“To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die”

unfairest

Long-established European cultures (like the French) seem to do the finer things better than Americans — lingerie, wine, etc. But do they also do beauty better?

Undoubtedly this has something to do with the fact that a true taste for the piquant seduction of a jolie laide depends on a sophisticated erotic palate that is comfortable with husky, androgynous undertones. And it is precisely with such unqualifiable, gender-jiggling definitions of sexuality (and hence beauty) that Americans remain uncomfortable – bred as we are to homespun, well-scrubbed principles rather than the jaded and deeply cynical beliefs about the human condition that mark the European mindset (especially around issues like marriage and infidelity). This discomfort may also derive, as a transplanted friend of mine insists, from the fact that Europeans see the connection between inner and outer beauty better than Americans do. Or with our readiness to assume, in our can-do, Yankee sense of enterprise, that anything to do with beauty must translate into a concrete and consumer-friendly product or service rather than reside in the realm of a phenomenological conceit, a flourish of sensibility. (The newly ascendant ideal of ethnic beauty in the late 70’s, for instance, translated into cornrows on Bo Derek in the movie “10.”)

American beauty is notable in its sense of achievement — beauty can be made through symmetry, through use of particular products, through highly feminine performance, through fitting onself into what the author calls a “pretty-pretty” mold (“think Texas, symmetrical features, blue eyes, small noses, pretty-pretty”). Think Kate Bosworth, Kiersten Dunst, Jessica Simpson — pretty-pretty.

Europeans, she argues, embrace the beauty difference more openly than we do — they are better able to see the beauty in women like Sofia Coppola, Alex Wek, Juliette Lewis. Androgynous beauty is less threatening; perfection, symmetry and achievement are less of a focal point.

No, jolie laide aims to jog us out of our reflexive habits of looking and assessing by embracing the aesthetic pleasures of the visually off kilter: a bump on the nose, eyes that are set too closely together, a jagged smear of a mouth. It points away from the kittenish, pliant prettiness of Brigitte Bardot toward the tense, smolderingly imperfect allure of Anouk Aimée or Jeanne Moreau. Although the concept of jolie laide recognizes that “men act and women appear,” as the writer John Berger once put it, it also recognizes that behind the visceral image lies an internal life. In that sense it is a triumph of personality over physiognomy, the imposition of substance over surface. Think of Ellen Barkin’s wonderfully crumpled semaphore of a smile instead of Christie Brinkley’s gleaming, uncomplicated flash of teeth; of Sofia Coppola’s introspective, girl-in-a-Vermeer-painting aura rather than the paint-by-numbers cheerleader vibe of Lindsay Lohan.

Of course, her argument still buys into beauty standards, and she still places women squarely in the sphere of things to be looked at. She also doesn’t address body type (unusual facial features may be beautiful, but we get the idea that non-thin body types are still outside of the desirable), but she at least pushes the margins of pretty.

What she doesn’t get to at all is the underlying cultural factors which may cause this difference. American Protestant work ethic tends to narrow life into achievable goals: a family structure where Dad is the breadwinner and Mom volunteers for the PTA, McMansion homes in cookie-cutter suburbs, kids dressed in mass-produced and mass-marketed mall clothes. Middle class respectability in America is an achievment presented as a universal goal which can be purchased and performed — the American dream. Why should beauty be any different? A simple, narrow ideal presents an endpoint to strive for in a way that diverse beauty standards don’t. When crooked noses and crow’s feet and thick thighs fit into a conception of beauty, what is there left to work for? What is there to buy?

Obviously it’s more complicated than that, and this isn’t meant as an America-is-totally-inferior argument. We may even be catching on — the fabulous (and no longer 20) Catherine Denueve is the new face of MAC cosmetics, and she tells the Times, “A mature woman in Europe is considered sexually powerful.”Perhaps there’s hope for us yet.

catherine2

43 comments for ““To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die”

  1. Linnaeus
    October 18, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    I don’t have any brilliant insights right now, but I’d like to thank you for posting the picture of Anjelica Huston. It must be the dark hair and dark eyes.

