(Lots of topics up ahead and I’m not entirely certain I’ve handled all of them well, statistically speaking, so please correct if necessary.)
I don’t want anyone to refrain from voicing what they like and don’t like about the new design of Duchess, but I would be highly grateful if we could all make a distinction between the changes in Duchess’s fashion and the changes to her face/skin. I am on average neutral about the fashion changes and would probably only complain on the lack of paint details on her new headpiece (and maybe the necklace) if that was all.
It is not all, though. Art!Duchess has changes made to her that whitewash her. And yes, Cupid and various MH characters (like Sirena) show that the art does not have to reflect the doll so in that sense there still is hope that the art can eventually be put aside as the odd one of the bunch, but that does not mean the art itself isn’t a bad thing on its own worth talking about (I am going to have to put it up as Duchess’s main image on the EAHWiki - not happy) and in general a really unpleasant surprise that at best unnecessarily creates worry for the doll.
So, I’ll be talking, splitting her whitewashing into her skin changes and her “eye” changes. I have a personal interest in Duchess’s old appearance because it reads to me as Caucasian or from near that region. My ancestry contains Armenian blood, and it pops up in various family members. I am more Indonesian-looking as far as my POC heritage goes, but my mother and siblings have traits from the Armenian side. Representation talk is usually about seeing yourself and could use more about wanting to see your family too, in a way that doesn’t make them one-sided villains, at least.
Also, given some of the recent events, I’d like to make a slight detour here to add that Dutch-Armenian trade relations about started in the 13th century. The Netherlands and (Cilician) Armenia are a little over 3000 km apart, and it is just one example of POC reaching all the way into West/North Europe throughout history. But sure, POC didn’t start arriving in the Netherlands’ neighbor country Germany until the mid-19th century. And no, I never learned about this stuff in school either and I am actually reading up on the details on my own still. I can’t say I haven’t made the same mistakes as certain other people, so in that sense I understand, but I’ve taken my education when it came and never told someone to shut up about wanting representation. That’s just basic decency. There’s people in these fandoms who choose a different route when called out, and that’s why “be nice” is not any sort of solution to deal with them.
Anyway, skin. Without a doubt Duchess’s skin as shown so far has a range, but even at its lightest it was accentuated with brown and darker colors. The pink cheeks rather than the brown ones are off-putting, not to mention that just because it could doesn’t mean the lightest version had to be picked for the art.
I admit that when I first got a good look at Duchess with her olive skin and heavy facial features in a graceful, soft lavender dress, I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t like it either. It was not something I had familiarity with. Which in turn made me recall a discussion at MHdolls (no, don’t try to wave this away with some bullshit “we’re better” claim I’ve occasionally seen made) about two years earlier regarding Daughter of Arachne and what fashion people’d like to see her in if she’d ever be released. The only thing about that discussion I truly remember is that gothic was readily dismissed because “dark colors don’t look good on dark skin”.
There’s a couple of ideas of what works on which bodies in society, with the big joke being that everyone is made to believe everything works on (pale) white bodies and that other bodies are restricted in what they can and can’t wear. Sometimes in ridiculous ways, like how bright colors are generally appreciated on dark skin, but only as clothes. Brightly colored hair atop dark/black bodies is “ghetto”. The idea that dark colors don’t work on dark skin is bullshit and simply a result of unfamiliarity because of organized erasure and exclusion. It’s the one thing about Raven’s appearance I don’t like, especially in context of Bobs & Buns. Yes, she doesn’t have the ideal-white look that makes me wary, but I am aware of the minor “gothic girl protagonist” thing used to “rebel” against the other kind of protagonist some fiction employs, only in a way that’s still white- or light-skinned-normative and sexist in the way it stereotypes. Like, right after Briar’s exclusion in the Selfridges handbag lineup, my loathing for the Selfridges deal comes from “I wanted to do something with a smashed mirror to show rebellion against her past and against the traditional norms of beauty.” in regards to the Raven-inspired handbag. Which technically brings us back to Briar’s exclusion: it’s nonsense to think white bodies - with the exception of cases that hit other -isms - are able to defy “traditional norms of beauty” because those norms have been designed to elevate them above everyone else in the first place. White beauty is part of white supremacy. Raven, on a meta level, defies nothing. Along with Bobs & Buns, she keeps a certain fashion aesthetic firmly in white hands. I’ve been wanting a dark-skinned goth in MH ever since the Daughter of Arachne discussion to prove it wrong, and since a while even moreso in EAH because the fashion range of EAH is more limited and “goth” has already shown up thrice in just one year and appears tied to villain-born characters. That means more are likely to follow and some of them need to be something else than white, preferably something else with dark skin.
