Sunday, August 20, 2006

No accounting for taste

Ideals of male and female beauty vary from culture to culture and era to era, although since the Greeks the Western ideal of male beauty has remained fairly consistent---square-jaw, broad shoulders, narrow waist, flat stomach, nice buns, freakishly juvenile genetalia.

For most of the last 500 years or so the ideal for the perfect female form was a bit fleshier than we tend to go for now, which is our loss, as the present ideal body shape, that of a particularly slender but amazingly well-endowed 16 year old, besides being unachievable for most women, even those who are 16, is ridiculously specialized to the point of fetishistic.

Being able to respond to only one particular body type is like being able to respond only to leather, Catholic school girl uniforms, French maid outfits, complete Brazilians or hairy legs.

It's not the woman herself that interests you. It's your own kink.

But I can't think of a time or a place when or where the particular mix of body parts and personality that appears on movie screens under the name of Angelina Jolie wouldn't be considered an acceptable and welcome variation on the cultural ideal.

Seems to me that with her peculiar mix of smoldering sensuality, striking features, perfect figure, and I can take you or leave you but if I decide to take you you'd better be prepared for one hell of a good time air of careless sexual abandonment she'd have men, and women, throwing themselves at her from ancient China to Paris in the 1950s. The Incas, the Egyptians, and the Celts would have worshipped her. Homer could have had her in mind for his Helen, his Penelope, or his Circe. If the Elizabethans had allowed women on their stages, Shakespeare would have jumped from his seat at the audtions and shouted, "Send everybody else home. We've found our Cleopatra!" And while Botticelli might have wished her a blonde, and Titian might have thought her hair perhaps a shade too dark, and Rubens might have shrugged and said, "Too skinny," Caravaggio would have gone right to work. Reynolds and Goya and Delacroix, then Whistler, Manet, Renoir, Klimt, and Matisse would never have been able to get enough of her.

But that's just me.

I mean it. That's just me. That's how she strikes me. You might not think she's at all attractive. These things are a matter of taste.

Attractive and beautiful are not the same quality, however, and even if she leaves you cold I think it would be pretty hard to deny she's incredibly good-looking.

Unless you happent to be a commenter on a certain Right Wing blog.

Regular reader Jill Bryant followed the links from Friday's post, as all good and dilligent blog readers should, to the post Scott Lemieux found, in which a Feetie Pajamas Media movie critic objected to the idea of Jolie being cast as Daniel Pearl's wife.

Based on the fact that the blogger posted a picture of Jolie in a sexy outfit with the sarcastic caption "Demure wife," Scott thinks that the guy doesn't understand the point of acting.

Without getting into the problems any woman who is married to or marries the blogger is going to have with a guy who thinks that sexy and demure are mutually exclusive or who uses the phrase demure wife as a tautology, you have to wonder if this guy thinks that any actress who plays a prostitute must be prostitute and any woman who plays a scientist must have a Ph.D.

But Jill, going above and beyond the call, has delved into the comment thread on the post and discovered that a lot of the commenters don't think Angelina Jolie is pretty enough to play Mariane Pearl.

The subject here is beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but I have to go off on a tangent here.

Why does it matter that the actress playing Mariane Pearl be pretty? Considering all that Pearl's gone through, the question of her looks would seem to be one of the most trivial considerations you could raise about her.

Since she's a real person who's main claim to fame is her suffering, whose story is only known to us because of her husband's murder, shouldn't your interest in her story be her story not her looks? And if you're looking forward to seeing her story told in a movie then shouldn't your main concern be whether or not the actress cast to play her be talented enough to portray the depth of her suffering and the strength of her character?

You could make the case that Jolie doesn't have the chops, but you'd better do it after you've rewatched Girl, Interrupted and Pushing Tin, after which you'll have your work cut out for you, and not after your one hundredth replay of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Let's not think about Alexander.

Hollywood has done to Jolie what it does to most of its stars after they've proven they can act, put them in movie after movie in which they aren't expected to act.

Seems to me a little odd that while you're sitting around waiting for the Pearls' story to come to the multiplex you've developed a rooting interest in what the actress playing Mariane Pearl looks like, as if her look is her character and as if she's known for her look, as if instead of being a real person, she's a comic book character.

You might argue that Jolie is all wrong for Wonder Woman---go ahead, I dare you---but to say she's not pretty enough to play Mariane Pearl reveals things about your attitudes about Pearl that you probably don't want people to know, the main one being that you don't think of her as a real person.

Which means to you her story is just a story.

I don't want to make too much of this, although I'm sure I could. I could write a whole post on how this inabiltity to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Mariane Pearl may shed light on the Right Wing bloggers' attitudes towards George Bush, the war in Iraq, and the "war" on terror. But probably all that's going on in those comments is just the all too usual reflexive, and thoughtless, Me-too-ism that characterizes a lot of blog commentarty on the left as well as the right, although, thankfully, not the commentary here.

