When a middle-school principal discusses the effects of the media-driven body-image machine upon young women in America the Beautiful, it is not so much her words as it is the frustration that accompany them that best answer the simple thesis of the documentary. Filmmaker Darryl Roberts asks, “Who benefits from women not being beautiful?”
In the school administrator's guarded but strong tones that register near hopelessness, the obvious answer resonates: no one outside of the industries that fuel this designation. And though, as a woman, this educator has experienced decades beholden to the beauty machine, the fact that one of her students entered the fashion industry at an impossibly young age makes what's unheard in her response all the more powerful.
That student, Gerren Taylor, walked the runways of Los Angeles Fashion Week as a twelve-year-old model dolled up as a sensual, trendsetting adult in wares that would eventually trickle downward to her tween peers. Roberts structures his film around four years in Taylor's career, and in her story the documentary is at its most acute. Gerren and her mother, a former model herself, provide an engrossing gateway into an exploration of the beauty ideal and its damning implications upon self-esteem and empowerment.
As Taylor is embraced and then devoured by the fashion industry, Roberts extends the conversation outward, touching upon a laundry list of ideas related to American ideals of beauty and image. In what seems like an extended Dateline or 20/20, the hot topics of plastic surgery, celebrity influence, media hypocrisy, make-up chemicals, and eating disorders are briefly examined. (The primary emphasis here is on women, though male perspectives are also explored. Insights into male self-image or those of other races or sexual-orientations are shortchanged, though including these stories here would have only over-extended matters further.)
Each of the subjects discussed is important, of course, but it is a lot of ground for the filmmaker to cover over the course of a hundred-minute work. When Roberts expands outward, his focus, however well-intended, becomes muddled. Most viewers have seen similar exposés, so it comes as little shock that the plastic surgeons of television's Dr. 90210 may not actually be certified in that field. The instant gossip available online makes short celeb-driven segments concerning Paris Hilton or Britney Spears seem remarkably passé. By the time female anatomical pundit Eve Ensler appears on screen with her take on the matter – admittedly, she makes succinct statements about designer vaginas – America the Beautiful feels off-course, repetitive, and strangely quaint.
Still, the almost folksy and traditional approach Darryl Roberts takes with his documentary does give way to its strengths. Though a viewer may have seen and heard all this before – even if that message refuses to take hold on Madison Avenue outside of those Dove commercials – the filmmaker's personal reasons for making this documentary resonate: he undermined a relationship because he surmised he might find someone more beautiful than his partner. If only this journey into the cult of beauty had remained as personal throughout. In this reflection and in the heartbreaking/infuriating (and ultimately hopeful) story of Gerren Taylor does the almost rhetorical question – Does America have an unhealthy obsession with beauty? – conjure a unique and provocative answer.
America the Beautiful is currently playing at the Cinema Village 12th Street in Manhattan.
© Doug Johnson
America the Beautiful (2008). Dir. / Scr.: Darryl Roberts. Featuring: Gerren Taylor, Eve Ensler.