Celebrating Beauty…the POND’S way

“At POND’S we believe the world would be a better place if we stopped idealizing beauty…and started celebrating it instead.”

What does it mean to be beautiful? While definitions on paper would explain beauty to be something aesthetically appealing, society often holds the definition of beautiful to other standards. More specifically, the media portrays beauty as white, skinny, and flawless. Thankfully, more awareness has been recently raised with regards to the way we should view what is beautiful. The new realization is that beauty falls on a continuum that expresses our human diversity. The company PONDS, which produces face cream products has the above quote as their website motto. Although at face value this quote seems to support the beauty in diversity, the messages of their ads convey messages quite opposite to this. In fact, the moral of their ads reinforce negatively focused ideologies of beauty instead of “celebrating” it.

One ad in particular is a commercial for POND’S lightening cream. To begin, the product itself goes against the concept of celebrating beauty. The fact that the company produces a face cream whose purpose is to lighten skin explicitly implies that there is an issue with the colour of your skin the way it is naturally. Furthermore, this reinforces the ideal that white is the ultimate form of beauty, supporting the idea of whites being superior. The commercial begins in an airport with a couple saying goodbye as the male leaves to embark on a new journey. As the male leaves, he rips half of a heart necklace, symbolizing him breaking the heart of the female character. The scene zooms out, showing the woman stranded and alone in a crowd of people, feeling heartbroken and lost as a result of her loves departure. The commercial then flashes three years into the future where the female character sees the male character on a magazine cover in the arms of a new lover. In the next scene, the female character is shown walking past the male and his new lover. The male recognizes the female as his old lover and takes off his sunglasses to take a second look at her. However, his current lover soon draws him back. This ad is problematic as it reinforces convoluted ideologies involving gender, whiteness, and class.

The gender messages conveyed from this commercial portray women to be powerless and dependent on their male counterpart. The opening break up scene is shown to have little to no effect on the male. The female, however, is detrimentally impacted and is shown to appear lost and heartbroken in the crowd of people. This shows women to be dependent and in constant need of a male to provide a source of strength. In addition, when she sees the picture of him on the cover three years later, she is shown to still be pinning over him. While the male has been shown to be strong and independent, the female character has only been viewed as weak and dependent. It also appears that the only focus this woman has is the male. In contrast, he moves on and continues his life, being successful in other things. Another factor to consider is the music chosen. The music is another way to reflect the woman’s mood and convey a somber tone.

Whiteness is the key message of this commercial. The conceptualization that white is the ultimate form of beauty and anything other than this is not good enough can be seen many different ways in the advertisement of this product. The white male is linked to power and success. He is seen getting out of an expensive car, with an expensive suit and sunglasses on. He also has an equally white and beautiful woman on his arm. All of these things equate to power the male has in contrast to his prior female lover who is seen as powerless. Although his second glance of recognition towards his old lover does depict some longing, it is clear that something is missing, as his attention is quickly redirected back to his current love. Another interesting factor contributing to whiteness is the wardrobe choices in this commercial. The main female character’s darker skin is emphasized by the white dress with light pink sweater they dress her in, which also cleverly links her to the product colours. In contrast, the new white lover is dressed in a stunning black dress, which accents her skin, making it appear a purer ivory colour.

Lastly, instances of class can be seen in this advertisement. This is intersectionally linked with the gender roles previously discussed. The male character is shown to have moved up the socio-economic ladder, now associated with only expensive things. This indirectly infers that while he was with the other girl, she was what was holding him back. Now he is successful and rich with a new white lover by his side. However, by also applying gender to this concept it is noticeable that the male defines the female’s status. Even with his new lover, although she appears to be of the same economic background, she is still depicted as an addition to the male character, hanging off of his arm as an attachment rather than an independent. Overall, the portrayal is that there is a gender distinction within classes.

The commercial ends with the two females walking past each other. This once again contrasts their skin colour, reinforcing the different lives they live as a result. The caption on this final scene is “to be continued…” which gives the opportunity for more commercials to be made following the same story line. This line alongside the image of the two women walking past each other is symbolic of the constant war between diversity and the flawless white individual. It implies that this will constantly be a struggle faced by women and further sells the product by making it something to help any non-white woman become partially equivalent to the white woman in society.



