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Sois belle et vote

April 22, 2009

The Lebanese obsession with ‘beauty’ boggles. Topsy-turvy priorities, misplaced energies, desires for abstraction or forgetting, conviction that superficial reconstruction can produce some semblance of substantive healing, all rolled into one.

In a country whose wounds of constructed sectarian identity still split their shallow stitching on a regular basis and gush forth in streams of crimson, a fair share of the citizenry spend more time working on their tans and abs than engaging in any amount of introspection that could potentially yield a viable reconciliation.

In a country devoid of welfare services for its own citizens, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are pushed to the margins of society and denied access to sustainable livelihoods, banks offer loans for cosmetic plastic surgery.

In a country where political interaction is characterised by blame and self-absolution, where the family names of politicians have circulated for sixty years like some nauseating broken record, where blokes once imprisoned for war crimes now sit comfortably in ministries, the potential of exercising of one’s political voice is packaged in patronising chauvanism and stained in skin-deep normalisation:

tayyar

“Be beautiful and vote”: this is a particularly demeaning election poster from the Tayyar Al-Watany Al Hurr (Free Patriotic Movement, Christian members of the opposition led by Michel Aoun) for the upcoing parliamentary elections on 7 June.

Particularly noteworthy are the use of the French language (obviously tapping into that section of upper-middle class Christians in Lebanon for whom speaking bad French is a status-symbol) and the glaringly Occidental ethno-centric beauty norms. And these alongside from the jaw-dropping belittlement of Lebanese women voters, once again reduced to the sum of their aestethically-pleasing parts.

Sorry to burst you bubble, but, No, love, voting will not make you beautiful. It won’t make you a pouty French demoiselle either.

It could, however, result in some sort of minimal reshuffling of those in power, but nothing more radical than that…

On second thought, maybe I’ve been too harsh. Perhaps it is in fact the realisation of being confronted with the near-inevitable perpetuation of Lebanon’s stale and narrow confessionalist system that pushes young women voters to conceive of their voting in more immediate tangible terms: “If I don’t vote, not much will change. If I do vote, not much will change either, but at least I can pretend that it will make me look like Carla Bruni”.

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7 comments

  1. Ok on the societal description, although its a bit caricatural, I must say I found it funny and pertinent. Lebanese people are indeed often very superficial, obsessed with their appearance, and have been supporting corrupt leader-families for ages (far more than 60 years btw, some names have been around since the mid-1800s). But I dont see how this connects to the rest of the article.
    Why do you find that poster so demeaning? The way I see it its just taking the “contrepied” of the popular saying “sois belle et tais toi”, which is exactly the problem you talk about in the first part. The poster is saying its not enough to just be beautiful and shut up, let things be, let those corrupt leaders inherit titles from their fathers and continue their political skulduggery while you work on your tan (or abs). Be beautiful all you want, but vote! So I feel the stress is more on the “vote!” part than on the “be beautiful” part, because that’s the part that differs from the saying. Replacing “shut up!” by “vote!” obviously translates into “don’t shut up, vote”.
    Finally, this election is about more than a “minimal reshuffling of those in power”, its about making a choice between two radically different ways of doing politics. On the current majority’s side you have those you were criticizing (war criminals and political heirs) whereas on the opposition side, if you look closely, you will notice that there are no political dynasties nor war crime perpetrators…


  2. Thanks for your comments, Majd.

    The jist of my piece is that there is precisely something srongly political in the way that practices of beutification are engaged in or deployed for certain political purposes, and that this election poster is a classic example of this.

    Firstly, I think that there is such a huge amount of time/money/energy invsted in such practices, both personal and public (ie reconstruction of downtown) at the expense of other more politically/socially responsible and constructive activities.

    This is not something new: an octogenarian British woman was telling me a few months ago how, after the end of the World War Two, the government started to publicise types of domestic tasks that were far more complicated, and hence more time-consuming, than during the war. The reason, she said, was that the women who had been working during the war, in factories, as fire-fighters, administration etc. were all encouraged to ‘get back to the kitchen’ in order to make room for the men who were returning from the fighting, to ensure their employment was maintained. She said that recipes and sewing patterns became far more complicated, so as to distract women from their not-so-subtle expulsion from the publis workforce.

    A similar argument is made nowadays for extensive and lengthly beauty regimes: plucking, shaving, combing, styling, even the exigencies of keeping abreast of ‘in-season’ fashion, are facile ways of bombarding women with social expectations which a) define their social worth and b) keep them too busy to worry about the sorts of injustices that they face. To name a few in Lebanon: under-representation in parliament, discrimination in marriage/child custody laws, prevented from passing their nationality onto their children etc.

