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The Unfairest of Them All

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The Unfairest of Them All

an interesting post from BLOGSPOT:

A beauty is a beauty is a beauty – incontestably and irrevocably itself, like Gertrude Stein’s insistent rose. Or so you would think. In a world in which we have become increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of disparity – the seemingly ineradicable differences of class and of race that Americans in particular prefer to mist over even as we embrace the ideal of cultural diversity – the one undeniable aristocracy we still pay our respects to is that of beauty. “To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die,” Harold Brodkey wrote in a short story, “Innocence,” about the supernally beautiful Radcliffe girl whom the young narrator is determined to lead down the garden path of sexual awakening. I’ve always thought this sentence summed up everything there is to be said about the innately undemocratic and capricious reality of those who are born with great looks. It explains the whole unjust gift-of-the-gods quality of beauty (which continues to pertain even in these cosmetically altered times), the sudden swoop of good fortune that lands on those who happen to be so graced. It explains why Sophia Loren was plucked out of a squalid town on the bay of Naples, where she might have ended up as just another overworked, prematurely aged housewife, and why, decades later, Gisele Bundchen hit the catwalk instead of languishing in Brazilian anonymity. All the same, there have always been those who question the dictates of conventional beauty, whose views of what constitutes a ravishing face range further than either the classical ideal or the ordained images of the cultural moment and who see our reverence for certain types over others as a form of aesthetic provincialism. One was the philosopher George Santayana, who in “The Sense of Beauty” described the perception of beauty in psychological rather than moral terms, thereby suggesting that formal considerations (like color and shape) were secondary to our imputation of value to them: “Beauty,” he observed, “is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing.” And another was my Belgian-born grandmother, who looked irritated whenever I, an insecure girl loitering on the edges of adolescence, asked her whether she thought I was pretty. “Pretty?” she’d ask. “Who wants to be pretty?” Her blazing blue eyes lit up her wrinkled face with the preposterousness of the wish. “Pretty is silly.” I later discovered that no less an authority than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who studied the laws of female comeliness the way others study the laws of physics, agreed with my grandmother regarding the inherent banality of the merely pretty: “After a certain degree of prettiness,” he wrote, “one pretty girl is as pretty as another.” Then there are the French, whose women have always known how to play up their assets – as though the ability to tie a scarf with a flourish worthy of Matisse has been grafted into their genes – and who have always been enamored of stylistic nuance. Leave it to them to introduce a concept of feminine beauty so pure in its abstraction as to defy all logic. I am referring to the term “jolie laide,” which translates literally into the clunking phrase “pretty-ugly,” but which connotes something more lyrical, even transcendent. These days we tend to invoke the word “transgressive” whenever we want to move a given discourse outside the box, but jolie laide comes out of a different attitude than mere defiance. In its endorsement of the poetics of irregularity, jolie laide hints at alternate possibilities rather than an antithetical universe: “the beauty of innuendos,” to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, rather than inflections. It is not, that is, about violating the very existence of loveliness by throwing spiky purple hair or black lipstick at it, in the goth or punk mode. 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 Aim ©e 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. PAGE 2 (Page 2 of 2) Still, when casting about for a representative jolie laide, one must be careful not to confuse the issue by lumping all women with strong and unconventional personas under the one rubric. Admittedly, there is something slippery about the whole category that is conducive to a spirit of inclusiveness, but tending too far in the direction of generosity will ensure nothing but taxonomic havoc. Cuteness, for instance, isn’t an attribute of jolie laide, which leaves out a whole raft of possible contenders (like Maggie Gyllenhaal). Then, too, with rare exceptions, a jolie laide tends to be a brunette or a blonde who reads dark, like Simone Signoret. And although captivating personalities and ravishing looks sometimes go together – as in the young Maria Callas – they more often don’t. Fame and elegance can add luster to an unattractive woman, but they can’t transform her entirely. The celebrated but double-chinned 19th-century diva Pauline Viardot, with whom the writer Ivan Turgenev remained smitten for more than 40 years – even though they didn’t seem to be lovers – was described by a contemporary who saw her at the Berlin Opera as “personally hideous beyond compare.” The poet Heinrich Heine was kinder, describing Viardot as having “the kind of ugliness which is noble,” but one can safely assume that she wouldn’t pass muster as jolie laide. Nor, in my opinion, does Diana Vreeland, although she is frequently summoned up as its reigning incarnation. Her face, let’s be blunt about it, was the face of a gargoyle – a deeply stylish gargoyle, to be sure, but a gargoyle all the same. The journalist who compared her facial physiognomy to that of a cigar store wooden Indian wasn’t far off. Today’s version of an iconic jolie laide is the French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose complex gamine charm has pedigreed status: her mother is the actress Jane Birkin, and her father is the weltschmerz-ridden crooner Serge Gainsbourg, who actually penned a song with the title “Jolie Laide.” And although the French may lead the way, the British, with their penchant for eccentricity, also have an instinctive understanding of atypical attractions (evident in a model like Stella Tenant and actresses like Tamsin Greig and Kristin Scott Thomas). But then so do Europeans in general; the Spanish director Pedro Almod ³var rarely casts anyone other than jolie laide types, even in his more conventional female roles. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, we continue to lag behind in our appreciation of this genre of feminine loveliness, just as we tend to lag behind in the cultivation of other things (like fine wine and lingerie) that come easily to older, more refined civilizations. A handful of fashion-forward designers and photographers may acknowledge its existence by hiring models like Alek Wek and muses like Sofia Coppola, but an actress like Juliette Lewis, whose looks suggest a kind of stridency that doesn’t equate with baby-faced prettiness, is unlikely to be cast anywhere near as frequently as Kirsten Dunst. 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, we

ll-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.”) Implacably wedded as we are to commercially viable and easily recognizable images of beauty – think Texas, symmetrical features, blue eyes, small noses, pretty-pretty – it’s my guess that jolie laide, with its emphasis on the idiosyncratic and the unplaceable, will remain a hard sell on these shores. Recently I tried to float the concept at brunch with four gay men, all of whom work in the beautification business. After I’d finished trying to explain what the term signified (one of the men, a colorist, immediately jumped to the conclusion that jolie laide was the name of a new face cream), it was clear that they were still stumped. Did I mean Mariah Carey? (She was thought to qualify because she’s not thin – and because she wears lots of makeup.) Or Sarah Jessica-Parker? (A borderline case, but not quite askew enough.) When I countered with Anjelica Huston as a prime example, I was met with indifferent silence, as though I had proposed someone’s grandmother. We finally agreed on the early, pre-improved Cher as a prototype, and sailed out into the lambent SoHo afternoon. All of which left me musing that if a bunch of gay men, who naturally warm to the parodic and irregular in their female icons, had trouble grasping the elusive nature of jolie laide, what hope is there that straight men will ever get the piebald glamour of it?

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The Unfairest of Them All


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