Light Is Right? — Beauty At Face Value


Pond’s White Beauty Skin Lotion was advertised as a five-part commercial “mini-series” a few years ago in India.  Episode one of the mini-series featured Bollywood stars Saif Ali Khan (the male lead), Priyanka Chopra (the female lead) and Neha Dhupia.  The commercial sets up a storyline where Khan leaves a darker, or “dusky-skinned” woman (Chopra) for a more fair-skinned woman (portrayed by Dhupia).  It is implied that Khan has chosen Dhupia over Chopra due to Dhupia’s lighter complexion.  Chopra, who still loves Khan, then decides to use Pond’s White Beauty lotion in order to lighten her skin tone, and thus, win back the love of her life and live happily ever after.

Although this commercial is arguably laughable and ridiculous, it does raise a handful of problematic issues.  Most conspicuously, Pond’s White Beauty advertisement promotes the notion that by bleaching, lightening, or altering your skin complexion, it will ultimately grant you happiness, success, beauty, and the love and attention from the man of your dreams.  Viewers can extract this concept that is being portrayed in the commercial from the substantial contrasts shown between the two female characters’ lives.  The “dusky-skinned” character is depicted to be unsatisfied with her life, lonely, unhappy, yearning for Khan’s love, and holds a mediocre job as a flower-shop keeper.  On the other hand, the fair-skinned character is shown to be a successful and happy celebrity, who is engaged to marry Khan.  All the while, the main difference between these two female characters (both being cis-gendered, able-bodied, slim, and attractive individuals) is their complexion.  This enforces the idea that your skin color holds great importance in your life if you want to succeed and be happy.   

Moreover, the fact that the two women are “fighting” for the adoration of a man in order to be satisfied with their lives is problematic on its own.  This essentially imprints a notion where you need the attention and love from another being in order for you to be content.  As well, the ad enforces the idea that for you to be loved by another person you need to change your appearance to that person’s particular liking, otherwise you will be pushed aside and forgotten.  All of these concepts being enforced within the ad create an adverse and distorted mindset for its viewers, which ultimately lead to many repercussions (i.e., viewers—especially those who are young and impressionable— being lead to believe they need to change their physical traits to specific “standards”, etc.)

While Pond’s is part of a multinational company, Unilever, this particular White Beauty campaign and commercial series was only broadcasted in India.  The reason behind this action is most likely a marketing tactic employed by Unilever with the intentions of taking advantage of India’s obsession with fair skin.

India’s obsession with light complexion is not a new fad; rather, it is something that holds historical and cultural roots, which can be traced back to the caste system.  In India, the caste system is a system of social stratification, where people were classified into different groups and classes based on socio-economic factors.  Essentially, individuals classified as a “low class” citizen often had a darker complexion (partially due to working in outdoor environments) than compared to the complexions of “high class” citizens.  The inherent implication is that if you had fair skin, you are in some way superior to those around you.

Moreover, as arranged marriages have been a common phenomena in India’s culture, citizens are also bombarded by matrimonial ads with sayings like, “…seeking for beautiful, tall, fair girl…”  With media and culture enforcing this ideology of the significance of a fair skin, it is inevitable for a large proportion of the population to equate fair complexion with success, beauty, happiness, and prime social status.

However, this obsession for a certain complexion is not segregated to just India.  For example, in North America, it has become quite popular for people to intentionally darken their skin (i.e., tanning, tanning salons, spray tans, etc.).  This may be explained by the social impression that people who are tanned are probably financially well off, thus, enabling them to go on exotic vacations across the globe.

In regards to White Beauty’s objective, the target audience for this advertisement is evidently the citizens of India, which is predominately populated by individuals of Indian nationality.  While the commercial does use Indian stars, the actresses are best described as a stereotypical white beauty—tall, slim, smooth and silky hair, etc.—which enforces the concept of Eurocentric beauty.  This is problematic as it sets up a specific physique that defines what beauty is.  Moreover, this physique is something that many women, let alone Indian women, can attain (i.e., tall, slim, silky and smooth hair, wide eyes, etc.). 

