Global Beauty Standards in Film

Global beauty and global standards of beauty help to define gender roles, perpetuate ideas of racial superiority and sustain hegemonic norms. Often the manifestations of beauty standards and expectations can be found in film and television. Film stars, in particular, are often regarded as fashion and beauty icons, stemming from their roles in glamorized, high budget films. These filmic portrayals of beauty can be harmful, as they can perpetuate gender roles, racial stereotypes and problematic ideas surrounding class.

This is especially problematic for young children. Children are born consuming media. As soon as they are born, they are immediate media consumers. Their worlds are shaped by not only what they view on television and in film, but also by what their parents and the people around them view. When children view television and film, these depictions are not only shaping their understanding of the world, but also inform their notions of self. If a child sees media that pushes traditional gender, race and class stereotypes, then those children could learn to understand media as fact, and accept those representations as true.

The point of this website is to explore notions of beauty within children’s films across the world. By analyzing these films through the lens of race, class and gender, we can take a more in-depth look at how children’s ideas of beauty and self confidence are formed. The three media texts that are being analyzed come from three distinct global media producers: India, France, and the United States.  This site takes a critical look at “Chillar Party”, a Bollywood film, and the idea of constructing masculinity through community, “Le Tableau”, a French film, and the relationship between class and desirability, and  “Frozen”, an American film, and the idea of feminine exceptionalism as deviance.  All three of these films take a look at desirability and attractiveness through different lenses and representations of class, race and gender.

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Female Exceptionalism as Deviance in “Frozen”

The American film “Frozen” was released in 2013, dominating the box office. The film is a derivative of an old fairy tale called “The Snow Queen”. The story centers around two sisters, Anna and Elsa, living in the make believe world of Arendelle. While Anna is a fun loving young girl about to become a woman, her older sister Elsa had to mature quickly following the death of their parents. These tragic happenings could put stress on any family relationship, however, it is the breaking point between the two female leads. Elsa, who possess superpowers, giving her the ability to control the winter weather, has had a strained relationship with her sister from a young age. With the added stress of their parents death, the relationship strains and breaks at Elsa’s coronation. Throughout the film the women find their way back to each other, showing that sisterly familial love is the strongest love. While the story centers around female empowerment, there are also several troubling elements surrounding the narrative of Elsa and Anna.

For the better part of the film, Anna and Elsa are at odds with each other, perpetuating the idea that women view each other as competition and are constantly trying to outdo one another. This narrative plays into hegemonic gender stereotypes, perpetuating the idea that in order to be desirable or wanted, one must beat out the other feminine “competition”. The topic of desirability is especially interesting to look at in regards to Elsa and her character development. Anna embodies typical stereotypes of princesses. She is obsessed with her appearance and finding a male partner. She lacks common sense, which ends up getting her into trouble along the way. Anna is framed as the main protagonist within the film. What is interesting is that Elsa is framed as neither a protagonist or an antagonist. Her powers frame her in a negative light. Thinking about other movies involving super heroes, most male characters possessing superpowers are lauded as being heroes. They are, in no uncertain terms, protagonists. Elsa’s story is very different. Elsa’s superpowers frame her as a meta-genre character, neither a protagonist or an antagonist. Her super power frames her negatively, as a deviant of normal society. Instead of framing her as extraordinary, she is deviant. This directly relates to the idea of feminine desirability. This film pushes the idea that female characters with extraordinary gifts are not desirable. They are threatening. This is an incredibly problematic notion, especially when thinking about how it relates to children’s media consumption and the formation of identity. Only at the end of the film, when Elsa saves Anna’s life, is Elsa suddenly framed as a hero.

It is interesting to look at Elsa and her character through her relationships with other characters. Through analysis, it becomes clear that Elsa is the true protagonist of the story. She sacrifices herself for the benefit of not only her family, but her constituents as well. However, Elsa’s character is defined through her desirability. Anna, her younger sister, who is more concerned with men and appearance, is recognized as the main protagonist. Anna is desired. She is the only character, whether main or periphery, within the story, who is actively pursued by men. Not only is Elsa framed as deviant because of her superpowers, but she is also framed as unwanted. By framing Elsa as a main periphery character, the film perpetuates the notion that being desired by men makes someone a main character, or more important.

The dialogue and plot of the film are interesting to look at in concert with the films use of songs. The songs within the film both reinforce and contradict the narrative of the dialogue and plot. With songs like “For the First Time in Forever” Anna’s naivety is reinforced. The song only talks about Anna’s the joys of having a party, and her excitement at the prospect of finding a mate.

However, with Elsa’s song “Let it Go”,  the words she says details an empowered woman finding her place in the world. While the narrative frames her as deviant, the song teaches to accept and love the things that make you unique and extraordinary. The song centers around the idea of letting go of societies norms and rules and being exceptional.

With that song, it should be obvious that Elsa is a hero, however, throughout the rest of the film it is still yet to be proven. Only at the end of the film is it proven that Elsa is a hero. While she seeks to protect her family and constituents throughout the whole film, she needs to prove her goodness and exceptionalism by saving Anna. Only then is she seen and appreciated for who she is. With this demonstration, Anna and Elsa make amends, reinforcing the importance of strong feminine relationships. While Disney’s “Frozen” does involve many counter-hegemonic elements, such as the notion of “girl-power”, it also perpetuates problematic notions of gender and female exceptionalism as undesirable and unbeautiful.

Masculinity and Class in “Chillar Party”

Chillar Party is a Bollywood film released in 2011. The story revolves around a group of children from a middle class community in Mumbai. The colony consists of many different families, all trying to provide for their families and their children. While it is apparent that the parents work hard trying to make a comfortable life for their children, it is also obvious that the children do not understand this notion. Within this community, the male children from the families form their own sub-community, a group they call the “Chillar Party”. Each boy within the group has a nickname that corresponds to a facet of their identity. These boys are able to explore aspects of their personalities, and also develop notions of masculinity by interacting with each other.

The Chillar Party are surprised when they see a young, homeless boy come into their colony. Fatka, the young orphan, becomes an illegal child worker, washing cars for the opportunity to make a bit of money and to stay within the confines of the community. Fatka is originally ostracized by the group, speaking volumes to their maturity an the way they regard class. Throughout the entire film, it is apparent that class and developing masculinity are linked. The film explores both of these nations through the lens of young men growing up and maturing.

While the film focusses heavily on the boys’ lived experiences, it is interesting to first note that women were on the whole, misrepresented and underrepresented within the film. Women were often represented within the confines of traditional gender stereotypes. They were often put into roles that were represented as nurturing and maternal. The mothers within the film were the only women’s voices that were heard, and even then, they barely spoke more than a line in any given scene. Only much later in the film is a female child introduced, and even so, the young girl does not have the same credibility or social standing within the Chillar party as the other boys. The role of the mother and women within the boys social education is important. The boys seem to be under the impression that they are not allowed to be accepting or nurturing, as that would be too close to maternal qualities. This is shown when the boys encounter Fatka for the first time. Fatka’s only real friend when he initially come to the colony is his dog, Bhidu. Bhidu’s name, translating to Buddy, is indicative of his close and crucial relationship to Fatka. When the boys first come into contact with Fatka, they are blatantly exclusionary. They show disrespect to Fatka, trying to ostracize him and ultimately get him out of their community. They see him as a poor outsider, who they cannot relate to, and cannot relate to them as a result of their class standings. In their eyes, being of a lower class standing makes them less of a “man” and also makes them more socially undesirable.

Concepts of constructing masculinity are explored heavily in the film, and characters show broad arcs of development, going from problematic stereotypical portrayals of masculinity, to a more complex and inclusive understanding. For example, as the boys are exploring their understanding of what it means to be a man, they do not show physical intimacy or affection to their friends, and the reluctantly show it to their parents. The boys also briefly experiment with trying to assert masculine dominance with their mothers. They begin talking down to their mothers and demanding them to do things for them. They are quickly taught by both their mothers and their fathers that that toxic, misogynist view of masculinity will not be tolerated.

There are several interesting, counter-hegemonic views of masculinity within the film. For example, the person that the boys learn the most from is a man who does not fit into the mold of traditional masculinity. The boys develop a social mentorship with a member of their community who has  had a rough time fitting in due to the timbre of his voice. This man’s voice is high and is construed as feminine, prohibiting him from getting jobs. After finally getting a job in radio, they boys take a liking to him and learn the majority of their lessons surrounding maturing and becoming a man from this person. The boys accept that being authentically who you are proves the most desirable and the best construction of masculinity. Throughout the entire film, the boys become closer with this man, and eventually come to understand that being emotional and being in touch with the emotional side of their identity is what defines their masculinity. By the end of the film, they are unafraid and unashamed to show emotion, even publicly crying, and showing that they are upset. The boys’ journey throughout the film strays from a traditional coming of age story in that the boys discover their identity and mature through their community. As opposed to traditional stories where boys usually come to these realizations by themselves, as a means of self discovery, this film shows that by engaging with other men, boys can develop and construct their own notions of masculinity, that combat problematic hegemonic norms.

 

Implications of Class and Beauty in “Le Tableau”

“Le Tableau”, a French film, came out in 2011, having a lot of success at movie theaters. The concept of the film is especially interesting, revolving around the idea of living art. The film revolves around a group of characters from a painting. However, unlike other films talking about pictures from storybooks or paintings, the subjects of the paintings are aware that they are created by the artist. In this imagined world, there is a strict hierarchy. There are three classes of characters within the painting. There are the “Alldones” which refers to subjects that have been all painted, with all of their lines filled in with color. They refer to themselves as the higher class, claiming superiority because they look how they perceive the artist wants them to look. They regard themselves as the artist’s perfect visions.

