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.