placed "off to the left", but they were clearly talking about "stage left".
the viewer sees it as "off to the right".
check it out next time you see a glade or pantyhose ad.
you'll freak out when you see how pervasive this formula is.
it even applies to fictional characters, like the keebler elves.
my point is that "white" cultural hegemony is pervasive and unconscious.
Black celebrities with natural hairstyles and africanized features are always a positive thing, but it's unrealistic to expect americans at this late date to embrace an extreme over a mixed aesthetic.
we will continue marching toward a mixed future, and "role models" like beyonce(!), alicia keys, wentworth miller, mariah carey, leona lewis, barack obama, jennifer lopez, etc will always have extra-mass appeal.
it's human nature.
i notice that the same folks who complain about "Black women looking 'white'" tend to be the same ones who wish that african americans would assimilate socially to "white" standards in almost every other area.
i think these folks are a little confused!
just lie back and enjoy it, mary.
the genie is out of the bottle.

Anonymous said...

remember, Selena was a REAL person and JLo was playing her, so it makes sense that she would not closely resemble herself. Selena had a south-Texas Mexican American look, while JLo has different type of Latina heritage.

I think you are over-reaching on that one.

We could all keep an eye on Jennifer Hudson as a case study. See what happens with her over the next 5 years.

Adam Polselli said...

Good read. :)

Anonymous said...

Honestly I don't feel it is an individual's responsibility to have America or mainstream except them. It's about accepting yourself. True enough, there are tons of celebrities that have a mixed racial make-up, but that doesn't make it everyone's ideal of beauty. All colors are beautiful, and sadly enough I don't think "America" will ever realize that. You have small minded people believing that looking racially ambiguous is what's attractive, when in reality that is what the media wants you to think. A prime example is some of the comments being made. Lauryn Hill, India.Arie, Angela Davis are all beautiful...not extreme...let's be clear. If you identify with Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce', Halle Berry, Alicia Keys...that's fine. Although, African genetics help shape their beauty as well. But, it is unfair to try to isolate a whole race that has been around for centuries as the extreme b/c of some people's opinion. It's a shame when Black is considered so harshly. I guess that's the "world" some people live in.

Anonymous said...

^^^correction: accept not except.

quatorzejames said...

i hesitated before using the word "extreme" and i'm sorry if i sounded harsh or insensitive.
i meant only that there is a deeply established beauty standard, both in entertainment and in the business world, and it's unrealistic and harsh to criticize Black women for using hair weaves, rhinoplasty, hair color etc to hew closer to the barbie/miss america ideal that still represents "success" to such a great degree.
Black women who use cosmetic enhancement are no different than "white" britney spears or the real housewives of OC in this regard.
they are simply fashion-conscious americans pursuing the american dream.
entertainers like eryka badu, lauren hill, alek wek etc are beautiful, courageous and even avant garde but it's unrealistic to expect beyonce, tyra and the hair salon ladies to emulate them physically.
this is america and Black americans have the same right to be "eurocentric" as anybody else.
there should be room for all types in entertainment and in the workplace and it's foolishness to inject too much politics into it at this late date.
our culture is mixed and it's getting more mixed all the time.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late on this topic. But I wanted to say "get out of my head". The entertainment standard of beauty is to be as close to white as possible. And you can see how careers grow when people like Beyonce (Loreal contract), Halle(movie roles), and Jennifer (movie roles) changed the appearance to be more "white". I know they have the right to do as they please. But if you look at these ladies before the surgeries they were just as beautiful and so were many white stars who've had rhinoplasty. I can tolerate the weaves and hair coloring, but surgery is permanent. In my opinion these stars are saying the nose I was born with was flawed. The world's standard of beauty is so messed up. We've accepted the Hollywood standard of the slim nose for too long and I hope the industry gets to the point where they're not suggesting non-whites change their appearance to look more race nuetral (a girl can dream). I really want to know who said a wide nose was unattractive in the first place! I love my broad bridge nostrils.