(It's not just my own opinion that my commenters are among the best and most eloquent around. I've heard from plenty of other bloggers that you're all hot stuff. They're jealous!)

But I think it's a very common and very human tendency to respond to someone else's declaration of personal taste with a contrary one of our own as if our taste is the standard and trumps theirs.

Lance: Angelina's a goddess.

Intelligent and discerning reader: Are you out of your mind! She looks like a Barbie doll with a face designed by a cross-eyed Cubist who's terrified of real women!

As it happens, I've never been particularly attracted to movie stars. I won't hear a word against Gwyneth, but that's because she's my fantasy girlfriend---I mean that when I see her on screen I feel as if I did in fact go out with her at one time, which I take to mean that either we knew each other in a former life or, more likely, and much less crazily, she reminds me very much of the kind of girl I used to date back when dating actresses pretty much defined my social life.

My love for Uma is true and real, and pure, and totally irrational except that it is based almost entirely upon what I know about her as a person. She's not even my usual type. Anne Hathaway is more my type, and I am a little bit smitten with her. But then she reminds me of the young Mary Tyler Moore.

Mary Tyler Moore was a movie star, of course, but she was a much bigger TV star and TV stars have been the objects of my imaginary desires far more often than movie stars.


Because I am far more familiar with them.

Mary Tyler Moore, Dawn Wells, Stephanie Zimbalist, Shelley Long and Kirstie Alley, Carey Lowell, and lately all three female leads on Smallville---Kristin Kreuk, Erica Durance, and, especially, Allison Mack---and Molly Parker.

You will note the preponderance of pale, willowy brunettes.

There was a short period of time when Loretta Swit got under my skin and I'm convinced that she was still there when I met the blonde and that's how I ended up asking her out instead of the willowy, pale brunette who sat next to her in class.

Growing up I watched far more TV than I saw movies, of course, and when I became a serious movie buff in high school it was due to all the old movies I watched late at night on cable.

Which explains why I am far more fascinated by the stars of the 30s and 40s than I've ever been by any actresses who were actually alive and young when I was alive and young.

But when I think about it, there are really even only two actresses from those days I find attractive in the way I find real women attractive, Ingrid Bergman and Myrna Loy.

I know that Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, and Rita Hayworth were beautiful, but I don't feel the force of their beauty as I do with Bergman and Loy or any of the TV stars I mentioned.

The reason for this, I think, is that my ideal of female beauty was formed before I ever watched a movie, possibly before I began watching TV.

Almost certainly it began with my mother's face.

Which is where it almost certainly begins for most people.

We are all much more the products of the circumstances into which we are born than we like to admit. To the degree that our likes and dislikes, our tastes, our opinions, our habits of thought are shaped by the Media, it's because the shows we watch, the movies we go to, the magazines we read, the pictures we look at are part of those circumstances.

To say "I think so and so is beautiful" is to say more about the structures of our own brains than about so and so's bone structure.

Objective discussions of beauty are possible, but only after the subjective element is acknowledged and put aside. The personally subjective, as it is possible to analyze a culturally subjective ideal and see why a particular group of people responded to what is to us unattractive or rejected what is to us stunningly beautiful.

So it is possible to argue that when critics of Ann Coulter attack her looks---which I wish they wouldn't do---they are just revealing the fact that their political opinion is controlling their aesthetic judgment.

But it's just as possible to show that in fact Ann Coulter does not meet any ideal of beauty and that people who insist that she is beautiful are allowing their political opinions to control their judgments, although why bother with either, as her looks are irrelevent, or ought to be, even though she does trade on them. She's not my cup of tea, but I've never met her in person either. One of the sexiest and most attractive girls I ever knew was objectively fairly homely. But she had a way about her that drove men, and more than a few women, mad with desire.

Still, it's possible to argue, objectively and convincingly, all four ways---that Liberals deny Coulter's attractiveness because of her politics, that Right Wingers are attracted to her by her politics, that she is not by objective standards beautiful at all, that she is beautiful in person because of she has a way.

And it is possible, and reasonable, to conclude that Right Wingers who insist that Angelina Jolie isn't attractive enough to play Mariane Pearl are revealing attitudes towards sexuality, the proper role of women (demure wife), and the war on terror---they own it and therefore they should have say over who gets to play one of their heroines, they even get to decide what their heroine looks like and what her character is, no matter what the real Mariane Pearl is like. And God help her if she ever shows herself to be a critic of George Bush. They'll strip her of her right to grieve for her own husband the way they've tried to take away Cindy Sheehan's and Michael Berg's sons.

But I think it's more the case that what they're revealing, since so many of them are twenty and thirtysomethings, is that they were all big fans of Friends and as a result naturally prefer Jennifer Aniston to Angelina Jolie and they've been rooting for Jen against Brad.


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