Friday, September 21, 2007

Ugly Betty is not hot, neither was Katharine Hepburn, and that's the secret of their beauty

America Ferrera---Ugly Betty---is not hot.

Glamour Magazine says she is. Glamour Magazine is wrong.

Ferrera is pretty. Very pretty. Take away Ugly Betty's lusterless wig, her complexion-muddying makeup, her fake eyebrows and false teeth, her braces, her dorky glasses and frumpy, unflattering, Catholic grade school teacher on a budget outfits, and Ferrera's a lovely young woman. But she's lovely in the way young women her age are lovely. She glows with good health and energy. Her skin is smooth. Her figure curves in the right directions.

She comes across as a nice and intelligent person, both qualities absolutely essential to being attractive.

And photographed in the right light at the right angles she can be beautiful.

But that's the difference between TV and movie stars and models and ordinary people. There are more shades of right light and more flattering angles for the stars and models. Some models aren't even good looking in real life. They just take the light well.

Ferrera takes light well. She's lovely and amazing.

But she's not hot.

I say that with the respect, admiration, and appreciation of the aging rouee who has not lost his eye for beauty.

I say it because "hot" is not a compliment.

It's just a current slang word that means vaguely, sort of, in the ballpark of, either, "I recognize that a certain person is what most people around me would think is sexually attractive" or "I would like it very much if you agreed with me that the person I'm sexually attracted to at the moment is in fact sexually attractive."

Either way, it doesn't say much about the actual degree of attractiveness possessed by the body being declared hot. It is merely a statement by the body declaring its attraction that it belongs to the group it wants to belong to.

That's the purpose of slang, to identify the speaker as a welcome member of a group, and that's what it's doing on the cover of Glamour. The editors aren't using "hot" to describe Ferrera. They're using it to try to describe themselves and their magazine to the young readers they covet. "Look at us, we're like you. We're in your group." Of course, they don't mean it. They don't want to be part of their group. They want them to be part of their customer base. But I'll get to that.

At any rate, unlike pretty, lovely, beautiful, handsome, sexy, stunning, gorgeous, and just plain good-looking, "hot" is not an automatic compliment. It's a statement of intent. It doesn't describe the person who is "hot." It announces the effect of that person's "hotness" upon the speaker.

"You're hot," "She's/he's hot" means "I want to strip you naked and roger you roundly."

There are only a very select and extremely circumscribed situations under which this sentiment will strike the person so addressed as a compliment.

Compliments are supposed to make the person being complimented feel good about themselves. To the degree that the other person's feelings and autonomous personhood are considered "You're hot" assumes that the person looks the way she/he looks because they want to be stripped naked and rogered roundly and by the person declaring them hot.

Not the smartest assumption, particularly when the speaker is a man and the subject a woman. Men are apt to assume that a pretty woman's prettiness is an act of will and/or she knows she is pretty and understands that with great prettiness comes great responsibility for the effect of her prettiness upon men.

"You were given a gift, young lady, and you were meant to use it---on me!"

Implicit in the thought is a warning. "If you don't want me to react like a dog in heat to your prettiness you should wear a burka and a veil. The fact that you don't gives me permission to think and act as if I stand a chance of seeing you naked, just for the asking."

Probably the editors at Glamour did not use the word on their cover to mean "America Ferrera is someone you'd want to strip naked and roger roundly" and I doubt that Ferrara, if she's as smart and together as the character she plays, would ever regard being called hot in that way as a compliment.

There are times when calling someone hot can be very complimentary. Those times occur between two people who know each other well enough to have already communicated, at least subliminally, their mutual desire to strip each other naked and roger each other roundly. Under those circumstances, "you're hot" means either "I don't have the right words to express my deeply intense romantic and erotic feelings for you" or "Let's not waste time thinking of the right words, let's strip each other naked and roger together roundly right now!"

Whether or not America Ferrera is hot or has been hot under those circumstances is none of my damn business.

The editors of Glamour didn't chose the word because they wanted to let their readers know Ferrera has someone in her life who thinks she's hot.

In fact, on the cover of Glamour, the word has no real meaning. It's just another advertising slogan. It means, as much as it means anything, "Buy our magazine and we'll tell you how by buying our advertisers' products you an share in some of America Ferrera's beauty, success, and celebrity."

"Ugly Betty is hot" is part of the on-going attempt by the fashion and beauty industries to seduce young women into giving up their personhoods to become consumers. The thing to be consumed is an industrial standard of "attractiveness" that's based entirely on what the industry wants to sell this year.

