Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Beauty and power

I ran across a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives today (in response to a post on a conversation in other feminist blogs about women, beauty, compliments, derogatory comments, feminism, and other related matters) that got me thinking about the issues of beauty and power and the relation that women have to these issues both inside and outside of the LDS church as well as inside feminist circles.

On the most basic level is the cultural obsession with women’s appearance and how that is manifested in the beauty industry. While there’s lots to be said (and a lot has been said) on this topic, I find Wolf’s argument in The Beauty Myth that the beauty myth regulates women’s behavior rather than their appearance both interesting and compelling. Jean Kilbourne also makes a similar claim in one of her films on representations of women in the media (I forget which one) that the images of women have grown increasingly powerless (passive, sexualized, and thinner) as women have gained more power in society at large, and that the current representations of women in the media are a backlash against this growing power.

Related to considerations of power and representations of women in the media is the more specific cases of representations of feminists. I find Amanda of Pandagon’s analysis of these representations to be particularly apt. She writes,

Calling feminists ugly is actually shorthand for a longer thought process that goes something like, “Women’s most important quality is their looks, so good-looking women have everything they could want. The only reason a woman could be dissatisfied is if she isn’t good-looking, and so feminism is the last resort of women in denial that they are failures as women.” That argument falls apart if you show that conventionally attractive women also feel like second class citizens, and that being eligible for being a well-regarded sex object doesn’t mean that you aren’t still being treated just as a sex object.”

I think her comments point to a couple of important issues: 1) feminists are very often represented as ugly or unconcerned about their appearance; 2) representing feminists in this way typically operates as a comment on their femininity or status as a “proper” woman.

Another community that I’m interested in on a more specific level is the LDS church and the way in which, as Artemis on Feminist Mormon Housewives points out, women are valued for their beauty and aesthetic value (I would argue here that “femininity” and representations of it in the church is strongly aesthetic in nature). She also points out that women are often consoled when they express frustration about any number of a variety of issues by appeals to their beauty and femininity.

While I’ve outlined a variety of complicated issues above, what seems to be at the heart of them is the relationship of beauty to power, and how women’s power is often tied very closely to their aesthetic value.

For a variety of reasons I consider the argument that women have power in society because of their beauty or appearance, or by extension, their feminine attributes, (which allows them to manipulate men) highly problematic. Quite a few women make claims similar to the following (though perhaps not quite so extreme): “I don’t need to be a CEO or run for political office to have power because I can make the men in my life do whatever I want because of how I look.” You also see women in the business world exploiting their appearance and sexuality in order to get ahead (various contestants on “The Apprentice” come to mind here). One problem with this is that women who are not considered beautiful by societal standards do not have access to this power. Artemis points to the prevalence of women’s value being closely tied to aesthetics within the LDS church, and observes that women often do not see themselves as being valuable in a variety of ways—women who do not adhere to expectations of femininity within the church can often find themselves not viewed as valuable, and are even often ostracized and judged by others in the community. The second (and bigger, in my opinion) problem is that power through beauty and sexuality leaves women open to being treated as objects and only viewed in terms of their body and appearance.

The issue here is that of women’s power—to what extent is women’s power dependent on their aesthetic value, to what extent is it dependent on other factors, and what’s the relation between the two? I find Lynnette’s comment in response to the original post by Artemis on FMH to be illuminating:
All those talks about how much the church values women and how wonderful we are inevitably beg the question. If I constantly gushed about how incredibly wonderful my friend Jezebel was, emphasizing over and over that I really did like her just as much as my other friends, people would eventually start wondering what was wrong with her. So in a way, I think the syrupy discourse about women is actually a kind of implicit acknowledgment that something is amiss. We don’t have to excessively praise men, because the structures of the church don’t leave them in doubt about their value.

Lynnette’s comment points to the fact that the power of women’s beauty is often affirmed and reaffirmed because of their lack of power in other arenas.

I think this connects back to some of the original observations I included by other feminists—women’s beauty is overemphasized in order to deny them power in other ways, and it’s often emphasized in ways that takes power from women because of anxieties about women’s growing power. And when women demand that they are powerful (i.e. feminists), they are disempowered by labels of “unattractive” and “ugly” because that is the primary way that society judges women’s value. Women who are trying to find a way to vocalize their desires and intrinsic value outside of traditional roles and representations are often ignored because their vocalizations make them “unattractive.”

I think the issue at stake is more than just convincing people that women are valuable in ways and arenas that don’t touch on their physical appearance. I think we need to deconstruct the ways that women are denied and/or granted power in society because of their physical appearance. We need to examine the ways that women’s appearance directly influences their ability to gain and use power in multiple societal institutions (or used as a consolation prize if they don’t have certain kinds of power), and we need to somehow disconnect beauty and power (to the extent that it’s possible).

Hey. I'm ever so flattered to find myself quoted here. ;) Thanks for this post; it helped me more clearly articulate some of my own uneasiness surrounding the issue. That's a really interesting point that the more women are seen as a threat, the greater the need to emphasize beauty as the most important feminine characteristic.

A disturbing dynamic which I've encountered in the church is a kind of catch-22 in which women are told implicitly as well as explicitly that they are valued for their physical attractiveness, and simultaneously that they are they are vain and frivolous and too focused on shallow things like appearance. I saw this kind of thing a lot in seminary, and at places like BYU Education Week. Someone might make a joke, for example, about how exasperating it is that his wife requires three hours to get ready to go anywhere . . . but also make it clear that he never would have considered marrying anyone who wasn't beautiful. Women are simultaneously expected to live up to high standards of beauty, and condemned for caring too much about such standards. It's a tangle.
I've never really thought much about the latter problem, but you're right--there really is a Catch-22 there.
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