English 150

Senior Seminar: American Beauty

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
7 Spring 2006 Adams, Jessica
TTh 9:30-11 305 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

"(Required): Scanlon, J.: Gender and Consumer Culture; Blum, V.: Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery; Banet-Weiser, S.: The Most Beautiful Girl in the World; Kaiken, E.: Venus Envy

Additional texts include (in a reader), in order of assignment: Advertisements for runaway slaves; Johnson, W.: from Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market; Banner, L.: from American Beauty; Cross, G.: from An All-Consuming Century; Hamlin, K.: from There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America?s Most Famous Pageant; Peiss, K.: from Hope in a Jar; Craig, M.: from Ain?t I a Beauty Queen?: Representing the Ideal Black Woman; Toomer, J.: ?Portrait in Georgia?; Holloway, K.: from Passed On: African American Mourning Stories; Cheng, A.: from The Melancholy of Race; MacKinnon, C.: from Feminism Unmodified; Steinem, G.: ?I Was a Playboy Bunny?; Sherman, C.: Film Stills; Pumping Iron II, dir. George Butler; Paris Is Burning, dir. Jennie Livingston ?Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?; Halberstam, J.: from Female Masculinity "


"When we think about what ?beauty? means in America, we immediately confront issues of race, ethnicity, sexuality, femininity, faith, and class. Beauty, we discover, is a highly coded word, a concept that expresses desire entangled with history, aesthetics as a political platform, technology becoming intimate with flesh. Plastic surgery is a spectacle in reality TV shows like ?The Swan? and ?Extreme Makeover?; ?The Swan? ends with a two-hour beauty pageant featuring surgically altered women as cultural ideals. And what happens when we read Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston?s film about Harlem drag balls, against pageants of plastic surgery?

Examining the notion of beauty also leads toward colonialism, slavery, immigration, and globalization. These histories have created contexts in which ideals of beauty shape social life. We encounter tragic mulattos and ?fancy girls,? white-appearing ?black? women who sold for high prices in the slave market; studies of prostitutes? physiognomies, which concluded that the shapes of their faces betrayed moral turpitude; the phenomenon and/or stereotype of the manicure and grooming industry as staffed and run by Asian-American women. Throughout, the dominant group?s sense of aesthetics and social appropriateness has been enabled by the often un- or underpaid workers who have maintained these standards.

These kinds of considerations will help us to critique, expand, and shift our understandings of American national identity; cultural definitions of race and the effects of those definitions in people?s real lives; and the structure and role of gender within the national imaginary.

Requirements: 1) An oral presentation accompanied by a short paper (5-7 pages) about a text or phenomenon in popular or mainstream culture that expands on the issues covered in the course. Examples: the male cosmetic industry; the boundary between humans, robots, and cyborgs (e.g. in ?The Bionic Woman? and ?The Six Million Dollar Man?); professional bodybuilding; dress codes in Native American schools in the 1920s; hip-hop styles; fad diets; black debutante balls; child beauty pageants; the politics of hair; representations of Asian manicurists (e.g. in programs/films such as ?Mad TV? and Legally Blonde); changing definitions of beauty in popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan; tattooing; piercing; brand names and sweatshop labor. 2) A seminar paper (as required in all English 150 sections). "

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