thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Rebound: Samantha Brick and Beauty

In body politics, gender, news, Rebound on April 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

Chelsea B.

I want to draw your attention–again, I’m sure–to Ms. Brick, who has been impossible to miss on the internet this week. The condensed version of the story goes like this: Samantha Brick wrote an article for Daily Mail titled “‘There Are Downsides to Looking This Pretty': Why Women Hate Me for Being Beautiful.” As is unsurprising, based simply on the title, people reacted strongly to her claims.

My concern with the whole debacle begins when Brick says in a televised interview:

‘People mistake self-confidence for arrogance [...] But it’s a fact that women are not nice to one another.  They all stab each other in the backs in my experience.’

Disagreeing strongly, [Ruth Langsford of ITV] interrupted to suggest that rather than her beauty being the factor that creates instant enemies of other women when she enters a room, perhaps it is actually her arrogance and ‘air of superiority’.

I wholeheartedly agree with Langsford, one of the interviewers, that it is great that Ms. Brick is confident in her own attractiveness but problematic that she assumes and continuously asserts that women dislike her before even speaking to her based solely on her appearance. In other words, Brick is dismissive of anyone identifying as female, insulting their intelligence, compassion, and capacity for forming meaningful relationships based solely on a few personal experiences in which she believes she was mistreated by other women due to her attractiveness.

Sarah T. and I are going to kick off the conversation and hope that you will join us!

Why has Brick’s initial article and subsequent fall-out maintained such a high-profile web presence? What is it about this story that resonates with the public?

Chelsea B:
It makes sense to me that the article would catapult into the public eye based simply on how unusual it is for a relatively ordinary, non-celebrity woman to make sweeping claims about how her beauty affects her entire life and shapes her relationships. It’s definitely not unusual to hear women talk about their appearance in deprecating terms, but Ms. Brick flips the script and celebrates her beauty, even while bemoaning the detriment she says its brought to her relationships with other women.

What did surprise me (a little, anyway) is how the public response to Brick’s article quickly disintegrated into a Hot or Not poll more interested in assessing Brick’s personal appearance rather than a thoughtful conversation about friendships and cultural bias. Now I’m going to make a sweeping claim of my own: people like ranking one another. There’s some comfort (and material reward) to be found in establishing an order (of beauty, talent, athleticism, intelligence, etc.), so when someone publicly steps out of that order, denies its steadfastness, and asserts their experience as contradictory to their placement within the order, folks get all worked up. Here’s a shaky metaphor to help me out: Samantha Brick confidently asserting her own beauty and the ways that said beauty affects her daily life is the similar to a bronze medalist at the Olympics taking two steps up on the podium and demanding a gold medal of her own, based solely on her personal assessment of her achievements and ranking against her competitors.

In short, Brick is both standing alone and asserting her self-assessment as primary (she doesn’t care whether you think she’s pretty or not because she knows that you do) and reinforcing a cultural structure in which women’s appearances are massive source of personal worth, competitive in nature, and also wield-able as currency in the right circumstances.

Sarah T:
The response to Brick’s article is neatly summarized in The Awl’s headline: “Is Lady Pretty? World Rushes to Debate.” As you say, Chels, the actual crux of her argument — that women are jealous of her because of her looks — got buried under a discussion of whether or not her looks are enough to merit jealousy.  Which is too bad, because the first thing is way more interesting to fight about than the second thing!

What I find most troubling about the “is lady pretty” debate is that it suggests people accept the premise of Brick’s article in the first place. The looks-based dialogue takes it for granted women hate beautiful women and treat them badly, and just wants to establish whether Brick qualifies as beautiful. So the woman-hating basis of the article gets a free pass and we all just sit around and talk about her face? That’s a problem in like fifteen different ways.

Do other women actually believe Brick’s claims that women hate her (or anyone else) for being beautiful? Is this actually a thing? What’s the cultural traction of her claims here, folks?

Chelsea B:
I’m going to say no, this isn’t actually a thing. Maybe I’ve been lucky enough to spend most of my life surrounded by super-evolved females, but beauty-based woman-hating is a thing I mostly think Brick is fabricating. Do I think women are judged unfairly (compared to their male or more masculine-performative counterparts) based on appearance? Absolutely. But does that translate to a dearth of meaningful female relationships due to jealousies and competitiveness? No way. I completely agree with something Sarah T. said in an earlier conversation we had about this article, which is (paraphrased! Feel free to correct me, ST.): “I have many beautiful female friends who have been able to forge and sustain meaningful relationships with other women.” It doesn’t seem as if they are an astounding exception to some universal rule, but that they are considerate, thoughtful people who refuse to behave in a way that would isolate every woman around them. These women are confident but not arrogant, meaning that their insecurities don’t dominate their relationships and their abilities to care about others outrank their performances of self and fixation on mirrors. Thus, the cultural traction of Brick’s claims, unfortunately, seems to reflect a continued buy-in to narratives of woman-hating that I can’t support.

Sarah T:
Seconded on all counts! SOME women may SOMETIMES be jealous of SOME other beautiful women, but a woman who has no close female friends at all — even if she is the three-way love child of Helen of Troy and Halle Berry and Elizabeth Taylor — needs to look within and ask herself an important question: “Which is more likely: that the problem is with every single other woman on the entire planet, or that the problem is with me?” It’s like my friend Amy’s mom says — if you’re feeling annoyed with everyone, it’s actually probably your own issue, not theirs. [CB: Just jumping in to say my mom would totally agree with Amy's mom! My mom has always pointed out the ridiculousness of women (and men, for that matter) who blame interpersonal issues on jealousy, as in, "She ignores me because she's jealous of me!"]

But I think the cultural traction of the argument is really worrisome, because it aims to divide women against each other and perpetuates the idea that we’re all, like, debutantes in Gone With the Wind obsessed with comparing our waist measurements and saving Tara by stealing each other’s suitors. It’s both a false take on female friendships and a very under-handed way to try to turn women against each other. I believe that we — men and women both — are better and smarter than this. And that Samantha Brick would find it a lot easier to get along with women if she didn’t start out assuming the worst of them. Just forget about your looks for one second and ask some nice lady if she wants to drink wine and play Parcheesi, SB! It’s that simple.

Edited to note that Ashley Judd writes intelligently about this very topic over at The Daily Beast today!

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