Last week, we stumbled upon a gorgeous, yet haunting video showing glimpses into women's lives throughout the years. Karolina Żebrowska produced the piece in response to Cut Video's viral "100 Years of Beauty" series. "I felt that the other videos were completely unrealistic and there was a sense of fakeness that really irritated me," Żebrowska told us.
But Żebrowska's videos had some problems as well — as commenters pointed out. For example, utilizing one (white) woman meant only one representation of womanhood, despite the lofty goal of showcasing reality. And today, Christopher Chan, visual anthropologist at Cut, wrote a post on Medium defending "100 Years of Beauty." "There’s a troubling logic behind [Żebrowska's] video and the praise it has been receiving. The trouble’s not in attempting to pay homage to the bravery, strength, or fortitude from women in history," Chan writes. "It’s in the assumption that any one representation of a woman can be more 'real' than another. And we must be very critical of the selection criteria altogether." Chan goes on to explain Cut Video's process of researching the specific eras through ads, propaganda, and popular media. He also speaks to showcasing the behind-the-scenes of every look, created with makeup and hair products. And yes, he even acknowledges that Cut looks are representations of history, almost fantasies. They're not realistic. "Here’s the problem with history: It’s not real. It’s not the past. It’s a representation of the past," he writes. "It’s remembered, through documents and oral histories and photographs, but somebody does the work of choosing which of these fragments make it into the narrative. It’s just as staged as the cover of Elle, and it leaves out more than it can include." Still, that doesn't mean we can't learn from these representations — and it doesn't invalidate Żebrowska's point, either. Popular fashion and beauty styles are often visually identified with popular sentiments of the time, like the '50s-housewife aesthetic, and representative of particular symbols in history (or herstory, if you prefer). "I think we learn something very interesting about history by visually documenting its fantasies: We see how race, citizenship, class, and sexuality are moving targets that are constantly being policed — and that these categories are never stable or safe," Chan writes. Oftentimes, Cut Video looks reference political and social situations (see: its depiction of Korean beauty trends through the years — although that received criticism for fluffy depictions of North Korea). Perhaps the bigger question isn't about "who is a real woman" — obviously everyone who identifies as a woman is a real woman. The question is about whether it's okay to appreciate beauty styles from a distance — without knowing the full stories of the women who wore them.