    I think I understand, to some extent, what this observer is trying to say. I know that, for example, a lot of people (both men and women) find Faith Hill beautiful. She is, in her own way, but I never really felt overpowered by her appearance and for a long time, I didn’t know why. One day, it occurred to me: I saw her as “too perfect”…she didn’t seem to have any flaws that I could see, and according to my personal tastes, that seemed to make her in my eyes less beautiful.

    People I find beautiful have these quirks to them that I think make them distinctive.

  2. October 18, 2005 at 2:36 pm

    I’ll have to admit to not understanding what in the fuck that NYT writer was talking about, or whether it matters apart from some master’s thesis. A really old master’s thesis if Bo Derek’s appearance in a movie that happened to be called “10” has any sort of relevance.

    Here’s another theory: there is an increased allure to depth and ability in acting/talent, which is why Sofia Coppola is more interesting as a 30something director than as a pitifully miscast teenaged actress (or, compare Ellen Barkin’s amazing performance in Sea of Love or The Big Easy to Christie Brinkley’s exercise machine infomercials, whatever).

    A great list of European actresses from back in the day in the article; let’s add Monica Vitti, Anna Magnani, and Julie Christie.

  3. October 18, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    The problem with communally held ideals of physical beauty is that most of us will fall short of them. The act of agreeing on what is beautiful makes most of us ugly to some degree. We can’t help having personal ideals of beauty. That’s just personal taste, and a necessary part of attraction. But the moment we all start talking about what is generally pretty and what’s not, we begin the destructive process of striving to be someone else.

    I would rather live in a world where we express what we find beautiful, but all agree to disagree on it.

  4. October 18, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    What Linnaeus says about Faith Hill, I thought about Britney Spears. Her appearance looked positively calculated for maximum effect, as though she’d been shaped by a computer after careful analysis. She just didn’t look real enough to regard.

  5. October 18, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    That’s just personal taste, and a necessary part of attraction. But the moment we all start talking about what is generally pretty and what’s not, we begin the destructive process of striving to be someone else.

    I would rather live in a world where we express what we find beautiful, but all agree to disagree on it.

    YESSSSSS.

  6. Slim Slow Slider
    October 18, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    I feel the need to quote (or rather, paraphrase) Sappho: the most beautiful thing in the world is that which she loves most. This is so true and WHY does no one ever seem to care enough about this to examine it as they will with the whole Beauty Myth thing??
    I happen to think that my beloved is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen, despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to agree. Maybe another quote which I read yesterday is apt: Henry Miller apparently said that “women are able to overlook the one thing that men price above all else: beauty”. (or something to that effect…)
    is this irrelevant? Sorry. But I have come to expect that the society I grew up in won’t necessarily find the way I look beautiful, so have kind of become a bit “oh well” about it.

  7. Leslie
    October 18, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    We live in a society with such a shallow and limited idea of what is beautiful. Anything too far outside – too old, too fat, too assymetrical, too dark, too natural doesn’t exist. stupid, judgemental and ultimately boring as well. You hit my age (44) and you disappear – both dismaying and freeing – as a dear friend said to me years ago “I’m past my sell-by date so I don’t have to care about that anymore”!

  8. Linnaeus
    October 18, 2005 at 4:07 pm

    We live in a society with such a shallow and limited idea of what is beautiful.

    I see your point, but this does present a possible, and interesting conundrum. We (and I mean this in the general sense…not pointing fingers or anything) on one hand want to assert the variability of beauty (akin to what Kevin wrote above) and how that’s cool, but then often seek to judge what others find beautiful…my sense of beauty is deeper than yours and therefore more valid, etc. I’m not saying you’re doing that, just that I have observed this in other instances.

    And here’s an interesting question I have: if everything and everyone is beautiful, does that mean nothing is beautiful?

