There were a couple of ideas highlighted in New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s widely derided profile of Shonda Rhimes. One, as Buzzfeed noted, was that she exposed just how tone-deaf to contemporary TV culture she is. For many, it was shocking just how high-handed, arrogant and, sadly, racist Stanley’s approach to talking about Rhimes was. The second was this idea of “classical beauty.” As in the notion that actress Viola Davis isn’t “classically beautiful”. But what exactly does that mean?
The idea of classic beauty is based on the Ancient Greek stands that prize certain proportions of the eyes, nose, mouth, etc. along with a straight nose and a strong jawline. It’s now enshrined within the Western humanities.
The idea expanded somewhat to include the women painted by Rubens, as well as the enigmatic Mona Lisa. But it was always an idea, based on the Ancient Greeks and Romans, that by definition excluded black people, in general, and black women, in particular.
This idea of classical beauty is an especially pervasive one because it lives in the domain of slow culture. These are elements of culture that change only over the course of a long time, be it years, decades centuries or longer. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken describes the differences between fast and slow culture in his book, Chief Culture Officer: How To Create A Living, Breathing Corporation. He writes:
Think of it this way: Fast culture is like all the boats on the surface of the Pacific. We can spot them, number them, track them. Slow culture is everything beneath the surface: less well charted, much less visible. Slow culture is the lesser know half of the CCO [Chief Culture Officer] competence. But it is equally important.
But these slow culture elements do change. Not so much in wholesale fashion, but because newer ideas, those more aligned with the zeitgeist, come in and supplant them.
Thus, what we’re seeing is less the idea of classically beautify being overturned. Rather, it’s being expanded and recontextualized. So, in Viola Davis’s case–and that of the many women who look like her–the term “classical beauty” might come to mean “having the marks of African beauty”: dark chocolate skin, full lips, round noses, etc.
Ideally, we’ll get to a point where we can appreciate beauty without a qualifier such as “classically,” which carries a set of limited assumptions. Maybe the term will fall out of favor, given the coming demographic shift, in which a majority of the US population will be black or brown.
But it’s going to take time. After all, that’s slow culture for you.