Media @ McGill

Cheryl Thompson | The Racialization of Beauty Culture, Hollywood Films, and Advertising, 1920–1939

Submitted by Justin on


The Media@McGill Graduate Research Fellowship will be used to complete the third chapter of my dissertation, ‘The Racialization of Beauty Culture, Hollywood Films, and Advertising, 1920-1939.’ This chapter explores how the mainstream beauty culture industry and the black beauty culture industry intersected with the rise of Canada’s culture industry in the 1920s. I provide an historical account of when Canada’s black beauty culture industry began and the changes that it underwent between 1920 and 1940. Given that there are few publications from the 1920s about black Canadians, my analysis is primarily of the editorial content and beauty advertisements in The Dawn of Tomorrow, a black newspaper operated out of London, Ontario, which began in 1923.

This chapter will also explain how migration impacted black communities in the first part of the twentieth century. Blacks arrived from the Anglophone West Indies, the United States, and the United Kingdom, but there was also migration between provinces as blacks moved from the Maritimes to Quebec and Ontario, and others migrated to Western Canada. I also explore how Canada’s ladies’ magazine, Chatelaine, helped to define not just beauty culture in Canada but also the parameters of citizenship and nationhood. Through an analysis of advertisements for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, Topsy-Turvy dolls, and Aunt Jemima dolls in not just Chatelaine, but also the Toronto Globe and the Daily Star, I argue that black women were positioned outside discourses of modernity, and kept frozen in time as ‘happy-to-please’ menials. This depiction of black womanhood, however, ran counter to the editorials and advertising content of black newspapers. The Hollywood films under consideration in this chapter are Imitation of Life (1934) and Gone With the Wind (1939). In both cases, the character of ‘Mammy’ came to represent black womanhood on the big screen, but also in real-life. I consider how ‘Mammy’ became as much a Canadian representation of black womanhood, as it was in the United States.

Ultimately, I argue that the 1920s and 1930s witnessed the emergence of a mainstream beauty culture precipitated on an Anglo-Saxon whiteness and notions of femininity. As white women’s hair grew shorter and shorter, they also abandoned modesty, tradition, and conformity. This abandonment of traditional values meant that they became highly invested in the capitalist consumption of beauty. By 1939, the black counterpart to the blonde and brunette remained their servant. Hattie McDaniel, after all, was the first African American actress to win an Oscar, but she did so by playing a stereotypical Southern Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Outside the realm of true womanhood and femininity, black women’s beauty simply did not exist in Canada during the period.

The Media@McGill research fellowship will also be used to start writing chapter four of my dissertation, ‘Canada’s Black Beauty Culture Industry: Wigs, Relaxers, and Afros, 1940–1980.’ In this chapter, I explore the editorial content and beauty advertisements of Ebony, a glossy general-interest magazine for African-Americans that appeared in 1945. From its outset, Ebony circulated in Canada giving black women an outlet to see their own beauty reflected back onto them, in addition to fashion, beauty advice, products for hair and skin, and black celebrities. I also examine the Clarion, Contrast, and Share (three black magazines that emerged in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec in the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s). Beginning in late-1960s, large retailers like Eaton’s and Simpson’s, and drug stores, such as Shopper’s Drug Mart, began to market to black women, whom they had hitherto virtually ignored, by selling black hair care and skin care products. The chapter provides an analysis of how these companies solicited black women consumers, which hair and skin products were marketed to black women, how hairstyles changed during the time period, and the locations where black hair care salons, largely owned by West Indian immigrants, who migrated to Canada during the country’s mid-century immigration wave, opened. I also consider the myth of Canadian diversity, Multiculturalism, and how the continued presence of racial stereotypes maintained a colour-line.