  9. October 18, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    Linnaeus said what I was going to. There’s not much more insulting than being told that what I find beautiful is not my own, but rather forcefed to me and the product of suggestibility.

    And no, I’m not predictable, but I do find at least some of the so-called “beautiful people” beautiful. That doesn’t mean those are the only beauties – not by a long shot – but I refuse to apologize for my own sense of aesthetics, or be told I don’t really feel that way.

  10. October 18, 2005 at 4:59 pm

    Long-established European cultures (like the French) seem to do the finer things better than Americans — lingerie, wine, etc.

    That’s because they spend most of their free time refining the arcane arts of producing nondurable underwear and moldy grape juice. Americans spend their time on different things, like building a world-bestriding colossus.

    But do they also do beauty better?

    No.

  11. October 18, 2005 at 5:08 pm

    Nondurable underwear and moldy grape juice? Mr. Thompson, I’ll have you know that lingerie and fine wine are two of my very favorite things in life, and I’m quite partial to the French and Italian versions of both. You, clearly, have never experienced the joy of lounging around alone in ridiculous underwear, eating cheese and drinking wine until you felt fat and tired. Trust me, it beats creating a world-bestriding colossus any day.

  12. Tanooki Joe
    October 18, 2005 at 5:14 pm

    I see your point, but this does present a possible, and interesting conundrum. We (and I mean this in the general sense…not pointing fingers or anything) on one hand want to assert the variability of beauty (akin to what Kevin wrote above) and how that’s cool, but then often seek to judge what others find beautiful…my sense of beauty is deeper than yours and therefore more valid, etc.

    This is a pretty much a long-standing topic in aesthetic philosophy, going at least as far back as Hume.

    And here’s an interesting question I have: if everything and everyone is beautiful, does that mean nothing is beautiful?

    Stanley Kubrick said that was the problem with drugs and hippies.

  13. Leslie
    October 18, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    It does raise interesting questions as to what, if any, absolutes there are in definitions of beauty. I’ve seen a couple studies that clearly indicated that people in multiple cultures perceive facial symmetry as more beautiful than its lack – and there are genetic fitness arguments that were made about symmetry equalling bettter likelihood of health/reproductive success in these studies.

    That aside though, many cultures have very different ideas about what is most beautiful. For example curvaceous women vs model skinny, hairy, muscular man vs slender, light build. I’m not saying which is better but rather that our definition in popular culture is narrower than many and exclusionary of much that I personally find more attractive and interesting. Despite Auguste’s apparent desire to feel insulted I didn’t actually, for example, say that anyone who feels britney spears is attractive is shallow and has no aesthetic judgement. Nor did I assume that whatever he or anyone else finds beautiful isn’t- but rather that our society as a whole tends to be limited and exclusionary in how we define beauty.

  14. October 18, 2005 at 5:23 pm

    Everything is beautiful, but some are more beautiful than others, depending on who you ask?

    Jessica Simpson, even more than Spears, has a machine-extruded perfection that is sort of fascinating, yet horrifying at the same time; you have an acute sense that time can’t help but lessen it, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the day that exercise and botox can’t hide that she’s aging.

    Also fascinating is Anna Nicole, for the same reason; she started out stunning, is still beautiful, but now has a crazy train-wreck quality that is hard to look away from.

    Both are pretty in the classic Corn Maiden Nordic mode–tall curvy blondes with dazzling white teeth. A glittery kind of pretty we Americans seem very susceptible to.

  15. October 18, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    I’ll have you know that lingerie and fine wine are two of my very favorite things in life, and I’m quite partial to the French and Italian versions of both. You, clearly, have never experienced the joy of lounging around alone in ridiculous underwear, eating cheese and drinking wine until you felt fat and tired.

    *Gulp*

    If I weren’t already married, I’d propose, right here, right now.

