The Beauty Myth in Books

Culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without-intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind or body but not both. A common allegory that teaches women this lesson is the pretty-plain pairing: of Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament and Mary and Martha in the New; Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Anya and Dunyasha in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard; Daisy Mae and Sadie Hawkins in Dogpatch; Glinda and The Wicked Witch of the West in Oz. Veronica and Ethel in Riverdale; Ginger and Mary Anne in Gilligan’s Island; Janet and Chrissie in Three’s Company; Mary and Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show; and so forth. Male culture seems happiest to imagine two women together when they are defined as being one winner and one loser in the beauty myth.

Women’s writing, on the other hand, turns the myth on its head. Female culture’s greatest writers share the search for radiance, a beauty that has meaning. The battle between the overvalued beauty and the undervalued, unglamorous but animated heroine forms the spine of the women’s novel. It extends from Jane Eyre to today’s paperback romance, in which the gorgeous nasty rival has a mane of curls and prodigious cleavage, bu the heroine only her spirited eyes. The hero’s capacity to see the true beauty of the heroine is his central test.

This tradition pits beautiful, vapid Jane Fairfax (“I cannot separate Miss Fairfax from her complexion”) against the subtler Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma; frivolous, blond Rosamond Vincy (“What is the use of being exquisite if you are not seen by the best judges?”) against “nun-like” Dorothea Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; manipulative, “remarkably pretty” Isabella Crawford against self-effacing Fanny Price in Austen’s Mansfield Park; fashionable, soulless Isabella Thorpe against Catherine Morland, unsure of herself “where the beauty of her own sex is concerned,” in Austen’s Northanger Abbey; narcissistic Ginevra Fanshaw (“How do I look to-night?… I know I am beautiful”) against the invisible Lucy Snow (“I saw myself in the glass… I thought little of the wan spectacle”) in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette; and, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, vain Amy March, “a graceful statue,” against tomboyish Jo, who sells her “one beauty,” her hair, to help her family. It descends to the present in the novels of Alison Lurie, Fay Weldon, Anita Brookner. Women’s writing is full to the point of heartbreak with the injustices done by beauty—its presence as well as its absence.

But when girls read the books of masculine culture, the myth subverts what those stories seem to say. Tales taught to children as parables for proper values become meaningless for girls as the myth begins its work. Take the story of Prometheus, which appears in Sullivan Reader comic-book form for third grade American children. To a child being socialized into Western culture, it teaches that a great man risks all for intellectual daring, for progress and for the public good. But as a future woman, the little girls learns that the most beautiful woman in the world was man-made, and that her intellectual daring brought the first sickness and death onto men. The myth makes a reading girls skeptical of the moral coherence of her culture’s stories.

As she grows up, her double vision intensifies: If she reads James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man, she is not meant to question why Stephen Dedalus is the hero of his story. But in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles—why did the light of description fall on her, and not on any other of the healthy, untutored Wessex farm girls dancing in circles that May morning? She was seen and found beautiful, so things happened to her—riches, indigence, prostitution, true love, and hanging. Her life, to say the least, became interesting, while the hard-handed threshing girls around her, her friends, not blessed or cursed with her beauty, stayed in the muddy provinces to carry on the agricultural drudgery that is not the stuff of novels. Stephen is in his story because he’s an exceptional subject who must and will be known. But Tess? Without her beauty, she’d have been left out of the sweep and horror of large events. A girl learns that stories happen to “beautiful” women, whether they are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to women who are not “beautiful”

—Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

It seems obvious after reading this, but I was never before fully conscious of this great divide between men’s and women’s writing. Of course I rolled my eyes at Dickens’ beautiful and virtuous models of pure womanhood, but I didn’t link them with Tess and all the other “beauties” who sustain damage and devotion in men’s novels, or oppose them to the more active and substantial heroines from Austen, Eliot, the Brontës, etc. Is this the real source of the latter authors’ enduring popularity, that they explode the beauty myth under which all women labour? Do we love these novels because they give us the hope that someday we will not be judged by the clarity of our skin but by the content of our character?

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