Mass marketing of such images and ideologies results in a pretense that satisfying the social construct of white beauty will enable women to feel empowered and socially accepted.  However, advertising such message is not met without the consequences that fair skin does not equate to success and beauty.  Instead of encouraging women to accept their body in its natural state, the white beauty campaign manipulates women to accept that complexion lightening beauty products will correct the perception of beauty.  This is something we should not be promoting. 

Ultimately, large corporations like Unilever have tapped into the understanding of the sensitivity of the female psyche. With this understanding brings Unilever the power of influencing a group of malleable, and perhaps vulnerable, women to buy into a socially constructed problem and to increase the corporation’s revenues and market exposure. The combination of manipulation in advertising and the socially accepted perception of beauty have resulted in cyclical challenges for women to accept themselves at face value. Through recognizing that physical enhancements and embellishments will only eradicate the symptoms of perceived beauty, women must be cognitive that the underlying messages of advertisements taps into their insecurities so that corporations can profit while providing a superficial solution. 


Ad Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcTMZhoLpRI

Anarchy or Peace

When watching Axe’s Peace fragrance Super Bowl advertisement one must ask what racialized and gendered messages it conveys. It makes reference to different eras of world conflict and that this fragrance has led to their resolution through romance. It attempts to glorify conflict by developing a message that even in the middle of conflict a small spark of love can rectify what is going on. The Axe Peace ad campaign plays on the stereotypes of certain areas of the world and although it may not make direct reference, there are uncanny resemblances between the scenes and real world events.

Axe Peace Advertisement

                The different settings of the Axe Peace advertisement resemble 4 separate times of major conflict in the world. Examples are: the war ravaged streets of a European city, what looks like Kim Il Sung Square in North Korea, rice fields of Vietnam and the palace of an Iranian prince. These resemblances are not by coincidence. The makers of the commercial placed these in for a reason in an attempt to implement diversity, but it was at the expense of reinforcing racial stereotypes. First of all the scene depicting World War Two contains two white, presumably German/Russian people, both Caucasian and one being of what Hitler described as his Aryan Race(blonde hair/blue eyes). The male exits a tank and the woman runs and embraces him. The setting assumedly North Korea, bears witness to a scene that is under a communist regime from the perspective of the leader, there is a lack of emotion being portrayed except a mild hand-hold at the end of the scene. Leading to the image that communist North Korea lacks emotion. The scene similar to the Vietnam War combines what looks like an American G.I. and a Vietnamese rice farmer, from a poor environment deep in the forest giving the image of the humble rice farmer. The man exits a helicopter loaded for battle and the man and woman embrace passionately. Lastly there is a scene believed to be some form of Arabic royalty, containing what appears to be an entourage of advisors and servants all characters are dressed in long robes and adorned with a lot of jewelry. The Arabian royal figure is holding what seems to be a bomb detonator. Thus enhancing the stigma of islamaphobia and how many perceive people of the Arabic culture as terrorists who blow things up. All of these scenes are enhancing stereotypes through racial messages of how contemporary society views these events.


Kim Il Sung Square, North Korea


Scene from commercial

                All 4 scenes contain what are recognized as potential stressful situations. But as the advertisement progresses it is evident that all characters are in love and romanticized events occur. The Europeans embrace on the tank when the male emerges, the North Korean leader appears to be proposing to his wife, the Man jumps out of the helicopter to kiss the Vietnamese woman and the Arabic leader sets off fireworks with the detonator. These events seem to be romanticizing war and touching on male fantasies of what they believe war would be like.

                If one looks at the gender roles of all the characters, the male is the dominant figure with the power, influence and weapons while the female seems to be submissive and in the background until they are wooed by their male counterpart. The Vietnamese and European women are both civilians caught up in a war. The Korean and Arabic women are the partners of a leader of some sort. Thus establishing the gendered roles of dominates male and the subordinate role of the female. The commercial is objectifying women as trophies for men to win with their romantic acts.


Axe is infamous for their unorthodox commercials that sexualize cologne. They market through expressing fantasies of the average male. Their target market being men ranging from 18-mid 30’s. In previous commercials Axe sexualizes cologne in the sense that if one were to use it that man would be irresistible to women. Axe Peace gives the image that chivalry works just as much as sexuality and that the man wearing axe peace will have a romantic experience of royalty.

