Monday, May 7, 2012

Edith Wharton and Yo Momma

...aaaaand, I'm back, after two weeks of a blogging break. What's happening, internet? 

Edith Wharton, whose looks were the only thing that made her sympathetic,
according to Jonathan Franzen, Great Observer of The Human Condition 

I'll be posting actual content this week, but for today I'm just getting into the swing of things, so here's my warmup: For only two dollars—yes, two American dollars!—a month, you can get a subscription to the digital magazine from The New Inquiry, a journal of thought and criticism where I'm proud to syndicate The Beheld. This month's theme? Beauty. I was enlisted to play the role of co-editor this issue, in part because several of my favorite interviews have been repurposed, and in part because it features my response to Jonathan Franzen's assertion in The New Yorker that Edith Wharton's lack of physical beauty was one of the few things making her sympathetic. 

You'll have to subscribe to read my whole critique of his (baffling) position; unsurprisingly, I think it's shortsighted nonsense. But here's a recurring thought I had when writing it that I didn't put in there because I didn't want to detract from my own argument: Edith Wharton wasn't ugly. I don't usually make proclamations about any individual woman's beauty on here, but what the hell, she's dead. 

Now, I don't know enough about early 20th-century beauty standards to proclaim that with historic authority, but I didn't know what Wharton looked like when I agreed to write the piece, and it was only after I started the draft that I Googled pictures of her. From the way Franzen painted her, you'd think she was a gargoyle; instead, photos show a perfectly normal-looking woman. Too normal-looking to be considered beautiful, to be sure; there's nothing lush or exquisite about her features. Plain is probably the word you might use, but plain in the literal sense, not as a synonym for the butt of yo' momma jokes. But Franzen hinged his argument upon Edith Wharton being sympathetic only because her looks make us see what she was striving for with repeatedly torturing the beautiful characters she invented—and then you look at pictures of her and the argument makes even less sense than it does at first glance. In her day, Wharton's detractors accused her of "defeminizing" herself, and that seems to be true according to her biographers; she doesn't have the soft waves and tinted lips possessed by the women of the era who were considered beautiful. And she didn't age particularly well, but then again, neither did Sarah Bernhardt, widely renowned for her beauty.

The obvious argument that I tried to circumvent in the piece was that female writers will forever be judged on the way we look, something my own experience has backed up when I've published on sites other than those explicitly aimed at a female audience. But when I saw Wharton's utterly normal features, I actually guffawed, because it illuminated another point entirely: It doesn't matter what female writers actually look like, and not just because we're screwed either way (too pretty to be taken seriously/too ugly to hook in the public to read what she's actually written). We've come to the point where we all understand that women's looks must matter to her creative work, so Franzen can assert Wharton's appeal and use that as a baseline for his argument, regardless of the looks in question. It wasn't until my mother, who has read far more Wharton than I have, pointed out that the photos she'd seen didn't show an ugly woman that I thought to look at photos of her; I was prepared to accept the baseline Franzen provided. He never calls her ugly, just points out how un-pretty she was—but in a piece that hinges upon Wharton's looks, I'd argue the implication is there. And yes, yes, looks are subjective and beauty standards change and blah blah blah. But, I mean, look for yourself. Should this woman's looks inspire 2,000 words in The New Yorker? (Should any woman's looks inspire 2,000 words—words not written by a female writer, incidentally, which I suppose isn't a surprise—in The New Yorker?)

I should note that I'm hardly a Wharton scholar. I don't know her self-perception regarding her looks; I don't know if people treated her as though she were grotesque. And obviously portraiture of the era camouflages flaws to the point where if we had access to snapshots of Wharton I might see the validity of Franzen's assertion about her looks. As is, though, it's bollocks. 

*   *   * 

Even in a self-proclaimed "break" I couldn't help but collate links over the past couple of weeks. (One point of the break, after all, was to catch up on my reading.) Speedier and more streamlined than usual because of this roundup's Very Special status; usual link roundups will resume Friday.

