Elle Shortchanges Octavia Spencer in Favour of Sarah Jessica Parker

I don’t
understand how anyone could look at Octavia Spencer and not see the absolute
beauty that she is.  Unfortunately, no matter how beautiful, talented
or perceptive a Black woman is, she always
gets the short end of the stick and this has everything do with racism. 
All women must negotiate sexism, but Black women have the added negativity of
racism and this places us continually behind White women in our warped social
hierarchy.  Women’s activists would have us believe in a universal
experience of womanhood, which forms the basis of our oppression but the truth
is, even as White women are oppressed by patriarchy, racism means that they
have privilege. The monolithic construction of womanhood is not only a lie but
a direct negation of the experiences of women of colour.
As much
as the fashion industry creates harmful body image in women, the singular act
which they can be counted upon to do is uplift White womanhood.  Looking
at the newsstands, the one thing that these so-called women’s magazines all
have in common are the overwhelming White faces staring back at us. 
Octavia Spencer recently made the cover of Elle and I was excited
when I first saw the image.  Spencer is a good role model and she is a
wonderful example of just how beautiful Black womanhood can be.  I should
have cooled my excitement when I realised that it was Elle magazine
because the publication does not have a good track record when it comes to
women of colour: Elle India decided to
lighten the image of Aishwarya Rai, a renowned actress and winner
of the 1995 Miss World pageant, when she appeared on the December 2010 cover.
Gabourey Sidibe
received the exact same treatment when she was featured on
the cover of Elle in October 2010. This causes me to wonder if a woman
of colour could ever be light-skinned enough to please Elle
is only
featured in the subscriber edition,
while the newsstand cover is Sarah Jessica Parker
.  To be fair to Elle,
this is not the first time that they have done multiple covers.  However,
I cannot help but question the motivation behind having Sarah Jessica Parker on
the newsstand copy rather than Octavia Spencer, given Elle’s history and
the industry in which this occurred.  Black women have long been deemed to
be unworthy of Front Cover status; often, they are relegated to “special
editions.”  The only women’s magazines which regularly feature women
of colour are those specifically aimed at us, like Essence or Ebony.
bothers me the most is the fact that women are told repeatedly how
harmful these magazines are, yet it is rarely discussed how the erasure
from this medium is harmful to Black girls and women.  Do we define beauty
as thin and White, in the vein of Sarah Jessica Parker?  Is Octavia
Spencer less than beautiful as a plus-sized Black woman?  Is she less
marketable?  Less talented?  Obviously not.  But when a little
girl of colour looks around and she does not see faces that look like her, she
learns to believe that something is intrinsically wrong with her and that she
is not valued. When it comes to the media, regardless of what format we
discuss, women of colour are too often either pigeonholed into roles which are
absolutely regressive or simply erased altogether. 

magazines are suffering in our digital age, but the speed at which the
specialty Black issues of Vogue sold, is absolute proof that there is a
market for increased representation of women of colour. 
that the
Italian Vogue Special Edition increased newsstand distribution by 40 percent in
the U.S., the day it was released. Even with the terrible recession,
African-American spending power is
projected to reach $1.1 trillion by 2015
.   However, instead of attempting to attract
an untapped market, the vast majority of women’s magazines continue to proceed
with absolutely abysmal representation. Case in point, in the year 2011, Vogue featured Penélope Cruz and
Rihanna. Harper’s Bizarre had Beyoncé
and Alex Chung on the cover. Though Cosmopolitan
had Nicki Manaj,
Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kim
Kardashian, considering that there are 12 months in a year, it means that even
with increased representation, only 1/3 of the available space was allotted to
women of colour.  Clearly, the bottom
line is not profit, but uplifting and supporting White supremacy.
I would
like to pretend that relegating Octavia Spencer to the subscriber edition
doesn’t matter but the truth is, it does and it hurts.  Even if a woman of
colour believes that she is not affected by the erasure and the negative
portrayals, both will still impact the world around her.  The lack of
consistent, positive portrayals of women of colour in the media, translates
into things like a lack of opportunities or outright racism in our daily
lives.  No matter how confidant or accomplished a woman of colour is,
she must still thrive and subsist in a world determined to present barriers
based on race and this means negotiating and interacting with those who have
normalised the erasure and negative portrayals of Black womanhood as
racism is so normalised, it is easily internalised and it is only through
conscious deconstruction that harmful ideas have any hope of being
challenged.  This is the insidious nature of erasure.  Even as it
tells women of colour that they are without value, the consistent and exclusive
promotion of White femininity tells White women that they occupy and deserve a
place of privilege.  This is why the idea of a true sisterhood or a shared
oppression simply does not hold water.
Not only
do Black women deserve better, our daughters do as well.  Even as I write
this, some Black child is wondering what the paucity of representation means
and what it says about her.  A little White girl is growing up knowing
that her gender will be a restriction, yet still (consciously or otherwise)
aware that she may count on her Whiteness to at least present a form of
advantage over Black women and girls.  These magazines are racially divisive
and they exist as such without the hallmarks of overt racism.  It is only
because we have determined that racism must be overt to count as stigmatizing
that erasure continues to be unchallenged in our daily discourse surrounding
race.  One need not wear a White sheet in public or burn a cross on a
front lawn to negatively impact the lives of people of colour or support the
project of White supremacy.
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