- Subject/Object/Body:Recent Perspectives on Beauty and Aesthetics in Gender Studies
Uri McMillan's Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance, New York: NYU Press, 2015
Sherri Irvin's Body Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016
Meeta Rani Jha's The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body, New York: Routledge, 2016
In their 1977 black feminist statement, the Combahee River Collective calls attention to beauty as a regime of regulation that disciplines belonging. The Collective offers the formulation "smart-ugly" to articulate recognition and marginality as deeply racialized, gendered, and sexualized (2000, 268). Taking the body as central to social interpretation from the standpoint of black lesbian positionality, smart-ugly serves as an instructive point from which to highlight the contributions of three recent books that advance theories of beauty and aesthetics with a primary focus on the body: Uri McMillan's Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance, Body Aesthetics edited by Sherri Irvin, and The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body by Meeta Rani Jha. Like the Combahee River Collective's statement, all three books interrogate the cultural capital attributed to beauty and aesthetics sutured to the body. Working through performance studies, visual cultural studies, affect studies, women of color feminism, transnational feminism, critiques of capitalism and neoliberalism, sports studies, and food studies among other approaches, the authors recast the body as pliable subject and object. Readers seeking nuanced interdisciplinary approaches to the study of embodiment will value the diverse perspectives each book offers.
The body itself is elaborated as a primary site of economic, cultural, and political inquiry as the authors mobilize formulations such as "performing objecthood" to index the bodily risks taken by black women performers (McMillan, 7), "subject and object of the gaze" to refer to the aesthetic [End Page 215] assessment of the body (Irvin, 1), and "beauty capital" signaling the distribution of contradictory social rewards assigned to the body as it circulates within the exchange relations of transnational capitalism (Jha, 4). In this review, I trace the body as it takes shape in each book to examine how the relationship between subject and object is reworked toward varying ends. Feminist thought has distinguished subject and object positions in part to challenge biological determinism and sexual objectification. The positionality of the body with respect to the subject-object relation undergirds the theories of aesthetics and the critiques of beauty put forth by McMillan, Irvin and the other contributors in Body Aesthetics, and Jha.1 McMillan argues for the body as a site for black women to literally transform the body into object for the purpose of challenging social and political exclusion. Jha addresses object status by attending to individual and institutional practices of objectification that govern access to the contradictory rewards of neoliberal beauty markets. While Irvin's introduction accounts for object status less as a measure of performative capacity and more with respect to questions of bodily assessment.
The authors labor in the vein of what Samantha Frost, referencing Anne Fausto-Sterling, describes as the challenge to the "unidirectional model of causation" that signals the living body's implication in its own construction (2011, 69–70). For example, Jha, drawing on Inderpal Grewal, points to the "white-savior narrative" as oppressive while highlighting that it primarily operates by assigning object status to women in the Global South. Jha attends to white-savior objectification as it disarms women of color while securing an agential subjectivity for white Western liberal feminists: "Feminine whiteness is valorized at the cost of objectifying women from developing nations as passive" (55). While Jha's critique demonstrates the politically fraught dynamics of objectified bodily passivity in the transnational beauty economies that condition subjective potentiality, McMillan ardently argues for objecthood as a liberatory pathway toward subjectivity for black women performers particularly Joice Heth, Ellen Craft, Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, and Nicki Minaj...