The micromarketing of discontinued products.

France has the best hairdressers, and the best beauty workers are in...Britain? Brits are lovely but I suppose I'd never thought of it as a place one would get a luxurious scrub.

Procter & Gamble withdraws support for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which supports gun-friendly bills like the one that meant the Trayvon Martin case would have gone quietly buried had the public outcry not been so large. Good for you, P&G.

Have you received a chain e-mail about an Estee Lauder boycott from Muslims, and why that means if you're pro-Israel you should go out and buy more Estee Lauder? Bogus.

Y'all know I'm skeptical of beauty "studies," but this one (courtesy Jessica Stanley) is piquing my interest. Attractive women who attach photos to résumés receive lower callback rates than "plain" women and women with no photo—if the person looking at résumés works for the company the applicant is submitting to work at. Résumés sent to employment agencies, on the other hand, had a far more diminished effect, regardless of attractiveness. And of course the study authors go to female jealousy as the reason, because bitches be cray-cray. I suspect that the motive here is less "jealousy," as the researchers imply, and more something along the line of the "she thinks she's all that syndrome," which is arguably different than jealousy.

Aaaaaand keeping with the beauty research tip, one of my worst fears about beauty science reporting comes true, with the winner of a British "natural beauty" contest being dubbed as having a "nearly perfect face." And you can't argue with it, because it's science, peeps! The width between her eyes is 44% of her entire face, and 46% is PERFECT. It's basically like the discovery of radium, don't you think? Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Blisstree nails another point: "Celebrating 'natural beauty' as the ideal—while it may be based in a desire to reject over-emphasis on cosmetic enhancements—implicitly (and rather unfairly) prizes people who happened to win the luck of the genetic lottery." All this is a good reason to point you toward Maggie Koerth-Baker's rundown of how to read science news, which you should all bookmark as reference the next time you come across some beauty science piece that makes you feel like crap, or that just generally seems suspicious.

Ads (and potentially other content) projected onto bathroom or salon mirrors. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a worse idea, but gimme a minute.

Minute's up. Eyebrow implants!

Beauty shop opens at Cornton Vale women's prison. "Prison officer Carol Maltman had the idea for the shop after asking prisoners what kind of products would make their lives behind bars more bearable. She was hit with a staggering 1444 suggestions – every one of them relating to cosmetics or toiletries."

This piece on how the Roma people have come to be despised and displaced is fascinating, particularly the section on the creation of the sexually free and alluring "beautiful Gypsy": "The 'beautiful Gypsy' alienates through her secretive unattainability even at the most intimate moments and her withdrawal into a concealed, uncivilised order or animalistic sphere."

All-girl prom!

Bin Laden dyed his hair!

Burt Reynolds' 40th anniversary of appearing nude in Cosmo. Am saddened to learn that bearskin rug was intended to be ironic.

Nanoparticles! I don't know what they are exactly, except that they're genetically modified, and the FDA is looking into their use in beauty products. Nanotechnology on your face, yo.

Feminist Philosophers calls bullshit on the "brides are using feeding tubes to lose weight!!!" trend story.

Slate asks if ladymags' insistence on featuring celebrity body woes from women who already fit the beauty ideal is helpful. I waver on this: I think it actually can be a useful stopgap measure, but its effects should be short-term. Seeing someone who looks media-perfect say that they struggle in the same ways I do is a reinforcement that absolutely fucking nobody fits that level of perfection—but as the Slate piece points out, it also provokes the question of, "My god, if she describes herself as hippy, what am I?" 

I've got lots of thinking to do on the New Aesthetic and the male gaze, and I'm going to begin with Madeline Ashby and Rahel Aima.

Hair and makeup to camouflage you from digital surveillance. Effin' brilliant. (Thanks to Danielle for the link.)

What's up with Beyonce's whole earth mother thing? Bim Adewunmi looks at "fake authenticity."

