A new film is in development which documents the rise of American rappers N.W.A. The Straight Outta Compton bioepic casting call came under heavy criticism for being racist, as the casting agent was asking for four different “classes” of “girls,” which were organised around skin tone. I argue that the casting call is not simply racist; it is also sexist, and reflecting colonial relations. The focus on lighter skin tone of Black women as an ideal of beauty has a long and profoundly damaging history. This racist ideology continues to the present day and problematically positions darker skin tones as less beautiful, and attaches additional stigma to Black women. As we’ll see in this casting call, even in a film about successful Black men, being a “dark” Black woman is analogous to being “out of shape,” unattractive and poor. There is an interplay between racism and class in this “colour code” which is further implied in the casting call, through the focus on hair. By stipulating that the “beautiful class” of women should have straight hair, and that the less desirable “classes” have weaves, there is a racist, sexist and class exclusion at play that penalises Black women’s femininity.
Several recent articles recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Sociology can help unpackage how and why so-called “common sense” ideas about beauty become established as commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed. Beauty-based discrimination is not natural nor is it unavoidable.
Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. The latter alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.
Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.
Missy Elliot’s representation of femininity contributes towards the empowerment of Black heterosexual women.
Writing about Elliot’s video for Sock It to Me, Sociologist Rana Emerson argues that Elliot combines agency, voice, partnership, and ‘Black context’ to construct ‘Black woman–centred video narratives’:
these narratives, the interests, desires, and goals of women are predominant and gain importance in contrast to those in which they are exploited and subsumed. Black women are quite firmly the subjects of these narratives and are able to clearly and unequivocally express their points of view.
Writing about Beep Me 911, which is set in ‘what seems to be a pornographic peep show’, Emerson argues:
the juxtaposition and combination of sexuality, assertiveness, and independence in these videos can also be read as the reappropriation of the Black woman’s body in response to its sexual regulation and exploitation. What emerges is an effort on the part of the Black female artist to assert her own sexuality, to gain her own sexual pleasure.