Female Beauty Problems? Not exactly…
Some people would say these men are fatally shallow. Others would say they are realistic about their own needs, and that there is no use beating oneself up about one’s preferences: some things cannot be changed. Those in the first camp would probably say that my friends are outliers—uniquely immature men to be avoided. Many in the second camp argue that, in fact, all men would be like the man who dates only beautiful women, if only they enjoyed his ability to snare such knockouts. In my experience, people on both sides are emphatic, and treat their position as if it is obvious and incontrovertible.
To me, these stories highlight the intense and often guilty relationship that many men have with female beauty, a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women.
You’d think it would also be a rich subject for fiction writers—after all, our attitudes about female beauty and attraction are tightly bound up with the question of romantic love. But, in fact, many novels fail to meaningfully address the issue of female beauty. In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.
This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.
When a novelist does examine beauty more closely, the results are often startling. Two of my favorite male novelists do not fall into the trap that Shriver delineated. They are clear-sighted and acute chroniclers of the male gaze.
Consider Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” a novel about a dysfunctional marriage. Frank Wheeler’s love for his wife, April, has everything to do with her good looks: April, whom he first spots across the room at a party, is a “tall ash blonde with a patrician kind of beauty.” Frank’s upbringing was distinctly un-patrician. His father was a lifelong salesman; during the Depression, his parents struggled to hold onto their modest lower-middle-class existence. Then Frank served in the Second World War, which allowed him to attend Columbia on the G.I. Bill. He built a new identity, as a bohemian and an intellectual—an “intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man,” in his self-romanticizing account. But he still couldn’t quiet a certain anxiety about his status. Yates writes,
It nagged him, in particular, that none of the girls he’d known so far had given him a sense of unalloyed triumph. One had been very pretty except for unpardonably thick ankles, and one had been intelligent, though possessed of an annoying tendency to mother him, but he had to admit that none had been first-rate. Nor was he ever in doubt about what he meant by a first-rate girl, though he’d never yet come close enough to one to touch her hand.
Enter April, “an exceptionally first-rate girl whose shining hair and splendid legs had drawn him halfway across a roomful of strangers.” Frank, “bolstered by four straight gulps of whiskey … followed the counsel of victory.” He approached her, and “within five minutes, he found he could make April Johnson laugh, that he could not only hold the steady attention of her wide gray eyes but could make their pupils dart up and down and around in little arcs while he talked to her.” So begins one of contemporary literature’s worst relationships.
For Frank, April represents success. April, for her part, likes Frank O.K.—he’s “interesting,” she tells him—but she doesn’t like him well enough that he ever feels secure. To be so close to the woman who represents so much but to also feel her perpetually holding back maddens Frank. When April gets pregnant, she wants to have an illegal abortion, which Frank interprets as a rejection of him. And this is intolerable. Though he doesn’t want a child any more than she does, he is finally able to talk her into getting married and having one. Anything is better than a rejection from the only first-rate girl he’s ever been close to.
It is notable that April’s power over Frank does not lie in the fact that she excites him more than other women sexually—it is, rather, that her cool brand of beauty imbues her, in his mind, with a higher social value than that of his previous lovers. In other words, he is driven, if unconsciously, by an impulse cooler and more calculating than lust.
Both Frank and April are, in some sense, victims of her beauty, of its hold on Frank’s imagination. They both would have been better off if he had let her go. And this is key: if April’s looks give her power, it’s not always a power that works to her advantage. The course of her life is shaped by Frank’s need to repeatedly win her affection. Young and without a better alternative on the horizon, she gives in to the pull of Frank’s desire and decides that what she feels is probably love, or at least close enough.
Frank’s relationship to April’s beauty is hardly heroic, though he aspires to meet a Hemingway-esque ideal of masculinity (he’s always clenching his jaw to look more commanding).We imagine that someone like Hemingway winds up with beautiful women as a matter of course—we don’t picture him working at it consciously, wondering whether this one’s hair is too frizzy or her hips too wide for her to be a suitable complement to the image he seeks to project. It is one of the many strengths of “Revolutionary Road” that Yates so thoroughly sees through his characters’ pretensions.
Jump ahead several decades, and we see a similarly keen eye in Jonathan Franzen. In “The Corrections,” he proved adept at capturing the complicated dynamics among women surrounding that most charged of beauty-related topics: weight. When the svelte, stylish thirtysomething Denise Lambert sits down for lunch with her parents, Franzen notes that her less svelte mother,
Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of each of Enid’s. Now Denise’s plate was empty and she hadn’t taken seconds of anything.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Enid said.
“Yes. That was my lunch.”
“You’ve lost weight.”
“In fact not.”
“Well, don’t lose any more,” Enid said with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.
That “skimpy laugh” and those “large feelings” show us just how raw this subject is, how something so seemingly innocuous is so fraught for Enid. I suspect that I am not the only woman who finds this scenario familiar, whether from Enid’s vantage point or from Denise’s, or both. The size of appetites—for many women, it’s as sensitive a topic as there is.
Of course, this sensitivity didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It develops alongside a consciousness of the male gaze, the sense of being constantly sized up. (Women level this gaze on each other as well.) What makes this so persistent, so impervious to feminism or anti-consumerism, or any type of ideology, is that it’s so often unconscious.