Did the public persona of "Black Dahlia," the victim of a highly sensationalized (and highly gruesome) 1947 murder case, begin before her death? Crime historian Joan Renner—who happens to run a vintage cosmetics blog—thinks so, and it's because of her makeup. (Thanks to Sarah Nicole Prickett for the tipoff.)

She rarely writes about beauty so I never have a chance to include her here, but I've gotta give a random shoutout to ModernSauce, the only design-ish blog I read, which I do because the writing makes me laugh out loud, which is potentially hazardous given that I'm often eating graham crackers when I'm reading, and I live alone, and could choke and die and nobody would find me. But despite the hazards, it's so sly and offhandedly insightful, I read on. I read on.

Rebekah gives what might serve as an epilogue for the body hair discussion that took place here a few weeks ago, showing exactly how complex of an issue it is.

Gala Darling's riveting, exploratory, searingly honest piece on self-harm is a must-read for anyone who knows someone who has self-harming behaviors (like cutting). Without glamourizing self-harm in the least, she shows the ambiguities of what it gives its sufferers: "The majority of women who wrote in were not embarrassed by the remnants from their days of self-harm, but instead saw their scars as an integral part of who they are; part of the journey towards loving themselves entirely. In fact, some women were almost proud of their scars, choosing to view them as proof that they could overcome something horrendous & go on to not only survive, but thrive."

The Blind Hem continues the discussion on modesty fashion blogging, this time from a modesty blogger, penned as a response to their earlier piece on the matter, which took a more skeptical view of modesty blogging claims.

An excellent trio of questions from an excellent trio of bloggers: Does your clothing fight your body? Do you wear more makeup when you're down—or, for that matter, up? And what does it mean to "try too hard"?


  1. Not to be super stalkery, but I did wonder what kinds of fabulosity you were up to on your blogging break. Now I know - you were reading my blog! Thanks for the shout out - I am honored. I WOULD and WANT to write more about beauty because it's a big part of my internet life too but there's all kinds of "feelings" and "emotions." Also, I like talking about paint color a lot.

    On topic: a million times yes to your Wharton point. Women's creativity will always be judged through the filter of their appearance (and then how aware they are of their own appearance). That hits close to home ("feelings!") since I was anonymous for so long so I will definitely have to check out the rest of you piece.

    Congrats on your guest editor gig! I might subscribe just for that! (And it'll probably make me smartier...)

    1. But of course! And of course when I then clicked through I saw that you'd gone all ombré, so today was an auspicious shoutout day indeed.

      It's hard for me to entirely judge the "women's creative work is judged by their appearance" thing because the topic I'm best known for is indeed beauty stuff, and a lot of that is first-person. So I can't really blame people for taking a look at me and seeing if what I'm writing sort of "matches"; certainly if I looked like Cindy Crawford or had some sort of highly disfiguring "flaw," that may well color my perspective, and readers should know that. But at the same time, it's not like the women I've talked with about beauty who are obviously conventionally beautiful are, for the most part, saying anything all that different than women who are more pedestrian. (That's another topic, though.) Point is, I know it *does* apply but it's also hard for me to tell objectively.

      Also, I think you'd like this issue of TNI in particular; Rahel Aima has a great piece in there about the New Aesthetic that in some ways works in tandem with your awesome Pinterest piece.

  2. I'm glad you're back. I'm printing out several of the articles on the "new Aesthetic" for my finals week reading pleasure.

    1. Excellent! I haven't had a chance to really delve into the discourse beyond the two articles I linked to but I think there's something really interesting there.

  3. Yay! I have been checking your blog to see if maybe my Google reader thing missed your posts and you'd sneaked back without me noticing.

    I always love how many tabs I end up with when you post your links, even apart from the wonderful stuff you write. Except I was totally lost today because I have no idea who Edith Wharton is. I got your point, fortunately, and started contemplating that if I ever become a famous author I might have to wear a mask and robes of some kind so people can't comment on my appearance in relation to my work.

