Can any part of mass culture not be for men, and is it possible for alternative aesthetics of beauty to ever be radical?
In Gaylyn Studlar’s ‘Oh, “doll divine”: Mary Pickford, masquerade, and the pedophilic gaze,’ she describes how Mary Pickford playing a little girl was powerful not simply as a site of semi-pedophilic enjoyment for men who craved representations of safely traditional girlish femininity as well as the ethical sexual consumption of the girl-who-is-actually-a-woman, but for women and girls who felt dissatisfied and oppressed by adult feminine life. The girl supposedly is without the same threat from men — the woman has to deal with compulsory (hetero)sexuality, and all the stigma that comes with it. Particularly in relation to the contemporary rise of the flapper, the ‘sexless’ girl could be comforting. The adult woman also has to manage family life (children and childbirth, as well as finances, housekeeping, and care-giving to offspring, the husband, and elderly parents); there’s no leisure time, there’s no way to be carefree. The girl, by contrast, is not restricted so heavily and has the freedom to take up many (often ‘unladylike’) roles.
Regardless of how empowering Mary Pickford could be to women and girls, men were also consuming this image. Studlar writes:
The idea that Pickford had anything to do with pedophilia would have scandalized her admirers in the 1910s and 1920s. Yet, how often is an “aesthetic” response to an inscription of femininity […] completely unconnected to a sexual one? I do not wish to argue that Pickford appealed to male admirers who were actual pedophiles. What I do wish to suggest is that Pickford appealed to and through a kind of cultural pedophilia that looked to the innocent child-woman to personify nostalgic ideals of femininity.
Little Mary appealed to women in her freedom and charm, but she still appealed to men who praised her beauty and, significantly, her ‘cuteness’ while enjoying her return to Victorian ideals of femininity and girlhood. She may have been a comforting alternative for women audiences to the more obviously sexualized feminine roles of the time, but she was not without implication within patriarchal structures of gender and sexuality, and in turn still sexualized by men who equally found her characterization quite comfortable.
Today we have aesthetics like radical softness or bbhoodz which are, supposedly, not about being sexy and consumable for men. They’re amplifications of personal vulnerability and a reveling in that which is described as ‘unattractive’ (babyish cuteness, expressions of feelings over stoicism — often accompanied by flowers, toys, pastels, gems, and a nostalgic 1990’s look) for individual pleasure. But it’s not unattractive. There will always be a pedophilic gaze, and although these aesthetics are not supposed to be ‘sexy,’ they are still popularized as a lot of pretty, soft women, thin and able-bodied, playing at being girls. There is a reason why the tropes of the barely legal college student, the sexy schoolgirl, the cheerleader, innocent college girl with her older professor, the ‘teach me daddy,’ the lolita, all exist. On the level of the individual this is for the singular woman who engages with it. On the level of mass representation and reproduction (like Mary Pickford) there is nothing about it which would deter a male gaze.
By contrast there is ‘weaponized femininity.’ Long nails, red lips, heavy contour, dark brows — makeup that’s noticeable and unnatural. Again, this is not necessarily unattractive, even if it’s not necessarily for consumption by the male gaze: it’s an amplification of femininity usually placed onto the body of the cis, able-bodied, thin young woman, often following certain traditional feminine aesthetics. It goes against the more popular conception of the natural girl, who is always seen as the ideal: the base of the ‘beautiful girl’ (constructed by society through her visual signifiers of privilege which manifest upon her body) but who doesn’t interest herself in the frivolities of femininity, and doesn’t need to — she’s so pretty she doesn’t need makeup, she’s so naturally thin she can eat pizza and never worry about a diet. But difference from the natural-girl does not mean unattractive. Perhaps unattractive to some men, but not unattractive. And when this is based on a mass level in terms of media representation, is there actually anything oppositional about these looks, or are they just comfortable alternatives, comfortable for both the women who seek escape from patriarchal oppression, as well as comfortable for the men who consume them?
