The Scarlett Johannsenness of it All

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By Effua Ibojie (she/her)

photography by anest williams (she/her)

CW: Racism, Mental Health

Staring back at her in the mirror were pigtails, a wide nose that was gifted to her by her forefathers, and unassuming, starry brown eyes that were yet to acknowledge how overwhelmingly immense the world is. But that’s not what 8-year-old Effua saw. Instead, she was met with a figure so malformed, so horrifying, fear is struck into the hearts of on-goers whenever she walks the streets. Perhaps in her past life she was a beautiful blonde maiden, who had the misfortune of angering a conniving, wicked witch, condemning her to a lifetime with an unthinkable curse. She could barely bring herself to believe she had… ‘the black’.

I mean, it just seemed unfair. Why didn’t she look like the girls on TV? When she tried to find anyone she could even remotely relate to she was told she had only two options: to become a caricature of an image of blackness idealised by someone far removed from her reality, or, to fade into the shadows of her more palatable white superiors, reducing herself to single line quips; serving solely as an accessory to her counterparts’ storylines. Those unlucky few who existed like her, who had what she had… ‘the black’, were not allowed to be on the billboards and the front cover of the magazines. To drive into the illuminated dark of midnight and create hazy memories. To be crowned prom queen and dance the night away with the boy of her dreams. She was told: to exist like me is to exist as an outsider. An other.

However, this was circa 2009; society has grown and gained perspective since then. We’ve been through the: colouring – in – the – skin – of – Robert – Downey – Jr – because – obviously – there – are – no – actors – of – colour – in – the – entertainment – industry phase. The: okay – fine – we’ll – allow – some – POCs – onto – our – screens – but – they – MUST – pass – the – scientifically – backed – paper – bag – test phase. And my personal favourite: 2020’s, we’ve – been – locked – inside – our – homes – for – months – now – and – this – is – the – fourth – of – my – Instagram – mutuals – who – has – shared – this -change- . – org – petition – asking – for – the – BBC – to – hire – more – black – people – so – now – I – need – to – reshare – it – or – else – I’ll – look- like – a – bigot phase. How is the timid young black girl who used to fall asleep praying she would miraculously wake up in the body of a bootleg Pamela Anderson supposed to navigate growing up in a world constantly, ambiguously policing how much of her natural self is acceptable to showcase? Many would tell you to simply divest from acknowledging these superficial standards. ‘We all know there’s no winning. Everybody knows unattainable beauty standards are manufactured by capitalism to sell inefficacious products to insecure consumers.’ However, in a world where not fitting into the mould of desirability can create consequential impacts on your standards of living – it is clear to members of minority groups that these are simply surface level symptomatic manifestations of a far more deep-rooted problem, one that predates contemporary understandings of what it means to participate in the politics of desirability.

So, my question to you is: how is one supposed to engage with the interlocked snowstorm of consumer capitalism and desirability politics? If you take someone like me for example, a feminine presenting dark-skinned black woman with a seasoned rainbow of diagnostic alphabetical letters used to describe how her brain works (ADHD, OCD, etc) – how am I supposed engage with a world in which I’m socialised as female yet simultaneously told that femininity is not for people like me? Should I completely reject any form of labelling? Or perhaps take the aspects that are accommodating towards me and make it my entire identity? The latter is boldly exemplified in the rise of ‘divine femininity’ videos which seems to have permeated its way onto my YouTube suggested playlist (for those of you who are unaware, a concise definition of this would be ‘black women’s answer to the rise of podcast bros’). Whilst alarmingly problematic, it is easy for me to imagine a younger, less sociological aware Effua falling victim to this new strain of internalised misogyny. Many of these self-proclaimed ‘divine femininity coaches’ take the concept to extreme lengths, telling us that in order to become a ‘true woman’ and ‘tap into their innate feminine energy’ you must unlearn any ‘masculine traits’ you may inhibit (common examples being: act less assertive or do not display domineering body language) and teaching us to alternate our appearance to adhere to archaic gender norms catered towards the male gaze.

Luckily, I managed to bypass falling into this particular breed of insecurity, but instead grew up with the internalised belief that I cannot participate in any ‘girly’ activities due to the fear of looking like I am trying to be something I am not (or rather perceived as not allowed to be). When the closest thing to breaking diversity barriers on our screen is Scarlett Johansson playing a young Asian woman, it’s easy to internalise the belief that existing as a minority means you will never be acceptable to the dominant culture.


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