    1. Aw, thanks! And yeah, I actually don't think you need to be familiar with Wharton in order to glean the larger point—I mean, you could say the same thing about plenty of female writers, or just public figures. The case of Gloria Steinem and her looks is indeed interesting from a feminist perspective, but boy does it get my goat when I read old press stuff that waxes rhapsodic about her beauty. Even when it's ostensibly in support of feminist issues it comes off as belittling. Anyway, she's been quoted as saying something like, "Before feminism, I was a pretty girl but nobody called me beautiful. It was only with feminism that people started calling me beautiful." (paraphrased)--the idea being that people had to project their own ideas about her looks onto her. It wasn't enough for her to just be a nice-looking woman; suddenly she had to be a beauty queen in order to create a greater juxtaposition. Ugh!

  4. Yay! You are back! And now my browser is practically exploding with tabs of things I'm going to have to read.

    Regarding Franzen's Edith Wharton piece: I found that essay so weird and troublesome. Franzen seems to have this idea that if he sees something a particular way, it can be universalized. He had all of these ideas about Wharton's novels that just never matched up to my perceptions of them. I mean, I'm no Wharton scholar but I have a very strong fondness for both the House of Mirth and Age of Innocence, and reading his interpretation of HoM vis a vis Wharton's appearance was like reading literary criticism as written by a Martian. I couldn't even get into the wider cultural contexts of what he was saying because it was just so...weird.

    I had hoped the "bride with feeding tube" story was one of those "trend" stories developed when a reporter comes across a person or three doing something wacky, but a commenter on FP found a link that indicated at least 19,000 people in Europe took part in studies on that "diet." And with that, my faith in all humanity has evaporated in a poof of dust.

    1. And the reason he thinks his viewpoint is universal is because he thinks *he* is universal and expects us to see the same. And in a way, he's right, in that we all have to understand the plight of the middle-class white man if we're going to understand culture at all.

      YIKES on the feeding tube thing. 19,000? I can only hope they were being compensated in ways beyond...weight loss.

  5. just found your blog today, and will definately come back. that wharton article is completely bizarre. literary criticism never addresses author intent to begin with. to have an article make assertions about the looks of the author as they relate to intent about characters is so odd i don't know what to say about it except, you're right, i suppose Franzen gets away with this because it's generally accepted to discuss a woman's appearance as it relates to her professions no matter what it is.

    1. Deb, pleased to meet you! And absolutely, the idea of suddenly addressing Wharton's work by assuming not only her intent but how her intent was shaded by her looks...I just don't understand why he chose that tack. I mean, I do understand, but I'm just disappointed.

  6. I hate to be the person who clogs up other people's comment feeds with their own advertising, but I've just set up a new fashion blog/magazine, and though it's very early days, I really do think it has potential.I think you write so well, and I would be really grateful if you could check my blof out,and maybe give me some feedback.
    It's uncompromising, witty ( I hope) and defiantly feminist.

    Thank you so much

    1. Hi Buglerboo--Pleased to meet you! The #1 thing I'd say for any blogger is that you've got to find the thing that makes your blog/voice unique. I mean, of course it's unique because it's yours, but what is it about your blog that would make someone visit it instead of another personal style blog? What's your angle? If the idea is to be feminist, showcase that; if the idea is to let your wit shine, show that. Whatever sets you apart is what's going to be your signature. If you're not sure what your angle is, imagine what you'd love to hear if you were eavesdropping on a conversation about your blog from people who don't know you--what would you love to hear?

      (I tried to find an e-mail for you on your site so that feedback wouldn't be public, and couldn't--that might be another thing to add!)

      Best of luck!

  7. I wish everybody would stop being so fixated on beauty. Beautiful women are often accused of getting a promotion because of their looks and not the work that they put in. Now do the same people having any argument against CVs of beautiful women being rejected ?

    1. Exactly, Shelly. The double bind here applies to women, but men somehow come out ahead either way. The exception here is for height--short men are definitely penalized, but even there, there are some clear-cut paths to the reward system as it exists.

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