"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, April 23, 2009

the eye (or ear) of the beholder

Via Montreal Simon    -- who both you and I ought to read more often -- we are lead to this review/commentary from the Guardian

It wasn't singer Susan Boyle who was ugly on Britain's Got Talent so much as our reaction to her
Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we?
On Saturday night she stood on the stage in Britain's Got Talent; small and rather chubby, with a squashed face, unruly teeth and unkempt hair. She wore a gold lace dress, which made her look like a piece of pork sitting on a doily. Interviewed by Ant and Dec beforehand, she told them that she is unemployed, single, lives with a cat called Pebbles and has never been kissed. Susan then walked out to chatter, giggling, and a long and unpleasant wolf whistle.
Why are we so shocked when "ugly" women can do things, rather than sitting at home weeping and wishing they were somebody else? Men are allowed to be ugly and talented.

Susan Boyle doesn't really sing my kind of music, but you'd have to be tone deaf not to realize she is a talented vocalist. And contrary to the prevailing opinion she isn't ugly. A little on the plain side, sure. A bit plump, yeah. So what? She's there to sing, not model bikinis. It isn't like she has some kinda massive facial scar or a third eye or anything. She's just sort of ordinary looking. Ever get a good look at Aretha Franklin? How about Ella Fitzgerald? Not exactly beauty queens - until they start to sing.  How about Joe Cocker or Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello? Not exactly matinee idols either. But, pretty boy idols aside,  men who sing are not rated on their looks while women  very much are. Which is pretty stupid.

While there have been female singers and actresses who have become popular based on their talent and perhaps in spite of their looks, appearance seems much more important in the way we judge women than in the way we judge men. See if you can think of ten relatively unattractive female performers who have made a career. Off the top of my head I'm not sure I can: Cass Elliot, Kathy Bates, kd Lang, Minnie Pearl, Lily Tomlin, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Dumont, Rosanne Barr, Margaret Hamilton, um...that old lady from "Throw Momma From the Train", and uh....Mary Walsh?....okay I'm sure there are plenty more , but several on that list that I spent all of two minutes compiling are hardly major stars and at least three of them based their careers on the fact that they were unattractive or became famous late in life - and kd Lang was kinda cute when she was young and Olympia Dukakis probably was too -- and Cass and Rosanne aren't really ugly, just overweight and Mary Walsh is brilliantly funny, which counts for a lot in my books. Try the same experiment with male performers and you'll have a long list in seconds. And they won't all be character actors.
By the same measure, until recently we were, as a rule, far more tolerant of pretty girls who had little or no talent than we were of handsome men who couldn't act or sing  - teen idols being the exception - as long as they stayed young and pretty that is (see the film Searching for Debra Winger sometime to further expand on this notion) How many movies have you seen lately where the lead character is played by an actress over 45 that isn't Meryl Streep?

I don't mean to say we've become less accepting of less talented pretty women - far from it - its just that we have become more accepting of less talented handsome men in recent years.

Another good example - musicians. There are a lot of famous male musicians who are butt ugly, but respected and popular for their musical talent. Popular, highly successful female musicians are almost always singers first and foremost - some accompany their own vocals and write their own material - but the star female instrumentalist is the exception, not the rule and those who do make a name for themselves as instrumentalists - Candy Dulfur and Bonnie Raitt spring to mind - are usually attractive.
Consider this: If John Coltrane, Frank Zappa, BB King or Jerry Garcia (to name only a few) had been born female, we'd probably never have heard of them.
I'm not saying this situation is the way it ought to be, just that it the unfortunate and unfairand flat out stupid situation that we face in the world.

I have a daughter who is six years old. In my admittedly biased opinion, she is very pretty and will likely grow up to be an absolute knockout in the looks department. Which is both good and bad. Good, in that good looks, especially for women, open a lot of doors and get you a lot of attention. Bad, in that, despite the fact that she is plenty smart, because she is attractive, she will probably not be taken seriously for her intellect or ability until she is in her 40s, barring some kind of major societal change. 
If she learns to play guitar like Django Reinhardt, she'll still end up being the "hot girl that is a pretty good guitar player" with a career that ended at 35, while my son could have two noses and if he could play like Django, he would be worshipped like a god and make records until he died at 95. I think that sucks.
Furthermore - and perhaps this tendency is more pronounced in Japan than North America these days - she is already getting the message from friends, television and even teachers that it is more important to be cute than clever. That as long as she can bat her big brown eyes and smile, she can get away with anything - a tendency I am doing my best to discourage.  But at this point it appears to be Dad vs the Disney machine and thousands of years of patriarchy.