The second class of characters are referred to as the “Halfies”. These are the subjects that are nearly completed, or nearly all painted, but some parts of them have no color. These characters are not allowed to live in the large community that the “Alldones” inhabit. The Halfies are exiled to live in the dark forests. Their presence is tolerated, but they are constantly being put down and oppressed by the Alldones.

The third class refers to the “Sketchies”. Sketchies are the lowest class, seen almost like animals. These subjects possess no color or definitive lines. They are merely sketches. The Alldones relationship with the Sketchies is highly problematic and troubling. The Alldones kill Sketchies on sight, clinging they are dangerous and animalistic. While the Sketchies have more trouble with the Alldones, they still have trouble with the Halfies. The Halfies are more accepting, but they are still discriminatory. The film points out ideas of desirability as being linked to class. The being high class was linked to being “complete” or having all of one’s identity laid out.

The characters in the painting discover that the artist has left them, and does not intend to finish the painting, leaving the Halfies and Sketchies to fend for themselves. Lola, a Halfie, and Ramo, an Alldone, start their journey to find the artist so that they can help their communities come together and live as one. On the way, they meet Plume, a Sketchie. Throughout the film the three travel in and out of multiple other paintings in search of the painter. Much to their dismay, they do not find him, but instead find paints, where they can paint themselves. The characters transport the paints into the painting, and the Sketchies and Halfies become finished works of art. This film tackles the complex nature of class in regards to identity. While at the end of the film, the Sketchies and Halfies would technically be considered Alldones, they keep their labels because their class played an integral role in their identity and the communities they formed. The film also tackles the subject of desirability and attractiveness through the lens of class. The Alldones are seen as beautiful and desirable while the Halfies and Sketchies are seen as unpolished and unattractive. This was pointing to the fact that the higher class is more attractive than the middle and lower classes. However, at the end of the film, when all of the subjects are filled in, it is determined that the Sketchies and Halfies have always been desirable and attractive. They are still the same as the characters they were before they were painted. By leveling the playing field and having everyone become complete paintings, the characters could see that there was nothing other than prejudice and discrimination that separated these classes.

It is also interesting to note that when the Halfies and the Sketchies become finished works of art, they are responsible for how they look and what colors they use. These characters are given more agency over how they look and how they present themselves. When they show themselves off as finished products, it is because of their hard work and their journey. While the film does frame wealth as a determining factor of desirability, it also enforces the notion of self empowerment and self discovery as beautiful and attractive.

 

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Conclusion

All three films tackle the same basic issues through different lenses and different character types. Each film looks at desirability, whether that be through the lens of constructing masculinity, like in Chillar Party, or feminine exceptionalism, like if Frozen, or at class struggle like in Le Tableau. Each film, while overall possessing positive messages surrounding beauty and attractiveness, had problematic elements that aligned with dominant hegemonic ideology. In each of the films, the connecting thread was class. In all of the films, the wealthier or higher class was seen as more desirable than those belonging to the lower classes. A characters wealth determined initially how they were accepted and regarded by her characters within the film. Although impressions of them may have changed throughout the movie, wealth was a determining factor in social and romantic desirability.

These analyses are significant, because they point out troubling hegemonic messages present in children’s media, specifically film. These filmic portrayals of beauty and desirability inform children’s understanding of attractiveness and body image. By viewing these films and films like these, children may come to understand attractiveness and worth as something dependent on material wealth or gender. This can prove to be problematic, especially when a child’s own identity does not align with that of the characters that they watch on television or in films. It is important to represent all facets of identity. Filmic characters rarely show lower class characters as multi-dimensional, leading to problematic understandings of wealth within society. Media informs so much of our world, and it is important to understand why and how certain notions of identity, including beauty, come into existence. These analyses are just the tip of the iceberg, and so much work needs to be done so that children grow up feeling represented, empowered and beautiful.

References

Bahl, V. (Director) & Tiwari, N. (Director). (2011). Chillar Party. UTV Motion Pictures.

Benhamou, Eve. “Freezing Versus Wrecking: Reworking the Superhero Genre in Disney’s Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph”. Animation Practice, Process & Production, no. 4. (2014) 13-26.

Buck, C.(Director), & Lee, J. (Director).(2013). Frozen. [Motion Picture]. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Keys, J. (2016). Doc McStuffins and Dora the Explorer: Representations of gender, race, and class in US animation. Journal of Children and Media, 10(3), 355-368. doi:10.1080/17482798.22015.1127835

Laguionie, J.F. (Director).(2011).  Le Tableau. Blue Spirit.

Myers, K. (2012). “Cowboy up!”: Non-hegemonic representations of masculinity in children’s TV programming. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 20(2), 125-143. doi: 10.3149/jms. 2002.125

Ransom, Amy J. “Bollywood Goes to the Stadium: Gender, National Identity, and Sport Film in Hindi”. Journal of Film and Video, 66 no. 4. (2014) 34-49.