Ladies Remember Elizabeth Taylor, Weigh Modern Beauty Standards

Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor has died at the age of 79. The screen icon became a 12-year-old sensation in the movie, "National Velvet". She went on to star in 53 films, winning two Oscars for her work. In Tell Me More's occasional "Beautyshop" conversation, guest host Farai Chideya looks back on the Taylor's life and discusses a new survey on changing notions of beauty in America. Weighing in are Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious.com; Galina Espinoza, editorial director of Latina magazine, and Marcia Dawkins, visiting scholar at Brown University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, April is National Poetry Month, and we want to hear from your inner poet. We'll tell you how you can share your original poetry with us via Twitter in a few moments.

But first, we go into our Beauty Shop. That's where we get a woman's perspective on news and happenings in pop culture. Today, we're looking at beauty, and we start with a look back on the life of a woman who defined beauty and elegance for generations of Americans: Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor.

She died this morning at the age of 79. The screen icon became a national sensation as a 12-year-old with her performance in "National Velvet." Taylor went on to star in 53 films and won two Oscars for her performances in "Butterfield 8" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Liz Taylor was celebrated as a screen siren with her signature dark hair and icy blue eyes, which helped win movie roles and husbands - seven husbands, eight marriages. Two of those marriages were to fellow star Richard Burton, with whom she starred in a number of films, including this one, in which Taylor played another fabled beauty: Cleopatra.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cleopatra")

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Actor): (As Cleopatra) Careful with Octavian.

Mr. RICHARD BURTON (Actor): (As Mark Antony) Well, let him be careful with me.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) The Romans want no war between the two of you.

Mr. BURTON: (As Mark Antony) Wars. The world is filled with love. There will be no more wars.

Ms. TAYLOR: (As Cleopatra) There can be no question of your complete authority in the east. Antony, how will I live?

CHIDEYA: To talk more about her life, I'm joined now by Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious.com. She's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Also with us is Galina Espinoza, editorial director of Latina magazine. She's in our New York bureau.

And joining us from Nashville, Tennessee is Marcia Dawkins, visiting scholar at Brown University.

Welcome to you all.

Ms. LATOYA PETERSON (Editor, Racialicious.com): Thank you for having me.

Ms. GALINA ESPINOZA (Editorial Director, Latina Magazine): Hello.

Professor MARCIA DAWKINS (Visiting Scholar, Brown University): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So, Latoya, let me start with you. What do you see as Elizabeth Taylor's legacy in Hollywood?

Ms. PETERSON: You know, Farai, what's interesting is that I don't know much about Elizabeth Taylor. I'm working my way through a Netflix queue that has "Giant" in it and other things like that. But the only thing I know her for is "Cleopatra," and it's only because of the racial implications of her actually playing Cleopatra that I took such a long view at that movie.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, what's interesting now is that there was a recent biography that says that Cleopatra was of Grecian descent and may have looked more like Elizabeth Taylor than, let's say, modern, you know, Egyptians. But tell me more about your views on the race issue.

Ms. PETERSON: I mean, I just think it's fascinating that, one, Elizabeth Taylor has become the enduring symbol of Cleopatra because of this really epic role that she starred in with Richard Burton.

And at the same time, this idea of Cleopatra being a great beauty - one, which is why Liz Taylor was tapped to play her - suddenly comes into question when we're talking about someone with more Semitic features, when we are talking about someone from a darker continent, when we're talking about Cleopatra's heritage and how she appeared and how she looked.

Most scholars tend to point to coins that were minted in the time of Cleopatra that showed her with corn rows, right, and what they describe as a hook nose, which automatically means she's less beautiful than what people thought. And I'm, like, wait a minute, was that - was she less beautiful according to our norms now, or according to the norms in ancient Egypt? Or even the norms in Greece or Rome? I think it's really interesting to see how we are shaping ideas of beauty even now, as we're looking back.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, Marcia, what do you think that she meant to women, and how do you think her particular type of beauty played into that?

Prof. DAWKINS: Well, I think the thing that she meant to women and to all people is really to symbolize how race and beauty - to kind of go with what Latoya was saying - are these social constructions. And I think she made it OK to be beautiful. I think she made it OK to be smart and beautiful. And I think she helped to usher in some of the new changes that we're seeing now.

I was reading not only about Elizabeth Taylor in preparation for today, but to see how the new Cleopatra's going to be cast, they're saying, by Angelina Jolie. And so I was struck by some of the similarities between, not only their looks, but what they mean for society and for women today.

CHIDEYA: Galina, in her later years, Elizabeth Taylor made news for her bouts in rehab, substance abuse, prescription drugs and other personal drama. She also, though, took a very lead role in being someone who talked about AIDS and someone who had a role in helping America evolve and accept that people with AIDS were not to be stigmatized and shut aside. How do you parse out the rest of her life aside from just what she had on screen?

Ms. ESPINOZA: Well, I think what's really amazing about Elizabeth Taylor's legacy is that she was a groundbreaker in so many ways. We've been talking about "Cleopatra." For that movie she was paid $1 million making her the first actor, male or female, to break the million dollar barrier and that, of course, has ushered in a whole new level of Hollywood salaries, but that was really a milestone at the time.

