It’s hard to hate Jessica Simpson. The once-virginal pop princess went from being stage-managed by her dad to having the first few years of her youthful marriage to Nick Lachey televised, a period in which her gaffes catapulted her into “ditz-in-chief” status. Once she split with Lachey, her most recent moments in the media spotlight have been getting called fat and having her sex life discussed by John Mayer.
In other words, this is a woman who — despite her privilege as a white, wealthy, attractive blonde — has been a victim of public misogyny. Unfortunately, she’s been thrust into a co-dependent relationship with her image as a buxom yet dim blonde, and it’s unclear where her persona ends and her real personality begins.
Still, with her new VH1 show, The Price of Beauty, she has made an effort to try something at least somewhat more enlightening. It’s an opportune moment for Simpson to turn the nasty press about her weight on its head, and for VH1 to clean up its reputation after a number of its sleazy reality-show contestants were revealed to be hardened criminals.
The Price of Beauty”s premise? Simpson is traveling around the globe with her blond, coiffed entourage to learn about beauty standards and how they vary from place to place.
“It’s one thing to have insecurities, but when you have the whole world watching and people are criticizing you on top of it, it can get too much. People put so much pressure on women to be beautiful. there’s always a diet to follow, a new beauty product to use, but is that really what defines beauty?” she says at the onset of the show.
Although Simpson speaks in vague, almost trite terms, the impression from her interviews at the beginning of the premiere and throughout the first two episodes is of the distinct impression that underneath the laughs and antics, she wants to find some sort of inner peace on the subject: “the reason I’m going on the journey of beauty in all these countries is because I want to find it for myself. Tall order,” she says with a sheepish laugh.
In the first episode, set in Thailand, however, we’re treated to a disappointing abundance of American cultural voyeurism. Simpson squeals after trying to eat fried insects and giggles in a Buddhist temple. She visits the Kayan tribe, whose women wear gold rings that elongate their necks. For a dose of seriousness, she meets a woman whose skin has been disfigured from bleach creams. To Simpson, for whom time spent under the tanning lamp is a normal everyday thing, the idea that women in other cultures would want to lighten their skin is a revelation (to anyone who has even glancingly looked into the effects of racism on beauty standards, not so much). It’s maddening that Simpson is utterly unaware of the racial and colonialist implications of these standards, and can’t connect the skin-lightening phenomenon to what goes on among women of color in her own country. Nor is there an explicit connection made between various traditions: for instance, Simpson’s discomfort in her high heels and the discomfort of the neck-rings.
It’s a frustratingly shallow level of analysis. But from another perspective, Simpson represents the way many American women look at beauty rituals: unquestioningly but with a sliver of concern. And her wide-eyed wonder does point at an inherent absurdity in the very notion of beauty norms. I want to be darker, you want to be lighter; that makes no sense! In essence, she’s right — beauty standards when stripped of their cultural implications, have an arbitrary, senseless quality, united only by a feeling that they’re always out of reach. Yes, it would be better to explain the way beauty standards implicitly privilege those with social status, power, leisure time, wealth — but Simpson may turn VH1′s audience on to the simple idea that there’s no universal beauty ideal.
The comment threads over at Jezebel’s wrap-up of the first and second installments of the show keep going back and forth on the same points. On one hand, it’s a painfully naive, culturally insensitive show with no awareness of the larger issues. On the other, it’s performing a positive service for a star and her audience who might not know any better. Hey, the show’s defenders say in essence at least it’s not Rock of Love.
During the show’s second episode, Simpson and Co. went to Paris to gape at fashion week, get a wine-themed spa treatment, and learn about the inner joie de vivre that supposedly defines French beauty. Jessica tried on couture and walked the runway, and dealt with a nearly-crippling panic attack as she compared her short, curvaceous frame with the lithe models around her, and got barked at by an artistic director. It was fascinating to see Simpson, who has achieved the highest level of pinup-girl status here, battle serious insecurity demons. It was also fascinating to see just how far away from normalcy fashion models are.
During the seemingly-mandatory sobering portion of the episode, Simpson met with Isabelle Caro, the controversial, dangerously-anorexic former model who has been a literal poster girl against eating disorder. Caro has used her own emaciated image to warn the public about the extremes to which the fashion world’s strict standards can lead. It’s a sobering interview, and it makes Simpson cry, but the juxtaposition of the interview with a long, lingering look at fashion runway modeling is odd, to say the least. What’s the purpose, here? To say that fashion is cool, but not when it gives you an eating disorder?
The show suffers, alas, from an identity crisis. Is it meant to be it a lesson in appreciating inner beauty or a silly look at bizarre grooming rituals worldwide? In each episode, the stars mingle with top-level models, but then meet women whose efforts at external loveliness have Gone. Too. Far. Simpson’s flaunting her considerable privilege and merely gaping at strangers, while simultaneously introducing a vapid TV network’s audience to some feminism 101 concepts. If there’s any single message in “The Price of Beauty” it’s that self-doubt about looks plagues us all, and working on one’s happiness is perhaps a better route to self-confidence than working on one’s abs. And that’s a message most women need to hear. It’s just hard to say if it will come through in such a watered-down form.