Monday, April 20, 2015

Beauty Didn't Birth the Beast


Sally Draper, preachin' truth.


I swear I will one day blog about something other than Mad Men. But until that time comes! This episode was interesting in that two separate characters referred to Don's good looks as a liability. One of the creatives at the agency says to him in anger after Don suggests he might want to work on some character-building, "You don't have any character, you're just handsome—stop kidding yourself." And then toward the episode's end, his daughter says that both he and first-wife Betty are exactly alike, in that "anyone pays attention to either of you—and they always do—you just ooze everywhere." (Two of Sally's friends, totally separate from one another, had each attempted some amateur seduction on both of Sally's parents in this episode, so this wasn't out of nowhere.)

The first one was interesting, but mostly just in the context of Mad Men: Don has plenty of character, but we know that indeed a chunk of it has been formed around his incredible looks. The second reference is what's really juicy here. In fiction, if someone's good looks are referred to as a liability, it's usually used to mean a fairly limited set of options. Maybe the character hasn't had to develop other facets of herself because she's relied on her beauty. (Which—I mean, has anyone ever met someone like that, for real? In my experience dullness and beauty have exactly zero correlation, let alone causation; the dullards I know are plain and pretty in equal amounts.) Maybe a character been taught her looks are her greatest asset so she's used them to manipulate others, or his handsomeness has pushed him toward con artistry. If it's a feminist-minded creator maybe we've seen how beautiful women aren't taken seriously (i.e. the genesis of many a Joan plot line in this very series). Or maybe women don't trust her, or men don't trust him, or whatever. (Of course, the #1 way we see a character's looks work against her is that Her Beauty Drives Men to Madness, but that's such an ugggh cliché I'm not even counting it here.)

But here you have a character's attractiveness being referenced not as a liability in and of itself, but as an amplification of an already-existing tendency: the inability to turn away sexual attention. Don and Betty are two people who are starved for attention, and that would be true even if they weren't played by actors as good-looking as Jon Hamm and January Jones. But their beauty allows the quality Sally refers to as "ooze" to be read by others as charm or graciousness, or as a stream of reciprocal attention. And in turn, both of these characters have learned to trust that that's how their highly sensitive attention-radars will be seen. The fact that their looks garner each of them a generous amount of attention becomes almost secondary; it just lets them get away with absorbing the gaze of others in a way that doesn't seem desperate.*

I've interviewed lots of people, mostly women, in-depth about their relationship with their looks, and when I first started doing formal interviews I was initially surprised that I wasn't finding any sort of parallel between a woman's experiences or attitude and how conventionally attractive she was. Asking a professional beauty about her experiences as a model is one thing, but asking her about how her looks had shaped, say, her love life was a different story. I never thought that meant a person's looks were irrelevant to how she viewed the world, but I sort of chalked it up to beauty not being as important as other factors in shaping one's worldview, or chirpily shook it off as "Well, everyone's different!" But I think Sally's quip crystallizes an important factor: A person's looks can shape already existing tendencies. It does not create them. Nor does it shape tendencies in the same way for everyone. But I like the idea of looks functioning as a filter—as one of many filters—that determine how we walk through the world. There are so many oppositional ideas about how beauty affects people out there: You've got men who are genuinely surprised when they meet a woman who manages to be both beautiful and brilliant, you've got people who assume beautiful people have it easy because "everything is handed to them," you've got people shaking their heads about how hard gorgeous women have it because other women supposedly hate them so much. If we come to see appearance as one of many forces that distinctly shape our lives, we might have a more genuine understanding of how the lives of extraordinarily beautiful people are affected by their looks—and of how the rest of us have our lives affected by the same.


*Asterisked because this will mean absolutely nothing to people who don't watch the show: Rather, Don's and Betty's ways don't seem desperate until it's seen by someone who knows better, which in this case is Sally. Or the viewer, who is supposed to be thoroughly horrified when Betty gives 18-year-old Glen the eye. When the two of them had a creepy encounter years before, we were supposed to read it as a sign of Betty's yearning to connect with someone—anyone—even if it's a prepubescent boy down the block who has an enormous crush on her. Now that Glen's gone and grown up, that same need of hers goes from being pathetic-as-in-pathos to being pathetic as in...pathetic. 

Okay, you got me, I just wanted to find a way to work in GLEN.

168 comments:

  1. I was intrigued by last night's episode and your exploration of this theme is interesting. Physical beauty is one of the hard-wired stimula that humans react to and yet paradoxically fail to acknowledge consciously. It shapes our lives but usually in unexamined ways. I like your insights. There should be more discussion of this important issue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Mad Men" is one of the few shows that gets into this on a satisfying level. It would have been easy to take Joan as played by the gorgeous Miss Hendricks and make her plot lines clichéd; instead, they play on common themes without resorting to those clichés. They're rich. Manalive I'll miss this show!

