PRESERVE-ing Whiteness: Racism and Nostalgia on Blake Lively’s Lifestyle Website

Blake doing her thing.

Blake doing her thing.

Following in the footsteps of Gwenyth Paltrow’s GOOP, actress Blake Lively just launched a lifestyle website called PRESERVE. In her Letter from the Editor, Lively explains that the site “honors the future, while having a love affair with the past.” In the “About” section, readers learn that PRESERVE has a goal to “support the America we’ve always known, and the one we haven’t yet met.” Unrelated as they may seem, PRESERVE’s commitment to the past is emblematic of the persistence of reactionary politics that pervade the American Right. 

The website is divided into categories: Taste (“We aim to preserve the enduring traditions of meals, memories and merriment.”); Style (“We want to preserve the custom of telling one’s own story through style and craftsmanship.”); Projects (“We believe in preserving the messy worktables of the handmade life.”); Wellness (“We do our best to preserve a holistic approach to living a full and healthy life.”); Intimacy (“The smoky scent of sandalwood burning on a wick, the “ahh” of a warm bath; the precious exposure of your husband’s cheeks after a clean shave; the warmth of chocolate melting on your palate; the glow of reminiscing with your grandmother; the feeling of building not only a table, but also memories, with your dad—these are the quiet moments that make life most precious.”); Culture (“The heart of PRESERVE culture is about discovering old and new: music, travels, books, films and more.”); and Celebration (“PRESERVE celebration is about tradition, savoring, finding more excuses to celebrate and better ways to do it.”). Scrolling through the recipes, articles, videos, and photographs, readers encounter sepia-filtered images of rustic farm tables, rugged men with beards and tattoos, the ”well-worked hands of aging craftspeople and…the eager words of young artisans.”  The emphasis on preserving the old coupled with the aesthetic imagery that one might find on the exposed-brick walls of gentrifying coffee shops in Brooklyn, is a perfect metaphor for the current state of politics. Progress from the Left (e.g., Obama) or the Right (e.g., The Tea Party), doesn’t get us any farther than where we were before. 

Scholars and activists have long been theorizing that the wave of social progress that occurred in the 60s and 70s has since inspired a resurgence of nostalgia for days gone by, and PRESERVE is one example of the cultural manifestation of this longing for and romanticization of the past. Cornel West explains that after 1973, “the United States entered a period of waning self-confidence…and a nearly contracted economy.”[1] As a result, pervasive neoliberal policies (from the liberals and conservatives alike) took a stronghold in the US, and continue to lay a foundation that encourages cultural and political clingings to the restoration of the past. Take the struggle for women’s autonomy over their own bodies—when advancements were made, the backlash doubled, leaving our nation with fifty-four fewer abortion clinics than it had in 2010. [2]  Although the founders of PRESERVE are surely not intentionally invested in encouraging a pre-Civil Rights nation, even the name of the blog suggests that it has not escaped the pervasive cultural hegemony of nostalgia. 

Perhaps more insidiously, however, is that nostalgic throwbacks for “relics from bygone eras” suggest a firm divide between past and present. In reality, the aforementioned racist, sexist and unjust past is still alive and well. Cultural depictions of what was suggest that where we’re at now is somehow vastly different from our past; but for members of marginalized groups, there are no such markers of progress. The poor are still exploited, women are still denied autonomy over their bodies, and people of color still experience daily battles of interpersonal and structural racism. For many, the future is just a variation on a past injustice’s theme. PRESERVE proffers both a glorification of the past as well as contributing to the myth that it is different exists in the first place.

In the midst of this, PRESERVE reifies a construction of “Whiteness” that substantiates its invisibility. Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek explain the rhetorical construction of Whiteness as something that “makes itself visible and invisible, eluding analysis yet exerting influence over everyday life.” In other words, when race isn’t mentioned, Whiteness is assumed. Whiteness’ ability to go unnoticed is a privilege and is then also “taken as the norm from which Others are marked.” [3] 

PRESERVE’s contribution to the construction of Whiteness is align with contemporary culture’s commitment to multicultural colorblindness. There is a scant smattering of diversity in the pages of PRESERVE. For example, a vignette about New Orleans features a photograph of a Black poet, and a short story by Amber Tamblyn is followed by a photo spread of a racially ambiguous male model. A bizarre post that compares summer barbecues to medieval gatherings features an outdoor summer party full of overexposed photos of white women running through sunlit trees, lightly charred corn on the cob, and a picture of hands reaching across the farm table—all White hands, save one Black hand. The lack of explicit attention to race—while simultaneously throwing a person of color in the mix here and there—is illustrative of the kind of empty tokenizing diversity that continues to persist in American culture. 

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This is made especially clear in the story about New Orleans. Although the article points to the “government’s neglect” during Hurricane Katrina, it never once mentions race (or class) as a factor that inspired that neglect. The decontextualization of such a racially charged moment in history eludes the event of politics and becomes, what Tim Wise calls, “the rhetoric of racial transcendence” (which, conversely, allows the rhetorical construction of Whiteness to thrive).[4]  By not mentioning, or, “transcending” race, the site adds to discourse that suggests that “race doesn’t matter,” when, in fact, we see that it does matter—in unemployment rates, studies of housing discrimination, police targeting and profiling, and disproportionate levels of poverty.

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Of course, I am not trying to suggest that Blake Lively is caught up in some kind of plot to strengthen neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy. What I am saying is that neoliberalism and white supremacy have found ways to creep into the ostensibly innocuous spaces of lifestyle blogs. But, to paraphrase Stuart Hall, culture is a site of struggle. And maybe talking about reactionary politics on PRESERVE can help us be more attune to the moments when those same politics manifest in policies that impact our lives.

[1] See Cornel West, (1990). “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” The Humanities as Social Technology, (53). 

[2] See Jay Michaelson’s “Ten Reasons Women Are Losing While Gays Keep Winning.” 

[3] Thomas K. Nakayama & Robert L. Krizek, “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, (81), 1995, pp. 291-309.

[4] From Tim Wise (2010) Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equality

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