Exclusion by Compliment

Laurie and Debbie, who are happy to be blogging together again, say

Out there in the blogosphere, Feministe picked up on an excellent brief post from Brownfemipower on the subject of the word “exotic.” Check out the post; it’s both scathing and very funny.

Feministe especially notes a comment from scenius at Sexual Ambiguities, to the effect that “exotic is not a compliment; it basically says, ‘you don’t belong here.'”

Actually, we think it’s more complicated than that.

Laurie says, “When I was growing up in New York City, no one ever thought I was exotic. When I left New York, nobody thought I was exotic unless they knew I was Jewish. And as soon as they knew I was Jewish, I was suddenly “an exotic beauty.”

So when “exotic” relates to beauty, it still isn’t about how someone looks, but about the context in which they look that way. We think it is a compliment, or perhaps more accurately, it is intended as a compliment. No one ever says: “I find you exotic,” to someone they are dispossessing, or kicking in the face. In this sense, “stacked” is also a compliment.

The issue is that “complimentary” does not equal kind, let alone respectful, and not all “compliments” are welcome. We addressed this issue a little over a month ago, when we wrote about Vegan Kid’s objections to Leonard Nimoy’s photographs of fat women. Here’s a quote from Vegan Kid:

When someone seemingly tries to highlight the beauty of a group of people dancing naked regardless of their size, … when we label the photo series “Full Body Project”. Once again, it ceases to be about pure beauty, because those outside the standards of conventional beauty can never reach pure beauty. Instead, we are a tainted beauty – a beauty of pity.

And while exotic can be beautiful, it can never be pretty. In fact, one of the dictionary definitions of “pretty” (all available at the link) is “having conventionally accepted elements of beauty.”

While exoticism isn’t about a beauty of pity, when it’s about beauty it’s about outsider beauty. As piny points out in the Feministe post, Brownfemipower can simultaneously be “exotic” and suffer all of the negative effects of racism. Someone who is “pretty,” however, is likely to be experiencing privilege to which the exotic person has no access.

So what “exotic” really means is “beautiful but never conventionally acceptable”; “beautiful but I won’t take you home to meet my parents.”

So it’s no surprise that Brownfemipower and piny (and the two of us) see it as an unwelcome compliment. In a beauty of inclusiveness, the word “exotic” becomes meaningless.

<br /> exotic<br /> beauty<br /> pretty<br /> feminism<br /> beautiful<br /> women<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/Body+Impolitic" rel="tag nofollow">Body Impolitic</a><br />

3 thoughts on “Exclusion by Compliment

  1. When I think exotic beauty, Merle Oberon comes to mind. A movie star in the 1930s, she went to great lengths to conceal that her mother was Anglo-Indian (actually Sinhalese, from Sri Lanka), to the point of having her much-darker-skinned mother pretend to be her maid. Oberon was the definition of “exotic” or “sultry” beauty. Had been known while she was making pictures that she was not Caucasian, her career would have been over. What she was offering, I think, went beyond “passing for white.” She was offering the forbidden allure of an Indian beauty in a package that was ambiguous enough to allow viewers to accept her as a white woman “from New Zealand”, and therefore an acceptable romantic lead.

    Oberon’s screen appeal seems to be an example of what I like to call the Dybbuk Effect–after the play. (I wrote in my own blog on this re the JT Leroy scandal where a 40-year-old woman’s fiction was presented as the autobiographical work of a teenaged male prostitute, the prose of an experienced writer, presented as the reminiscence of a young person). In The Dubbuk staging I saw as a kid (Playhouse 90 around 1960) there was an extreme and riveting example of the kind of disconnect that draws your attention. In the wedding scene, the bride is possessed by her dead fiance’s spirit. When she speaks, his voice comes out. Way before Friedkin’s The Exorcist, it was a stunning effect.

    What I see with exotic and racially or sexually ambiguous objects of desire is that the disconnect between what you see as beautiful and acceptably “one of us” and what your gut tells you–“lovely, um, but unexpectedly alien in a disturbing but appealing way”–sets up a tension that can draw more attention.

  2. I think the two commenters above make an excellent additional point about the sexual aspect of exoticism. Similar to the way “exotic” is not “pretty” because it’s not conventional, “exotic” is further removed from “pretty” because “exotic” is not harmless or neutered, which are two of the connotations of “pretty.” “Pretty” can conjure fragility and delicateness, while “exotic” connotes something sexual and musky. It’s another checkmark on the virgin/whore clipboard, another example of the girls you fetishize versus the girls you take home to mother. “Exotic” will do things that “pretty” would slap you for even asking about. It seems fairly obvious to say that this is just another example of the power dominant males exert over the bodies of women of color, but there it is.

    Wonderful post.

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