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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The shared solitude of writing and reading

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

—Rebecca Solnit, “The Faraway Nearby” (via Brain Pickings)

Just Don’t Fall: Library Solutions

The first thing we did once I knew my leg might get cut off was Mom took me to the public library and we looked at a microscope that looks like a TV. Then Mom read out loud the number that were written beside the titles of the books on black shiny plastic that we put under the microscope and I wrote them down on a piece of paper. Then we walked around the library to find the numbers. And once we found the numbers, we found the books. Mom said this is the best and cheapest way to solve the problems in your life: come to the library and check out all the books about your problem and read them.

—Josh Sundquist, “Just Don’t Fall”

Smart lady!

People of the Book: Bookish Ambition

I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense. I don’t want a big house or a big bank account; I don’t give a rat’s about those things. I don’t want to be the boss of anything or manage anyone but myself. But I do take a lot of pleasure in surprising my stuffy old colleagues by publishing something they don’t know. I just love to move the ball forward, even if it’s only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out.

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

I just started this novel but I think it has to be a must read by anyone who loves books. The narrator is a book conservator trying to uncover the secrets of the famous (and endangered) Sarajevo Haggadah in the tense aftermath of the war in Bosnia. It’s a tricky thing reading a novel based on such recent history. I’ll have to read more about the book itself to find out what is truth and what is fiction.

Socks & Books

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a pair. People will insist on giving me books.”

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Sounds like a job for Mrs. Weasley’s magic knitting needles!

Bleak House: The bleakness of house tours

The old housekeeper, with a gracious severity of deportment, waves her hand towards the great staircase. Mr. Guppy and his friend follow Rosa; Mrs. Rouncewell and her grandson follow them; a young gardener goes before to open the shutters.

As is usually the case with people who go over houses, Mr. Guppy and his friend are dead beat before they have well begun. They straggle about in wrong places, look at wrong things, don’t care for the right things, gape when more rooms are opened, exhibit profound depression of spirits, and are clearly knocked up. In each successive chamber that they enter, Mrs. Rouncewell, who is as upright as the house itself, rests apart in a window-seat or other such nook and listens with stately approval to Rosa’s exposition. Her grandson is so attentive to it that Rosa is shyer than ever—and prettier. Thus they pass on from room to room, raising the pictured Dedlocks for a few brief minutes as the young gardener admits the light, and reconsigning them to their graves as he shuts it out again. It appears to the afflicted Mr. Guppy and his inconsolable friend that there is no end to the Dedlocks, whose family greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves for seven hundred years.

—Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Snow Falling on Cedars: Leaves

Her life had always been strenuous—field work, internment, more field work on top of housework—but during this period under Mrs. Shigemura’s tutelage she had learned to compose herself in the face of it. It was a matter in part of posture and breathing, but even more so of soul. Mrs. Shigemura taught her to seek union with the Greater Life and to imagine herself as a leaf on a great tree: The prospect of death in autumn, she said, was irrelevant next to its happy recognition of its participation in the life of the tree itself. In America, she said, there was fear of death; here life was separate from Being. A Japanese, on the other hand, must see that life embraces death, and when she feels the truth of this she will gain tranquility.

—David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars