Exoticizing the Avatar

In previous posts I have dabbled with creating avatars are other than myself—either male or of another race. In fact, when I show Harper, I am typically showing one other than myself—I am not a redhead and I am definitely not tall and thin. However, when I dabble in such representations, I try very hard to represent the avatars positively or thoughtfully, and sometimes I still have misgivings about what I am doing.

So when I heard about the new Maasai avatar created by Hart Larsson, Clio Cardiff and Bronco Graves, I was really interested in what they came up with. Hart gave us a beautifully rendered dark skin placed over a body that had a thin nose and green exotic eyes with colored markings as makeup. Bronco gave us beautifully made necklaces with pretty colored beads. Clio gave us a shift that would be lovely as a summer dress. All of them are very well made by great SL artisans. However, none of it has any connection to real life Maasai people or for that matter, any people in Africa except the ones in their imaginations. And old Tarzan movies.

And that’s what really brought me short. The exoticization of the “Other’ (if we want to get all postcolonial on this or even worse, the ‘subaltern’) has been going on for years. It’s our means of not connecting with people who live lives different than ours but distancing them. By making them Others, by making them exotic, they become pretty THINGS, not people.

(To straighten this out, by the way, Maasai women typically have wider flatter noses, thicker lips. They wear substantial piercings in their ears as well as necklets that are large round constructions with colored beads but no kewpie shells or feathers. They wear woven cloths wrapped around their bodies (shuka) and sandals. This is when they ARE dressed in traditional clothing—which is not always.  And they never EVER wear colorful markings on their faces. Incidentally, the Maasai happen also to be one of the few groups that still practice female circumcision, which is deeply entrenched in their culture, even though it is illegal in some countries like Kenya. How exotic is that? Screw cultural relativism–it shouldn’t be happening.)

Bottom line? Maasai people are not exotic or fantasy like drows or fairies. They are living existing people with specific political and social concerns, just LIKE WE ARE. Exoticizing a drow or fae is excusable–they aren’t real life people in this world. They are made-up creatures. Maasai people aren’t fantasy creatures–they REALLY exist.

Exoticizing the Avatar

I appreciate the attempt that the creators made to bring a different sort of person into this overwhelmingly white (or rather, deep tan) world. I really dig that. And Hart’s skin, as you see here, is beautifully rendered and would be perfect for say, an African American woman. (However, I have changed the shape he used to show it to one with a more realistic facial structure and I have given her beautiful deep dark brown eyes.) Why did she have to become a Maasai woman? Wouldn’t it be enough to make her African-American?

Exoticizing the Avatar

I have also dressed our beautiful woman in an outfit of pure class. Think Kathleen Battle here or Rita Dove or.. ha, Michele Obama! Our beauty wears a gorgeous dress from Su Scarmon. What catches my eye the most about this dress is the silvery-gold texture. Giving off this kind of luster is not easy in SL, especially for a fabric. Su really captured the richness of a champagne-colored satin.

Exoticizing the Avatar

Be careful what you swallow. Chew!” ~ Gwendolyn Brooks

Hair: ETD Anisa – Black by Elikapeka Tiramisu for ETD (No longer available)

Skin: [PXL] Efe DeepTan NoMakeup by Hart Larsson for [PXL]

Dress: *LaLei*Josephine-silver by Su Scarmon for *LaLei*

Necklace and earrings: Donna Flora ASIA black set by Squinternet Larnia for Donna Flora

Want to read more about “native appropriations”? Click here to Mimi Thi Nyugen’s article on threadbared.

8 thoughts on “Exoticizing the Avatar

  1. Hear hear. One of the things that’s frustrated me over and over in Second Life is not just how heterogeneous the world becomes but how we cling to that heterogeneous norm of shape even when we deviate: like god forbid we not have those thin noses, Cupid’s bow lips, high cheekbones, flat stomachs, pert breasts, etc. I am always so pleased when I see an avatar that goes a different way.

    Difference is sexy.

  2. Pingback: [ PXL ] Efe DeepTan Maasai Avatar « PXL Creations

  3. While I can appreciate your point (and OMFG at someone in SL who can talk about subalterity or postcolonialism – where the hell are you all hiding?!), I’d question your decision, in the end, to unproblematically dress her in an “outfit of pure class” without acknowledging the clearly classed implications of both such a statement, and the idea – implicit in your assertion – that to be dressed in “traditional” clothing for a Maasai woman, or indeed, even in jeans and a t-shirt, isn’t “classy,” or otherwise indicative of not having “class.” Certainly, she’s in an outfit of “pure class” – a Eurocentric, upper/upper-middle class. So while I applaud your decision to shift a bit away from the orientalizing/exoticizing that often happens in SL with avs “of color” done by white players, I wonder if the change you’ve made to her representation doesn’t also suggest something about the way we think about “tradition” and “elegance” and the notion that Western = modern while everywhere in the East and Global South = repressed/archaic/outdated.

