Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thoughts on a Word: Exotic


Exotic is there, not here; them, not us; you, never me. Exotic is warm—hell, exotic is spicy. Exotic is Carmen Miranda, Lola Falana, Lieutenant Uhura. Exotic is Cleopatra, or is it Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra? Exotic is dark and mysterious, but the threat is contained. Exotic is Roxi DLite, Mimi LeMeaux, Jett Adore, and of course Miss Indigo Blue. Exotic is not diffeomorphic to the Euclidean space. Exotic is Early American, Sioux Native, and Ancient Sanskrit. Exotic is Salome and veils one through six. Exotic is one letter away from erotic. Exotic is Josephine Baker. Exotic is a rare fruit, but decidedly never a strange one.

Exotic, in its most basic form, means to belong from somewhere else, stemming from the Greek exotikos (“from the outside”). Only 30 or so years after its English coinage in the 1590s, it came to mean not literally foreign, but psychologically so: alien, unusual, unfamiliar. It was mostly applied to plants and objects for a couple hundred years, until the rapidity of trade gave common people the ability to look exotic through adornment. In the early 20th century, all one had to do to be exotic was dress the part, whether it’s a gown of rose-colored silk or an astrakhan cap, or simply wearing one’s hair in an unusual manner. One didn’t organically look exotic; one became exotic, either through affect, clothing—or, perhaps, sensualism. Exotic dancing to mean striptease has been used since the 1940s, presumably evolving from the term’s general use to mean any wild dance performed to an unfamiliar beat. Add in fanciful, “Oriental” costumes, and one has exotic dance: Mata Hari’s performances were labeled exotic dancing more than 20 years before it came into common use. Even as late as 1947, Life was duly defining the term: “Exotic dancer in the nightclub trade means a girl who goes through a few motions while wearing as few clothes as the cops will allow in the city where she is working.” But the magazine was prescient in its use, applying it seven years earlier to dancer Carmen d’Antonio, who was half-Italian, half-East Indian.

That usage of exotic was prescient in another way, for somewhere along the line, exotic went from describing a consciously cultivated look to describing something its bearer could hardly strip away: race. Exotic became code for dark-skinned women of various ethnicities: black women (Naomi Campbell, Beverly Peele, Sade), Latina women (Selena), Asian women (Tina Chow, Joan Chen). It’s no coincidence that this move happened in the 1960s and 1970s: The shift of exotic from describing costume to describing skin color and features runs roughly parallel to women’s shifting roles in America. If the beauty myth rose to make sure that newly liberated women didn’t get too much actual power and were left pecking around for crumbs, the use of exotic morphed to make sure that women of color didn’t tap into their share of the crumbs. Just as quickly as women of color began to rise in public visibility and power, they were quickly repackaged as sexualized versions of the real women who lay beneath; the same year Shirley Chisholm began planning her presidential bid, the world met Pam Grier. Between civil rights and feminism, someone had to find a way to neither deny the existence of women of color nor be permissive in their bid for power: enter exotic. In 1950, a white woman could don a turban to become exotic; it was harmlessly dashing, a way to pad one’s cage with ornate silk instead of cotton for the day. But once that cage opened up, we were left with a perfectly good word that could serve as a cursory nod to women of color—hell, it’s a compliment, right?—while simultaneously keeping the cage’s door wide open for any exotic lasses who might want to enter.

It’s not terribly hard to see why exotic is problematic: In the States, white women are still perceived as neutral; dark-skinned women are the Other. For something to be exotic, by definition it must be the Other. So with exotic—which is usually used in an ostensibly positive sense, to describe a woman with striking beauty—we’re also looking sideways at its target, the message bearing the subtext of “You’re not from around here, are you?” And encoded in not being from around here is, Your beauty will never match our values. As LaShaun Williams at MadameNoire puts it about the “otherness” of being exotic: “Other than what? The set of standards that define true beauty. She is somehow beautiful without being ‘beautiful.’”

