The following was a paper I wrote for a film class I took about skin diseases and the movies.
The Red Fort in old Delhi is a complete world away from the red hills of Georgia to the inexperienced observer. Yet both places are epicenters in the manufacture of image. Both are where foreign concepts of beauty were imported through colonialism and slavery and came to dominate the concept of beauty for both the South and South Asia. The essay will seek to link how European ideals of beauty, skin, and hair came to dominate both the Indian and African-American mind.
Chris Rock’s 2010 documentary, Good Hair: Sit Back and Relax, explores the black hair care industry from the perspective of a concerned father and a naïve man on the street. As a black man, what should he tell his two daughters about their hair and whether it is good or bad? When and what should they do with their hair when they become old enough to go to the hair salon? Over the next 96 minutes, he visits the Atlanta black hair care convention and learns about the massive beauty industry that has been built around African-American hair. He concludes that everyone benefits from the black hair business but black people themselves.
African-Americans represent only 12% of all Americans but represent 70% of all hair care and salon sales. However, this $9 billion industry benefits white-owned cosmetic firms, enriches Indian temples and Hollywood wholesalers, and deprives black women (and the men that support them) of disposable income that could be spent on education, housing, or food. Chris Rock speaks to actresses who routinely spend $1,000 a month (minimum) on weaves alone. Black men speak painfully about how they have to support black women’s salon and straightening habits to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars per month and dozens of hours lost annually to beauty salons. Chris Rock pointedly refers to this spending to being worse than a crack-cocaine addiction.
Rock’s concern for his children is not as unique as one might think. Sesame Street recently aired a song called “I Love My Hair.” This song features a black muppet singing about how much she loves her naturally curly black hair and why she does not need to go to the salon to get her hair done. The muppet also lists all the different things she can do with her hair that other types of hair cannot do. This song and paean to black hair was actually composed by a Caucasian man who had adopted a black child, and he was concerned about her self-image and what she thought was “good hair.” Media outlets reported that many black women cried when seeing this song and wrote letters to Sesame Street about how they wish they could have seen such a positive image of black hair when growing up.
The concept of “good hair” has deep roots in black history, and Rock omits some very relevant history and politics in his documentary. Few know that the first female self-made millionaire was black. Even fewer know that that Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune from selling black beauty products. It was also common in her time to sell skin-whiteners to African-Americans so that they could better fit into the mainstream concept of good skin tone. It is ironic that in the 21st century, another poor black woman from the South, Oprah Winfrey, has become the richest woman in America because her media empire is supported by cosmetic and beauty advertising.
Political and religious objections to “good hair” were absent in Rock’s documentary. Part of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s emphasized natural black hair and afros to show that the Black Panthers would not submit to the white world’s concept of beauty. But even before the Panthers were the hair styles of Rastafarians in Jamaica in the 1920s. Influenced by Marcus Garvey in New York, they created a religion with a black god who lived on Earth in Ethiopia. They worshiped Emperor Haile Selassie and proclaimed that dreadlocks were the appropriate way to display your faith and non-conformity with the white world and the Babylon of non-believers. Hair, it seems, is a statement of pride, power, and ethnicity.
Bollywood and Beyond
When Chris Rock visits Tirupati to see where weaves bought in America come from, it represents one of the few interactions between African-Americans and Indians on film. Interestingly, Indians and the Indian film industry have their own hang ups about good hair and skin and bring with it its attendant politics.
India’s roots in the skin color debate are ancient. Historians claim (with some controversy) that Aryans, an Indo-European nomadic people, invaded and/or migrated to northern India around 1500 B.C.E. They displaced the native Dravidians into South India. The ones who stayed in the north were bound into the lower rungs of the Hindu caste system. It is well-known that higher caste Brahmins are lighter-skinned while the lowest castes and untouchables remain dark-skinned. Brahmins and other high castes proclaim their Aryan descent.
Another important development in the history of India that associated lighter skin color with power and prestige were the Muslim and then British occupations of India. Starting the 1200s, Muslims of Turkish and Persian descent began incursions into India that resulted in the Delhi Sultanate that ruled India for centuries. These sultans, nawabs, nizams, and emirs emphasized their Middle Eastern descent and married within their ethnicity (as opposed to darker skinned Indian Muslim converts). To this day, they remain a distinct community that does not mix or marry with outsiders. Hyderabadi Muslimus, for example, live within the old city walls of Hyderabad and speak Urdu and not Telegu which the darker-skinned Hindus speak outside. The coming of the British Raj in 1857 continued many of the customs and traditions of the former Mughal Court with local maharajas paying tribute to Queen Victoria instead of the former sultan.
