Black women share their views on the changing ideals of beauty in ‘Subjects of Desire’

Black women share their views on the changing ideals of beauty in ‘Subjects of Desire’

In the hierarchy of documentaries, natural beauty documentaries are seldom at the best. Instead, it is generally technological innovation, ecosystem and style and design (i.e. the TED in TED Talks) that are hugely rated and talked about. As an interviewee explains in the documentary Topics of Desire, this is a codified way to equate attractiveness with vanity, implying that we do not need to unpack it to realize the systemic social problems involved with beauty. We make it the individual’s alternative to be resilient. But how, she asks, can just one man or woman get on a technique?

This is an interesting dilemma and the issue of Jennifer Holness’ documentary. In this participating and celebratory movie, she delivers background and context for the evolution of natural beauty and how African-American women have both adapted or challenged it. It is a speedy-paced documentary that tackles every thing from the concept of femininity throughout hundreds of years to #blackgirlmagic and overlays it with the omnipresent stereotypes of African-American women of all ages as Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire.  

The documentary is bookended by prep for the Overlook Black The us pageant which is an attention-grabbing choice due to the fact elegance contests are normally considered anti-feminist. But as we learn, this pageant was produced 50 decades previously to protest mainstream pageant policies which essential contestants to be ‘of white background’. This was no trivial matter as it impacted how girls tried using to suit the most well-liked aesthetic for many years.  

In that context the Miss out on Black America pageant is a joyful celebration. We see contestants rehearse for the celebration and share what it suggests for them, but this is no Skip Congeniality. As an alternative, the function is a foot in the doorway to have an understanding of micro-aggregation and racism that permeates the life of many African-American women of all ages.

Holness uses a blend of interviews, media flashbacks and voiceovers to protect at least 200 decades of Black attractiveness specifications in the United States. There is understandably additional emphasis on the past 30 yrs simply because it signifies the lived expertise of the interviewees and it reveals how social media has improved the ‘game’. They discuss about how their all-natural hairstyles can get them fired, how it is viewed as not expert and how they internalised the hatred for their hair. They commiserate about a lifetime of currently being teased and bullied for their braids, curvy figures, fuller mouths and darkish pores and skin, only for those people options to be well-liked when the Kardashian-Jenner clan embody them.


These interviewees include lecturers, beauty contestants and singer India Arie whose song Video remains a beauty anthem. Probably far more controversially, it consists of Rachel Dolezal, a white girl who lived a significant part of her life as Black and claimed she was ‘transracial’. Her presence is a bit jarring for a documentary that till then, centred on Black ordeals. Holness allows Dolezal explain her factors of see but also allows other individuals critique them and underline the electricity dynamics that stops them from switching their skin to become ‘transracial’.

The documentary is not ‘us vs. them’. It also interrogates the tiered treatment method in the Black community this kind of as colourism, men’s courting preference for light-weight skinned ladies and the higher emotional load placed on Black ladies to travel societal improve.

In Holness’ palms, this is not an ‘educational’ documentary, and this directorial choice helps make it definitely effective. There is no manual on what to say or not say about Black women’s hair, no sidebar about the hairstyles and hair merchandise described and no tips about what arrives subsequent. As an alternative, it only highlights how a assortment of Black ladies feel about attractiveness. Sometimes, they do not concur and there is no forced resolution for the sake of actively playing wonderful.

This is comparable to Issa Rae’s collection, Insecure, and its portrayal of Black culture as a spectrum instead than a box. There is no prolonged rationalization about wigs, weaves, braids or the wobble dance due to the fact it assumes the audience by now is aware. For people who do not get it, there is Google.

The ultimate line in the documentary, by a pageant contestant, sums up some of what African-American ladies have to deal with and it is sobering. “In 2019, we are nonetheless combating what it indicates to be human… preventing due to the fact the governing administration does not believe that I can be shot lifeless in the avenue and the particular person could wander absent scot free if they experienced a badge.”

“I desire,” she states, “I was anxious exclusively if people today believed I was attractive.”

Subjects of Motivation airs Tuesday 8 March on both equally SBS VICELAND (at 8.30pm) and NITV (at 10.30pm). The documentary will be offered at SBS On Demand for 30 times immediately after it airs.