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Face value; the politics of beauty.

Although there is scant beauty in politics, there is indeed a politics of beauty, a link between how we define and treat physical appearance and how social power is organized and exercised. The judgment of Paris was a beauty contest whose consequences were more extensive than the mere diposition of an apple. Paris, who did not know the Seine from the Susquehanna, ought to have realized it was a no-win situation, that whatever his choice it would automatically incur the enmity of two formidable women. When Paris selected Aphrodite as the fairest, she rewarded him with gorgeous Helen; but Hera and Athena retaliated by destroying his hometown, Troy, and by disrupting the entire civilized world.

Aside from Presidential elections, the pre-eminent contemporary beauty contest is the Miss America pageant. It is a curious fact that the first Miss America, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., was crowned in August 1921 -- just one year after the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the vote. As much an affront to feminism as vivisection is to animal rights, the pageant is now more popular than ever and remains a graphic reminder that ancient notions and uses of beauty die hard.

The authors of Face Value: The Politics of Beauty put a sanguine complexion on the problem. Their goal is to demystify beauty, their vehicle is polemic and their alternative is an active life in which we each assume responsibility for our own identities. "The whole notion of female beauty," according to Lakoff and Scherr, "depends on a hierarchy which exists to distinguish the 'haves' from the 'have nots,' those who merit visibility from those condemned to invisibility."

Although they devote a chapter to men, Lakoff and Scherr are primarily concerned with female beauty and almost exclusively with Western, particularly American, culture. They review a series of myths: beauty is God-given, is universal and permanent, is benign, is inseparable from stupidity, is mentally unsettling, is powerful. And they contrast these with a series of counter-myths: beauty is arduously acquired, is mutable, is malign, is linked to intelligence, is serene, is feeble. Their conclusion, drawn from anthropology, philosophy, psychology and the arts, that the truth is somewhere between the extremes seems so unexceptionable as to be uninteresting. After surveying the standards of female beauty that have obtained for three millenniums, the authors express disappointment over the lack of consistent, objective criteria; the only recurrent element they discover is "feminine helplessness and passivity, however this is to be achieved, whether because the woman is pregnant, or weak, dependent and sickly, or fat and slowed by her girth."

This is a sublimely ambitious book, but its breezy generalizations do not always clear the air. It may be that the discipline of esthetics does not provide a comprehensive account of beauty, but Lakoff and Scherr are not able to convince me of that in a mere four pages. They manage to quote Burke. Aristotle and Aquinas, but ignore Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Kant and many others who have made contributions to the discussion. Though they lament that freud "has virtually nothing to say on the subject of beauty," they might have found a footnote to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality provocative: "There is to my mind no doubt that the concept of 'beautiful' has its roots in sexual excitation and that its original meaning was 'sexually stimulating.'"

The authors too glibly assert that "artists, like poets, have always availed themselves of feminine beauty as the lodestone of their efforts, the justification of their genius." It hardly seems to have been a lodestone to Baudelaire, who believed that truth is sooty, or to Henry Miller, who describes Tropic of Cancer as "a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty." If the female forms depicted by artists from Manet through Arbus are "beautiful," then the concept of pulchritude has changed radically. The repudiation of classical beauty is a central tenet of modernism, and Lakoff and Scherr might profitably have explored why.

They do formulate the intriguing equation beauty is to woman as penis is to man. They are at pains to argue that this is a more sophisticated and accurate formulation th an the discredited Freudian theory of penis envy. Beauty and a phallus are not so much the distinguishing features of each sex as symbols of the distinctive power of each. According to Lakoff and Scherr, what "the girl envies is not the organ in its physical actuality, but the promise of power it signifies." It seems likely to me that female beauty conveys power, or privilege, over other women more than over men. And unless, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, we believe that the size or performance of his organ somehow gives a man power over other men, the analogy between beauty and the penis is a fallacy.