A lot of what makes a person attractive in real life is attitude and personality. I've met models -  they look great in photos, but a lot of them have nothing to say and in a conversation in a dimly-lit bar, they aren't any more attractive than the next woman, considerably less so if the next woman isn't obsessed with her appearence and happens to have a sense of humor and some brains and hasn't been convinced that because she isn't six feet tall, 90 pounds, and blonde with cheekbones you could cut your finger on, that she's ugly.  Nothing is as sexy as confidence. After the first five minutes, it really isn't the package anyone with any brains is interested in, its the contents. Cases in point: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Minnie Driver, Terri Garr, Meryl Streep, Barbara Streisand, and Ingrid Bergman -- all of whom can be breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful when they turn on the inner light, but none of whom you'd pick out of a line up if you hauled them in out of the rain. Well...okay...Ingrid Bergman in her 20s would probably stop traffic no matter what as far as I can see, but she'd never be a pin up today. Physical beauty may be objectively judged by the standards of the day I suppose, but attractiveness is always largely subjective.
Let's think of a few major stars on the other side of the gender gap and consider them in terms of pure physical beauty: Humphrey Bogart, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Jack Black, Mark Knopfler, Phil Collins - I already mentioned Bob Dylan and I bet you don't even know what Charlie Parker or Django Reinhardt look like. Not a matinee idol among them - sure Bogart was cool, but he was no Cary Grant - but they have seen pretty high levels of popularity at one time or another, despite their looks and don't seem to have too much trouble attracting the opposite sex. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that pretty is nice, but but brains, talent, attitude and character are more important in the long run - and even in the short run. And that despite the advances of feminism over the years, as a society we continue to judge women on looks far more than we do men, and that is just plain stupid.

So more power to Susan Boyle and the hell with the pretty people. Smart, funny, talented people are sexier anyways.


Shinigami Kayo said...

Wonders how Janet Reno fits this argument. I recognize eye candy from real. People (and perhaps its genetics) still instinctively get drawn to the beautiful..or at least our cultural idea of that. Eye Candy only. Obviously if we get to know people better their real inner beauty comes through and than we make life choices upon that. I can't defend it one way or another or say I have not done it myself. We would wish we are better than that, but than we find ourselves peering at a hard body or handsome smile and we find pleasure in it. Much like men who stare at a women's chest first before their face. Its what happens after maybe, that is more important. Do you override intinct and become a human being that thinks or slip deeper into a more animal state. Popular media will always ride this and saddly these unrealistic pictures will continue to be one demensional role models for many. Good article though Rev

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of conversations with high school chums, way back when. We had a theory on why guys like Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, (the list could go on) played guitar. Quite simply (being high school boys at the time, with only one main goal at the time)it was to get lucky. We'd listen to our favourite guitarist and comment "Good lookin' guy, too bad he can't play guitar!"


the rev. paperboy said...

Damn, I'd almost forgotten that Otter. Truer words were never spoke - I mean have you ever seen a good picture of Stevie Ray Vaughn?

JOHN FILEP said...

I am glad to have found this article, and I have been noting the news and some caustic comments about an apparently very capable singer.:-SUSAN BOYLE-. We that is all of us human beings and other social animals are the sum product of our past experiences. The nature versus nurture debate is too in depth to articulate here. But from observation and self analysis,I have come to the conclusion that, nurture is of utmost importance, because physical features are only a superficial quality, and if they are not debilitating they are of no consequence. So any comment about other people's appearance is nothing more than an display of our own -PRIDE and PREJUDICE-. Irrespective of our natural predisposition, this proud and disdainful rhetoric about arbitrary physical qualities regarding other people,and sometimes our selfs, only displays our lack of self esteem, and overcompensating because of the aforementioned, the same can be said about prejudices. So I suggest we have a close look at ourselves, work out how we come to be this way. Think about the DOMINO EFFECT, and how we stack the dominoes, and the consequences of that.

Anonymous said...