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.