This was one of the advertisements for VH1s 2010 reality show, ‘The Price of Beauty’. The show’s premise was that Jessica Simpson (singer/reality television personality) along with two members of her entourage (hairstylist Ken Paves and best friend Cacee Cobb) would travel the world “to meet women, study local fashions, dietary fads and beauty regimes,” and to discover the meaning of “true beauty” amongst these different cultures (Wikipedia page: The Price of Beauty).

This advertisement for the series presents various popular assumptions and notions about difference, ethnic groups, visual culture and the “exotic”. The four women are displayed across the image from lightest to darkest in skin tone from the right. All but Jessica Simpson (the Caucasian woman) are dressed in what appear to be their respective ethnic costumes. Jessica’s own hair, jewelry, makeup and clothing choices are all markedly toned-down and neutral than the other women. She is thus effectively portrayed as the “default” western woman, the de facto norm against which the other women/cultures are contrasted and judged against.

The costumes the women are wearing (besides Jessica Simpson) are all what is popularly considered their traditional garb. They are highly colourful and bright, both equally palatable and exotic. The women become representative of nice little archetypical figures that are easily commercialized. They are meant to be archetypical of the “Asian woman”, the “African woman” and the “Indian woman”, not mentioning the fact that such descriptions encompass a vast amount of cultures, nations and peoples.

However, it is ironic to note that in reality, the average dress of these women from different geographic locations throughout the world would be quite similar in many respects. The forces of modernisation and globalisation have also led to a level of conformity and reflexivity for all facets of life, including fashion. Very few African and Asian women dress in the costumes (or the real-life basis of those portrayed in the advertisement) they are shown wearing. Not to mention, a Japanese kimono is not representative of East Asian dress, as Chinese, Korean and Japanese traditional outfits vary and are dissimilar in design. The same goes for the African woman’s attire. However, expressive visual culture cues such as these ethnic costumes are highly digestible and commercial-friendly, easy to consume.

The makeup of the women is interesting to note as well. Jessica Simpson has the lightest and most neutral makeup out of the four. She is the neutral default, not a part of the exotic “wild” cultures she is contrasted against. The makeup does not accurately reflect actual cosmetic styles that exist among the plethora of Asian, Indian and African cultures. The bright blue eye shadow of the African woman and the bright hot pink eye shadow of the Asian woman would certainly not traditionally be worn. But then again, it adds the exotic factor while simultaneously reinforcing the notion of multiculturalism being colourful.

This promotional image for ‘The Price of Beauty’ is a prime example of modern media’s obsession with exotifying ethnic difference through visual culture. Jessica Simpson is the “normal”, “default” Western woman whose subjective experiences the audience is meant to relate to the most. Ultimately however, it packages ethnicity into these neat little consumer-friendly parcels while propping up existing Western neoliberal ideology.

Reflection #1: My Multiple Identities

“Child of the moon
Changing with the tide

With you I find
What is me”

-Solar Half-Breed (Olivia Lufkin)

Reflection #1

‘Identity’ is a rather loaded term when it comes to ethnicity and nationalism studies though it may be considered more neutral than ‘ethnicity’ (Ethnicity and Nationalism lecture, September 26, 2012). Identity is shaped by a multiplicity of factors and is a powerful classificatory force that is often highly emotionally-charged. The classificatory processes of ethnic identities are “social and cultural products” (Eriksen 2009: 71). Identities also act as “expressions of metaphorical kinship” and can manifest through various ethnic ideologies (Eriksen 2009: 81). Ethnic groups identify one another to conceive boundaries and assert a sense of self. However these boundaries are created, re-created and re-negotiated differently under socio-cultural contexts (Ethnicity and Nationalism lecture, September 26, 2012). Interestingly enough, my own personal ethnic identity demonstrates most of these traits while simultaneously challenging some of them as well.

My own person background is first-generation Korean-Canadian. There were several conflicting factors at play in my own identity development including Korean (‘minjok’ ideology) identity, assimilation into the larger category of ‘Asian-Canadian’ and the vast assortment of Canadian cultural indicators that I had adopted. Modern Korean ethnic identity was largely built on the notion of ‘danil minjok’ (one nation). The term promotes unified Korean identity on the basis of a shared bloodline and heritage. This staunch primordial focus on “blood purity” has been seminal in shaping not only nationalist political discourse but also the internal conceptualization of Korean identity by Koreans (Lee 2009: 8). Due to the pervasive influence of the ‘minjok’ on the mentality of most Koreans (including my own parents), I grew up imbedded within this ideology and did not raise issue with it until I reached a period of identity crisis in my life during adolescence. This is perhaps the single most dominant identity marker for Koreans. It exemplifies Eriksen’s assertion that identities are also “expressions of metaphorical kinship” that manifest into ethnic ideologies (Eriksen 2009: 81).

Ethnic identity is negotiated and “in general are relative and to some extent, situational” (Eriksen 2009: 27). Depending on the circumstance, identity can shift and relate to other social institutions and individuals. A wide set of variables like gender, socio-economic status, sexuality, race, age, etc. all influence the spheres that an individual inhabits and their relationship with their ethnic group (which is organized hierarchically both internally and externally) and thus, ethnic identity. My ‘identity’ in that regard and how I differ from others, is not solely limited to my affiliation with my ethnicity but also my own subjectivities. I am not only Korean but Canadian and ‘Asian’ and not only do I straddle these multiple ethnic identities on a daily basis, I also relate to other Koreans and Canadians as a woman, a minority, a majority (amongst Koreans), middle-class, straight, university student, etc. In that sense, the term ‘identity’ presents a significant draw-back, being too vague in encapsulating the divisions that occur internally amongst groups and the liminal periods between them. Despite the fact that ethnic identity is a collective identity, the very formation and production of identities in general require the acknowledgement and consideration of subject positions that vary individually.

About Me

My name is Sarah Lee, I’m a third year student at York University, majoring in Communication Studies with a minor in Anthropology. The reason for my interest in anthropology is due to my interest in people. Cultures and the way they develop absolutely fascinate me. What makes us who we are? Does the “other” actually exist? In what ways do we make sense of and classify each other?

On another (more personalized) note, I love sushi, long naps, design/art and miniature furniture.