Is Popular Culture Bleaching Out Cultural Identity?

Last week a friend turned my attention to Beyoncé’s new look at the Grammys. Normally, I'm not drawn into celebrity culture. Vapid and unattainable, it makes me depressed and overly concerned. But the recent pictures of her took me aback. Blonder and fairer than ever, Beyoncé looked like she had morphed into Gwyneth Paltrow.

As a pop culture role model for women, Beyoncé stands tall. She is an intelligent, attractive, and well-spoken performer and she is also an ardent businesswoman, even holding her own against her partner Jay-Z, the successful rapper. Undoubtedly, she exists within an industry where she has to emulate "a look." For a while, I couldn’t tell the difference between her, Shakira, and Jennifer Lopez -- some of the most culturally diverse performers in mainstream music. Yet, their styles seemed to blend seamlessly into one another. Largely emulating the original material girl, Madonna, these performers are walking advertisements for various brands -- be it hair, make up, clothes, shoes, or cars. On one side, the argument is that these women have in a capitalistic, male-dominated industry been able to create their own lucrative deals and take charge of their own money. But, what about their identity? Are the effects of celebrity-driven culture removing important aspects of their cultural identity?

Beyoncé is a lighter-skinned woman of color. While she usually has the highly moneyed, honeyed hair she had for the Grammys, she has also experimented with various hair colors and styles. However, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a British writer and journalist who grew up in East Africa with ancestry from Pakistan, much like my own parents, was up in arms about Beyoncé's appearance at the awards. She wrote in the Daily Mail accusing Beyoncé of betraying her African-American cultural heritage and of betraying women of color.

I do think in the entertainment industry, where hair is an art form in and of itself, accusing Beyoncé of trying to "be white" is too simple and unfair. As a woman of color, I have done all sorts of things with my hair. Naturally, I am dark chocolate with big waves. But I’ve had light brown, orange, straight, and kinky hair. I’ve partly shaved my head and also had pink and red spikes. I was never trying to look white or wash out my cultural identity. Rather, I was trying to have as much technicolor fun as I could with my hair. I was "experimenting." What then is the problem with Beyoncé’s recent image?

Open up any magazine and you will struggle to find images of diversity, because over 95 percent are Caucasian. In the last 80 years of popular culture, think of the women who are celebrated: Marylin Monroe, Bridget Bardot, Twiggy, Raquel Welsh, Farah Fawcett, Princess Diana, Pamela Anderson, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Moss…the list goes on. While most Caucasian women don’t even resemble the women seen in magazine images, the whole idea of European beauty certainly still receives the most PR. Where does that leave women of various ethnic backgrounds?

I have always believed everyone has the right to self-identify with the cultural ideal to which they belong, and everyone has the right to fully express him or herself. However, this time I agree with Alibhai-Brown's take on Beyoncé: the very nature of commercialized pop culture means Caucasian women are on the pedestal and we, women of diverse backgrounds and color, have to aspire to that standard image in order to “better” succeed. Think back to colonization, where our grandmothers were maids, servants, or slaves to colonialists whether it be in the deep south of America, The Indian Raj, or in my parents' native East Africa. I remember my own mother telling me that she would admire the white women in their gloves and hats. Then, when she moved to London as a teen, she and her sister sought to straighten their frizzy curly hair and bleach their skin. She told me immigrants that needed to work had to adapt and copy fashions if they wanted a job.

That was back then. The question now: Do standards of European beauty still exist so deeply that current pop culture icons like Beyoncé, woman of wealth and power who potentially have the chance to break these "standards of beauty" still perpetuate them? This exactly why Beyoncé's recent "look" makes a huge impact in popular culture versus cultural identity. Her appearance at the Grammys seems to reinforce rather than rebel: she is perpetuating that in order to be successful, you need to be more Caucasian. In order to be accepted, you need to erase all trace of an ethnic background. For younger women of color, this is a persistent message and barrier they regularly face. Caucasian women often pay me lip service by saying “You are so beautiful and exotic, you're stunning.” Compliments are positive, but that one still implies I am different from the accepted norm.

All that said, I do believe with a push for cultural diversity we will begin to see more role models that don’t emulate everything Caucasian. Michelle Obama is a strong start: a smart sassy darker-skinned, African-American woman. Her image projected across the world will, hopefully, give young girls the boost they need to feel beautiful and confident without bleaching out their identity. But, we have a long way to go. Advertisements and media penetrate everything we do. Until we see numerous strong, successful images of ethnic women, tensions between popular versus cultural identity will remain.