When film-making came to India during the British era, it was only natural that the pre-existing power structure of beauty would come to dominate the Indian film industry. Particularly after Partition, the Bombay film industry (Bollywood) has been dominated by fair-skinned North Indians from Sindh and Punjab. The biggest actors and actresses are always tall and fair-skinned in Hindi movies. Actor Saif Ali Khan, for example, is literally the child of royalty (his father was a Nawab and his mother an actress). Actor Shah Rukh Khan caused considerable consternation when he started promoting a skin lightener for men (Srivastava 2010) despite the fact that such products contain bleach and harm the skin. The “fairness industry” has a considerable market in a nation of 1 billion people. This idealization of European and Middle Eastern concepts of beauty has also made Indian models competitive in international beauty pageants. The superstar actress Aishwarya Rai began her acting career after winning the 1994 Miss World competition, for example.
However, the Indian film industry is not homogenous. Focusing on Bollywood films ignores the regional film industries of India. Each state has a film industry that makes movies in the vernacular language of that state. The biggest regional film industry is the Tamil film industry in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Tamils are Dravidians who have a very separate history from the rest of India with their separate classical period and their own ancient language separate from Northern India’s Vedic period and Sanskrit language. Tamil Nadu also has its own political parties, the DMK and AIDMK, which began from a nationalist movement during the Tamil Renaissance of the late 1800s. The Tamil nationalist movement emphasized the linguistic unity of all Tamils and fought against the imposition of imperialistic “Aryan culture” from the North. The Hindi language and the caste system were viciously attacked as being alien impositions on Tamil society. Anti-brahmin and anti-caste movements led to a polity that rejected the idea of a fair-skinned high caste elite ruling over the majority of lower caste Tamils. Vigorous anti-Hindi protests after Independence led Tamil Nadu to stop the teaching of Hindi as a compulsory subject (reducing the demand for Hindi movies). Many of these protest movements were led by Tamil stage actors and playwrights. The current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, is a playwright and has been in and out of office for decades.
Unsurprisingly, Tamil cinema has different conventions than Bollywood. Actresses are darker in complexion and rounder in the waist than in Hindi films. The current king of Tamil movies is “Superstar Rajnikanth”, the second-richest actor in Asia (Hendrix 2010). He is not attractive, tall, or slim. Rajnikanth is not even Tamil. He is rather average, and that is the magic behind his appeal. Superstar Rajnikanth is a man of the people, a very Indian man who will not compromise his Indian-ness to appeal to outsiders. This former bus conductor shows great style in his films but is utterly relatable to his audience by his ordinariness. Rajnikanth is a hero for a people who respect themselves and their body image.
This essay has shown the popular concept of beauty is intricately wound up in the power structure of the society one lives in and even more directly by those who control the local media. Chris Rock’s journey to South India in the movie Good Hair raises interesting cross-cultural comparisons between South India and the South. But what is Rock’s solution? What is his message? Does he have a consistent idea? I believe he does.
Chris Rock has been criticized for his vulgarities and racist language. He has been pilloried for his offensive stand-up routines by conservative pundits. However, one critic astutely pointed out that a closer reading of his message would find that he is actually rather conservative in his opinions about the needs and solutions for the black community (Swanburg 2005). He once complained that money going into expensive tire rims would be better invested in stocks. Misplaced priorities and wasted money are problems intrinsic to the black community, not imposed from outside.
Good Hair makes more sense in this vein. His favorite topic of frivolous spending by the black community has moved from hip hop accessories to something even more basic: their hair. As one interviewee pointed out in the movie, the black community is wearing its oppression on its head every day of the week it puts on relaxant and weaves. How can a community let outsiders make billions of dollars off of their hair? And if the black community cannot address its own hair, how can it hope address the even bigger issues? Where does it begin the fight when blacks themselves discriminate against African-Americans with natural hair?
It begins at home. The solution begins in self-respect and empowerment and in the ability for people of all ethnicities to love themselves and not what the television tells them to love. Mental colonization is perhaps the most insidious of all colonialisms visited upon people of color. What the Black Panthers and the Tamil nationalist movement taught the world is that it is only with self-awareness and organized campaigns of empowerment and self-respect (like Afro pride, Tamil heritage pride) can a community resolve its inner contradictions and confidently face the world outside. And it is only when a people feel proud of themselves that they will ever see someone like themselves in the movies.
Hendrix, Grady. “SUPERSTAR Rajnikanth: The biggest movie star you’ve probably never heard of.” Slate: September 27, 2010.
Srivastava, Arunima. “Addicted to fairness creams? Not Fair.” Times of India: November 18, 2010.
Swanburg, John. “Chris Rock: the William F-ing Buckley of stand-up.” Slate: February 24, 2005.