The above considerations are old, and how they apply back to Duchess is that they are what made me realize Duchess’s beauty. Of course she’s not on the same level as someone like Wydowna, but she lies within the line(s) away from whiteness that precludes possibilities the further you get. I’ve never seen a character like her before: only ballerinas I ever saw in my shows were lily-white (not including anime because it needlessly would complicate this paragraph). Maybe there was a token POC ballerina among them, and hey, that’s worth something, but the thing with tokenism is that it prevents exploration of diversity. Like, I recall one person trying to argue that Cerise can’t be Asian because “if you look closely, you’ll see her hair isn’t black”. That person apologized, so no hard feelings, but it is indicative of a general problem with how definable people think races other than white are (I, for one, still have my own system to clean too). Duchess, whatever she is, visually approaches white but is removed from how generally white people are imagined to look like, yet still she is here, wearing a graceful outfit with a beautiful subtle color usually reserved for white-white and their preferential treatment. She’s something else. She’s someone for me. Her entire appearance asked me a question and my answer made me fall in love with her.
I mean, this is a thing I want to hand EAH. They’ve got way too few POC and treat them shittily, but Briar as both a brown girl and the primary pink girl and the constant emphasis on Cedar’s innocence while she is black are good things. Keeping my fingers crossed ice girl’s design is a-okay because non-pale women aren’t commonly associated with the winter theme either. And Duchess’s appearance also defies a norm: the paleness of elegance.
But all that I’ve just expressed in four paragraphs feels taken away. Seeing Duchess so white - so pale - is incredibly normative, and it reads like Mattel means it as a correction. It’s not inherently bad the art looks that way - it’s bad it looks that way after having been shown something else for a change. If she’d looked this way from the beginning, I’d likely never have bothered with her. It’s bad for taking away the reason of my investment, especially because I don’t have many characters to invest in given that white characters are both quantitatively and qualitatively favored.
As for the eyes, one thing about Duchess’s previous/usual design is that her eye area is very heavy. It’s a combination of her eyes being large, her eyes being dark, her using dark makeup, her thick eyebrows that go everywhere, and her flat bangs. All of that is taken away to create a face that’s pretty much Raven’s, or Poppy’s mirrored. The elimination of her eye-emphasis takes away much from her POC-reading, and unpleasantly reminds me of this story from a while back. As it reads on the bottom of the first page:
“For most faces, the software made subtle changes, with the person’s essence and character largely intact. In the case of the woman pictured on the front page of this section, the changes were more striking, probably because her features, Mr. Leyvand said, do appear more ethnic than many of the other women and men he photographed. (The researchers have not yet created a program that would be designed with what they call a beauty estimator for nonwhite racial and ethnic groups.)”
To me, it’s almost like Duchess has been run through the same program (might be me, but the woman spoken of also appears more pink-ish in the “beautified” image). And mind, while the people in the article are kind enough to emphasize the software is not infallible and that beauty is subjective, the software still serves the function of reaffirming “traditional” beauty within the larger context of neocolonial Eurocentric beauty standards. Heck, the reason I know of this software is because it was used by a known racist to argue that white beauty objectively is the one true beauty.
So, as an aside, let me be clear that the people who say they think art!Duchess looks better than previous/usual!Duchess (few, fortunately) are full of toxic bullshit.
On top of Duchess’s own changes as far as her art-self goes, there’s the matter this comes after a series of unpleasant developments. There’s the implication all nominees - who are all white - will win Thronecoming, which only makes the exclusion of WOC candidates that much more egregious because they haven’t just lost a chance to win, but the win itself. There’s Melody’s blatant exclusion from the yearbook for no discernible reason while it does contain the Crumbs and doesn’t do anything for my hope they won’t be pseudo-Nazi stereotypes at least outside the books (at least they’re not pan-canonically blond, I suppose). There’s that Mr. Cottonhorn is not one of Lilly-Bo’s sheep. And there’s the recent sort of addition of Lizzie to the Apple-Briar… thing that is really not doing anything to improve Briar’s situation. Rare pros are Spinmaster Flax (would’ve favored Spinmistress Flax. Seems more Briar to me) and, apparently, the treatment of Cedar in the third book. Not going to be thrilled by either anymore. Months ago I made a positive comment for once on the then-webisode and that I was looking forward to the rest and then the next several months were shit webisode after shit webisode. I tried to be positive about SDCC and you know. I tried to be positive about Spinmaster Flax and then no Melody and whitewashed Duchess. Not doing positive anymore as long’s irony hanging around.
That’s about all my feelings on Duchess, with a few bits of related topics woven in for context and/or because they needed to be addressed to. It’s been two days since Duchess’s card reveal and I’m still shaking. I’m not sure what I’m hoping for from the franchise anymore at this point, because it just keeps doing gross things and I’m out of energy to keep my hopes up. Not leaving or stopping or anything, but dealing with EAH is pretty much flowing along now, which is nothing like the rush MH provides.