A new film about the prejudice of colorism has backing from an unusual source: the cosmetics and personal-care products giant Procter & Gamble. Why is that unusual? Because Procter & Gamble, when it's not backing films that aim to inspire audiences with the message that black skin is beautiful, sells skin-lightening creams to people of color all over the world.
Procter & Gamble is hosting a screening of the new 30-minutes documentary Imagine A Future in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival this week in New York. The company also backed the film, and funds the non-profit through which the filmmakers found their subject, a teenager from Delaware named Janet Goldsboro. Here's the New York Times' take on Imagine A Future:
“I didn’t look like what I saw in a magazine,” Ms. Goldsboro says about her childhood in the documentary. “I look different from all my cousins. I had dark features, dark hair, dark eyes, big nose and big lips, and I used to get made fun of because of how I looked.”
She says that she is “into boys” — and that their remarks can sting.
“Boys say, ‘I like the light-skinned girls,’ or, ‘I like white girls because I want my baby to come out pretty,’ ” Ms. Goldsboro says. “And that hurts you because it makes you feel like you’re ugly looking.”
The tie-in to the film comes via My Black Is Beautiful, a five-year-old effort on the part of Procter & Gamble to highlight the beauty products it manufactures for the African-American market and "to celebrate African-American women and challenge the sometimes difficult ways our beauty is reflected in popular media." The documentary features interviews with Michaela Angela David, Gabby Douglas, and Melissa Harris-Perry on the subject of colorism and discrimination. The ways in which the media and advertising have traditionally associated — and to a large degree continue to associate — having lighter skin with attributes like greater beauty and higher social status come in for critique. It's ground that has been covered before, including in the 2011 documentary Dark Girls, and it's obviously an important story to tell given that studies show lighter-skinned black women are more likely to be hired than darker-skinned black women, and that men associate lighter skinned women in ads with "purity, innocence, modesty and goodness." (Barf.) As Anna Holmes wrote back in 2007, "throughout the whole of American history, literatureand pop culture, light-skinned black women have been favored — by both whites and blacks — over their darker sisters as more beautiful, desirable, acceptable and stylish."
The directors, Shola Lynch and by Lisa Cortes, say that Procter & Gamble supported their effort to address a topic that's too rarely discussed. They describe the multinational as a "supportive collaborator" that allowed them "creative freedom." Says Cortes, "It was known that this wasn’t going to be a puff piece."
Cortes and Lynch also filmed Goldsboro on a trip to South Africa:
In the documentary, Ms. Goldsboro visits a market in Johannesburg with Lebogang Mashile, a poet, actress and activist, and says, “I heard that in South Africa that skin bleaching is a big problem here?”
Ms. Mashile replies: “It’s been a problem for a long time. It’s self-hate, it’s not having enough mirrors that affirm you.”
As the Times points out, the documentary doesn't mention the fact that Procter & Gamble manufactures numerous skin-lightening creams — including some sold in South Africa — and that the advertisements for those products contribute to the very problem that the film critiques.
For example, in the South African ad for the Olay product "Even and Smooth," embedded above, the celebrity Gail Nkoane's skin is shown magically getting lighter as she rubs the cream across her face. Procter & Gamble-owned brands also market skin-lightening products in Malaysia, Singapore, India, and elsewhere.
Procter & Gamble is far from the only major beauty company to promote the idea that only light skin is beautiful — Unilever-owned brands like Fair & Lovely do so as well, as does L'Oréal — but it is the only one, to our knowledge, to simultaneously fund a documentary about the negative impacts of such advertising. This is a huge conflict in mission that the film certainly should have addressed. Failing to mention its sponsor engages in the same practices the documentary criticizes kind of undermines the message, doesn't it?