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?


“Life without literature is a life reduced to penury.”

In honour of the 50th anniversary of the monumental and essential Norton Anthology of English Literature, legendary founding editor M.H. Abrams and current editor Stephen Greenblatt got together to reflect on the anthology’s place in education and in people’s lives (and bedrooms!). The topics they discussed included the ultimate question: Why study literature?

Abrams: Ha — Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life enjoyable. There’s no end to the response you can make to that question, but Stephen has a few things to add.

Greenblatt: Literature is the most astonishing technological means that humans have created, and now practiced for thousands of years, to capture experience. For me the thrill of literature involves entering into the life worlds of others. I’m from a particular, constricted place in time, and I suddenly am part of a huge world — other times, other places, other inner lives that I otherwise would have no access to.

[Read the full dialogue at the New York Times.]

My first encounter with the Norton Anthology was when my roommate got one for her introductory literature course. I was loaded down with massive science textbooks so the paperback Norton seemed a tidy little package by comparison. A few years later my grandmother passed away and I inherited her Norton Anthology, which she used in a course she took around the age of 78. To me it’s a reminder of her intellectual curiosity and a symbol of lifelong learning. Next to it sit my own set of Nortons, the eighth edition published in 2005. As M.H. Abrams mentioned in the discussion quoted above, the Norton Anthology has gotten bigger, but now has the advantage of online supplements. Perhaps an ebook edition is next, which would certainly help students with their back problems, but they’ll lose the pleasure of returning to their Nortons for decades to come and passing them on to the next generation. Half of the pleasure of the Norton Anthology is just flipping through those delicate onion skin pages at random, and you certainly can’t do that with an ebook. I wonder if future generations will have the same fond memories of their Norton Anthology as past English students do? What are your Norton Anthology memories?

Happy World Poetry Day 2012!

I must confess that I have never been very attracted to poetry. When I was younger I found it quite bewildering. My linear mind was tripped up by every line of creative syntax, I was too naïve to grasp the emotional content, and any biblical or literary allusions went right over my head. Now that I’m older and my brain has filled out a little I am a more curious about poetry. Today’s observance of World Poetry Day has inspired me to crack open my copy of World Poetry, which I recently picked up at a thrift store.

It occurred to me that part of my problem with poetry is that I somehow got the idea that if a poem is printed in a book, it must be good and so I should like it. After reading a few poems I noticed that I liked some right away, but many others simply did not interest me. Perhaps that’s OK. It may be that poetry is a more personal matter than prose. At any rate it is probably a good place to start, so here is one of the poems I like:

An Answer to Viceprefect Zhang

In my later years I care only for quiet;
Affairs of the world no longer concern me.
Communing with myself I find no plan –
I only know I must return to the forest.
Pine winds loosen my clothing,
The mountain moon shines on my lute.
You ask me about success and failure?
Listen! a fisherman’s song floats upstream.

—Wang Wei (699-759)