                The advertisement for Axe peace exemplifies what should not be included in commercials. The racialized and gendered messages being conveyed are enhancing unhealthy stereotypes. It is prying scenes from past times of extreme global conflict and promoting the cologne with western ideas of how these events occurred.


Barbie and Ken: Beauty Norms

In 2008, Ponds, a brand that sells beauty and health care products started advertising its new product ‘Pond’s White Beauty.’ The ad explains that by using the moisturizing product, ones skin colour will gradually become whiter. The ad promotes this new product through an ingredient named lycopene. Lycopene is “a powerful antioxidant commonly found in red fruits and vegetables that gives your skin a rosy white glow” (Pond’s 2013).ponds

Like most beauty products commercials, the male gaze is used. The male gaze reflects the way that male power is brought to bear on women through the disciplining of the female body. Essentially, men look and women are looked at – and so it behooves women to be what men want to look at, since that gives them some modicum of power in a male-dominated world.


However, this ad demonstrates that gender does not dictate the only form of gaze, but race as well.

First the ad begins with an Indian man breaking up with his Indian girlfriend. The woman is heartbroken.


It then skips to three years later where the woman discovers her ex-boyfriend is now engaged to another woman. Again, the woman looks heartbroken. Then, the man and his fiancé appear while the woman is walking pass them.


The man notices his ex-girlfriend and they both turn around and make eye contact. However, that is short lived and the man continues to walk away with his fiancé.



Then the ad starts to promote the product. It says, “For the first time, with lycopene, new ponds white beauty gives you a radiant pinkish white glow – pale white or pinkish white. You choose” (Pond’s 2008). After this it shows the women walking passed each other and highlights the difference in skin tones. The fiancé has visibly whiter skin than the ex-girlfriend. As a result this ad is portraying the idea that darker skin tone is less appealing than white. Essentially, “if your epidermis isn’t white enough, the man of your dreams will never love you” (Hill 2009).


Mire illustrates, “in 2009, the high-end skin whitening market share for Pacific Asia was estimated to be worth US$18 billion” (2012: 273), with India being “one of the world’s largest skin-lightening markets, with an estimated 60-65% of women using some form of skin-lightening product” (Franklin 2013: 9).


This is one episode out of five. Basically, as she becomes whiter, her ex-boyfriend decides he loves her again. Skin whitening products have become extremely popular globally. This idea of white skin being superior to dark skin dates back to colonization. Adae-Amoakoh states, “after centuries of imperial rule, Caucasian features and white skin have been established as the hallmarks of beauty and status” (2012). Franklin believes “supporting women in altering their natural phenotypes to conform to a Eurocentric beauty standard only validates the racism and colorism behind the beauty standard itself” (2013: 23).This desire for women to be whiter demonstrates white privilege. Individuals who are white receive more institutional benefits than those of colour. Hence, “in India, lighter skin reflects a position in the presitgous upper caste, while darker skin means you’re part of the poor or lower caste” (Abdullah).


As a result, fair complexion is considered an important beauty standard. PEARLEX during 1942 inforomed its Indian consumers:

Beauty’s first requisite since time immemorial has been a fair complexion. Formerly it was nature which decided on face-appeal of different people but now fortunately science steps in and a pearly-white skin may be easily attained by any-one who uses PEARLEX (Franklin 2013: 23).


Foucault’s idea of biopower can also help understand why woman chose to engage in these skin-whitening practices. Foucault analyzes power and disciplinary practices. He suggests, the diffuse nature of power makes it difficult to resist, and instead disciplinary practices get internalized in the form of self-surveillance. Corporations like Ponds are using cultural themes to create a resemblance between the products and their dark-skinned female consumers. Ponds ad for white beauty focuses on the fear of not being loved. This fear is real within Indian women. In India, “a woman without a husband is ‘nothing, since a woman’s social identity comes from having a husband” (Franklin 2013: 33). Thus, women engage in these beauty practices such as skin whitening.


Note how the man is judging the woman’s skin colour in the ad; however, the man’s skin colour is not judged at all. Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn explains,

women’s worth is judged heavily on the basis of appearance. For example, men who have wealth, education and other forms of human capital are considered “good catches,” while women who are physically attractive may be considered desirable despite the lack of other capital (Franklin 2013: 19)

In this case, one’s male privilege is more important than their race. However, men still do engage in skin whitening practices.


