Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Womanly virtues: Beauty as a state of being

The Last Psychiatrist had a good catch yesterday. Writing about The Hunger Games he notes that it is a "sexist" fairytale written by a woman.
This is not a criticism about the entertainment value of the story, but about its popularity and the pretense that it has a strong female character. I like the story of Cinderella, but I doubt that anyone would consider Cinderella a strong female character, yet Katniss and Cinderella are identical.

The traditional progressive complaint about fairy tales like Cinderella is that they supposedly teach girls to want to be princesses and want to live happily ever after.  But is that so bad?  The real problem with fairy tales is that the protagonist never actually does anything to become a princess.  
He goes on to make some interesting points and some debatable ones after that. But that point is pure gold. Over and over again, Hollywood tells women that all they need to do in life to succeed is to really want it.

But is this sexist? The Hunger Games was written by women and it is women who are making it such a huge success. I'll grant you there is something not-feminist about it. Again, to quote TLP:
So this is why we have a book about a post-apocalyptic killing game that spends zero pages describing how Katniss kills anyone but spends countless pages on how she is dressed, how everyone is dressed.  What will she wear?  What kind of jewelry?   Hair up?  Will the "sponsors" like her better this way or that?   Her chief weapon isn't a bow, it's her appearance. 
Okay, but this isn't men forcing this on women so it isn't sexist. And it isn't the sort of concern men have about women's appearance. For us, concerns about appearance can be sexual or they can be purely aesthetic. When we think in sexual terms, we are attracted to women whose appearance arouses us sexually. When we think purely aesthetically, it's something more like the famous photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe. Katniss is something else and, again, I think TLP nails it even if he misses the full significance of his own point:
What makes this such an impossible, lose-lose situation for a woman is that this choice isn't about "what to do" but about who she is, what society wants a woman to be: while she must make herself look pretty, if she is observed doing this she is immediately and simultaneously critiqued for being vain.  The decision about whether to be or not to doll herself up is thus somewhat up to her, but the judgment about whether she is vain is entirely out of her hands-- it is a judgment imposed on her for doing exactly what is expected of her.  Her only hope is that she is can make herself look pretty enough that it looks like it was not on purpose, i.e reveal the results but hide the process.
That's close but not quite right.  He is absolutely correct that women's appearance is often a matter of who she is rather than what she can do. I was walking by a lingerie store today and noticed that they were flogging a push up bra they called "perfect me". And that is how you sell women's personal appearance to women.

For men it is much simpler. Women's breasts swell when they are sexually aroused so every man reacts subconsciously when a woman he knows breasts are more noticeable today than they were yesterday. He probably doesn't even know why he is reacting, he is genetically programmed to pay attention to this woman. He doesn't wrap her identity up in it.

The notion that appearance = identity is a trap to be sure but it's a trap that women set for themselves and for other women.

To return to the point above, for women the problem is not vanity but effort. If you buy into the notion that appearance = identity then the only beauty that counts is effortless beauty. If you are visibly working it, then the effects are "not really you". Oddly enough, simple trickery doesn't seem to upset women so long as the trickery in question is common practice. Today, for example, push up bras are common practice so they are considered acceptable. But a woman who resorted to such a thing back in the 1980s, when it wasn't common practice, would have been condemned by other women as "trying too hard".

And the standards here are harshly enforced. By women. Because you think you want to be loved for "who you really are", it is easy for other women to undermine you by insisting on effortless grace. And it is easy for other women to punish you for daring to use some fashion trick that isn't currently acceptable.

This proves a real handicap when it comes to relating to men.  First of all because the tricks work. Go to work for a month wearing bras without any sort of enhancement and then show up wearing "perfect me" and all the guys will comment how good you look today. The merit seems unearned—you don't feel you deserve it—and the guys seem stupid and shallow.

It's even worse once a woman is in a relationship. Now you feel you have moved beyond tricks and seek love "just for who you really are". And your guy, because he loves you, does so, and that vindicates your sense that you don't need to resort to tricks anymore. Meanwhile he is thinking, "Why has she lost interest in enticing me into sex? Does she not love me anymore?"

(Men notice women who have pure aesthetic beauty but we don't see that as an obligation. Notice how little effort we put into that aspect of our own appearance. But sex really matters to us so we really notice when women stop acting like they are interested in sex. If a man's lover stops dressing for sex or stops flirting, the orange alert light starts flashing.)

But if you try the tricks again, they seem more hollow than ever to you and the fact that they still work on him is no consolation. It's not what you want! You think, "This isn't me." So you dig your heels in and refuse or, worse, play along but do so grudgingly. To wrap up with TLP again:
The traditional progressive complaint about fairy tales like Cinderella is that they supposedly teach girls to want to be princesses and want to live happily ever after.  But is that so bad?  The real problem with fairy tales is that the protagonist never actually does anything to become a princess
In other words, the morality here is the reverse of what you think it is. A point you can confirm for yourself by walking around and making a checklist of women you see. Put each one into one of three categories*:
  • "Royalty". (There is greater and lesser royalty, but that isn't what you look for. The question is, Is she royalty? not "Is she the supreme example of royalty?")
  • Lazy slob who thinks she should be a princess but does nothing to earn it.
  • Woman who has given up.
Do that and you will quickly see that when you assess other women from the outside, the real issue is not who she really is but how much work she puts into it. The thing that makes any other woman you see royalty is not who she really is but how good she is at being a woman. It's only when you allow yourself to get narcistically wrapped up in yourself that "love me for who I really am" seems to make sense.

* If you want you can also create a fourth category of "brave feminist who has defied social conventions to become truly herself" but you won't find anyone who really fits that category.

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