Yet while exotic neatly performs its function of divide-and-conquer, it’s also used to express anxiety about race and categorization, particularly when applied to mixed-race women. And boy, has it ever been applied to mixed-race women: Raquel Welch (Bolivian and British), Salma Hayek (Lebanese and Spanish), Sade (Nigerian and British), Kimora Lee (Korean, Japanese, and African American), Jessica Alba (Mexican-Canadian-American) and Kim Kardashian (Armenian-American) have all been called out as looking exotic, as have multitudes of self-identified black women with mixed backgrounds whose skin may be dark but whose features look largely European (Tyra Banks, Halle Berry).

Certainly exotic is better than what so many ethnically ambiguous people hear: “What are you?” (As Kerry Ann King, a dance instructor whose ancestral tree ranges from Sicily to Africa to the Jewish diaspora, put it, “I’ve always wanted to say, ‘A Gemini.’”) And if the 2011 Allure beauty survey is to be believed, mixed-race women are now not just exotic but downright beautiful, with 64% of respondents saying that people of mixed backgrounds represent the epitome of beauty. This report would be encouraging if it weren’t for what’s encoded in the photo shoot that followed the survey results: an anemic rainbow of mixed-race women who, save for skin tones and full lips, represent the “new beauty.” Being exotic was never really about being different; it was about being different in the right way. Be the Other, but not too much so, 'kay? It’s a point emphasized in Hijas Americanas, an exploration of Latina women, beauty, and body image, in which author Rosie Molinary writes of a friend who once told her she would be “so exotic-looking” if she just had a different eye color. “I wasn’t exotic enough to be interesting,” Molinary writes. “Just different enough to not be interesting.” In fact, today’s poster child for exotic, Brazilian model Adriana Lima, hits exactly that note: tawny skin, a cascade of shiny dark hair, and sparkling aquamarine eyes.

It’s the designation of Lima—who fits the beauty imperative in every way—as exotic that makes me wonder what exactly we mean with the word, and a prolific listmaker who goes online by Kawaii has wondered the same thing. I’m uncomfortable with most discussions that parse out any individual women’s looks with a fine-tooth comb, but the discussion at her list of celebrities who are “Classic Looking, NOT Exotic” is intriguing at points: It brings to light that the definition of exotic could easily go beyond the Other to include what is perceived as truly rare—and that by the list-maker’s definition, Adriana Lima shouldn’t really cut it. Being Latina doesn’t make Lima exotic, Kawaii argues; she’s a classic beauty by Euro-American standards, but has been (mis)construed as exotic simply because of her ethnicity. “Your coloring doesn’t make you exotic, it makes your coloring exotic,” writes our curator. She asks why white women with unconventional features aren’t usually considered exotic—Lauren Bacall, Taylor Swift—supplying her own answer (race is still the defining factor of the Other) but still pressing for an objective determination of what makes someone exotic.

And in some ways, of course, that’s impossible: We define exoticness based on our own perspective, and there’s really no other way to do it, because the very definition of exotic relies upon being unusual. But when we use exotic, we’re making assumptions based not only on our own “usual” but on the “usual” of those around us. Most of us understand that we’re all going to read beauty differently from one another, leading us to deploy terms like hot or cute. But with exotic, there’s a shared understanding: If I don’t believe that your baseline of what constitutes the exotic will be the same as mine, using the word makes no sense. To use exotic is to assume dominance. Exotic says as much about the speaker as it does the subject. Actually, it says more.

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11 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful post. My mom, who was born in 1948, always used "exotic" in such a positive tone (we're pure Northern European and both very flamboyant dressers, for what that's worth.) It honestly never occurred to me until very recently (mid 20s) that the word would have negative connotations, although it of course makes perfect sense. I always assumed it was a positive comment on looking different (something I always strove for as a young fashionista!), standing apart from the crowd, and, importantly, really owning your heritage. It also conveyed to me a *story*--as you say, "You're not from around here..." but my childhood mind added, "...so you must be from some place WAY MORE AWESOME!" Thanks for this insightful post, it's made me think about this in a new way.