In this, Ferrera's heavily air-brushed photo on the cover is like the word "hot," a piece of advertising. Ferrera is there not because she has any meaning as an actual human being with a real amount of personal attractiveness and charm, any more than the word "hot" in the copy has any meaning as a word actually describing her personal attractiveness or charm.

Her face and body are there because they are both currently popular with a certain group Glamour wants to add to its group of consumers by convincing them that Glamour, through the image of Ferrera, belongs to their group.

I forget what college freshman course in semiotics I learned all that kind of stuff in.

Now, here's the irony and perversion.

Ferrera is popular---which is to say useful to Glamour, a beauty and fashion magazine---because she doesn't conform to the beauty and fashion magazines' current standards of feminine beauty and also because she's a very talented actress playing a character who is by those standards "ugly" in a hit TV series that mocks and derides those standards.

So what is Glamour supposed to do with that? They need Ferrera to identify themselves as hip and current, but they can't very well put Ugly Betty on their cover. That would be like flat out saying, "You don't need to read our magazine and buy our advertisers' products to be a romantic heroine and have the Henry Grubsticks and Daniel Meads of the world fall in love with you. All you need to do is be yourself and set your own standards."

That's the irony.

Here's the perversion.

They put Ferrera herself on the cover as if she is Ugly Betty, as if they are saying "To be beautiful, to be hot, be like Ugly Betty," but they make sure that Ferrera conforms to the current standards instead of defying them by manipulating her image and tagging her image with the word "hot."

This happens all the time. Every now and then the popular culture throws up a person who is unique, who is interesting for not being like the rest of the popular culture's currently popular idols, an original whose success threatens to overturn the whole applecart by setting new standards or setting aside---making irrelevant---all the old standards, and the advertising industry which has been feeding off the old standards has to adapt in a hurry.

The more creative and intelligent advertisers adapt by adapting. But the usual response is like Glamour's editors, whom you probably noticed I've been equating all along with advertisers not journalists, with good reason. They appear to accept the new standard, to celebrate the uniqueness or the difference, all the while trying desperately to make it fit inside the old boxes.

America Ferrera is celebrated for being Ugly Betty by making her look as much as possible like every other cover girl who has appeared in the magazine over the last twenty years.

Ferrera herself is probably resigned to going along with this, because she knows that if she is to have any sort of TV or movie career beyond Ugly Betty she'd better look, or be thought by producers and casting directors to look, as much as possible like every other starlet her age.

I hope she doesn't have to go as far as starving herself into a stick and dying her hair blond.

And I hope before she goes any farther along she reads Karen Karbo's book on Katharine Hepburn's personal and peculiar style of living and being beautiful, How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great.

Seventy years ago, Hepburn, as Karbo says, was another original that Hollywood and the worlds of fashion and celebrity fan worship didn't know how to cope with so they tried to cope by denying her originality.

They tried to cram her into the currently fashionable boxes.

How Hepburn escaped the boxes and set her own standards for beauty and movie stardom is the subject of Karbo's book.

Besides being the author of How to Hepburn, Karbo is a novelist, memoirist, journalist, essayist, film critic, blogger, and occupier of a spot on my blog roll. Over there on your left, under Literary and Artistic Types, though her webpage is under re-construction at the moment..

I interviewed Karen about How to Hepburn and she's been patiently wondering why the devil I haven't yet posted that interview. I've got lots of good excuses but my latest and last one is that I had a brainstorm.

Karen's a regular reader here, although unless she's been using an alias, she's been something of a lurker in the comment threads. That has to change. And she's promised it will, at least when I post the interview. Karen will turn up in the comments to answer your questions. The thing is you are more likely to have questions if you've already read the book. Here's your chance.

I'll be posting the interview on Tuesday, October 9. That gives you plenty of time to request the book from your local library or better yet buy it, which you can do right now by clicking on this link to How to Hepburn at my aStore.

If this works out, maybe we can get a Lance Mannion Book Club going. Show the folks at Firedoglake they're not the only bookworms on this side of the bandwidth.

Got to be better than live-blogging Studio 60. Or at least more intellectually stimulating.

Speaking of live-blogging. I'm going to experiment with live-blogging Heroes Monday night. It's an experiment because I have a feeling it might not work. I think I could get so caught up in each episode that I'll forget to type. We'll see. New season begins Monday, September 24, at 9 PM Eastern.

Catch up: The first seasons of Heroes and Ugly Betty are available on DVD. Please help support this blog by shopping at my aStore.

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