Shamefaced: Reframing the Dove Real Beauty Sketches
Li Cornfeld / McGill University
The “Attractive Convict” meme emerged in early April. Its first iteration appeared on Reddit, where a user posted a woman’s mugshot, taken after a DUI arrest, under superimposed text reading, “WANTED…IN 50 STATES.” Two days and twenty-thousand up-votes later, the woman was identified as Florida resident Meagan Simmons. Newspaper accounts made much of the marriage proposals she began receiving from men around the world1.
Not two weeks later, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty released its series of web videos which likewise judge women’s beauty through a frame of criminality: a forensic sketch artist draws women based on their descriptions of themselves, then sketches comparative portraits according to a stranger’s description. The latter yield more attractive portraits; the videos conclude with the tag, “you are more beautiful than you think.” Yet the Dove campaign’s ostensible feel-good message fails to mask the project’s cruelty: like publicly-released mugshots, the Dove portraits are mediated public shaming devices. The so-called “social experiment” uses the portraits first to suggest that participants hold low opinions of their looks, but also, crucially, to shame them for their self-perception. And, as in the case of Simmons’ viral mugshot, the Dove portraits’ laudable potential hinges on the subjects’ beauty.
The Dove spots can be critiqued on a number of grounds, particularly their pernicious emphasis on whiteness: not only is minimal attention given to women of color, the traits categorized as aspirational (straight hair, a narrow chin, blue eyes) are hallmarks of racialized beauty norms. Also troubling is Dove’s exclusion of male voices from those expressing body image anxiety (to say nothing of the campaign’s implicit endorsements of heteronormativity, fat phobia, and binary gender structure). Yet if cosmetic company collusion with cultural hegemony is common practice, Dove’s dubious disavowal of its commercial’s culpability is especially inventive.
The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, created by ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, launched its first series of viral videos, titled “Beauty Crackdown,” in 2006. “Onslaught,” an eighty second spot typical of this series, opens with a slow closeup of a little girl’s face followed by a rapid succession of beauty industry ads interspersed with shots of women weighing themselves and footage of plastic surgery. It concludes with the admonition, “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.” Sarah Banet-Weiser’s critique of this iteration of the Dove campaign identifies the neoliberal logics under which “Onslaught” operates, in which the choice to protect children is ascribed to individuals (rather than to the corporations ostensibly harming them).2 “Evolution,” another video in this series, likewise appears to critique the beauty industry (it distills a model’s fashion shoot and post-production adjustments to her body into 75 seconds), but concludes by urging viewers to “Take part in the Dove Real Beauty Workshop for Girls,” again advocating individual (consumer) choices as solutions to what it implies is a corporate crisis of conscience. Where “Onslaught” and “Evolution” assume an oppressive (if upbeat) culture, “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” structures a society of universal affirmation. In doing so, it shifts blame to women’s psyches.
Encouraging self-improvement rather than social struggle, “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” perfects a neat marriage of neoliberal political ideology and postfeminist media sensibilities. Rosalind Gill’s critique of “the new emphasis on self-surveillance, self-monitoring, and self-discipline in postfeminist media culture,” where “the self has become a project to be evaluated,” is easily applicable to “Dove Real Beauty Sketches.”3 Consider how acknowledgement of the labor of self-management dominates participant responses to the portraits: “I have some work to do on myself,” remarks one woman, a common refrain. Still another notes that a sense of one’s looks effects “jobs we apply for” — an expression of anxiety not over perceived HR preferences for pretty applicants, but over her own hesitance to consider herself pretty. These videos, however, exceed Gill’s critique of postfeminist media: they ask that participants monitor both the self and its evaluation. The Dove women are thus doubly shamed, first by their failure to exude requisite postfeminist confidence, and also by the very fallibility of their own self-assessment metrics.
