I closed my “Romance and Melodrama” Film Genre class yesterday by looking at the latest video from Dove’s Real Beauty campaign — the Real Beauty Sketches. These images, showing an FBI forensic artist sketching drawings of women based first on how they self-describe, “My Mom told me I had a big jaw. I have a fat, rounder face.” And the second image shows how another person described them. The forensic artist never sees the women, only hears the descriptions. The commercial ends with the women seeing both images, side by side, with the sketch based on their own description not as visually attractive as the other.
The brilliantly successful “Real Beauty” campaign by Dove started in 2004 included a well-publicized billboard campaign of images shot by Annie Leibovitz of older women, larger women, darker-skinned women and claims of no air-brushing to highlight full-bodied, natural beauty and improve women's self-esteem. This campaign was followed-up by the Evolution series which included videos about daughters. (Onslaught, showing the relentless array of unnatural body images coming at young girls, is my favorite.)
When I showed my class the Real Beauty Sketches about half of them admitted that they cried (as I had) when we watch a young woman weeping as she recognizes how self-critical she is of her own image. The class analyzed the cinematic choices it took to get us to cry—camera dissolves, well-timed music, authentic, documentary reactions/performances. Immediately after looking at the Dove commercial, we then watched the Youtube video, “Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches—Men” created by the LA comedy group New Feelings Time. This hilarious parody starts by imitating music, camera moves, gestures—the aesthetics of authenticity—and goes on to include dialogue by a group of men who are asked to describe their appearance to a sketch artist: “My Mom said I have the most beautiful teeth… My eyes are an abyss. They just don’t end… My best feature? My bulge.” Then women come in and describe the men as “dirty” or “smelly.” The joke is obvious. Men think they look pretty good. Women aren’t as sure.
I (almost) completely agree with Erin Keane’s Salon article, “Stop posting that Dove ad: Real Beauty campaign is not feminist.” Yes, Dove is using effective emotional techniques to sell products that may not be good for your health or self-image. But when I have a 17 year-old daughter who cries about her “body image,” unfortunately, this simplistic emotional appeal can sometimes help start useful conversations.
As my class has discovered, comedy is the other side of melodrama. What seems interesting in both the ad and its parody is, as David Brooks points out in his NYTimes column this week, that women are more critical than men—both about themselves and otherwise. Maybe, Brooks suggests, feminine self-criticism is a good thing and something that our chest-banging, overly confident American persona could use more of—some self-doubt.
As I encourage my daughter—all kinds of feelings are appropriate for young women to express in order to recognize how culture has manipulated their self-perceptions for financial gain. Get mad! Yell at the Victoria’s Secret commercials on the TV. Throw things at the screen. Cry a little.
But try to laugh a lot. It’s the best revenge…
(Thanks to my fun Film Genre class for helping me with ideas for this column.)