Who deserves realness? (a response to Karolina Żebrowska’s Real Women — Beauty Through The Decades)

Karolina Żebrowska recently put together a video cataloguing the early 20th century’s fashions alongside the “real women” of factory workers, suffragettes, the homeless, and blood-splattered World War II nurses. She describes her intentions on YouTube:

To be frank, it was supposed to be just another “Beauty Through The Decades” video. I saw lots of them already, but they all have seemed to show beauty standards in a very stereotypical and pop-culture way, so I wanted to do a more historically accurate one. As I was doing some research, I became more and more aware that beautiful faces and fashion we see on the photos, ads and fashion plates are just an idealistic version of reality. So here’s to reality. (source)

First things first: it’s hard not to applaud anyone who has the talent, patience, and motivation to put together content that inspires and provokes conversation. Karolina Żebrowska’s take on the “beauty through the decades” videos is certainly no exception, and we must give her credit for blending thoughtful critique with impeccable costume design. As one of the people behind Cut’s 100 Years of Beauty, I want to give Żebrowska credit and congratulations for her work. But I want to complicate this conversation. I want to challenge the notion that some of history’s women are more deserving of “realness” over others.

There’s a troubling logic behind this video and the praise it has been receiving. The trouble’s not in attempting to pay homage to the bravery, strength, or fortitude from women in history. It’s in the assumption that any one representation of a woman can be more “real” than another. And we must be very critical of the selection criteria altogether.

At Cut, we have a method for researching and shooting our 100 Years of Beauty series, which does generally focus on beauty ideals in popular culture (broadly defined, but including sources like propaganda, advertisements, and mass media.) But the keystone of our project is the time-lapse format, which shows the construction and destruction of each look in its entirety. We show you ten looks that were never real in the first place, and we provide visual evidence that each “woman” is produced through the talents of our amazing hair and makeup team. This blur of hairspray, mascara, and lipstick demonstrates that history’s forms of beauty are arbitrary, subjective, and above all, completely manufactured.

I think we learn something very interesting about history by visually documenting its fantasies: we see how race, citizenship, class, and sexuality are moving targets that are constantly being policed — and that these categories are never stable or safe. Żebrowska’s video assumes that there have always been the “real” woman of history lurking in the shadows, but her video doesn’t ask how this woman is a representation that has been groomed in precise cosmetic detail as well.

Żebrowska pairs the Edwardian fashions of the “Titanic Era” with the regalia of the women’s suffrage movement in the 1910s. We ought to pay close attention to the way the video frames the Suffragette as the 1910s’ “real woman” par excellence. Why? Because we are still not done working through the uncomfortable truth about early feminisms: these activists mixed white supremacy with women’s right to vote. Ask Meryl Streep or Carey Mulligan, stars of the film Suffragette, who made the unfortunate PR mistake of appearing in t-shirts with the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”

image from: observer.com

In 2015, we are still asking how mainstream feminism can romanticize the Suffragettes of years past, all the while amnesiac to the real forms of racial violence that haunted feminism in Edwardian England as it still does today. What of Sophia Duleep Singh, the British Suffragette who also spoke outwardly on the decolonization of British India? What of the other women in the British Empire — indentured laborers or “coolies,” sex workers, or victims of political famines in Ireland, Bangladesh, or Kenya? Who validates their “realness?”

We make videos about hair and makeup, but we think about realness when we make them. When we put together 100 Years of Beauty: Philippines, we asked my cousin, April Villanueva, to model glamorous looks from the Philippines’ history: our references included fashion models, portrait subjects, and pop stars.

April looks stunning, completely immaculate, as Imelda Marcos, replete with an impossible bouffant hairdo and all the luxury it connotes. But after the makeup comes off, April is still my cousin — a devoted mother of two young boys who works hard as a Registered Nurse in oncology. That’s real. And I see very clearly how reality and fantasy can inhabit us at the same time and without clear distinction.

Here’s the problem with history: it’s not real. It’s not the past. It’s a representation of the past. It’s remembered, through documents and oral histories and photographs, but somebody does the work of choosing which of these fragments make it into the narrative. It’s just as staged as the cover of Elle, and it leaves out more than it can include.

So here’s to reality, indeed — reality in all its complicated, contradictory forms. Here’s to reality that resists representation. And here’s to all the real women everywhere — in the past and in the present — who need no help from us to represent their own stories, their own lives, and their own beauty.

— Christopher Chan | Visual Anthropologist | Chan@cut.com