Similarly, she was one of the first celebrities to become a licensor. She had a very successful fragrance collection and she was, you know, as I said one of the first celebrities to see that opportunity and today, of course, it seems as if every other star has a perfume out there, I mean from Halle Berry to Jennifer Lopez to Jennifer Aniston, you know, it's become the standard. But when she did that that was really new.

And, of course, you mentioned her commitment to AIDS activism. One of the hallmarks of Elizabeth Taylor's career is that she had these incredible friendships with many of Hollywood's leading men, such as Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS in 1985. And it was his death that spurred her to become involved in the AIDS awareness movement at a time when very few people were talking about it, when there was so much stigma around the disease. When Rock Hudson died he was not even listed as having died of AIDS because there was so much shame and secrecy surrounding that diagnosis. And she was the one who said I'm going to take this out of the closet.

And by associating herself with this disease she encouraged and empowered so many others to kind of take that veil of secrecy around it. And to me those are her most enduring legacies, the way that she transformed Hollywood and celebrity.

CHIDEYA: That is Galina Espinoza, editorial director of Latina magazine. And if you're just joining us, I'm Farai Chideya. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are in the Beauty Shop.

In addition to Galina, I've been talking with the Latoya Peterson, editor of Racialicious.com, and Marcia Dawkins, a visiting scholar at Brown University.

And I will say before we move on that "Butterfield 8," which was one of her Oscar-winning roles, is a movie I love just for it's visuals as well as performances.

But, you know, let's stay on this topic of the looks and notions of beauty and celebrity. A new survey conducted by Allure magazine found that the perceptions of beauty in America are changing. It found 64 percent of the readers they polled regarded mixed race women as the epitome of beauty. Compare that to 1991, Americans chose model Christie Brinkley as the woman who represented that ideal. Now they've chosen Angelina Jolie. So there's a few different things going on.

Galena, I'm going to go back to you. Do you think that perceptions of beauty are opening up to be more inclusive or not so much?

Ms. ESPINOZA: I actually do. And I find the results of this survey to be incredibly heartening. I mean there's an undeniable shift going on in the American population and, of course, Latinas are a huge driving force behind that. We now comprise more than 50 million Americans and, of course, what we are seeing as a result is not only in a changing look to American society but also a growing acceptance.

I think especially among young people today, growing up with mixed-race neighbors is, you know, pretty standard. It's not the shocking thing that it was when I was growing up or when my dad immigrated here and he was the only Latino in an Irish-American neighborhood in Queens. You know, you don't kind of have those bastions of neighborhoods of just one culture or race anymore the way that you did, you know, in the '60s. And I think that that's a huge shift and I think that the survey reflects what we're seeing going on.

CHIDEYA: And just quickly, Marcia. You are of mixed heritage and you have a forthcoming book about mixed-race identity. What do you think of this?

Ms. DAWKINS: I think it is heartening in many ways but I still think it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, one of the least or one of the most of which is that I think we need to be careful about associating greater visibility or greater mixing of races and ethnicities with progress. I think it's wonderful to see things opening up in terms of appearances, but I think it's also equally wonderful and important to take a deeper look beyond those appearances and see really what's happening in terms of public policy and how groups are interacting and being discriminated against.

CHIDEYA: And Latoya, one of the interesting tidbits in this survey said that basically 70 percent of the respondents wanted their skin color to be darker. Now I'm not sure if that's "Jersey Shore" tan darker or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: ...you know, what. I mean what do you think of that?

Ms. PETERSON: I think it's kind of fascinating and it rolls right into a great concept that we talk about on Racialicious all the time, which was pioneered by Minh-Ha T. Pham of Threadbard which is called "The Violence of Revulsion," right.

So suddenly it's cool to have fuller features. It's cool to have thicker lips. It's cool to have a little bit darker skin but as long as it's not on an actual person of color. These traits are more admired when they are coming from someone that they feel is closer to white.

And we look at this because, you know, it shows up in the fashion world, particularly with these black face editorials they'll put out. It seems that white women are kind of the base that they use to describe everything that is beautiful. And for the rest of us, you know, it's one thing to call us all attractive, it's another thing to say oh, you are now equal or that you are seen as equal in pop culture.

You know, one of the things that surprised me the most about this survey was that the most attractive man was a South Asian male, right. The most attractive model chosen by women was a guy who was of Indian descent, right. Where do you see Asian men in pop culture? They're generally the sidekick; they're generally the joke, right?

There's this show, "Rules of Engagement" with David Spade, right? And David Spade is this little evil troll of a man and yet next to him is this completely hot, you know, British, South Asian guy. I think his name is Adhir Milan(ph) or something like that, and yet he is the butt of every joke. He doesn't get the girl. He's this goofy, goofy sidekick. And so the question becomes OK, you can see us as attractive now but when does society change?

