Subjects of Desire focuses on contestants for the Miss Black America beauty pageant. The documentary discusses issues of identity, Blackness, bullying, and the system that both envy their beauty while disregarding their existence. It charts Black women’s journey. Especially, as they are viewed in opposition to white women who are the center for beauty. It does not look at the stereotypes attributed to beauty pageants. More-so, it is the exploration and struggle that Black women and girls experience.
The Black women and girls are keenly aware of how society sees them. In a world that tells you white, blonde and blue-eyed with small features and a thin frame is the only way to be beautiful, it is a challenge to embrace yourself. It takes us on a journey behind the scenes leading up to the pageant. The contestants get to express their pain, joy, and fears. To have a pageant that celebrates their beauty is essential. It helps to embrace their full identity and resist the world’s stereotypes of Black women.
Some audiences will learn about experiences removed from their own. Others will recognize their own lived experiences. From being told you’re “pretty for a Black girl” to criticism about your hair and people randomly touching it, this is the common existence growing up as a Black girl. Colorism also plays a role. Because the darker you are, the fewer opportunities you get for work, relationships, and so on. And the more your “beauty” is in spite of your dark skin thanks to societal standards of European beauty. This pageant is more because it helps to instill in the contestants the confidence that this world tries to strip from them at every given opportunity.
Subjects of Desire touches on historical views and treatment regarding Black women. It breaks down the three stereotypes Black women are often given—Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire. It’s not only entertaining and joyful to see ourselves in this documentary, but it’s educational. Our education system would rather label Black women and girls as one of those stereotypes than enlighten us as to its history and destructive nature to dismantle their usage. The contestants talk about their struggles and it personalizes the historical overview.
Subjects of Desire later navigates the current trend and fetishization of Black women. White women tanning their skin and lip fillers to try to look like Black women without any of the struggles has become increasingly popular. Though taking what is ours and making it theirs has always been a common practice. Some take it a step further, pretending to be Black women. They interview Rachel Dolezal, inarguably the most well known white woman. Naturally, she still asserts that she never intended to harm and she is just living her truth.
Here the documentary missteps as Rachel discusses more about her hardships of trying to be someone she is simply not, instead of discussing the damaging nature of her ruse. However, her obsession with Black women is clear and not at all complimentary, despite her trite quote that “imitation is the highest form of flattery”. The truth of that statement is itself debatable. However, it’s doubtful it was said with someone pretending to be another race, skin color or ethnicity in mind. Particularly to such a transformative degree as Rachel Dolezal took it. Perhaps that is what the documentary seeks to highlight; the obsession and self-absorption of white women who make it as though if they don’t get to pretend to be Black women, they will dramatically die.
Overall, the Subjects of Desire is simultaneously entertaining, uplifting and educational. Subjects of Desire is a celebration of Black girls and women whilst condemning the nation that pressures and labels them for their existence. It would benefit schools to use this documentary and other resources to educate students. It could also provide some solace to and comfort for Black girls who feel isolated and alone in their struggles against a society that makes them feel lesser. Education should not just be about intellect, but character and Subjects of Desire would be a powerful place to start.