Walter Berglund, in Franzen’s later novel “Freedom,” provides a perfect example. He is the ultimate “nice guy.” In college, he’s the type who doesn’t get a lot of girls. In this, he’s not at all like his best friend and roommate, Richard Katz, a bad-boy musician with a steady supply of female admirers. Walter is as feminist as feminist can be. He disapproves of Richard’s womanizing ways and rails against “the Subjugation of Women.” He’s also a devoted son who spends his weekends helping his aging mother run a struggling motel. The guy is a real mensch. Yet he is more exacting than Richard about women’s looks. Walter, Richard explains, “always goes for good-looking. For pretty and well-formed. He’s ambitious that way.” Blond, athletic Patty Emerson fits the bill, even though for a long time she, like most of Walter’s love interests, fails to reciprocate his feelings.
We can’t help but suspect that Walter’s ambitiousness is related to his feelings of inferiority. Walter, we think, wants to prove something about himself, about his own desirability, by winning the kind of girl that men agree is a prize—that is, an unambiguously attractive one. On the other hand, Richard’s very sexiness enables him to be more spontaneous and broad-minded, more open to women who aren’t conventional beauties. He mistreats them in other ways.
* * *
It isn’t, however, the case that men value beauty only from insecurity. If only. Then we could simply write off men who evaluate women by their looks as scheming social climbers. But the human response to beauty is also visceral, and Franzen reminds us of this, too. In “Freedom,” Walter and Patty’s college-age son, Joey, becomes infatuated with Jenna, an exceptionally pretty girl, an attachment that proves to be both powerful and long-lasting.
We see the force of Jenna’s looks when Joey notices how men respond to her in public. It’s of a different order from what he experiences with Connie, his more ordinarily pretty girlfriend. With Jenna at an airport, Joey realizes, men were
checking him out resentfully. He forced himself to stare down each of them in turn, to mark Jenna as claimed. It was going to be tiring, he realized, to have to do this everywhere they went in public. Men sometimes stared at Connie, too, but they usually seemed to accept, without undue regret, that she was his. With Jenna, already, he had the sense that other men’s interest was not deterred by his presence but continued to seek ways around him.
Soon after, Franzen has fun with the disconnect between beauty and desire, even when desire has been stoked by beauty. When Joey finally gets together with Jenna, he finds his attention drifting away at the very moment he should be most fully engaged (in bed). Joey notes that Jenna
fooled around more brutally, less pliantly than Connie did—that was part of it. But he also couldn’t see her face in the dark, and when he couldn’t see it he had only the memory, the idea, of its beauty. He kept telling himself that he was finally getting Jenna, that this was Jenna, Jenna, Jenna. But in the absence of visual confirmation all he had in his arms was a random sweaty attacking female.
“Can we turn a light on?” he said.
Eventually Joey and Jenna go to sleep, mutually dissatisfied.
As it happens, Jenna is a vacuous, spoiled drip, with little to recommend her other than her good looks. But Franzen is too fair a novelist to blame Jenna for not being the woman of Joey’s dreams. It is, rather, Joey’s obsession that is shown to be foolish. Aware of his youth, readers are likely to sympathize with his silly fixation on a good-looking woman he doesn’t even like, but we also hope that he will grow out of it.
Franzen’s presentation of Joey and Jenna stands in contrast to myriad novels in which a male protagonist falls for a woman for little reason other than her beauty, and then seems not merely disappointed but also angry, almost self-righteous, when she turns out not to be exactly the person he wanted her to be. We see something of this, for example, in Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus.” Its hero, Neil Klugman, meets Brenda Patimkin at her family’s country club, where their conversation consists only of her asking him to hold her glasses while she dives in the pool. We’ve got to assume she looked pretty good in her bathing suit, because that evening Neil finds her family in the phone book and asks her out. The summer romance that ensues is wonderfully and unsentimentally evoked, but it isn’t built to last. By autumn, Neil and Brenda’s ardor is beginning to cool. Neil is increasingly disdainful of Brenda and her family, whom he sees as vulgar and materialistic. As a narrator, he seems bent on showing us how terrible they are. Indeed, they are rather terrible, but I’m not sure this indignation reflects particularly well on Neil, either. The high-mindedness that he is capable of elsewhere is not really in play in his pursuit of Brenda. He went after a girl because he found her attractive, and, for a while, he was willing to overlook what he didn’t like. Eventually, though, he could no longer forgive her for who she was and for what her family was like. But Brenda didn’t mislead him, except in so much as her good looks can be said to have enchanted him. Of course, women no more deserve contempt for their beauty than they do for their lack of it, and to be initially adored and then, when better known, to be found wanting can be punishing, too. “Goodbye, Columbus” is a terrific novella, but “Freedom” is more humane, its authorial sympathies distributed more justly among its characters.
Beauty is often treated as an essentially feminine subject, something trivial and frivolous that women are excessively concerned with. Men, meanwhile, are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with it: they are drawn to it. The implication is that this may be unfortunate—not exactly ideal morally—but it can’t be helped, because it’s natural, biological. This seems more than a little ironic. Women are not only subject to a constant and exhausting and sometimes humiliating scrutiny—they are also belittled for caring about their beauty, mocked for seeking to enhance or to hold onto their good looks, while men are just, well, being men.
The reality is, of course, far more complicated, as our best novelists show us. They train our gazes on men at not only their most shallow and status conscious but also at their most ridiculous (the clenched jaw). It’s not always easy to know what to make of these men, who certainly aren’t wholly bad. But in a world where women are so frequently judged by their looks, it’s refreshing to encounter male characters whose superficial thoughts are at least acknowledged by their creators.