In addition to racism, many skin-whitening products have many health concerns. The appeal of being white unfortunately outweighs the health risks. Women and men, knowing the health risks, still engage in these practices.

It would be the hope that by the 21st century, the idea of white being desirable and colour being undesirable would have faded. However, this is not the case. Women and men are willing to put their health at risk in order to look whiter. It is disheartening that this still occurs, and that the world is still not accepting of differences.



Abdullah, Teah. “Skin Lightening, Racial Identity & Beauty Standards: Stop the Madness1” Retrieved March 28, 2014 (http://feminspire.com/skin-lightening-racial-identity-and-societal-beauty-standards-stop-the-madness/).

Adae-Amoakoh. 2012. “Skin Whitening is a Self-Denying Legacy of Colonialism.” Retrieved March 28, 2014 (http://thinkafricapress.com/culture/skin-whitening-light-and-fair).

Franklin, Imani. 2013. “Living in a Barbie World: Skin Bleaching and the Preference for Fair Skin in India, Nigeria, and Thailand.” Senior Honors Thesis, Stanford University. 

Hill, Mark. 2009. “8 Racist Ads You Won’t Believe Are From The Last Few Years.” Retrieved March 28, 2014http://www.cracked.com/article/182_8-racist-ads-you-wont-believe-are-from-last-few-years/).

Mire, Amina. 2012. “The Scientification of Skin Whitening and the Entrepreneurial University-Linked Corporate Scientific Officer.” Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 12(3): 272-291.

Pond’s. 2013. “Pinkish White Glow Lightening Facial Foam: Cleansing.” Retrieved March 28, 2014 (http://www.ponds.com.ph/Products/Detail/White-Beauty-Pinkish-White-Glow-Lightening-Facial-Foam-40.aspx).

Call for Arms

Who knew that a spray-on deodorant would be able to bring love and peace to international war regions? It can easily be said that from the very first scene, the Axe Peace Super Bowl commercial feels like nothing the brand has previously produced or even promoted. Personally, I found the commercial’s gendered and racialized protrusions concerning the topic of war and peace to be concerning and alarming.

In this particular commercial, there is a toned-down piano track that bolsters the aspects of war and oppressive regimes. Furthermore, there is evidence of allusions to North Korea, the Middle East, World War II, and the Vietnam War. The commercial presents forth a character resembling Kim Jong-un (supreme leader of North Korea) overlooking a crowd in what seems to be Tiananmen Square, an Iranian man having what is assumed to a bomb handcuffed to his wrist, a young soldier gripping his machine gun, and a tank patrolling a destroyed city. Everything seems extremely depressing and isolated, up until a wife or girlfriend romantically approaches each of the men.

The Axe Peace advertisement attempts to make the product attractive to the macho man by referring to war, which is considered which is linked to masculinity (Hutchings 2007). It attempts to build a masculine consumer base by offering an elusive twist to masculinity by showing that men would choose love.


I find that the advertisement is irrefutably racist in its representation of individuals living within these war regions. This is evident as the commercial portrays a threatening and dangerous image of individuals living within the Middle East and Asia. With the advertisements undisputable endeavor to display the briefcase as a nuclear detonator in the hands of a Middle Easterner, or a North Korean society prepared for war, it demonstrates ignorance and typically, less respect for the individuals living their daily lives within these portrayed regions.

Furthermore, the Axe Peace commercial is highly inappropriate in regards to stereotypes. For example, there is a scene in the advertisement where a beautifully dressed Vietnamese woman can be depicted during the Vietnam War. She watches defenselessly as an armed American soldier descends from a helicopter, strolls towards her, embraces and kisses her. This plays into the stereotype of a submissive, powerless, and beautiful Asian woman. Additionally, it also plays into the American dogma that women are gratifying towards the men who are contemplated to be the hero that risked his life for her or for a country. However, such portrayals neglect to address the number of rape of Vietnamese women by American soldiers that once happened.