    Where are the thousands and thousands of women who should be forming coalitions to combat such injustices? They’re getting manicures or focusing on toning their tummies so they’ll look fab in their new bikini this upcoming beach season.

    I am not saying that taking pride in one’s appearance is mutually exclusive from constructive involvement, for that is obviously not the case. I’m saying that regulative beaurty norms are a mechanism of gendered control.

    Secondly, I feel that this poster reinscribes both gender and beauty norms: firstly by targeting women voters through a discourse of beautification, and secondly by alligning that message with a stereotypical image of what it is to be beautiful.

    Therefore, I disagree with your reading of the re-working of the quote: Far from suggesting an alternative model for women’s behaviour (‘shut up’ vs. ‘vote’), the fact that a woman’s worth is still being defined according to certain stringent beauty standards. If one really sought to challenge this, then why not break away from it entirely?

    Moreover, I suspect that this ad is intended as a response to another series of billboards that I have noticed along the Beirut/Jounieh highway, which advertise a new shopping centre. They portray a slim, sexy woman, and underneath some slogan along the lines of “why bother with elections when you can go shopping?”, or something like that. So these billboards are doing the inverse: intertwining discourses of beauty and politics in order to target potential women shoppers.

    Basically, I find these ads more demeaning and patronising than challenging any stereotypes in any way.

    RE: the members of the opposition not being family dynasties or war criminals, I’d draw your attention to two of the biggest names in the camp:

    a) Nabih Berri: orchestrator the brutal War of the Camps (1985-1987), in which the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut were beseiged, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilian non-combattants. I personally feel that could constitute ‘war crimes’.

    b) Talal Arslan, representing the Druze in the Opposition. Son of Majid Arslan, grandson of Tawfik Arslan, member of the Druze feudal family that has competed with the Jumblatt’s for over 100 years.

    And this is not mentioning Walid Jumbltt who, in his characteristic ficklness, is expected to move from March 14th back to March 8th after the elections, so we’ll see….

    I think that your optimism for the opposition proposing a radical change to the Lebanese political scene is a bit exaggerated, considering that even the myth of a just, non-hypocritical Hizbullah (‘we will never turn our weapons on the Lebanese’) was debunked during the fighting in May last year. Words need to be reflected in actions, or else what is their use?

    I hope that there is some way out of the quagmire. But I dont think that it’s through naive support of the opposition, because in more ways than not, they are the same as the marjority: looking out for their own interests defined along sectarian lines, and perpetuating that sectarianism, those axes of difference, at the expense of real solidarity.

    I stand correctable, though, and only time will tell whether or not these vicious circles can be broken…


  3. There is a french saying that I have heard often in Lebanon that means “Be beautiful and shut up.” I think this poster is just a way of twisting the saying to imply that women dont have to just be beautiful and shut up. You might want to look a little more closely into the culture of the Lebanese Francophones before going off on a rather clever poster.

    And, just let it be noted, it is my firm belief that Lebanese politicians and political parties are despicable. This is not an endorsement of the party this poster is meant to support.


  4. oops. Sorry, someone already corrected you. I should have read the other comments before posting. Sorry.


  5. no kristen does not need to be corrected, this ad was by all means offensive to women, a lot of women are complaining… and no it is not because kristen is not familiar with our culture that she sees something wrong with this ad… It’s a universal way of demeaning women.
    Why do lebanese women vote? w lameen? They vote for whoever their husbands or their fathers vote for (most men do the same anyway;) ) and this is a problem… ayya woman votes for this party or that party because it supported the “protection from domestic violence” law? aw the citizenship law?
    I’m sorry but this ad just looked like an abc or vero moda ad that portray women as beauty carriers


  6. First of all, I would like to point out that I do not support any politician whatsoever. I am speaking as a marketing student and I do find the ad good and clever. Good twisting of words; and what i liked most is that (although obvious) they did not say vote for Aoun. they are saying to all the young adults(25 to 35 years old) dont shut up, dont be that stereotyped shallow lebanese girl, but let ur voice be heard. How is that sexist? how is that demeaning? I found it encouraging to all the women. Plus, so what if they are targeting frenchies? it is just business.
    I would like to hear counter-arguments that are not coming from 14 march supporters.


  7. […] (Ok, so March 8th campaigns weren’t that great either. Yeah, the FPM tried to tap into the “Obama effect” by adopting the slogan “Change”. Yet, though not overtly confrontational, their billboards spouting the shallow and sexist slogans of “Sois belle et vote” and “Je vote Orange” are problematic in their own right. See, here, here and here) […]



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