In a recent series of TikTok videos, Zenna Hodge recounts her experience getting pulled over by the police. Hodge explains how after pulling up to a hair salon, she found herself surrounded by four cop cars. It turns out that, unbeknownst to her, she was driving around with stolen license plates. She explains that the cops concluded that someone had taken her plates, put them on a stolen vehicle, and then proceeded to put the stolen vehicle’s plates on her car.
Hodge then explains how the cops stated that, in any other situation, she would have had guns drawn on her for driving a stolen vehicle. She then recalls how a cop said that “when I saw you park and I saw you driving, I figured maybe this wasn’t the case.”
“I was like, white privilege is a real thing,” Hodge then recalls in the video. “Because I think if I looked any other way, I probably would have gotten handcuffed or had guns drawn on me.”
Despite Hodge’s own acknowledgment of the role her white privilege played in this event, many users in the comments of her video disagreed.
“It’s not white privilege, it’s called pretty privilege,” one user said.
This term has been tossed around a lot on social media sites, including TikTok, in recent months. When discourse surrounding privilege is happening in the comments section, people aren’t just talking about being white, male, straight, or cis—they're talking about being pretty.
But what is pretty privilege?
Finding a concrete definition is a bit tricky, but generally speaking, pretty privilege usually refers to conventional attractiveness and how that attractiveness affords one certain opportunities and advantages. Examples of pretty privilege that TikTokers bring up include things like not being ID’d at clubs or receiving free meals at restaurants. But are these actual examples of privilege, in the way that we define it in regards to race, gender, and class? Or in regards to Hodge, was her relatively mellow experience with the police only because she was pretty and not because she was white?
First of all, societal standards for beauty are rooted in being white, thin, cisgender, and able-bodied. When defining “pretty privilege,” it is often acknowledged that beauty is subjective and rooted in eurocentric beauty standards. With that in mind, I don’t see why we don’t just call a spade a spade—it is white privilege, it is thin privilege, it is cis privilege, and it is able-bodied privilege. In Hodge’s case, it is evident that the police did not see her as a threat because she was white.
My problem with the term “pretty privilege” is that it takes away from these real definitions that are rooted in systemic oppression. Because at the end of the day, privilege is less about whether or not you get free drinks at the bar because the bartender thinks you are pretty, and more about escaping the police with your life because you are white.
Moreover, being pretty is not enough to make one privileged. A pretty trans woman will still face discrimination at the doctor’s office for not being cis. Being pretty could not and did not save Black women such as Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland from losing their lives to police brutality. Privilege is not inherently based on being conventionally attractive, but on whether or not your life is deemed valuable in a white, capitalist, and patriarchal society.
Furthermore, is being considered desirable in the white, patriarchal lens really an example of privilege? After all, we have seen the way the fetishization of women of color, such as Asian women for example, can lead to violence. We can even look back at the colonization of Africa and see the way that Black women were hyper-sexualized—and thus dehumanized—by their colonial overlords. It is very clear to me that the idea of being desirable in a patriarchal society makes one vulnerable to violence, and women of color often bear the brunt of this.
As a woman of color, I know firsthand what it is like to feel inadequate for not living up to eurocentric beauty standards. The struggles that marginalized people feel for not being white, thin, cis, or able-bodied are valid and deserve to be discussed with much more nuance at large. But we can not, and should not, whittle examples of systemic oppression down to “pretty privilege.” Although I can see the connection between the idea of “pretty privilege” to desirability politics, privilege on its own has to be evaluated on an institutional level rather than an individual one.
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