Jessica Simpson Skimming the Surface of “Inner Beauty”

Sarah Seltzer

Jessica Simpson's new show The Price of Beauty suffers from an identity crisis. Is it meant to be a lesson in appreciating inner beauty or a silly look at bizarre grooming rituals worldwide?

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.

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“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.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Tim Kaine Outlines Plan to ‘Make Housing Fair’

Ally Boguhn

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It's part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Donald Trump made some controversial changes to his campaign staff this week, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted his commitment to better housing policies.

Trump Hires Controversial Conservative Media Figure

Republican presidential nominee Trump made two notable additions to his campaign staff this week, hiring Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon as CEO and GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager.

“I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win,” said Trump in a Wednesday statement announcing the hires. “I believe we’re adding some of the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November and continue to share my message and vision to Make America Great Again.”

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Both have been criticized as being divisive figures.

Conway, for example, previously advised then-client Todd Akin to wait out the backlash after his notorious “legitimate rape” comments, comparing the controversy to “the Waco with David Koresh situation where they’re trying to smoke him out with the SWAT teams.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Conway is also “often cited by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim organizations such as the think tank Center for Security Policy and NumbersUSA.”

Under Bannon’s leadership, “mainstream conservative website” Breitbart.com changed “into a cesspool of the alt-right,” suggested the publication’s former editor at large, Ben Shapiro, in a piece for the Washington Post‘s PostEverything. “It’s a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.”

Speaking with ABC News this week, Kurt Bardella, who also previously worked with Bannon at Breitbart, alleged that Bannon had exhibited “nationalism and hatred for immigrants, people coming into this country to try to get a better life for themselves” during editorial calls.

“If anyone sat there and listened to that call, you’d think that you were attending a white supremacist rally,” said Bardella.

Trump’s new hire drew heated criticism from the Clinton campaign in a Wednesday press call. “The Breitbart organization has been known to defend white supremacists,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. After pointing to an analysis from the SPLC linking Breitbart to the extremist alt-right movement, Mook listed a number of other controversial positions pushed by the site.

“Breitbart has compared the work of Planned Parenthood to the Holocaust. They’ve also repeatedly used anti-LGBT slurs in their coverage. And finally, like Trump himself, Breitbart and Bannon have frequently trafficked in all sorts of deranged conspiracy theories from touting that President Obama was not born in America to claiming that the Obama Administration was ‘importing more hating Muslims.’”

“It’s clear that [Trump’s] divisive, erratic, and dangerous rhetoric simply represents who he really is,” continued Mook.

Kaine Outlines Plan to “Make Housing Fair”

Clinton’s vice presidential nominee Kaine wrote an essay for CNN late last week explaining how the Clinton-Kaine ticket can “make housing fair” in the United States.

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It’s part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Kaine. “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Kaine shared the story of Lorraine, a young Black woman who had experienced housing discrimination, whom Kaine had represented pro bono just after completing law school.

“This is one issue that shows the essential role government can play in creating a fairer society. Sen. Ed Brooke, an African-American Republican from Massachusetts, and Sen. Walter Mondale, a white Democrat from Minnesota, came together to draft the Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination in the housing market,” noted Kaine, pointing to the 1968 law.

“Today, more action is still needed. That’s why Hillary Clinton and I have a bold, progressive plan to fight housing inequities across Americaespecially in communities that have been left out or left behind,” Kaine continued.

The Virginia senator outlined some of the key related components of Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda,” including an initiative to offer $10,000 in down payment assistance to new homebuyers that earn less than the median income in a given area, and plans to “bolster resources to enforce Fair Housing laws and fight housing discrimination in all its forms.”

The need for fair and affordable housing is a pressing issue for people throughout the country.

“It is estimated that each year more than four million acts of [housing] discrimination occur in the rental market alone,” found a 2015 analysis by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

No county in the United States has enough affordable housing to accommodate the needs of those with low incomes, according to a 2015 report released by the Urban Institute. “Since 2000, rents have risen while the number of renters who need low-priced housing has increased,” explained the report. “Nationwide, only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income.”

What Else We’re Reading

CBS News’ Will Rahn penned a primer explaining Trump campaign CEO Bannon’s relationship to the alt-right.

White supremacists and the alt-right “rejoice[d]” after Trump hired Bannon, reported Betsy Woodruff and Gideon Resnick for the Daily Beast.

Clinton published an essay in Teen Vogue this week encouraging young people to fight for what they care about, learn from those with whom they disagree, and get out the vote.

“In calling for ‘extreme vetting’ of foreigners entering the United States, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested a return to a 1950s-era immigration standard—since abandoned—that barred entry to people based on their political beliefs,” explained USA Today.

Trump wants to cut a visa program “his own companies have used … to bring in hundreds of foreign workers, including fashion models for his modeling agency who need exhibit no special skills,” according to a report by the New York Times.

A Koch-backed group “has unleashed an aggressive campaign to kill a ballot measure in South Dakota that would require Koch-affiliated groups and others like them to reveal their donors’ identities.”

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.

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