Thursday, March 25, 2010

associate primitiveness with naturalness

This is a guest post by Lisa Wade, who's one of the hard-blogging sociologists at Sociological Images (where this post first appeared), as well as an assistant professor at Occidental College.

A reader alerted us to a make-up brand called Primitive that makes and sells natural lips sticks, glosses, and pencils. Describing their company, they write:

The company is drawing on familiar associations of primitiveness with naturalness.  We were natural “for centuries,” but have now somehow graduated from naturalness, such that we need to make a special effort to recapture the simple, intelligent, real, and honest beauty of our foremothers.

So, Primitive romanticizes our primitive past while making a questionable assertion about the relationship between time and naturalness.  In addition, the names of their products locate primitiveness in some parts of the (modern) globe and not others:

The products are named after places that are, almost exclusively, in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the South Pacific.  In a previous post I introduced the idea of “anachronistic space.”  I wrote: “Catherine MacKinnon coined the term ‘anachronistic space’ to refer to the idea that different parts of the globe represent different historical periods.”  In this case, Primitive is counting on our associating a (romanticized) primitiveness with only some places and not others.  It’s 2010 in Mali and Morocco.  They don’t represent our own past, they represent unique modernities.  And the places left out of these product names — largely North America and Europe — don’t represent the future.  They are not wholly modern societies that have shed their primitive past; they, just like all societies, are a mixture of old and new stitched together to form the present.


For more instances in which anachronistic space appears, see our posts on representing the fashion of the Surma and Mursi tribes and Wild African Cream.

And for more on the social construction of the modern and the primitive, see these posts: “Africans” as props for white femininity, Union Carbide brings modernity to the world, primitive Australia cures modern ills, women as carries of tradition and progress, representing the Middle East, equating modernity with permissiveness, and civilizing the Pueblos.


  1. Well, you know that us colored folks are more attuned to Mother Earth and all *rolls eyes*.

    It's a weird way of "othering" the beauty of women of color while pretending to admire it or perhaps, realign the jealousy of such beauty by pseudo-insulting it.

  2. This one is connected to the white solidarity thing WP assume we all have with one another. I don't associate any of those places with being primitive, nor do I associate primitiveness with naturalness either. The scary part is that the names of the colors passed through probably many hands and still made it to the market. Primitive is ok with announcing that non-white countries are primitive and admirably "backward."

    On a related "effed up" makeup names note: last night I was bored and wandering about Target, looked at lipsticks, and saw Rimmel had a couple of shades I couldn't quite figure out: Latino (top right row of palette) and Brazilian (also top right row of palette). "Brazilian" I could have *almost* looked beyond (because I've seen some European places as lipstick shades before), but not when the shade isn't "Brazil" as in the place, instead of "Brazilian" as in the people or things from Brazil. And *especially* not when the themes for most of the shades are about sexiness, exoticism, and nakedness. "Latino" immediately struck me where "Brazilian" took a few extra seconds.

  3. no no no no nooooooooooo.

    Ibiza is not a blush! nor Corsica an eye shadow.

    I wonder what Detroit and Silicone Valley shades of blush would look like.

  4. WTF. "Natural beauty can only come from natural makeup"? Um, what about no makeup?


    This is sort of playing into the Magical Negress trope, right? Like, "hey, Western white women, look at how you've lost contact with your womanhood; here is the secret way of Real Earth Women" or some such.

    If the company actually wanted to "give tribute to women all over the world," perhaps they could show it by donating a sizable portion of their profits to girls' education in the places of each makeup shade's name.

  5. @Willow: My thoughts exactly. But if they pitched that it might, er, cut into their bottom line. Clearly it's far better to capitalize on white romantic notions of exotic, "primitive" places.

    Also, ten bucks says that if they do expand their line to include North America, they will stick to the names of Native American tribes. Sigh.

  6. This is another excellent SWPD post, thanks Macon.

    Morocco (where I lived for awhile) is so often used in this way. As Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami recently said (here:, in reference to early 20th century travel writing on Morocco: "the same images, the same tropes are still to be found in travel writing or reportage about Morocco today"

    Morocco ain't primitive, whatever that means. It's tremendously modern, but because Moroccan modernity doesn't jive with what White Americans think of as "modernity," it gets viewed as quaint or primitive instead.

  7. Seriously?! None of those places are primitive. I imagine the inhabitants would be very insulted to hear themselves described as such.

    This is another "white culture is boring!" advertising ploy, which is tacitly underscored with "...and more technologically advanced, more modern, more sophisticated, more default". Honestly, this is really racist. Fetishizing other countries like nothing in the 21st century has ever touched them. Ugh. >:(

    @Willow and saraspeaking: Do you remember that really fucked up rouge called "Indian Earth"? It was really popular in the 1970s as somehow more natural and in tune with nature than other make-up, trading on the idea of Native American stereotyping. I thought it had died an ignominious death, but I found it the other day in a catalogue. I normally like that catalogue, but I wonder if they'd care if I wrote to them about how racist that make-up really is.

  8. @attack_laurel:
    I don't know if they'd care, but it couldn't hurt to write them.

  9. @attack_laurel, I hadn't heard of that product before now, but that was definitely a moue of displeasure that crossed my face upon reading about it. I'd definitely write to the folks in charge of that catalogue - if nothing else, at least they won't be able to honestly claim ignorance in the future.

  10. If you ask me, this confirms the fourth tenet of Jensen's Theory of White Fears (3 case studies away from becoming Jensen's Law). Just scroll down.

  11. You must have mixed up Catherine McKinnon with Anne McClintock. I doubt that the former talked about something like anachronistic space, and I know that the latter does.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code