CHIDEYA: I want to move on, Latoya, to a topic - this gentleman has been in and out of the news: R&B singer Chris Brown. It's been widely reported that he had an outburst yesterday morning after being quizzed about his relationship with pop star Rihanna. Of course, he was, you know, I mean there was the domestic violence incident that had people roiled for quite a long time and the issue came up again on "Good Morning America" yesterday. He pled guilty to assaulting Rihanna and "GMA" host Robin Roberts asked around about the assault twice. Here's what happened on air.

Ms. ROBIN ROBERTS (Host, "Good Morning America"): It was very serious what you went through...

Mr. CHRIS BROWN (Singer): Yeah.

Ms. ROBERTS: ...and what happened and even the judge though afterwards said that you had served your time...

Mr. BROWN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROBERTS: ...as far as the community service and that and moving on.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah.

Ms. ROBERTS: But have been able to? How have you been able to do that?

Mr. BROWN: I've been focusing on this album, you know? I think this album is what, you know, I want people to hear and want people to really get into, so definitely this album is what I want them to talk about and not the stuff that happened two years ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Yeah, well, they're not talking about what happened two years ago. They're talking about what happened yesterday, which is apparently that he broke a window and took his shirt off and ran out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: This is the report. What are we to make of this?

Ms. PETERSON: I mean Chris Brown, we're just going to have to nickname him can't get right because he has been trying to sit there and rehab his image and yet he keeps doing things that are against, that are just against principle, right. Anger management. Don't punch out windows. Talk about things calmly. If you're really repentant, talk about why you are repentant.

But I find really interesting about this whole Chris Brown thing is the way that he's been cast in the media versus Charlie Sheen's winning, wife-abusing persona himself, right? So Charlie Sheen hasn't really borne the brunt of punishment for domestic violence in the same way it appears that particularly mainstream media and mainstream gossip sites have been demanding of Chris Brown.

So it's become a really engaging thing to watch even while Chris Brown is on his own little self-destructive cycle, so is Charlie Sheen and yet their treatment is completely different.

CHIDEYA: Marcia, do you think that people actually, I won't say enjoy, but in some ways, you know, expect problematic black men in the media? I'm thinking of also of how Kanye West was, you know, constantly talked about. And I'm not saying that he shouldn't have been. I'm just saying, you know, in regards to the whole question of how Charlie Sheen was treated etcetera. I mean is there a double standard?

Ms. DAWKINS: I think there is in many ways a double standard. I think we are so used to being entertained by and hearing about that old stereotype of the angry black man, that it's really hard for us to get ourselves into a different frame of reference for thinking about Chris Brown with regard to this.

A lot of people have called him a thug, which is a word we haven't used or we haven't heard being used to describe Charlie Sheen or Mel Gibson, who has struggled with this issue earlier this year. And I think so in that way, yes, I do think that there is a double standard.

On the other hand, I think we're noticing an interesting shift in our society in terms of a double standard for women and men generally. So we have this idea that I'm calling 2011 the year of the mad man, right, because this idea of mad masculinity is being turned into a commodity that can be consumed repeatedly across a range of media outlets. So you've got Charlie Sheen. You've got Chris Brown. You've got Mel Gibson.

And then, you know, even in terms of political news you've got Jared Loughner, right, you've got David Prosser who just called, you know, one of his colleagues the B-word to her face and this is a judge in Wisconsin. So I think there is something really going on here that needs to be addressed in terms of society. And I think a focus on it as an issue gossip, right, it reflects an inability or unwillingness to address these issues of misogyny and domestic violence in a serious and political manner.

CHIDEYA: Galina, just briefly. He is someone who gets number one hits, Chris Brown, and he's got a very young demographic following him. Do you think that they're forgiving of him?

Ms. ESPINOZA: I think the attitude towards him remains pretty mixed, you know, and I do think that the double standard pertaining to men and women is the one that I'm most concerned about. You know, that this is an issue of domestic violence and the same thing applies to Charlie Sheen's case. I mean this is a man who put a knife to the throat of his wife.

And I think that those kinds of horrifying scenarios are getting lost in kind of the sport we're turning all of this into and we are missing an opportunity to really address domestic violence in a more serious, constructive, thoughtful way. And I fear that that's getting lost in all of this other sort of gossipy approach.

CHIDEYA: Well, Galina Espinoza is the editorial director of Latina magazine. She joined us from our New York bureau. Marcia Dawkins is a visiting scholar at Brown University and joined us from Nashville. Latoya Peterson is editor of Racialicious.com. She was with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Ladies, thank you.

Ms. PETERSON: Thanks, Farai.

Ms. ESPINOZA: Thank you.

Ms. DAWKINS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: At TELL ME MORE, we'll be celebrating National Poetry Month in April, and an occasional series called Muses and Metaphor will combine two passions of this program: social media and poetry. We would like you to go on Twitter and tweet us your original poetry using fewer than 140 characters, of course. We'll air our favorites. Tweet us using the hashtag TMMPoetry.

You can learn more at the TELL ME MORE website. Go to npr.org and click on the Programs menu to find TELL ME MORE. Again, the hashtag is TMMPoetry.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: And that's our program for today. I'm Farai Chideya and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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