Moreover, additional stereotypical references made during the advertisement would be the North Korean man and the Iranian man being depicted as threatening. The North Korean man, illustrated as Kim Jong-un, is seen at the scene signifying the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Iranian man is seen with a suspicious briefcase. These individuals and these scenes may possibly refer to the terrors that preceding leaders of these respective ethnicities have committed.


Representation of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un.


Representation of former Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Not only is the advertisement denoted to be racist, but it is also highly gendered in its portrayal. In the scenes presented throughout this advertisement, there is evidence of gendered roles. The heterosexual men epitomized are enlisted into positions of power, allowing them to commence or stop war when they please. They hold authoritative positions of the aggressor, soldiers, hero, tyrants, President, or Dictator. The male gender stereotype presented throughout the Axe commercial seems to present the sense that a man’s role in society is not one of a submissive role. However, on the contrary, the females within this commercial evidently fit the part of a submissive individual in need of protection and rescue.

Gender roles for females within this commercial emphasize aggressive and repressive stereotypes that position a female into a powerless and voiceless role. Indeed this commercial shows hierarchy of the genders as the males are in position of power and authority. However, there seems to be a hierarchy arrangement within the female gender. For example, the only voice that seems to be heard throughout the entire advertisement is from a white female, who grimacingly utters the name of her tank-driving male lover, “Mikhail.” Quite the reverse, the women of another race (i.e. Middle Eastern or Asian) seem to be seen as the silent companion.

Understandably, armed forces are an important source of the rules that define proper behaviour for women and men as heterosexual (Aulette and Witner 384). Furthermore, Aulette and Wittner 2012 also state that women are recognized as instrumental in preventing and stopping armed conflict and in building peace (386). Thus, in terms of the constructed gender role of females within this Axe commercial, it becomes evident that the females are depicted as objects of male affection. However, in my opinion, the Axe brand seems to portray that with a spray of the deodorant, the male can control any woman’s emotions of love and affection. Thus, I would typically state that the advertisements that Axe produces, as a whole, tend to illustrate women to be head-over-heels for the male’s affection.


Aulette R. Judy and Judith Wittner. 2012. Gender Worlds. 2nd ed. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Hutchings, Kimberly. 2007. Making Sense of Masculinity and War. Sage Journals, Men and Masculinities 10: 389-404.

ad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63b4O_2HCYM

A Divine Affair

The Screening Room, hidden along Princess Street of downtown Kingston, opened its doors on February 6th to celebrate one of the LGBTQ/alternative/drag communities’ most beloved and controversial icons in a documentary titled I Am Divine. I did not know what to expect of The Reelout Queer Film Festival as it was the first I had heard of Divine, let alone any drag performer but I was intrigued to understand what drag was about, why people did it and why so many loved it. When I entered the theatre I was surprised to find a full house of almost ninety moviegoers. When I left the theatre, I could see why even after death, Divine’s fans worked to his keep spirit alive. Dedication proved to be a reoccurring theme; Divine’s dedication to succeeding in his craft at any cost and the dedication reciprocated to him by his fans.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz fashioned this biographical story in chronological order through personal anecdotes recounted by friends, family and colleagues of the star. We watch him grow from a feminine young Harris Glenn Milstead playing dress-up to the fat, bullied high school boy still struggling to fit in. We see his career take off through sleazy parodies under the direction of his life-long friend, John Waters and his evolution into the larger-than-life persona, Divine – the self-proclaimed “filthiest human alive.” Each interview clip emanates a relaxed, comfortable tone, as the speakers openly share secrets to make the audience laugh out loud, cringe or both. The setting and background elements of cinematography play a secondary role to the images painted through storytelling. Anytime camera effects are added, they are made to match the grainy 80’s feel of the footage from Divine’s first films like Mundo Trasho and Pink Flamingos. It is clear the film was made as an intimate tribute to reflect how Divine would have wanted his life story to appear; professional, entertaining, shocking, and triumphant. His life, from the fallout with his family to their heartwarming reunion, embodies the ultimate queer performer’s version of an “It Gets Better” story.

