Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Problem with Hotscaping

There's a picture going around the internet comparing the way Harriet Tubman looks in the existing photographs that were taken of her to the image of her presented in Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Here are the pictures, side by side, of Tubman and the actress who was chosen to play her.

For those of you who slept through high school History, Harriet Tubman was a slave in the mid 1800's who, after escaping to Philadelphia, returned to the south many times to free others, becoming the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad.  When it became illegal for northern states to shelter former slaves, she helped shepherd former slaves to Canada, where slavery was prohibited.  During the Civil War, she was a union spy and a scout, and led an armed expedition that freed 70 slaves deep in Confederate territory.  After the war, she was an active proponent of women's suffrage.

Harriet Tubman was also a dark skinned black woman whose face and form does not jibe with our current standards of beauty.  That didn't make a bit of difference to her ability to save hundreds of people from slavery, to spy for her country, or to become renowned for her courage and selflessness.  It also didn't prevent her from marrying twice.  However, Hollywood has made it clear that those qualities, admirable as they are by anyone's standards, are not enough.  In order to be portrayed in a Hollywood movie - one not specifically about serious issues of race - she also has to be hot.

The photographs we have of Tubman are of a short, very dark skinned, plain-faced woman sporting the serious mien typical of mid-nineteenth century portraits.  Instead of honoring that fact by casting a woman who resembled her, the creators of Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter made her into a tall, slender, relatively light skinned woman who meets or exceeds all of our culture's normative standards for beauty.  Let me be clear in saying that this is also an issue of racism, and a serious one.  However, I've seen several good articles on the subject, including this one at Your Black World, and so I'm addressing myself to the ways in which it's more generally misogynistic, and part of a cultural trend towards Hotscaping.

This is where people tell me I'm taking things too seriously.  After all,  Abe Lincoln wasn't really fighting vampires during the Civil War (at least as far as we know).  The underground railroad wasn't as fast as an actual train, and any number of other things portrayed in the movie simply didn't happen.

To me, that argument misses the point.  Of course a serious movie would pay more attention to getting the details right.  However, they notably didn't make Abe Lincoln look like a cross between Brad Pitt and a sparkly vampire.  Instead, they focused on making him look like Abe Lincoln.  That's because the point of Abe Lincoln - even an Abe Lincoln being played in a silly movie about vampires - isn't that he's attractive.  It's that he was a great man who accomplished amazing things.

The same is true of Tubman, so why change her appearance?  Why make her look like some male fantasy version of the History Channel?  Why not offer the part to a dark skinned, middle aged character actress instead of a light skinned ingenue?  The answer to that question is also the problem: almost every portrayal of women in media is fundamentally linked to sex.

No matter how strong, smart, or brave a woman in a story is, no matter how irrelevant beauty is to her story, Hollywood will always do its best to make her hot.  Even those few women who are portrayed as unattractive are being defined in terms of their beauty or lack thereof.  When was the last time a woman who isn't "Hollywood Beautiful" played a role without her lack of that beauty being an important factor in the story?  The point to having a less than perfectly attractive woman in a movie is typically either to denigrate her (because she's fat, because she's attached to a man who's not interested, etc.) or to show how she struggled and prospered despite her lack of beauty.

Hollywood isn't the only place where this is happening.  Portrayal of women as one-dimensional sex objects has always been something of a problem in comics and video games.  In many cases, that's slowly (think ice ages slow) improving.  Women in comics, video games, and geek media are usually still attractive to the point of absurdity, but at least now we sometimes get to - say - wear non-revealing clothing, shoot to kill, or fly the spaceship.  That doesn't negate the fact that women in geek media are expected to always be beautiful, that they are defined by their beauty, but baby steps.  

However, DC's recent reboot sexualized almost all of its female characters to a greater or lesser degree.  Notably, it took Amanda Waller, a tough, heavyset black woman, and made her slender and conventionally beautiful.  Grace at Gracetopia discussed this in depth when the reboot was first released, and her article is well worth a read.  They also took those characters who were already attractive and made them sexually promiscuous.  Starfire is the obvious example, and while they did explain her behavior eventually in story terms, they also chose to write that particular story.  "Generally free wheeling but ethical woman becomes sexually indiscriminate" is a very specific kind of story choice.  It allows the writers and artists to do a lot of scenes involving Starfire and sex, scenes which are more about titillation than character development.  The same could be said of the portrayal of the female characters in Arkham City.   

Obviously, this is happening in the broader sphere as well.  A young girl just used a petition to push Seventeen magazine into ending their practice of airbrushing the teenagers on their covers and in their pages to make them thinner and "prettier".  Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts were sized down without her knowledge in a promotion for "The Client List".  Everywhere, women are being reshaped into what the media thinks we should look like.

