In the age of social media influencers, global standards of beauty have changed drastically. Celebrities like the Kardashian/Jenner clan have made thicker lips, curvy physiques, and ample bottoms desired attributes. While these aesthetics have long been associated with Black women, it was only when white women started appropriating them that those looks became the toast of the town. In her riveting new documentary Subjects of Desire, director Jennifer Holness deconstructs the complicated ways in which race and beauty have intertwined throughout history.
Using the Miss Black America beauty pageant—an event created in 1968 to protest the exclusion of Black women in the Miss America pageant—as an entry point, Holness’ film weaves together an in-depth look at how beauty has historically been weaponized to dehumanize Black women. While the documentary provides glimpses into the pageant world via contestants rehearsing routines and bonding with each other, the actual competition is not the focus here. If anything, it is portrayed as a valuable safe space for young Black women to build confidence and foster a sense of community.
As Subjects of Desire effectively demonstrates, such spaces are vital in a society that has spent decades making whiteness the default for what is considered attractive. Going all the way back to the era of slavery, white women have been placed on a purity pedestal. As society evolved, the sliding scale of beauty was always adjusted to tip towards this ideal.
Holness’ documentary skillfully unpacks how these uneven scales have had a devastating impact on Black women. Incorporating a clip of Malcolm X’s timeless statement that “the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman,” the film highlights just how deep-rooted anti-Blackness and beauty are linked. Not only are there generations of Black women growing up with self-doubt, but they face several societal barriers by simply being their authentic self. A perfect example of this arrives when the film focuses on the ways in which Black hair is both policed and appropriated.
While box braids have been praised as trendy and new when white celebrities are rocking the look, they are viewed as unprofessional when Black women, who have worn the style since childhood, do the same. The fact that Black women are still fired today for not wearing their hair straight, while their white counterparts face no such hair restrictions, speaks volumes.
The threat to one’s employment is one of the myriad of obstacles that Black women must constantly navigate in relation to appearance. There is also the real danger of physical harm and sexual abuse that often occurs when others do not view you as human. Even backhanded compliments like saying someone is “pretty for a Black girl” carries its own layered racism to unpack. One of the brilliant aspects of Holness’s work is that it navigates these heavy topics with a digestible ease. Pulling together musicians India Arie and Jully Black, playwright/author Amanda Parris, academics including author Dr. Cheryl Thompson, and beauty pageant contestants Alexandra Germain, Seraiah Nicole and Ryann Richardson to name a few, Holness gives a lot of weight to the various areas that the film broaches.
One of the more surprising voices in the film is the inclusion of Rachael Dolezal, the woman infamously outed by her parents in 2015 for pretending to be a Black woman. While Dolezal does not take up much space in the film, though Holness does present her in a more nuanced light than one would expect, the account of her experience with her ex-husband opens an interesting conversation about the role Black men play in both colourism within the Black community and upholding the white standards of beauty.
While the role of Black men is only briefly touched on, as Holness wisely give Black women the space to share and define their experiences with beauty, the film does draw connections to the media’s influence on them. Dr. Thompson notes at one point that the images of white women are glowingly plastered everywhere in society. It is a stark contrast to the portrayals of Black women in film and television. In highlighting how stereotypical archetypes such as the mammy, jezebel and sapphire (a.k.a. the angry Black woman) are still prominent in the entertainment we consume, and the products we purchase, the documentary also highlights the glacial pace in which change occurs.
Subjects of Desire acts as a riveting and necessary conversation starter. One that shows how the same aesthetics that Black women have been shamed for are now being gleefully appropriated by white woman, often for their own financial gain. It also serves as an expansive and effective exploration of the social constructs that govern beauty and marginalize Black women. Holness shows us that Black has always been beautiful—it’s the rest of the world that just needs to catch up.
Subjects of Desire screens virtually at Hot Docs from April 29 to May 9. Head here for more coverage of this year’s festival.