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    1. Thank you! Not to be too self-referential but you may enjoy my follow-up post, which addresses this question somewhat--like you, I have the luxury of thinking of "exotic" as a compliment, because it's not often used to describe our looks. So when it does happen I think of it in the same way you're speaking of here, but I also intellectually recognize that I'm speaking from a position of privilege. So there's a sort of dissonance there that I'm trying to work through. Glad to have given you some food for thought on it too!

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  2. I'm not sure which I hate being called more; exotic or ethnic. The first doesn't apply to me (I don't look exotic, I just have light brown skin). The latter is annoying enough when it is used to describe food or object, let alone people. Everyone has an ethnicity, why only call "coloured" people ethnic?

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    1. Yep, "ethnic" is troublesome too. It's often used as a catch-all phrase but that's exactly the problem with it--like, "white folks and then the rest." It's still used in fashion copy in magazines, which is annoying.

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  3. Pure Northern European?
    I haven't heard that description outside of Nazi propaganda.

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    1. I'm not sure because I don't know who posted that comment, but I'm pretty sure that she meant the word "pure" in the sense of "solely," not in the sense of "morally clean." I could be wrong, but that's how I read it, though it is an unfortunate choice of words for the reason you mention.

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  4. I am a 1/4 Korean and 3/4 White teenage girl, and that is what everyone calls me in the small Southern town that I live in. As soon as you mentioned the feeling like the Other, I instantly had a word to describe what I felt when people call me that, even though they have the best intentions.

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    1. I imagine it's even more difficult in areas that aren't as diverse. And yes, much of the time it is about positive intention, but that doesn't mean people it's applied to can't feel ambiguously about it. I certainly do!

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  5. I'm a little late to this game, but I absolutely loved this breakdown! I had tried to explain to a friend of mine just recently why I would grind my teeth and snap at him every time he called me 'exotic' and I wasn't very articulate about it! I did point out the 'otherness' idea, but he just couldn't see how that would be bad. You really hit the nail on the head here!

    I'm of Middle Eastern/northern African heritage and people from the region almost always correctly identify my national heritage, being familiar with the differences between people from different countries in the region. My perceived race/ethnicity when I'm anywhere ELSE in the world is totally ambiguous (it also depends on how I wear my hear, incidentally!).

    I've lived on 4 different continents in many countries and my race/ethnicity was perceived differently in all of them. FYI: Brasil was where I felt the most 'normal'. Anyway, I'm going to bookmark this for future reference to send to any friends or acquaintances who wonder why I loathe being called exotic. It's such a back-handed compliment and it's made worse by the fact that people take offense when someone takes offense with it! Like: "Jeez- can't you take a compliment?"

    I get that many straight-haired white women come from a place of having always wanted to be "different" and stand out from the crowd, but it's important for them to understand that they can take off their flamboyant scarf or their colorful, dangly earrings in places or moments when the "exotic look" is considered inappropriate. And they do.

    It's VERY different when your natural hair texture, skin color, shape of your features and other intrinsic, physical qualities are perceived by others as "unprofessional" or "exotic". You have no choice. You can't take off your skin or change your features to be considered "appropriate" in a certain situation.

    To get an idea of how much of an issue this is, just google anything having to do with the workplace and natural hair (referring to folks with curly hair- all levels of the spectrum with women with very kinky hair having it the "hardest" in terms of societal prejudice). How many times have you seen Olivia Pope (Scandal) with her natural curly/kinky hair? ONCE in the whole series when she was in a bathrobe in her apartment and had, presumably, just washed it. I've been encouraged (from someone with the best of intentions) to straighten my extremely curly hair for job interviews and the like as it's considered more 'professional'. And they were right. It IS perceived that way.

    So again, thank you for this breakdown. Much appreciated!

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