Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 30, 1996 Form

On Campus:
Banking On Images

Leslie Rice
News and Information
On the surface, last week's two Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium speakers couldn't have been more different.

One was bespectacled, earnest, academic, sounding nearly aristotelian with his beautiful rhetoric.

The other was animated, candid, with an informal speaking style and looking, as always, drop-dead gorgeous.

Yet as political analyst Eric Liu and supermodel Tyra Banks concluded their talks, they had succeeded in challenging the messages sold by the media every day to young people on how they should define themselves and others.

Liu and Banks are both influential twenty-somethings who came to the Homewood campus to try to help define Generation X, this year's 1996 Symposium, theme.

On Tuesday night, Liu, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton and founder of The Next Progressive, a journal of political thought written by people in their twenties, talked about how the media has so often attempted to neatly place his entire generation into one easy-to-define, little "box."

"Think of the word "Generation X," and the image that comes to mind is actually a narrow sliver of that population of people: middle or upper middle income, college-educated or college-bound," said Liu. "They are a group of people who are underemployed, underachieving. Look at the very term "Generation X." Doesn't "X" really stand for an absence of identity? An absence of purpose? This is, they say, the "slacker generation."

He did concede that this is, perhaps, the least politically involved generation to come down the pike in ages.

"They're right. Young people aren't that interested in politics," he said. "A recent survey done by UCLA found that the incoming freshmen were the most politically ignorant to come onto campus in 33 years. These students don't know the name of their congressmen, they aren't registered to vote and they don't read the newspaper.

"But I disagree with the notion that they aren't political."

Yes, this generation tunes out and flips the channel when politicians appear on TV, agreed Liu. Yes, they are for the most part uninterested in polls and focus groups-inspired slogans.

"But what I don't think people understand is that this is the most media savvy generation to ever come of age," he said. "Our generation is better equipped than any other to sniff out political staging, inauthenticity or manipulative rhetoric. They are very cynical about politics and politicians. These people don't care about adhering to the far left or the far right, they just want things fixed."

It is a generation that gravitates toward a different kind of politics, he claims, one that is community and grassroots oriented.

"It's about the fundamentals of politics. This is a generation of young people who, when they want to serve, refuse to go through bureaucracies to fix things."

Instead they are like the college senior who started Teach America, a now nation-wide organization that allows energetic, idealistic college graduates to bypass the required teaching certificate to teach in the neediest schools. Or Do-something, a national group also started by twenty-somethings that raises money to fund grass-roots community service projects started by young people.

Image was very much on the mind of Thursday's speaker-- supermodel Tyra Banks, the first African American model to grace the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

Her focus, not surprisingly, was on images and messages being sold to her generation on the perceptions of beauty. She talked about the countless times during her career when she had to choke on the American ideals of beauty in the media, which to this day has little room for a black woman.

"Right out of high school I went to Paris, and I became one of several black women who were very successful," she said. "I was something of a 'fashion darling,' and within a year I had 25 fashion shows--the norm is five or six--and I had been on the cover of just about every major Paris fashion magazine.

"Then when I came back to America, the press began asking me questions like 'You are the new black model. How does it feel to be forcing the other black models out?' As if there could only be one."

Back in America, she suddenly wasn't on any covers, and as time went by, wasn't in many fashion shows either.

"So I called my agent up, and I asked her what was going on," she continued. "And she told me in this matter-of-fact voice: "Well honey, it's winter, black women don't look good in winter clothes."

She also found herself forced to turn down jobs because they were offering to pay considerably less than what they would to her white counterparts.

The fashion world is a fickle, insecure and back-biting world, said Banks, and it is easy, almost inevitable, to surrender control of your life and career to the designers, agents and magazine editors. But she remembers one day watching fellow supermodel Cindy Crawford backstage giving orders to those very same designers, agents and magazines.

It was as if a light bulb went off, said Banks, and from that moment on, she decided that the only way she wanted this career was if she was in control of it. She changed the way she marketed herself, focusing on being more accessible-looking: pictures where one could see her face and her smile, rather than artistic pictures where all one notices is dramatic makeup and strange clothes. And she fought tooth and nail for her own calendar.

"It took forever to convince people to make one," she said. "'Why do you want to do a swimsuit calendar?' they asked me, 'Black people don't go to the beach.' Well, one month after it finally came out, it sold out and now you can't find it in the stores," she said with obvious pride.

Despite her success, Banks doesn't believe she has made much of a dent in the blue-eyed, blond-haired American beauty ideal. She read a letter from a 12-year-old fan.

Dear Tyra, You are so beautiful. I am so ugly and I don't have any friends. I have dark skin and a big nose. I wish I had light skin and green eyes like you. Then I would have friends.

"This is why I speak at schools and colleges now," she explained. "I get about a dozen letters like this from teenagers every day. I'm only one of 48 different skin tones that exist in my race. I am not the ideal of African American beauty. And it really bothers me that there are girls out there that think they are ugly because they have dark skin."

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