Being an audience member felt as though I was amongst Divine’s close friends as they all laughed in unison at inside jokes while I had missed the punch line. It was then that I realized the intense sense of community his fandom had created. What’s more impressive is the reach of this fandom; his performing career which extended to audiences in across America and Europe literally served as a worldwide beacon of possibility to misfits everywhere. People were captivated by Divine even if they hated him because was he was absolutely engrossed in all he did. When he said he was the most beautiful woman alive, he believed it and whether you believed it or not, he did his job by getting a reaction out of you.

The tactics that led Divine to fame such as the infamous “eating dog feces stunt” in Pink Flamingos were so unconventional it is not surprising that many were critical of him. He challenged standards of beauty at the time and took “the age of excess” as it was known to new extremes, reclaiming the word beautiful to fit himself. He defied odds by proving a fat, gay [white] man could be a successful leading lady.

Image Image

Ruminate on that. It’s hard not to see these two pictures and be left in awe. Divine’s ability to defy limitations inspired hope that really anything is possible. It is often forgotten that drag roles, similar to characters in movies are works of fiction and do not reflect the actor when the camera is not rolling. Many interviewed clips are included addressing the reoccurring question of whether Divine’s character on screen matched his personality off screen. One of the key points I learned about drag from this documentary is that one’s drag persona can and often will assume a name, gender, sexuality, voice and personality as a whole completely distinct from their day-to-day self. It was emphasized in the film while Divine was womanly, Glenn himself had never identified as one. I noticed the complications of gender categorizing throughout the film as some would refer to Divine as “him” and others as “her.” The blurred lines between transgender people, transvestites, cross-dressers and drag performers are a source for countless false assumptions about gender identity, sexuality and behaviour that each distinct communities must deal with. In a world of strictly enforced gender binaries, members of these communities can find themselves under extra pressure to defend and define their personal identity or else continue to be misrepresented.

As inspiring as his story was, the devil’s advocate in me must ask was Divine really the serious actor he claimed to be or were his movies only good for their outrageous publicity stunts? The film works to show how Divine grew over the years and how what he wanted for his career changed over time. By his peak, he did have the maturity to put down the glittered makeup and take on more mainstream roles such as that in the original 1988 Hairspray. Yes, I too was amazed to learn that John Travolta’s role in the 2007 Hairspray remake was inspired by Divine himself.


John Travolta as Edna Turnblad.


Divine as Edna Turnblad.

But is that just heteronormative me being uncomfortable with his extremely vulgar, out-there ways and labelling it immaturity? Am I wrong for congratulating him on eventually landing ”normal” male and female lead roles? It’s hard to say. In one way, it is not wrong because that was in fact Divine’s dream all along; to be taken seriously and show his versatility as an actor. Divine convinced people to overlook his gender and was privileged by his white skin to be able to fit the mainstream niche. Had he been of colour during that time period, his independent films may have received attention but opportunities in the mainstream movie world would have been extremely limited, even for cis-gendered people of colour. In another light however, Divine was a role model to many and his progression away from underground culture could be interpreted as encouraging to his followers that only mainstream success is real success. The bittersweet end is that no one will know where Divine’s life and career would have gone but he is now and forever remembered as a symbol for anyone who has felt like an outsider.

For Harris Glenn Milstead, being Divine was his creative outlet, trademark and his vessel to follow his dreams. For his fans, Divine was a wonder to watch, a raw interactive entertainer and a reminder that they could be whoever they wanted to be and they would not be alone. And for anyone who loves a story about an underdog, this is one that must be congratulated.

“The things that make me different are the things that make me.”
― A.A. Milne


I Am Divine. Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz. Perf. Harris Glenn Milstead, John Waters, Mink Stole. Automat Pictures, 2013. Film.

John Apple Jack – Sexually Progressive and Racially Ignorant

John Apple Jack (2013) directed by Monkia Mitchell is a type of romantic comedy that features two gay men. Boy meets boy, boy forgets about boy, boy pines for boy. Fast forward twenty years later when boy finally sees what’s been in front of him this entire time but now the other boy needs major convincing. This is the simple formula for the cliché romantic comedies; however, this time it involves a homosexual relationship. John (Chris McNally) is a wealthy, promiscuous, white man who runs his family restaurant. He has lived an extremely extravagant life with top of the line foods, drinks, cars, and men. However, after hearing of his sister’s engagement to his childhood crush, Jack (Kent S. Leung), John decides to confess to his family that he is attracted to men, although they were already aware. John hopes that Jack will see this confession as an act of commitment to him. His father shortly after hearing the news cuts John off from family money and leaves him with no place to stay.