This is a problem, and a big one.  It is a problem because it sends the message that beauty is not only the most important characteristic a woman can have (or lack), but the only important one.  Men can be admired because they're brave or brilliant, generous or successful, but a woman can only be admired for her beauty or derided for her lack of it.  All her other characteristics are secondary to whether or not she's "hot".  Both men and women are hearing this message loud and clear.

You can tell men are hearing it because of the forum threads on whether or not they'd sleep with this or that female game developer or journalist or actress.  You can tell because one of the principal ways in which men respond to discussions of misogyny is by calling the women having the discussion fat, slutty, or ugly.  You can tell because many men believe that the unwanted sexualization of real women who are not just characters in stories is "just a joke" or "not a big deal" or even "normal", and are willing to flame, harass, and threaten anyone who says otherwise.

And you can tell women are hearing it.  You can tell when Emily Yoffe of "Dear Prudence" tells a woman whose doctor says she's healthy that she should lose weight because her husband is finding her unattractive after childbirth.  You can tell because every diet fad gets grasped at, every possible beauty product tried to achieve or maintain the unreasonable standards our society has taught men to expect of us and us to expect of ourselves.  You can tell because of the tragic number of women killing themselves to be thin, or staying in abusive relationships because they believe that they don't deserve any better.

In short, Hotscaping is a part of the greater problem of misogyny, and it needs to end.


  1. There's another problem, here, that I missed until I read this piece. I noticed because my first thought was, "Part of the reason this happens is that we all have a sense of what Lincoln looked like, and you can't get away with making him look differently, whereas few of us know what Tubman looked like."

    And then I realized that's part of the same problem. Picture George Washington. Easy, right? Now picture Martha Washington. Errrr... I kind of see a painting of some generic 18th-century upper-class woman. Picture Frederick Douglass. Now picture Harriet Beecher Stowe.

    I had to go look up Mrs. Stowe on Wikipedia, because I had absolutely no idea what she looked like. And we grew up in Hartford!

    Flip through a history textbook at almost any level. Who's in the pictures? Men. Oh, and Elizabeth I and Victoria.

    We're fed iconic images of the men of history from early childhood, but such images of women who have played roles just as significant are rare. There are exceptions (to some extent: most of us know Queen Victoria was rather small and round, but not that she was, in fact, a bit homely; likewise, most of us can picture Queen Elizabeth I).

    Would we still remember them if they were not, in fact, essentially the only two women in the history of the human race who fairly successfully ruled the Western world, one (Elizabeth) pretty much literally and the other (Victoria) as an arbiter of taste?

    ...And even they to get "prettied up" in movies, insofar as the movie-makers think they can get away with it while retaining the iconic factor.

    Thank you for getting me thinking about this. And thank you for being blunt about it.

    Myself, I'd rather see the real Tubman, who looks, right at the camera, as enduring and immovable as a mountain, than her prettied-up stand-in who flirts playfully with the photographer.

  2. Thanks!
    The funny thing is, they're not the only two. There are a fair number of women who were just as influential, but we never hear about them, or if we do only hear the scandalous bits.

    Catherine the Great, who was a powerful and capable ruler and corresponded with most of the great philosophers of her time is primarily known for her (partially imagined) sexual exploits. No one much remarks on the fact that the two rulers of Russia before her (excepting her husband who ruled only briefly) were also women.

    Maria Theresa of Austria was incredibly powerful and influential, and yet we hear very little about her compared to the amount we hear about the men of her period.

    It's not just that powerful women didn't exist; it's that they are systematically ignored. Elizabeth I is an exception because she was so incredibly powerful and able that they really can't ignore her. Even so, a lot of focus is put on whether or not she was really a virgin, and if not who her lovers were, rather than on the very real challenges she faced in her reign.

    Victoria is an exception because she was an arbiter of taste, and largely kept to the domestic sphere. Her attitudes and personal choices influenced culture in a way that was fundamentally regressive, and so the male historians and public figures of her time loved her.

    I'll also note that women who were not regressive are often shown in an unflattering light. There are photographs of Susan B. Anthony in most text books, but the texts rarely touch on more than the bare bones of what she did and why it was important. They talk about suffrage, but don't really discuss the lesss obvious reasons why she (and others) felt it was important to fight for it. Other women who participated in the social movements of the period tend to be ignored entirely.

    I've spent a fair amount of time reading histories and biographies dealing with the women who were the exceptions to the rule of male dominance. They're there, but we as a culture have a habit of not seeing them. We really need to work on that.