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  2. I don't watch Man Men but wanted to comment on one of your points anyway! Specifically: "A person's looks can shape already existing tendencies. It does not create them." I think this is key because, too often, we assume that beautiful people are BORN beautiful -- and that, therefore, their life is totally different from Day 1. But this often isn't the case! Ugly or average children/adolescents can turn into beautiful adults! So you could definitely have personality/behavioral tendencies already in place before the world starts reacting to your beauty. A person could also move somewhere with different beauty standards and suddenly start getting more or less attention, for example.

    Love reading your thoughts on these topics, as always.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ooh, that's a great point—I wonder if that sort of experience makes a person more cognizant of the ways her/his own beauty shapes their universe? (Well, I suppose, as per the point of this post, that would be just as subject to other factors...) And now I'm wondering what would happen with the opposite. A friend of mine has a daughter who was one of those extraordinarily pretty little girls, was repeatedly scouted for child modeling, etc. And then—and this is her mother talking!—she grew out of it, in that she's still a nice-looking kid but isn't getting as much attention as she was when she was younger. She was 9 or so when this happened, and at the time she was pretty brash about it, more pouty than hurt. I haven't brought this up with my friend but I am curious if/how this has affected her as she goes through adolescence.

      I remember reading an interview with Nicole Kidman—this was in the "Days of Thunder" era—and she was saying it was a surprise to get to Hollywood and find that her beauty was valued, since she came from Australia, land of curvaceous beach bunnies (apparently). It could have been her fashioning her own swan tale, but as you point out, there could also be truth there.

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    2. I've heard something similar w/r/t Asian actresses, occasionally the ones we consider beautiful in American are not the ones who would be considered beautiful in China or Japan, etc.

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  3. I have met one person who seemed to me to never have bothered to develop any skills other than being extremely attractive & blandly charming.

    Moving into university residence for my 2nd year, I saw an incredibly beautiful man in the foyer. He was breathtaking. I found out later that he was half Swedish, half Japanese. Tall, very muscular, with thick glossy black hair, perfect pale beige skin, and a smooth, sculpted, elegant face. I tried to describe him to my roommates after making it up to my room, banging into walls & doors as I went. They laughed at me, but they all knew him on sight when they spotted him over the next few weeks, and showed up gasping & banging into walls themselves.

    My roommate struck up a conversation with him, & introduced us at the next get-together. I was thrilled, and then crushed. He was pleasant enough, and happy to talk to us, but he carried no conversational weight, asked nothing about us, & just waited for everything to revolve around him. My friend didn’t care, but I was crushed, and took my leave.

    I saw this occur repeatedly over the next year. Males and females orbited him, doing all the work, allowing him to glide through social settings, for the privilege of basking in his company. I really feel like they were assigning attributes to him he didn’t really have, like personality, charisma, intelligence…

    I did speak to him a few more times throughout the year, and it only magnified this impression.

    My favourite incident was when we wound up waiting in line together to register for a college function. It was the first time I found him interactive. I can’t remember what I said that actually engaged his interest, but he looked me in the eye & we were having a basic 2-way conversation. He didn’t seem smarter, but I could see that he was actually a nice guy. I still had no interest in him romantically, though. The lack of personality left me cold. Suddenly, a woman, inserted herself right in between us, facing him. Which was impressive & rather obvious, since we were in line & there wasn’t a lot of room. She basically said, “Hi Honey, we have to go now!”, then shot me a murder look over her shoulder, and literally dragged him away by his arm while he waved bye-bye to me with one hand.

    This was his 30 year old girlfriend, who was putting him through university for engineering, I found out later. He was maybe 20, at most.

    I kind of feel sorry for him. Everyone expected so little from him, other than he be pretty & nice, and that’s all he ever showed the world. I wonder what else he had to offer?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I got chills when I read that last sentence: "I wonder what else he had to offer." There's something tragic there—I do imagine it would take a good deal of character, or maybe coaching?, to overcome people's willingness to attribute personality to you. And I suppose that's part of what I was originally getting at—he might not have had those things, and so he was sort of funneled into this role as Extraordinarily Handsome Nice Guy, and it offered enough benefits for him to want to keep playing that.

      (Funny that he was an engineer, something where I imagine it's hard to just "get by." I don't know if you're a "30 Rock" fan but it reminds me of the story line with—again, Jon Hamm, Hollywood's official Man So Handsome It Becomes a Character Trait—where he's a doctor but is totally incompetent; it's just that nobody ever noticed. Here's to hoping your acquaintance was able to carve out a spot for himself based on his actual skill.)

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