Jack is a cook at John’s restaurant and is ready to create his own restaurant and family. Growing up he had always hoped that John would acknowledge him, fall in love and live happily ever after; however, after many years of being ignored, tension heated between the two. During one of their arguments, Jack throws an apple at John’s head to quiet him. Nevertheless, when John becomes homeless, it does not take him very long to find his way to Jack’s place. They spend the night together and realize that they are soul mates. This did not last very long, and Jack realized that John was not a 100 percent committed and he decided to marry his sister after all. John refused to let this happen and interrupted the wedding by throwing an apple at Jack’s head. Jack and John end up together and open their own restaurant entitled ‘John Apple Jack’.


For obvious reasons, the movie does an excellent job of portraying a relationship between two men. However, like most movies it also has its downfalls. When John admitted to being attracted to men, most of his family did not even flinch. It was a nonissue. As well, Jack’s mother considered it a nonissue and just wanted her son to be happy. Although this does happen for many people and is the hope for the future, it does not demonstrate the hardships that many gay men/women go through. Gay oppression still exists and John Apple Jack tends to ignore this.


The demonstration of Jack’s family was also extremely progressive. Many films produce the stereotypical Asian family by creating a patriarchal structure where the father makes all the decisions while the mother remains silent. There is typically a one-way communication where the adults speak to the children, and the children do not speak back. In addition, shame and guilt are used to control and train children. They emphasize loyalty and honour to the family and avoidance of shame and embarrassment to the family. The mothers typically use less nurturance and more verbal and physical punishment than White mothers who meet emotional needs of children. However, in John Apple Jack, this is not displayed. Jack does not have a father figure in his life because he was actually a product of in vitro (a progressive reproductive technology). The mother shows caring attributes throughout the entire movie and makes it known to her son that homosexuality is not shameful or embarrassing to her and should not be to him. It is actually John’s White mother who has an issue with his sexuality, but in the end accepts it.

Before John commits to Jack he has a variety of sexual encounters with other men. John hires a stereotypical Asian ESL boy toy. Although this role created many comical moments, it is offensive. This role is viewed as feminine, passive and submissive towards John (a White male). Therefore highlighting racial power dynamics. It mimics the colonized and colonizer relationship. Although Asian men are typically depicted as asexual within Western film, when they are viewed as sexual, they are “presented as wanting to be sexually subordinated and violated by a more dominant, stereotypical white male” (Kendall and Funk 2003: 106). As a result, gay Asian men are not seen as physically attractive but more appealing because of their submissiveness. In addition, Jack was also hired by John, which can be viewed as problematic.


In addition, cultural appropriation was a major theme within the film. John gives Jack the idea of Westernized Asian cuisine for his new restaurant. John is using traditional food of a marginalized culture (Asian) because it is viewed as profitable. This is harmful “because it is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression” (Zinelibrary 2011: 5). It “treats all aspects of marginalized cultures (also known as targets of oppression) as free for the taking” (Zinelibrary 2011: 5). This is extremely problematic, and John Apple Jack reinforced this way of thinking.


John Apple Jack was an important movie in acknowledging different kinds of relationships such as between two gay men. However, it demonstrates the problematic factor that the LGBT community tends to ignore race.

Before going to the Reelout festival my understanding of queer films was very minimal. Throughout my four years at Queen’s University I have come to realize that the culture is extremely White, heterosexual, middle to upper class focused. The fact that these festivals still exist and they are not displayed in popular culture depicts homosexuality as different and the minority. It would be amazing to get to a point where these films are not viewed as progressive because it is about a gay relationship but viewed as standard, like heterosexual relationships.


Mitchell, Monika. (Director). (2013). John Apple Jack [Film].

Kendall, Christopher N. and Rus Ervin Funk. 2003. “Gay Male Pornography’s ‘Actors’: When ‘Fantasy’ Isn’t.” In Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress. New York: The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press.

“Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation.” 2011. Zinelibrary. Retrieved February 26, 2014 (http://zinelibrary.info/files/culturalappropriationread.pdf).