  16. kate
    October 18, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    No offense, but one thing I’m really sick of are saying that women from one country (insert Brazil, France, Italy …) are the most beautiful. There are attractive people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities. Nor does someone from one country fit a single look. I’m American (although not WASP American and probably not too beautiful) and I am not blond, blue-eyed, tan, big-breasted with Barbie doll features.
    I think I must be unusual, but unless someone is at the extreme of physical deformity/perfection, how beautiful they seem to me depends on their actions. Probably like 98% of people have a mixture of good and bad features, and if a person is ugly inside I see only their ugly features. It works vice versa. That’s why I don’t have celebrity crushes – I can appreciate that their features are pleasant/symmetrical but I cannot think they are beautiful or worth knowing without seeing their actions in person.
    In the end, I find people who are less physically attractive more beautiful (if that makes any sense), because the majority of attractive people I have met, especially those who have been attractive all their lives, are arrogant, snobby, catty, selfish and narcissistic. (I’m totally open to meeting attractive people who are good human beings, but I just haven’t met a whole lot in my life.) Having to work charm, intelligence, wit, kindness, etc. rather than dazzling everyone who sees you for one second, is incredibly character building.

  17. zuzu
    October 18, 2005 at 5:28 pm

    I’m sorry, I guess I missed the part where Anjelica Houston was considered not beautiful in the US.

  18. Linnaeus
    October 18, 2005 at 5:40 pm

    Zuzu:

    I guess it isn’t that Anjelica Huston is considered “not beautiful”, but I’ve not heard or seen much that explicitly casts her in the mold of beauty either. *shrug*…maybe it’s just me.

  19. October 18, 2005 at 5:48 pm

    I realize I might be derailing the thread, but nothing is more beautiful to me than someone who can make me laugh. On a daily basis. And snort on occasion.

    As cliche as it is, it’s true. The men I have most loved in my life have been funny men, and men with whom my sense of humor was not defined as “she laughs at my jokes.” Dude has to laugh at my bad puns and oddities as well.

    All the men I have loved and been deeply attracted to have not only been funny, but have found hilarity in my company. For me, their beauty was completely dependent on this factor. (Yes, even the assholes.)

  20. Linnaeus
    October 18, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    So, what do you mean I’m funny…..? I’m your joker? I amuseyou?

  21. October 18, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    Well, Leslie, you wouldn’t have been the first person to mean “those who think x about beauty are shallow and limited and blind followers of the zeitgeist” when you said “society.”

    Since you didn’t, my sincerest apologies.

  22. Slim Slow Slider
    October 18, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    I’m with Lauren on the last comment. There’s something wonderful about someone who can make you laugh so hard you have difficulty breathing and tears are coming out.

  23. October 18, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    You, clearly, have never experienced the joy of lounging around alone in ridiculous underwear, eating cheese and drinking wine until you felt fat and tired. Trust me, it beats creating a world-bestriding colossus any day.

    Suit yourself. If you like that silly shit, go right ahead. I’d rather have the colossus, as I’d have a lot more to show for my effort at the end of the day.

  24. October 18, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    Can’t I have silly shit and a collosus?

  25. October 18, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    Jill, women can’t have it all. What are you, some kind of feminist?!

  26. Linnaeus
    October 18, 2005 at 6:03 pm

    Even the Colossus couldn’t stand forever.

  27. October 18, 2005 at 6:03 pm

    There are attractive people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities.

    You got that right.

    I think I must be unusual, but unless someone is at the extreme of physical deformity/perfection, how beautiful they seem to me depends on their actions.

    It’s not that unusual, but it is uncommon. I tend to take straight physical appearance as a baseline and move up or down from there. Bitchiness or smoking will kill it for me, but good humor or height will increase my interest in whatever her folks gave her.

  28. October 18, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    Can’t I have silly shit and a collosus?

    Your time belongs to one or the other. Opportunity cost and such.

  29. October 18, 2005 at 6:09 pm

    Even the Colossus couldn’t stand forever.

    It doesn’t have to; it just has to stand longer than I do. After I’m dead, I won’t care any more and it can go fuck all.

