Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

American Burqa

Thoughts on the hiding of American womankind, behind the veil of uniformity

     A family member once told me his wife “is going to need a face lift soon.” I had responded, “No she isn’t.” But he was adamant.

     I happened to come across a B movie the other day, one starring Melissa Gilbert in a role requiring her to speak in a foreign accent. Melissa, to my fascination, was nearly as unidentifiable in this movie as the accent she used. In fact, I am not exactly sure how I managed to recognize her, given how drastically some porcine-pawed plastic surgeon had transformed her face since the last time I saw her. This was not the Melissa Gilbert I knew, whose thick eyebrows and quirky, unique features had distinguished her from the pack. Instead, here was a generic female type, pretty, but somehow reduced, somehow absent.
     Here was a nose I call snout-nose, eyebrows reduced to near-nothings, and lips some critics of plastic surgery have described as “trout pout.”
     Trout is not the fish metaphor I would choose. But this one, to the right, whatever it is, seems an apt choice.
     To you plastic surgeons: this is NOT the look you want to give your patients.
     But they do. One web site advertises the lip-job their plastic surgeon performs as “Paris Lips!” “You can “plump up thin lips for as little as $475!” On the same website, we are treated to a before and after, where a middle-aged, intelligent-looking woman has been transformed into a middle-aged, startled-looking dim-wit.

     These are anecdotal examples, but they speak to something I have noticed in many different places. Something is happening to the image of womankind, as it is portrayed in the media, and it reflects the entire culture, even while it infects it.
     Consider an example from Fox’s House, M.D., where Hugh Laurie plays a genius diagnostician in a hospital, among a mixed cast of characters, both men and women. Well, it’s a good show. But that doesn’t keep me from noticing the something I am thinking of, which is revealed in the difference between the male characters and the female characters, that is, between the male doctors and the female doctors. Here is the difference: the males are interesting actors whose looks vary from bordering on ugly —Dr. House, in particular— to decidedly unattractive but intelligent looking, to one young doctor who is nearly pretty, he is so cute; but the female characters are ALL pretty, in conventional ways —you won’t see an Ava Gardener or a Meryl Streep there— and, if they weren’t cast as doctors, you wouldn’t think of them as especially intelligent ladies. They’re just pretty women, lacking any particular uniqueness or variety in their looks. That is, they are uniform in their bland, ordinary prettiness.
     What’s up with that? Why are the men allowed to be ugly, to be different, to be intelligent and interesting —to be free?— but the women are not? Why do the female characters seem so generic and without character?

     Leaving the complex analysis to those who enjoy such activities, I will sum it up this way: what we’re dealing with is the American burqa.

     American culture did not need a bearded patriarch to come at women with a stick, to enforce our second class status on us. No Taliban mantra was inflicted on us, to berate us, our nature, our unique selves. Physical bullying, corporal punishment—none of it was necessary to beat us into submission. Only a sexist reality was required, though a less stupidly expressed one than that in Taliban society, where the value of a woman is found only in her appearance, an appearance that must conform to a standard, a male-defined idea of feminine beauty, or she is without value. The eyes should be just so far apart; the nose just such a shape and size, within strictly defined parameters; the mouth must be “full,” “sensual;” the chin this and not that; forehead so high, so wide. She must be only so old, and no older. Should she stray outside this contemporary, American standard of beauty, she will not only be rejected in certain areas of life, but she will gradually learn to hate the way she looks and want to change, to hide, to become someone, anyone other than herself, even if it means becoming a nobody with an anybody face, a generic American female.
     Our culture did not require celebrity women to wear cloth burqas to hide themselves. Instead, culture provided casting directors who only cast according to the standard; then came the plastic surgeons to fix the errant, lidded eye, or the rebellious, fierce nose, those fully trained and conditioned doctors who would find the Barbie in the face and body of every patient, those who could render them invisible, behind the American burqa, a face and body distinguished only for its lack of individuality and uniqueness.
     The sickness is not restricted to celebrities. Somehow my family member experienced no shame in declaring his wife to be in need of lifting up, while gravity would be allowed to have its way with him all the way to his grave. It was the culturally acceptable thing for a husband to require, in fact. Apparently, he should not have to endure life married to a woman who looked her age; but he could look as old as he liked, and did.
     Another guy I know said he decided to marry the woman who eventually became his wife, because he could see all she needed was a make-over and new clothes. I guess she was a sort of fixer-upper.

     Once, while waiting in the doctor’s office, I heard two little boys talking about the details of a poster they were standing near. The poster contained photographs of boys and girls. Pointing to a child in a photograph, one boy said to the other, “Is this one human, or a girl?
     Is it possible a boy could grow up in our society, believing that males are human, but females are not, that females are another thing outside the notion of humanity, like animals?
     Does a woman acquiesce to such a belief, when she decides to have a facelift?


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