A proud owner of a DVR box and many cable TV channels for the first time in about 10 years, I have recently entered the world of docu-dramas, reality competition and most recently a show called, “Jessica Simpson’s ,The Price of Beauty.” J. Simp goes All! Over! The! World! to find out what different cultures consider beautiful. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Why on earth would you watch Jessica Simpson trek around the world pontificating on beauty?” Thing is, I dig the notion, and Jessica is an interesting choice considering how much she has been through, in the spotlight, targeted for her weight loss and weight gain. Hollywood is clearly unforgiving and often cruel. Jessica Simpson knows this firsthand.
Airing on Vh1, the show is described as:
“The new VH1 docu-series, produced by RDF USA (Wife Swap, Secret Millionaire), takes Jessica all over the world to meet every day women. She may also discover some local pop culture icons on their own quests for beauty along the way. Jessica will study the local fashions, dietary fads and beauty regimes and even participate in some of the extreme practices she discovers.”
I’ve seen two of the existing three episodes one set in Mumbai, India and the other in Bangkok, Thailand. India (where I was born) and Thailand are places whose art, music, religious and spiritual practices are incessantly culturally appropriated by people all around the world.They are also places whose women are exoticized, fetishized and caricatured in the “West.” So, cautiously I proceeded.
Here’s how Jessica describes her project and aims:
“I have always believed that beauty comes from within and confidence will always make a woman beautiful, but I know how much pressure some women put on themselves to look perfect. I am really looking forward to discovering how beauty is perceived in different cultures and participating in some of the crazy things people do to feel beautiful. I know we will all learn a lot on this journey and I am so excited that VH1 is coming along on what I’m sure will be a wild ride.”
Now, I like where this is going, and the show’s promos and opening song are indeed rather touching. They mention self acceptance and cultural diversity in ideas about beauty. But eventually, we hit a wall.
As I watched the episode set in Mumbai, India, and Jessica arrived with her friends Ken (her hairdresser) and CaCee they could not believe how “overpopulated” the country was, and sprinkled in comments like, “it’s so beautiful” and “look at all the colors!” Their first stop is to meet up with Bollywood actress Neha Dhupia on a movie set, and the fearless three ooh and ahh over Dhupia’s outfit (a lovely churidaar kurta, I concur) and exotic beauty. Then they proceed to an Auyrvedic Spa, where they giggle and squirm at everything they don’t understand and use terms like “freaky” and “weird” while discussing the inevitable beauty benefits they will surely receive from their hair treatment and herbal juice. The juice drinking results in a barrage of belching from the three, who simply cannot believe their fate. See a clip from this episode, here.
Jessica’s frequent outbursts of how strange things are in India, and later in Thailand (That full episode is now available online, in which Jessica goes to mediate at with a Buddhist monk and cracks up during the mediation. Watch at your own risk.) demonstrate and un-interrogated cultural relativism and deep “othering” that often happens in an effort to understand different cultures. This desire to understand other cultures can be a great experience if it leads to self-reflection and new tools to understand your OWN cultural experience, like perhaps through a feminist lens. What do feminists do and say about certain Indian beauty practices? What do they think about Hollywood’s influence on Bollywood and vice versa? Now THOSE would have been some interesting questions.
“The Price of Beauty” does not go this route. Instead, more often than not, it falls into the familiar trap of voyeurism and cultural imperialism. Another white woman travels to foreign land and appropriating the culture for self-exploration and profit (Eat, Pray, Love anyone?). There can be significant moments of recognition when we travel to witness and experience different cultures- there can be beautiful moments of solidarity. In order to actually bridge the existing divides and figure out the “price of beauty,” this approach is not enough. Jessica gushes over the clothes she wears for a bollywood party (for which she doesn’t seem to have washed the mehndi off her hands, which is what you do to reveal the tatoo) but she doesn’t mention the obvious poverty in the country. In a very interesting scene in the Thailand episode, Jessica is floored by the revelation that women in Thailand bleach their skin to look whiter. She notes how strange that is since people in the US “do just the opposite” by always trying to tan. Not only does that make women of color invisible in the US (as though all US women are trying to be tan) it’s also a very superficial assessment of the internalized and cultural racism in non-white cultures. The show doesn’t even approach that question, instead it’s simply a gloss of a culture and the beauty practices of some women within it. I daresay that the price of beauty is much higher than the show is willing and able to investigate.
Imperialism is not a language that communicates understanding and empathy. Even during a particularly moving moment, when Jessica, though Operation Smile, provides reconstructive surgery to a young Indian girl with a cleft palate, Jessica, Ken and CaCee are outsiders, come to save the day. They have helped one girl, and ignored the fact that there are such dramatic inequities, even within India itself. India, for Jessica and her friends is fascinating, strange and yes, even beautiful. But it is not a place they really understand, and not because it’s too complicated to understand, but because they haven’t really tried.
Next week, Jessica, Ken and CaCee go to Africa and visit a tribe that considers “fat is beautiful.” If I can steel my heart, I might watch it.