Last week, I wrote this about Ms. Paltrow (whom I do not hate):
I’ve never been all that struck by her beauty. I think she is undeniably very pretty. I think she is chic and glamorous. But I found myself scratching my head a bit at her selection as People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” this year (an annual selection I hope we can all agree is unalloyed stupidity). Because, quite frankly, I find her looks rather plain. Pretty, but plain.
The topic of Ms. Paltrow’s looks, and the discussion of the physical beauty of her and other celebrities, rubbed several commenters the wrong way.
I’ve got the heebie-jeebies just talking about this frankly.
This topic makes me shudder a bit…
I’m not sure I like this week’s question. It seems to me that picking apart a Most Beautiful Woman selection isn’t that dissimilar an activity to creating a Most Beautiful list. Even though there isn’t the explicit sense of judging and valuing people (mostly women) based on their looks in the OP, it’s not that far under the surface.
This all got me thinking. I wonder why it is that a discussion of a celebrity’s looks in a critical manner gave people pause.
Is it that Ms. Paltrow is a woman, and that women have been and still are judged far too much on the basis of their looks? During our (very fun) virtual viewing party for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Kazzy wrote this about one of the players:
Plus [the Heat] have Chris Bosh, who looks like a weird muppet dinosaur.
Does that raise similar hackles? If not, why not? Is it because Ms. Paltrow’s career requires that people find her beautiful in a way that Mr. Bosh’s does not, and people are reacting to the inherent sexism of that reality? Is commenting on a woman’s looks in an evaluative manner, at least in a public forum such as this, always sexist?
Further, what is it about talking about a woman’s appearance that makes it more unseemly than commenting about her talent or intelligence? My co-blogger wrote about this quite eloquently for the Inequality Symposium a little while ago:
Like wealth, one’s degree of talent and looks are also at least partially a matter of luck. Like wealth, talent and looks further or hinder our interests.
Interestingly, although most would agree that talent is partially inherited and the opportunity to develop talents are afforded to some children more than others, we see talent as more constitutive of a person’s identity than looks. Indeed, looks are supposed to be entirely not constitutive of a person’s identity. Someone who accords much weight to looks in her evaluation of a person is considered superficial. Why should that be? Presumably because looks are distributed with partial moral neutrality. No one earned good looks. But so too are talents. And for a guy to say he loves his girlfriend because she is so smart would never incur the opprobrium that he would get from some quarters if he said that he loves his girlfriend because she is so hot.
Quite so. Consider the example of Sarah Palin. I found her nomination to the vice-presidency to be one of the most cravenly cynical and irresponsible acts I’ve ever witnessed in American politics. And that was in large part because she struck me as unmistakably unintelligent, a quality I believe to be at least somewhat innate. I would not and do not shy away from saying she is not a smart woman. But I would never in a million years say that she got the nomination because she is a beautiful woman (which she plainly is), even if I believed that to be the reason (which I feel compelled to point out that I do not).
Why would commenting on her looks be off limits but commenting on her intelligence be fair game, if both qualities are largely beyond her control? When I commented during the 2012 campaign (in a post I cannot find to link) that I didn’t mind the Ryan nomination because at least he isn’t stupid and he has pretty eyes, was I behaving in a morally ugly way? And if so, for which statement?
Or consider the example of Michael Phelps, an extraordinarily successful swimmer. I could have spent my life swimming laps and would never have the advantages he has in the pool based solely on his build. (That is not to take away a jot from the enormous effort he expended to achieve his goals. But that again suggests a temperamental trait that may well be largely innate!) Why is it perfectly OK to discuss the advantages his arms and legs have given him, but not the way the face and body of Ms. Paltrow have helped her career?
So, I put the question out there — is it ever OK to discuss a person’s looks in a public forum? Does it vary by gender, and if so why? Why do we shy away from discussing the beauty of a person when we are happy to discuss other innate qualities he or she may have, both physical and intellectual?