Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the Subject of Soap, Poetry, Psychology Today, Blackness and Beauty

Some of you may have heard about—or been enraged bythe recent blog posting by Satoshi Kanazawa that ten or twelve days ago appeared on, then quickly disappeared from, the website of Psychology Today. Kanazawa, a scholar of evolutionary psychology and self-styled "Scientific Fundamentalist" affiliated with the London School of Economics, wrote there that black women are "objectively less physically attractive than other women." What has been called a firestorm of a response to the posting, oftentimes casting Kanazawa as an outlier, fringe thinker, or wingnut, has given P&PC some pause. We're not sure he's a wingnut or outlier. In fact, he may be the most recent mouthpiece for a logic (one might say a psychology) that's been driving corporate rhetoric—and producing corporate poetry—for well over a century now and that's not only visible in the historical record but in current advertisements for Dove soap being published by the hundreds of thousands in recent women's magazines.

Back in the 19th century, there were two products that drove advertising— and advertising innovation—in the U.S.: patent medicines (snake oils) and soaps. Both products relied on, and helped to popularize, a before-and-after logic that contributed to the power and mystification of the commodity item more generally. Losing your hair? Our new snake oil will make it grow back. Feeling dirty? Our soap will make you clean. Feeling depressed? Take some time out for "retail therapy," and the very act of going shopping will make you feel more like yourself again. Ad formats, like the metamorphic trade card featured on P&PC about a year ago, were even designed to teach this before-and-after logic in consumers' hands. Patent medicines and soaps were even more reliant on advertising than other products because, while there were hundreds of different brands (just about anyone could make them cheaply), there was, in actuality, very little difference between the finished products themselves—maybe Nostrum A had 95% alcohol while Nostrum B had 97%—and so artificial distinctions had to be created. Enter advertising, which found any number of ways, realistic or not, to distinguish one product's superiority to another.

One common way of demonstrating the purifying power of soap, believe it or not, was to show its formidable cleaning powers at work not just in making dirty skin shine or diseased skin healthy or soiled laundry clean, but making black or colored skin white. Dreydoppel Soap ("No Finer Made") for example, used a twelve-page pamphlet titled "Light and Shade" (cover pictured at top) to chronicle, in verse, a little minstrel figure's endeavor to lighten his complexion. That poem began:

A mite of queer humanity,
As dark as a cloudy night,
Was displeased with his complexion,
And wished to change from black to white.

He sampled all the medicine
That was ever made or brewed,
And tried to pale his color
By eating little food.

Frustrated in his attempts, he comes upon a billboard reading "Dreydoppel Soap Will Do the Work" and decides to give it a try:

So to the grocery store he hied,
Without a moments rest,
And bought a box of Dreydoppel Soap
And gave it a careful test.

One trial was all he needed;
Realized was his fondest hope;
His face was as white as white could be;
There's nothing like Dreydoppel Soap.

Such ads linked a discourse of moral and bodily purity—Ivory Soap billed itself as "99 and 44/100% pure" during a time when the Cleanliness Movement was gaining steam and popularizing the notion that cleanliness is next to Godliness—to a dream of racial purity as well, simultaneously fueling a fantasy of a white-washed America and casting colored skin as unclean and thus undesirable. This fantasy wasn't limited to blackness either, as soaps were shown washing Indian skin white and reforming the ethnic tempers and skin colors of Middle Easterners. One give-away premium for Larkin Soaps, for example (pictured here), told the tale of three Turks and three "white Caucasian maids":

Three Turks whose skin
Was brown, would win
Three white Caucasian maids;
Each maiden fair,
With courage rare,
Spoke to their kingly blades—
"Alas! Alack!
We turn our back,
Because our skin is white;
What good your crown if you are brown—
They'd laugh at us throughout the town—
They'd sneer and frown, and call us down,
And well they'd have the right."

Threatened with death by the ill-tempered, sword-brandishing Turks, the women ask for a final request—to wash the Turks' faces with Larkin's Sweet Home Soap:

And straight to work
Upon each Turk,
That lately they had snubbed,
Each maid did cope,
And scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed;
Their features bright
Grew milky white,
And light as sunny day—
Instead of mad and being sad,
The Turks and maids were both so glad,
That to this tale we need but add—
They married right away!

It's our contention here at P&PC that while such overt claims slowly disappeared from soap advertising, the racist logic established by those ads—and by the poetry in those ads—has persisted, finding voice in blog posts like Kanazawa's and underwriting soap ads like the one for Dove's "Visible Care" pictured here. Using the conventional before-and-after format, Dove associates dark skin with unclean, untreated, and unbeautiful skin; the woman on the left, superimposed on the close-up of untreated skin, has the darkest skin of the three women pictured, has black hair, has the largest hips of the three, and has an exaggerated black posture which is our age's version of minstrel cartooning. As one proceeds right through the image, the women become whiter and thinner (and their posture less distinctive), demonstrating—before our very eyes!—the very process of magical soap transformation that fueled 19th century soap ads and that culminates in a thin, white, blonde woman who gets associated with good, clean, pure, and thus beautiful skin. As if we miss the fantasy being acted out, Dove fills us in, its caption "Visibly more beautiful skin" being little more than a version of Kanazawa's claim that black women are "objectively less physically attractive than other women."

Poetry is not always on the side of the angel. In the case of 19th- century soap advertising, it not only spelled out and celebrated in a culturally prestigious and entertaining form a racist logic that was prevalent at the time, but it established a mode of racist advertising that Dove is continuing to capitalize on and profit from today. When Kanazawa assaults the beauty of black women, then, he is not just speaking for himself as an outlier or minority opinion on Psychology Today. He is voicing a view that is much more part of the psychological mainstream than many of us want to think and that continues to underwrite what people buy, how they buy, and what they consider clean and beautiful, and that thus helps to fuel a fantasy of what their world should look like—a view that hasn't come all that far from the 19th century, baby.