Monday, October 17, 2005

The Tyranny of Beauty

It was early last week that, walking down the street, I noticed him. I heard him first: That unmistakable tone and timbre of man yelling at the unseen (to us) presence lurking at his side, over his shoulder, perpetually in front of him, that desperate, frantic howl of a man plagued by voices. Such things aren't unusual in any city, and they're downright commonplace in Seattle, where pretty nearly the whole lot of us suffer from some sort of mood disorder and/or a tendency to talk to ourselves. I didn't look because it's unusual, but because . . . well, because I always do. Maybe it gives me comfort to imagine that there are people out there crazier than I am; maybe I think such people speak a deeper wisdom, their minds damaged by divine revelations crammed too quickly into their capacity-challenged crania.

The "why" isn't important. What's important is that I looked, and was surprised by what I saw. Instead of the usual grizzled malcontent or unsanitary transient, I saw someone who could, more or less, have been me . . . only much, much better looking.

And all I could think was, "I didn't know they could go crazy."

They being the beautiful people, of course.

Of all the perceived advantages for which I have envied beautiful people, impunity is the one that haunts me, this notion I've had in my head my whole life that they can get away with more, they win more favor with a greater number of people, they don't need a well-formed, overriding philosophy, they get laid more, they don't lose their minds and start talking to people who aren't there (again, so far as the rest of us can see). My guess is that some of these beliefs are backed by honest statistics while others are not; either way, I think that, for rhetorical purposes, we can assume that these assumptions are bullshit. What interests me is why I have them to begin with.

It's obvious that our culture obsesses over beauty. Sure, all culture obsesses with beauty: the philosophy of values class I took in college was called "Truth, Good and Beauty"; art is often spoken of in terms of defining, re-defining or decontstructing beauty; music is often asked, by those of classical persuasion and/or those who expect music to engender primarily "positive" response, to either be "beautiful" or to explain itself for failing to do so. Beauty is perceived as a universal good.

But in the West, and the U.S. in particular, the notion of individual, physical beauty is not only a commodity on par with money, security, enlightenment and accomplishment, but an end that supercedes all of these . . . or, perhaps more correctly, is seen to contain all of these in itself. Our cult of celebrity is often seen, perhaps correctly, as a cult of youth and beauty (more on youth later): the beautiful individual as millionaire, tastemaker, icon.

Thing is, when I see money, power, influence, public adoration, what I really see, what I truly desire, is impunity: the ability to function without accountability, to choose projects based on how much they appealed to me, to live outside the dictates of traditional morality, to stop for a cheeseburger without worrying how much it's going to cost. Oh, and to avoid tedious niceties like eating, sleeping, shitting, blowing my nose and writing out bills (for surely the beautiful needn't do such things).

Interestingly enough, studies have shown contradictory data on whether the physically attractive actually receive these kinds of social benefits. Physically attractive people do seem to get hired more readily than do less attractive people; but they also do worse than others in terms of getting help from concierges, or cutting in lines, perhaps because of people like me who think, "Yeah, right, like I'm gonna help you Mr./Ms. Supermodel."

Except, of course, when I'm thinking, "I'll gladly help him/her out if he/she could at least pretend to be flirting with me."

All of which gives me pause with regards to my association of beauty with impunity. Does physical attractiveness create a different set of obligations in exchange for the ones it seems to take away?

I think the association of beauty with youth also speaks to the desire to postpone accountability. There's tremendous comfort in feeling like there's still time to do those things that we'll have to be too responsible to even think about in a few years. Is that why, in the interest of maintaining that which we understand to be beauty and youth, so many actors resort to plastic surgery?

On Saturday night, 'Stine, the beige one and myself all took in Broken Flowers, a movie so insinuating I can't even write a lucid review of it (just yet). One of the things we all noticed, however, was that Jessica Lange appears to have had some "work" done. I wonder, not without some sense of irony, whether the fact that we even noticed or speculated is as much a symptom of our society's obsession as the fact that she may have been concerned enough with beauty and the appearance of youth to have felt pressured to do it in the first place. I'm ashamed that I'm talking about her face, instead of pointing out that, in her brief appearance in the film, she gave one of the most nuanced performances of her career.

What strikes me most of all about it is that someone as beautiful as Lange (on whom I had a huge schoolboy crush back in junior high) would feel this pressure at all. Thinking about it in this light, I suddenly feel fortunate to be sort of plain and bald, with love handles and hairy shoulders. The idea of getting a facelift or an eye job seems so foreign to me, because . . . well, I'm just not possessed of enough ethereal beauty to feel like I have to preserve anything (plus I'm, like, poor).