These aesthetics are an unapologetic enjoyment of ‘feminine’ passtimes (beauty, makeup, hair, clothes, emotions, childhood games rather than adult sex or sex for pleasure rather than shamed heterosexual monogamous servitude) in the face of men who want you to be a void who’s favourite activities are watching him play video games and giving blow jobs. But it’s not ugly, and it’s readily consumable, even if the point is that you’re doing it for yourself (you’re not defined by a man’s interests and tastes) and that in doing it for yourself you’re free to go as excessive as you like (excess only being given meaning by the men who define what ‘natural’ is). But it’s not ugly — it’s amplifications of what’s desirable. Perhaps these amplifications go too far for some tastes; often they do not. Even if the intent is that it’s for you, not for men (no one is supposed to be getting off on it, and men are certainly criticizing it), it’s still consumed by men on a broader level: when something is made for the masses there is no “you,” there is not the same “personal,” and so it cannot be viewed as what makes the single woman feel empowered or good about herself as it is no longer about the single woman. By no stretch of the imagination are these aesthetics, in the present or in the past, rejected by or attacking masculine consumption of women, even if they seem to try to present themselves as such, even if they seem to try to create safe spaces for feminine expression and pleasure — this expression and pleasure is only valid when men can partake as well. One cannot escape from patriarchy by hiding within it.
The problem is that these aesthetics are so easily consumable, and even traditional: they go back to, as referenced above, earlier models of femininity. And they are never ugly. When one thinks of alternate beauty in cinema, for instance Mary Pickford’s child-woman, one can see how it is, or was, empowering. Yet it is not detached from how consumable it was by the male gaze. It is different, and it is comfortable for women, but is just as comfortable for men to consume. By the same token, the looks that might be considered an excess of femininity (such as Dorothy Malone’s alcoholic nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind, or Ella Raines’ trashy masquerade as she seduces a jazz drummer in Phantom Lady) are still attractive. They are denigrated, often contrasted with a more natural and manageable woman (Lauren Bacall’s level-headed secretary in Written on the Wind, or Ella Raines’ also level-headed secretary in Phantom Lady), but they aren’t ugly. Being too sexy, being too cute does not distance a woman from the consumption of the male gaze.
Ugliness is different. Ugliness is represented in the form of usually older women, fatter women, women of colour, queer women, disabled women. Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Hatty McDaniel as Mammy in Gone With The Wind, Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: often made monstrous, the ugly woman cannot be consumed by men who have no desire for her and she is punished by a lack of humanity, spit out like something sour and rotting. Her character is constructed to be rejected by the gaze and she is meant to disgust if she registers as vaguely human at all, but she has no power to reject the gaze herself, and could never of her own accord take up a weaponized femininity or extended girlhood to ‘challenge’ how she is being consumed. Which begs the question: if you are still being consumed, can you be consumed in a way that is more radical? The beautiful woman character or figure flaunts her beauty in ways that don’t destroy it; the ugly woman character or figure is not allowed to be human as the male gaze cannot digest her for disgust.
For women characters, beauty is power. Beauty is how the male lead notices you, finds value in you. Beauty is what allows you to have agency within the story. Beauty is also predicated on systems of oppression: it is about how thin you are, how white you look, if you’re able-bodied, if you’re cis, if you’re straight, if you have the money to keep up your beauty, if you’ve fit into the window of youth which is acceptably beautiful. Beauty is a small box that many women do not fit into. So can amplifications of beauty which may make some men uncomfortable be empowering acts of resistance when presented on a mass level? Can aesthetics which work within consumable standards of femininity and exclude ugly women be broadly empowering? No. This is just another way for women to be eaten. Within media, ugliness in women is debilitating. It makes women subhuman, makes them worthy of death, and this is well known — why else would we cling to beauty and lie to ourselves that slight differences and emphasis on things which are not ugly (such as youth, innocence, sexiness, or adornment) would give beautiful women agency and power? When you’ve moved beyond the individual woman’s aesthetic choices to the star (the Mary Pickford, the Dorothy Malone), you are no longer discussing personal empowerment of the singular woman, but about the white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist industry that is cinema (and media) and how this industry desires and devours women. Beauty is a product of patriarchy and will never be a blanket of safety from it or a tool of attack against it.