Orientalism still harms, even if it’s not done maliciously.
In a succinct and biting phrase, British-Iraqi freelance writer Ruqaya Izzidien dismisses Fenty Beauty’s recently launched Moroccan spice eyeshadow palette as nothing more than “shades of cheap Arab tokenism.” The palette features eyeshadows with names like “Sahara Stunna,” “Henna Sea,” and “Cumin Get it.” The advertising is no less hackneyed, deploying colored sands and women strutting around with a camel (of course there is a camel) to substantiate that the palette is, indeed, authentically Moroccan. And yet Moroccan creators and models are conspicuously absent from the campaign.
This oversight is to many, easily defensible. Moroccan culture is “spicy” and “exotic,” the kind that would inspire beauty. What’s more, Fenty’s founder, Rihanna, is a Black woman, and Fenty has been an industry leader in providing makeup for people of every color. Surely, one would imagine, they must know what they’re doing when it comes to race and color.
The problem lies in regarding malicious intent as the only iteration of oppression. In the Moroccan Spice campaign, Fenty engages with a seemingly harmless yet disappointingly orientalist vision of Morocco. Even within WoC activist circles, there is a great deal of misperception about orientalism as a tool of oppression and subjugation. A term that refers to the lens through which the colonizing West perceives the the purported “East” as a faraway land of the strange and the exotic, it is often dismissed as nothing more than a fascination with the land of the “other.” Without engaging with the harmful history of orientalism, it is easy to mistake Fenty’s palette as a tribute to Moroccan women rather than an erasure of them.
But there is indeed a sinister history underpinning the celebration of the palette as an epithet for Moroccan spice markets. Since the advent of colonialism, the West has produced a veritable cornucopia of stock images of the East, ranging from evil Arabs to overflowing Bazaars to Harems with naked women lounging about for the pleasure of their male owners. These assert and reinforce the belief that the “orient” is a space removed from reality, primitive and uncivilized. Armed with this dehumanizing notion, the colonizers’ justified their “civilizing” mission (read: rampant exploitation and destruction).Without engaging with the harmful history of orientalism, it is easy to mistake Fenty’s palette as a tribute to Moroccan women rather than an erasure of them. Click To Tweet
Hiding behind clever puns and colorful advertising, Fenty’s palette builds off this agenda by distilling Morocco into a timeless land of deserts, Souks, and spices. With the puns come more visibly negative stereotypes—consider the eyeshadow named “Evil Genie.” Taken together, the names and the advertising produce a theater of Morocco that has no relationship to its reality. This is no simple matter of perception. Persistent orientalist othering of Arabs feeds into the kind of cultural xenophobia that licenses policies like the Muslim Ban and targeted surveillance programs.
Fenty does not appear to have consulted with Moroccan women to produce an accurate representation of the “flavors of Morocco,” but instead built purely from a convenient fantasy etched into the American consumer’s mind. That could have been an easy solution. The camels and Shisha references could have been retired. Yet the brand chose to exploit the same tired tropes that litter notions of the Arab world in the contemporary US. For a brand that purports itself to be inclusive and woke, this is a convenient oversight.
Yet this is an old story, fueled by the twin evils: commodification and ignorance. As diversity and multiculturalism continue to grab eyeballs (as evidenced by those ever-so-subtle university brochures featuring PoCs masking largely white campuses), it has become profitable to cater to women across the spectrum of ethnicity and race. This is not a bad thing. Fenty’s wide shade range and inclusive advertising have a welcome place in an industry plagued by racist narrowcasting. Yet their choices in the Moroccan Spice campaign reveal that the intent was more to profit off the tag of inclusivity than to work towards building it into their brand culture. Fenty’s palette brings an age-old orientalism into the world of late-capitalism by gratuitously commodifying and exoticizing an orient based in spectacle and fantasy to sell their product.Persistent orientalist othering of Arabs feeds into the kind of cultural xenophobia that licenses policies like the Muslim Ban and targeted surveillance programs. Click To Tweet
This commodification is particularly disappointing coming from a brand spearheaded by a contemporary black icon. Rihanna’s involvement in the palette and its marketing goes further in normalizing the narrative of orientalism even within the ranks of women of color. This is no new phenomenon. Different minority groups have a long history of being at odds with each other in the spheres of recognition and activism—just think of the fervor with which some feminist groups refuse allyship with LGBTQ activists or the ease with which oppressed minorities in the US choose to disavow immigrants. Empower American women it does, but Fenty has little concern for the sentiments of the women whose culture it warps and commodifies under the guise of diversity. This might be why there are no models of Moroccan origin in the campaign; as long as minorities within the American narrative are empowered, it simply doesn’t matter what happens to women on the outside.
Andrea Smith, scholar of indigenous studies, puts this apparent contradiction in a framework she introduces in her essay “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy.” Smith suggests that WoC politics in the US are inadequately framed: “[The current framework of WoC activism] tends to presume that our communities have been impacted by white supremacy in the same way. Consequently, we often assume that all of our communities will share similar strategies for liberation. In fact, however, our strategies often run into conflict.” Fenty and its purported inclusivity are a blatant manifestation of this phenomenon. While Rihanna might claim “Fenty Beauty was created for everyone: For women of all shades, personalities, attitudes, cultures, and races,” her inclusivity falls flat when it comes to involving the women whose culture is commodified in the process of creating and marketing a product catering to “all women” within the US.
Perhaps this is a reckoning. Perhaps instead of fighting for inclusion in an industry that has been built on the exclusion of minorities, a systematic dismantling needs to take place. Blanket empowerment needs to be retired to give way to a more nuanced and effective activism, one that recognizes different manifestations of oppression, both within and without the US. The onus is as much on us as it is on the likes of Fenty. Want to experience Moroccan spices? Buy some from a Moroccan producer. Want to learn about beauty in Morocco? Follow Moroccan models and increase their audience. Want to use Moroccan beauty products? Support one of the many Moroccan cosmetic brands that actually involve Moroccan women in their production processes.
Dismantling the old-school orientalism that wafts unchecked through the American beauty industry (be it in K-beauty advertising or Fenty’s release) requires nothing more than a desire to engage with the cultures that “inspire” the products of brands like Fenty. It is not enough to champion brands that perform inclusivity, conflating women of color into one convenient package without recognizing the difference in their contexts and oppressions. We need to move beyond blanket narratives and demand real inclusivity from the beauty world and, indeed, from our own circles of activism. Without this, WoC spheres will remain superficially diverse, yet divided as ever.