Monday, September 26, 2011

Ted Danson-envy

Is it anti-feminist to care about male appearance? Remove the "anti-" and I'm convinced, but as is?

Rachel Hills linked to a story by Cristen Conger in Bitch Magazine, introducing a series they're doing about the nefarious influence of beauty standards on men. Not as in, those poor men, who look at that billboard with Lara Stone in Calvin Klein underwear, and then have to go home to women of less Barbie-esque proportions, but as in, Ryan Reynolds exists, which is totally unfair to men who don't look like Ryan Reynolds, even though of course plenty of men who don't look anything like Ryan Reynolds get to be successful actors, but still, major unfairness here!

This strikes me as wrong in so many ways. But first, the hint of not-wrong. Undoubtedly men who are George Constanza-esque often feel self-conscious about their looks, and envious of the Ted Dansons of the world. And there is some similarity - some! - between height for men and weight for women.

But now, the very-wrong: women unquestionably have it worse than men when it comes to being judged on the basis of physical appearance. So this bit - "Just as Western female beauty ideals are modeled around straight, white women, Western male beauty standards worship at the altar of the straight, white, six-pack ab-toting man. And both are equally problematic." - makes no sense. Nothing to do with male looks in our society is "equally problematic" to the equivalent thing having to do with female looks. If this is the premise, then... not convinced.

There's a great deal of confusion in the piece between masculinity standards, which are real, and a real issue for men who are "queer, trans, non-white, short, sensitive, curious," and beauty standards. (Of that list, only "short" is a "beauty" factor more than any other kind.) If anything, a man who is too handsome (unless in a Jon Hamm sense) is looked at as being not quite masculine enough. Men who fail to be "beautiful" are not penalized for that in our society, while men who meet that standard are often assumed to be somewhat ridiculous, obviously not serious grown men who get that beauty is what they should seek in a partner, not cultivate in themselves. A pretty man is - leaving aside homophobic clichés - a gigolo, a toy-boy. The best way for a man to look, in our society, is nondescript. And most men - like most women - do.

Oh, and this is the clincher: age. Do we really think the cult of beauty-as-youth is equally harsh on men and women? Shouldn't this alone remind us that we do not need an equal tiny-violin concerto for male beauty standards as for female?

But then - and WWPD readers knew this was coming - there's the fact that it's actually feminist for (straight and bi) women to care more about men's looks, or, more accurately, to be less evasive and shy about the fact that we care. Not to the exclusion of other factors, and not in such a way that Ryan Reynolds is every woman's ideal (and he's not), but in that way that all of us with the capacity for vision use that sense in determining who might and who might not be a possible more-than-friend. This isn't about bringing men down to women's level, making them suffer for beauty, stuffing them into Spanx and Louboutins. It's about the fact that one of life's great joys is romantic involvement (and that includes just sitting across from someone at the dinner table) with someone one finds physically attractive. Men in our society consider themselves entitled to this, perhaps more than they ought to. Women, not enough.


David Schraub said...

Second Thing We Do, Objectify All The Men.

Matt said...

I agree with you Phoebe, in the main. The problems men have with beauty standards do pale compared to what women deal with. But I do think it's often helpful to recognize that attitudes toward male beauty vary by class and ethnicity. While the classic critique of, say, The Honeymooners is pretty much right in what it deals with, it also fails to notice that all early television, even sitcoms about the working classes, were made for middle class audiences. Shows with more middle class characters may have paired beautiful women with Desi Arnaz. When you write, "If anything, a man who is too handsome (unless in a Jon Hamm sense) is looked at as being not quite masculine enough," this is much more of a white, working class attitude with a varying impact. Within specific milieus, beauty standards for men are likely to be more consistent and effective. Traveling between milieus, they are likely to be frustratingly inconsistent. That doesn't add up to weak standards without effect, even if the effects are considerably less than what women face.

Phoebe said...


I think we took different routes to this but arrived at the same conclusion. I agree with you that it's part of the human experience in a not-necessarily-bad and sometimes-good way to be valued for your looks. And it's something that even most with no particular "objective" beauty get to experience, being physically appealing to someone. I'd generally looked at this in terms of it being part of the human experience in a mostly-good way to be with a romantic partner one finds physically attractive, but I suppose both do enter into it.


I'm all for nuance, but am not following your comment. In which milieu are beautiful men valued? Other than among (some) gay men, I'm not aware of any. And I'm fairly certain that if this were a quirk specific to working-class whites, it's unlikely that I'd have not only picked it up, but come to assume it to be universal. I mean, it's certainly true among intellectual types - like I've said before re: "too brilliant to bathe." Up to a certain (high!) threshold, a man can look disheveled and out-of-shape, and this is interpreted merely as evidence that he's too busy being a genius to focus on his person. Whereas a brilliant woman must also bathe, watch her weight, etc. to make her place even in an intellectual milieu.

Britta said...

The UChicago campus is particularly depressing in this regard. There are actually probably MORE men here than women, but I've been in classes that are possibly 75% men, and was unable to pick out a single hot guy. Neckbeards abound. While there are definitely some unattractive women, I'd say on the whole women are better looking than the men here, and I see plenty of relationships where the woman is (IMO) "settling" in the looks dept. Of course, she might have different ideas of beauty than I do, but it gets really demoralizing after awhile. Also, strangely enough, I feel like it does something negative to your self esteem to be hit on by men you consider completely unattractive. While here, I've been asked out by a bevy of incredibly unattractive men, and rather than be flattered by the attention, it just makes me a bit sad and confused: do these men consider us to be of equal attractiveness? Are these the men I should be aiming for? (Does a 60ish neo-con who is 1) shorter than me and 2) has more hair in his nose than on his head really think a reasonably attractive 20-something woman he meets at a conference wants to date him?) I could see how after awhile, even a really beautiful girl here would break down and just date some scrawny guy with a neckbeard because she thinks this is "her league."