And when I start hearing the voices, at least I know it wasn't because I failed to be good looking enough to dodge them.


Blogger Missuz J said...

After reading "Persuasion" in one of Kay Cook's classes, I came home and said to my parents (I was about 22 at the time) "I'm past my bloom." I was quasi-serious, and a little put out when they laughed uproariously at me.

Wanting to be physically attractive--wanting to hold on to that brief time when we "bloom"--when out physical appearance is at its highest point--is a fucking pain in the ass. There are days when I don't give a shit. Then there are days when all I see is Jessica Simpson and whoever the fuck else is plastered all over, and think--well--at least you haven't been mistaken for a Wookie today.

1:59 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Heh, heh . . . Wookie, indeed.

I kinda feel like I never had my "bloom", or, if I did, like it must have been a highly underwhelming one. I'm inclined to say that I've looked my best over the last five years. But I never really can tell, because it's hard to trust what the people you know say about your appearance, and the people you don't know never say anything at all on the matter.

Funny that you mention Jessica Simpson, because I find her singularly unattractive. Of course, there's the bizarre irony of it: I don't find the media's portrayal of feminine beauty remotely appealing, yet I beat myself up for having the audacity not to live up to the media's standard of male beauty. Is a little bit of body fat (and I'm still reasonably fit by any standard but Hollywood's), body hair or male pattern baldness unattractive because Brad Pitt has none of the above?

2:11 PM  
Blogger the beige one said...

great entry.

I'd connect Ms. Lange's desire for whatever work she had done is akin to a certain hound's desire to describe himself as "plain" with "lovehandles."

In either scenario, my eyeballs would like to roll in search of terra incognito.

2:46 PM  
Blogger the beige one said...

I mean terra incognita. duh.

2:47 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

I liked terra incognito.

And, yeah, well, eye-of-the-beholder, you're your own worst critic and all that.

I'm contemplating posting a review of Broken Flowers; but, true to its director's form, it keeps sinking in incrementally. I'd definitely have to put it among Jarmusch's best, though.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Stine said...

"But I never really can tell, because it's hard to trust what the people you know say about your appearance, and the people you don't know never say anything at all on the matter."

- But, if the people you know say that you're a fat, balding man with hairy shoulders, you'd be MUCH more inclined to believe them. Why is that?

4:53 PM  
Blogger JJisafool said...

I assume beautiful people are stupid.

I'm right a lot.

Not because beauty makes you dumb, but because it is easier to allow yourself to be dumb, or become dumb.

I'm really smart. Like wicked smart. Like 99th percentile of every test I've every been administered. And I'd rather be that than pretty, which I ain't, or athletic, which I ain't, or charismatic, which I ain't, or wise, which I ain't, or... ad nauseum.

And, I'm never surprised when pretty people are mean or fucked up. Nor athletic or charismatic people.

I think it's a tribal thing.

12:17 AM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

My smartness is debatable--I may just be good at scamming tests (I tend to score pretty close to the way you do). I think I'd rather be "wise" than "smart", so I find it interesting that you'd prefer it the other way around. In what ways do you think "intelligence" (or "smartness", if one may differentiate) is preferable to wisdom?

I'm more athletic than I tend to admit. And maybe my athleticism and intelligence (such as it is) make up for any beauty or charisma I may think to envy, but it's easy to find that which you don't have . . . well, enviable.

On a related note, I have to say that what I've always envied even more than beauty is cleverness, the ability to be spontaneously funny. Feeling plain is not nearly so helpless a feeling as feeling dull . . . or worse, feeling boorish, lacking in not only humor and wit, but in any sense of tact, subtlety, nuance or propriety.

Of course, to write compellingly about my relationships with such attributes would actually require that I possess some of them. Oh, vicious conundrum!!

9:53 AM  
Blogger JJisafool said...

I'm sure I scam the tests, too. I once told Beigey that there is a picture of me at the Education Testing Service with the words "Write your questions for him." Lower-middle-class WASP.

But, it is more than the testing that makes me say that. Facility with new ideas, most particularly philosophy and critical theory, retention and creation. Smart is just my thing.

And the only reason I say I'd rather be it is that I am it. It isn't better than wisdom in general, but more suitable to the me it has helped create.

12:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home