Of Condescention & Hairdos

By | Thursday, October 17, 2013 Leave a Comment
Eleanor Catton recently won Britain's Booker prize for her novel, The Luminaries. It turns out that she's the youngest winner ever, her book is the longest one to win, and it's the first time Granta has published a book that won. So on top of the Booker being a big deal in the first place, it's kind of an extra big deal this year. Fantastic literary accomplishment, no question.

Here's a portion of The Times article about it. (It's behind a pay wall and we'll have to make do with a screen cap from For Books' Sake.)
You can read the text for yourself, but Kate Saunders, the article's author, seems to go out of her way to be condescending. So condescending, in fact, that I'm not even sure where to begin trying to break this down. Saunders seems to display this attitude that "real" literature is written by men, for men and that anything written by a woman -- I'm sorry, I mean "chick" -- is inherently mindless drivel. And, hey, wow, that an actual female person could write something that might win an award is pretty amazing! And so utterly outside the bounds of what everyone would expect that we'll have to describe what she looks like (using largely dismissive adjectives, often with slightly negative connotations) because no would ever believe it!

Now, granted, this is one article, and there's a host of issues to unpack there. But let me switch gears for a minute.

Another recent piece that's been circulating lately is artist Endia Beal's "Can I Touch It?" project where she took coporate-style photographs of several middle-aged, white women who she had given "black" hairstyles. The images are all somewhat discongruous for a couple of reasons. First, that these women would sport these hairdos. Second, that these hairdos would be seen in a corporate type environment. From what I've read, Beal seemed to imply that the project was mostly about the conversation; to get these women to think and talk about experiencing something outside their comfort zone.

But looking at this from a broader perspective, what is it about these hairdos that doesn't jibe with the rest of the portraits? The hairstyles aren't poorly executed, certainly, and they probably take more time to get right than what these women would normally wear. No, the reason they look strange is because the class of people who work in those corporate settings have tacitly decided that those types of hairstyles aren't acceptable. There's a time and place for them, and corporate America is neither.

I'm pointing out these two anecdotes together because they showcase two interesting sides of the same idea. The notions that women writers are inherently inferior and that "black" hairstyles are inappropriate in business are both culturally accepted norms. The condescention Saunders displays for Catton is almost invisible because we're so used to that idea, we've been taught that type of thing for so long, that we accept it unquestioningly. Some people did call out the problem, but not many from what I saw. And even that was with a large helping of, "And here's yet another example..." The basic notion has been repeated so often that it's generally accepted at face value.

By contrast, Beal's experiment goes in the opposite direction. We're so used to seeing what executive women SHOULD wear that seeing anything else, regardless of how well coifed, seems wrong or even objectionable. The physicality of Beal's project is extremely ordinary -- taking pictures of several women who just got their hair done. But it's the specifics of execution that might come across as jarring.

So for those of you who might be sick of people complaining that "there aren't enough female voices in comics" or "minorities aren't well-represented in comics", this is precisely why you're going to continue hearing about it. Because the status quo that Saunders inadvertantly highlighted is unfair. Because the challenge that Beal highlighted isn't really a challenge at all. They're both just showing you how you've been shaped by your cultural mores, whether you realize it or not. Mores are there not because they're unquestionable right; they're there because the people -- historically, white men -- with a lot of social influence said so.
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