  30. piny
    October 18, 2005 at 6:29 pm

    Bitchiness or smoking will kill it for me, but good humor or height will increase my interest in whatever her folks gave her.

    I actually find smoking attractive, probably because so many people in my family and circle of friends smoke. I never talk about it, because I don’t want to provide any kind of encouragement to anyone to continue damaging every system in their body, but I like the smell and the taste.

  31. October 18, 2005 at 7:00 pm

    Colossus? You mean that Russian mutant who goes into an armor-plated state whenever agitated? Whatever floats yr. boat.

  32. Bertson
    October 18, 2005 at 7:17 pm

    Europe’s already done the world-bestriding-Collossus thing, why would they bother doing it again?

  33. Leslie
    October 18, 2005 at 7:41 pm

    thanks auguste

  34. Jodi
    October 18, 2005 at 10:35 pm

    I’m with kate — people who are dear to me are absolute beauties, every one of them, men, women and children. Otherwise — eh.

  35. Laura
    October 18, 2005 at 11:11 pm

    So basically, we all see beauty differently–that’s beautiful.

  36. October 19, 2005 at 11:16 am

    I’d rather have the colossus,

    David, come on. Yoiu don’t have the colossus. The colossus has you. Spend all your time (since yours seems to exist only in the entire, not in parts) building it if you choose, but please don’t be so naive as to think you can direct it.

    All this talk about beauty and we’re still mostly criticizing the way women look. Over”civilized” navel gazers, you’d think they’d never seen an indigo snake. /mutter

  37. October 19, 2005 at 12:24 pm

    So this is why the Euros dig me. Sweet!

    Also, being ‘pretty-pretty’ requires more work – hence, more spending and consumption – to keep up appearances. Tidiness is the overriding factor here. All the ‘pretty-pretties’ are high-maintenance, which is great for the economy but bad for women trying to meet the standard.

  38. October 19, 2005 at 3:22 pm

    What I like about certain foreign films is their willingness to use unique-looking actors and actresses as leads, finding “beauty” (not sure if that’s the right word here) in the individual and not in a type.

    I have a feeling many Americans feel the same way. I’m not at all convinced that the beauty that’s marketed here reflects the beauty that interests many of us, particularly as we mature. And I think our cinema and TV has become so bland because all of the actors and actresses are interchangeable (with some notable exceptions).

    Which means I’m not sure that our cultures thing differently about beauty so much as our marketing people do.

  39. October 19, 2005 at 3:57 pm

    I appreciate that the article mentions Pedro Almodavar (sp?). Every time I’ve watched one of his movies I have been blown away by the non-American beauty standards. That many of the actresses he casts in his films are over 30 — well, bravo. I’d like to see more of that here.

  40. Leslie
    October 19, 2005 at 4:10 pm

    Jeff G – I so hope you’re right. It’s certainly how I feel but I know I’m outside of the mainstream.

    And as a woman well over 30 I’d certainly like to see more women over 30 in films – how often we see a 50-something guy paired up with a 20 something woman.

  41. October 19, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    Jeff G-

    Great point.

    Leslie and Lauren-

    I’m with you. Although seeing Susan Sarandon as a total bombshell in Alfie gave me some hope.

  42. kate
    October 19, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    Personally I find European actresses just as conventionally attractive as most American actresses. Audrey Tautou, Monica Bellucci, Penelope Cruz, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve (the latter two in their younger days)… all of them would be considered beautiful stateside. I guess they might be more quirky looking, but it’s not like they challenge any dominant standards of feminine beauty – they all have pleasant, proportionate features and they are thin.

  43. October 19, 2005 at 6:09 pm

    I don’t think the author’s point was that European actresses are less conventionally attractive than American actresses. She was saying that Europeans themselves seem to embrace unconvention beauty more than Americans do, so unconvetional-looking, interesting and stylish women from any country are more likely to be perceived as “beautiful” in a place like France than in L.A.

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