Shame is itself a sentiment rooted in self-evaluation; it is central to affect theory precisely because it involves the subject’s relation to the social. Because a properly shamed person struggles to adjust herself to the expectations of others, the scenes of Dove participants viewing their two portraits are both poignant and coercive. Presented with “evidence” of their errors, the woman gape. They search for words, but find none. They look, invariably, as though they might cry. If any of the women responded to the discrepancies with laughter, the editors refrain from showing it: a sense of humor or spirit of playfulness (that is, means of rejecting shame by subverting expectations) are not presented as sensical attitudes to have toward one’s appearance. I would even argue that in the campaign’s most viral parodies (the conceit of “Dove Real Beauty Sketches: Men” is that men find themselves more attractive than they are; “Dove Real Beauty Sketches: #Balls” that the sketch artist draws men’s genitals), the comedy relies less on gender reversal than on irreverence, an inversion of the original’s manipulative gravity.
As shaming devices, the Dove portraits compel confessions of guilt, which take the form of post-project interviews. The most shockingly Foucaultian of these begins with an admission of having made “really bad choices,” as a result of “low self-esteem.” After outlining some of these, Florence, identified as a single mother of two, confesses that as a “people pleaser,” she has long defined herself according to what others’ thought of her; now she struggles to be her “authentic self.” That trusting others’ perceptions over her own is exactly what Dove asks of her is an irony apparently lost on everyone involved.
Three week’s after “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” launched, the practice of punishing women for failing to think themselves beautiful played out in a more violent context. Zombie Industries, which manufactures shooting targets which “bleed” when penetrated by bullets, initially attracted attention at the NRA convention in Houston for displaying a target modeled after Barack Obama. Once in the national spotlight, the company drew criticism for a second mannequin: called “The Ex,” Zombie Industry’s sole female dummy was accompanied by a detailed vengeance narrative. “A young gent from Louisiana,” the copy read, “was deeply committed to his one true love, and her [sic] to him, or so he thought” however, “partying with her friends during one particular Mardi Gras, she took several suitors.” Thus, with the help of an elderly aunt, “Andre” has a curse put on his girlfriend, transforming her into a zombie (which, as in the case of the Obama mannequin, is here code for deserving target). The delight he takes in killing her (hearing her “unnatural cry of regret” makes “a smile appear across his face”) is especially chilling given that, as feminist critics rightly pointed out, a third of all women murdered in the United States are victims of partner violence, often justified by vendettas like the one advertised here.4 In response to such criticism, Zombie Industries quickly acquiesced: “The Ex” disappeared from the company website. Now she is “Alexa.”
No longer a damnable slut, Alexa is “a tarot card & palm reader” whose downfall results not from a lover and his colluding aunt, but from her own insecurities. She again has “several suitors,” but is now punished not for promiscuity, but for her tendency to “obsess about her physical appearance.” Incanting “an old voodoo ritual,” Alexa’s performance misfires: rather than achieving “eternal beauty,” she becomes a zombie. In a Dove-worthy move, the company thus erases culpability of cultural forces from its female target’s damnation. Her downfall (caused by failure to see her own beauty!) is her fault. “The moral to the story,” explains Zombie Industries, is “love yourself for who you are.” And who would argue with that?
Please feel free to comment.
- For typical coverage, see: QMI Agency (2013). “Hot mugshot photo
prompts marriage proposals.” Toronto Sun 9 April [↩]
- Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012). “Free Self-Esteem Tools? Brand Culture,
Gender, and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign.” Commodity Activism:
Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times. Eds. Roopali Mukkerjee and
Sarah Banet-Weiser. New York: New York University Press, 39-56 [↩]
- Rosalind Gill (2007). Gender and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 261-262 [↩]
- For a critique including domestic violence statistics, see:
Elizabeth Plank (2013). “NRA Vendor Sells Ex-Girlfriend Target That
Bleeds When You Shoot It,” PolicyMic 6 May. Similar 6 May coverage
appeared on Talking Points Memo, Feministing, and The Political
Carnival. The following day, Zombie Industries revised the product
name and narrative [↩]