In the preface, each of the authors courageously reveals the personal background that drew her to this subject. Lakoff describes herself as a plain woman who early on opted out of the beauty sweepstakes. Scherr discusses her unconventional looks and attributes the end of a twelve-year relationship to a blond rival six years her junior. It would be easy to attribute autobiographical motives to the authors' preoccupation with why blondes seem to have more fun or with the privileges society accords young, attractive women. But to do so would be to avoid important issues by pursuing an argument and feminam. Sour grapes can still yield robust wine.

The authors' methodology, though, is at time suspect. They devote most of a chapter titled "Beauty in Our Time" to a curiously disembodies, impressionistic survey of the history of Vogue, asserting, without demonstrating, that the magazine. presents the most complete, concise, and consistent history of female beauty in this century, in part because it is primarily dedicated to the idealization of beauty, its display and its pursuit, and in the course of its history has paid tribute to all the modern Venuses of the age, whether society beauties, film stars, stage actresses, or models.

If beauty is a tool to reify and victimize women, they ought to have examined a publication more widely circulated among men, perhaps even investigated the murk of girlie magazines. A history of M-G-M or of Miss America might also have shed light on the development of American notions of beauty.

Lakoff and Scherr conducted a large number of interviews as data for their conclusions. While these provide anecdotal interest, their scholarly rigor remains moot. They find "grounds for optimism" in the responses of men they surveyed: "From the interview data, men would appear to be moving away from the old stereotype: they seem less interested in dewy and inexperienced youth, less concerned with superficial and bland prettiness." We are never told how large their sample is, or how representative in terms of age, income, occupation or education. It seems likely that subjects might want to appear more progressive than they really are and that the San Francisco Bay area, where all interviews apparently were conducted, would provide firmer grounds for optimism than most other parts of the country.

Face Value pays passing attention to other cultures, particularly in its discussion of phyiscal mutilation--foot binding in China, clitoridectomy in Africa. But a more systematic analysis of traditions of beauty outside the United States might have suggested alternatives to our oppressive system. The authors are disturbed by the Nordic bias of American conceptions of beauty, but they do not examine whether other ethnic biases exist elsewhere.

Face Value rejects a single, authoritarian standard for beauty and quite naturally celebrates cultural diversity. It praises minority magazines that proclaim "that everyone--black, Asian, Indian, Mexican, Filipino--can be beautiful." Lakoff and Scherr seem to be both Platonists and egalitarians when they admit that a woman can be beautiful according to the standards of her distinctive type. But surely not all types are equal; is there a separate Platonic ideal for the cross-eyed and the leprous? Presumably, the authors would at least be willing to subdivide their categories further: a woman who does not conform to the generic Indian canon of beauty might still excel according to Sioux or Navajo or Ojibwa or Iroquois ideals. But why stop at a subgroup? Why not reduce it to a matter of each conforming to her individual criterion? In that case, everyone can indeed be beautiful, as much as everyone can be hideous. But that every woman is beautiful in her own way is a vapid piety that neither reassures nor conforms to common sense.

The fact of the matter is that within a given culture there is considerable agreement about the polarities of physical appearance. Faced with the realities of attraction and repulsion, should we feel exhilarated, guilty, envious or indifferent? According to Marlene Dietrich, who must be either an expert or an ignoramus on the subject, "In the realm of love and happiness or happiness and love, beauty lies like a feather on the scale of values." Lakoff and Scherr would have done well to show more precisely how that feather lies. They conclude their book by exhorting: "We must take the problem of beauty in hand, and reshape that magical ideal which has always enhanced our lives into something that enriches our humanity even more deeply." To label beauty a "magical ideal" is truly to close discussion, and to claim that it "has always enhanced our lives" is to contradict much of the authors' own evidence and analysis. While beauty is a voguish topic, and originality on it requires open eyes, Face Value resembles its title by promising more than it provides.
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Author:Kellman, Steven G.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 8, 1984
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