(Image: December 2008 cover of Russian Vogue)
A few months ago, a fashion blog, Fashionable Academics (which since then seems to have gone private readership) hosted a blog conference called "This is What a Feminist Looks Like". Many fashion bloggers contributed with pictures of themselves in their best Banana Republic business casual (seriously, what's with academic fashion blogs BR shill?), with big smiles on their white attractive faces. The whole point of that (as was pointed out by an anon commenter) is to convince the casual observer that the feminists are not hairy man-hating beasts but actually very nice white middle-class attractive ladies. That is, we take an unfairly maligned category and make it more palatable to the mainstream by distancing ourselves from the fringe (in this case, hairy man-hating beasts). We can call it Gloria Steinem syndrome.
And it struck me recently how much do we do that. Spokespeople for pretty much any cause will present the most mainstream face possible -- and from Bono to Gaga, celebrities often give their face to causes associated with groups that "general public" (whatever that is) might find less relatable than those white celebs. And... I really do have a problem with that.
Recently, that horrid Lifetime show, Russian Dolls aired. As you can guess by the name, it is about Russian immigrants (in Brighton Beach, of course), and something something struggles something weird makeup haha look at how they dress all funny something show. I wrote before of this tendency to diminish the sartorial other; in TV, we have shows like Jerseylicious which really serve little other purpose than ridiculing a group of people for the way they dress, so in that regard Russian Dolls is not terribly surprising. What was surprising is the number of people who asked me if it was really like that.
I found my reaction interesting: first, there is a legitimate degree of annoyance that people expect the experience of Russian immigrants to be the same, regardless of the time immigration has occurred, whether or not they live in ethnic enclaves a la Brighton Beach, whether their entire families have immigrated with them etc etc. Clearly, individual experiences of individual people will produce vastly different results, and yet the desire to categorize and assume the uniformity of the other is overwhelming, even in intelligent people. The other aspect, however, surprised me: I wanted to distance myself from those Brighton Beach people. I wanted to appear more mainstream, which is a legitimate self-preservation instinct. Yet, I was surprised at the accompanying impulse to downplay those who are flamboyantly not fitting in, those fringe others -- with their blinged-out Versaceism and all that.
This is not to say that I'm suddenly all right with the representations of Russians in contemporary American entertainment -- au contraire. The representation is terribly one-sided and negative. I don't want all Russians on TV to be hookers or criminals; I just want some positive representation. Yet, my own desire to see and to show only the acceptable misses the mark too. The point is, we are people, with a variety of experiences. And unless we start representing the range rather than only one end of the spectrum, there is no hope to actually recognizing the other as legitimately human and deserving of being treated as such, regardless of their sartorial choices, level of attractiveness, or place of residence.