Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Lil Wayne have both gone viral this week for calling out unflattering artistic renderings of themselves, and the internet is having an absolute field day over it. And rightfully so.
Johnson has aired out the unfortunate fact that the wax figure of him on display at the Grévin Museum in Paris has not a whiff of melanin in it (the actor is of Black and Samoan descent), and instead boasts a skin tone that can only be described as extremely caucasian.
Lil Wayne also had a problem with a figure of himself that debuted in 2022 at the Hollywood Wax Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, that had his likeness smiling awkwardly while flashing his chest with a crazed, empty look in his waxy eyes. Also, the sculpture looks like a 16-year-old. Basically, it’s A Milli-ion types of wrong.
“Sorry wax museum but dat shit ain’t me!” he tweeted this week. “You tried tho and I appreciate the effort.”
These examples are, unfortunately, part of a long tradition of botched wax figures, which seem to curiously afflict the people of color they’re supposed to resemble. Remember that one infamous wax figure of Nicki Minaj at Berlin’s Madame Tussauds that made the queen of rap look like someone none of us have ever seen before in our lives? Specifically, her facial features were just off. And then there was that even more sacrilegious wax figure at New York’s Madame Tussauds of Beyoncé, with light skin and elongated features that turned her into a Euro-centric version of herself.
There are probably many reasons that wax museums seem to go so wrong when trying to create sculptures of Black and brown people, and to be fair, creating a physically accurate wax figure of someone is probably super difficult. But beyond that, there’s no doubt that people of color tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to being accurately represented or identified in general. Studies have shown that we are often mistaken for each other in the workplace, even when they look nothing alike.
This shows up in even more consequential spaces through AI software, which generally has more trouble telling people of color apart. In fact, one study found that Black and Asian people were 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men. In the wax figure universe, the most common manifestation of this comes in getting the skin tones of people of color all wrong and often lightening them, sending a not-so-subtle message that lighter skin is more visually pleasurable.
Of course, Johnson’s and Lil Wayne’s latest wax faux pas might have simply been instances of careless artistry, but I have so many questions. How did these wax figures get approved to be displayed in wax museums in the first place? Surely, there must be some type of protocol in place where several people have to agree that the figure is visually accurate. Are artists of color involved in the process? If that’s the case, then these botched wax figures have no business existing.
Maybe I’m being too cynical, but I can’t help but think that these wax figure fiascos come at least in part from a tendency to not pay close attention to people of color’s individuality and our unique features. It’s almost like the wax figures are outward manifestations of what we look like through a white lens, and it’s actually quite unsettling to see.