    Er, okay, off the soapbox, lol.

    • I really appreciate your comment. Evoking “class” was certainly a double-edged sword for me, and you certainly pointed that out. I *could* have dressed her in jeans, in a toga, in pair of shorts, a sari, etc. However, the woman I was showing was not Maasai (I think the skin itself is a romantic and Europeanized version of blackness that didn’t get there), and I wanted to show an upper-class educated African-American woman specifically (not European), evoking, as I did, Kathleen Battle and Rita Dove. SL is nothing if not ambitional ;) It’s all about class.

      I can’t honestly tell you what a Maasai woman wears day to day. I would be purely guessing that she wears a skirt and top and sandals. I would feel I had no business going there anyway. So I would rather to go to an image I feel comfortable with, one I can represent with a *little* better position, one I have seen in photos and admire, one that doesn’t place a dark skin as a subaltern. It’s an image we Americans are getting pretty used to.

      Incidentally, I don’t think exoticizing is a function limited to “white” people. I think it runs the gamut across races. I have seen no other SL residents protesting the use of dark skins, the way they are drawn, etc. And we have plenty of residents who are, in their real lives, not white. (I have personally met many.) If we remove the criticism from who is purveying the media and just look at the media itself, we might be in a better position. (I know some of the RL identities of the creators I listed. Their personal position is irrelevant really.) This is more about how we all dress up our virtual dollies and what’s available to us. And what it does to us too. (Call me a Foucauldian. Go ahead.)

      What underlies all of this, of course, is the nature of a “space” like SL, which is inherently privileged and class-laden, so you really hit it on the head by giving me crap about talking about “pure class.” I’ll tell you, when I wanted to study virtual worlds for graduate school (very long ago), it was just not a cool thing because it is a privileged space and because I didn’t want to study the “subaltern.” So here I sit, taking jabs at the images in SL while I buy into them myself.

      I wish you had signed your comment with a real email address or name. No one here on the other end of this monitor is going to fault you for being critical if you are thoughtful (and you were) and correct (which you mostly were–ha). I always swore I would not approve comments that didn’t have a seemingly valid email or name or website. Well, rules can always be broken ;)

  4. Ahh true – I wasn’t sure if my email would show up or not, which is why I didn’t the first time (it should be there now?). I usually avoid using my name, just because I’d rather my students have fewer places they find me on a Google search than more.

    I do agree with you about the exoticization thing as happening on a wide scale; pretty much the only people I can think of who get outside of that are the ones who play with non-human avs, and even there I’m sure there’s plenty the animal studies folks and posthumanist theorists would have to say. I’m sorry to hear your desire to study it in grad school wasn’t well received – I’ve been fortunate enough (so far) to work with people who are interested in working on cyberfeminism, postcolonialism and critical race studies as they come into connection with game culture.

    And as for representing dark skins as subaltern, I do understand that desire (er, to avoid it) – I’m starting a shape & geekcore shop focused on bigger shapes that doesn’t make them look like cartoons, and I’m constantly nervous about the combination of shapes, skins and presentation in the store, and whether I’ll be reifying some of the troubling ethnoracial stereotypes that have been propagated throughout SL so far. Certainly fraught waters.

    And there are worse things to be called (far worse!) than a Foucauldian – I’ve had Lacanian tossed at me and *that’s* hard to live down. :)

    • Well keep reading my blog. Harper has certainly shown up as a larger-sized woman more than once. She’ll (I’ll) be glad to display one of your shapes.

  5. Hehe, I am just reading this now..
    Honestly, I never stated the outfit was “original Maasai style as you would see it in Kenya”.
    I have never even been to Kenya, and Google images is all what taught me what Maasai women look like.
    It was purely inspirational. We just made something that was suggested by those Google images mentioned above. I am sorry if anybody thought we were “teaching SLers about African costumes”.
    With this I am not saying that we should all stick to ‘conventional’. Difference is desireable and “the world is beautiful cause it’s varied”, as an italian saying recites.

    Said that, I totally love that skin too, and I have been bugging Hart to make more chocolate tones, LOL.

  6. Pingback: Influence and Appropriation « A Passion for Virtual Fashion

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