Monday, August 23, 2021

Standards of Beauty

At around the same time I heard that NPR segment about chic headscarves, someone posted this on Facebook:

There's so much wrong here that it's difficult to know where to begin.  I can't argue with "don't be a white supremacist," but the rest is garbage.

Are non-Eurocentric standards of beauty any better than Eurocentric ones?  I don't know any reason to think so.  What would they be, anyway?  The footbinding of Chinese women, ended by the Eurocentric Chinese Communists, was one such, but I hope this writer doesn't want to bring it back.  As for "cisheteropatriarchal beauty standards," the transgender beauties I hear about adhere to them absolutely, and they are celebrated by transgender allies. 

Not that it matters much, because standards of beauty are inherently harmful.  Their only function is to set a bar that most people in any culture, of any gender, will not be able to reach.  As a result people will put a lot of energy into trying to reach them anyway, and when they fail they'll feel bad about themselves.  At best such standards aren't totally unrealistic in that no one could possibly meet them, but most people can't, and there's no reason why they should.

One of the stumbling blocks is the confusion of "beauty" with "sexual desirability," though there is no valid standard of sexual desirability either.  I think I was in junior high school when one of the photographic newsweeklies did a story on the politician Barry Goldwater, who was also a skilled amateur photographer.  The article included a full-page photograph of an elderly Native American woman, with a face as wrinkled as W. H. Auden's or Mick Jagger's.  The caption quoted Goldwater's opinion that she was totally beautiful.  

I don't think he meant that he wanted to copulate with her, though who knows?  But the remark made an impression on me: beauty doesn't equal sexual desirability.  People use "beautiful" for everything from sunsets to flowers to babies to old ladies, so that insight shouldn't be surprising, but it seems to surprise many.

I don't remember when I began -- it might have been a result of Goldwater's comment on his photograph -- and I don't believe I made a conscious choice, but when I'm looking at people I try to see what beauty they have on their own terms, rather than measuring them against a standard that is designed to exclude them in advance.  I fail more often than I succeed, but that's the goal.  Erotic desire is only part of it, though it's certainly part of it.

Contrariwise, sexual desirability doesn't equal beauty, though given the elasticity of "beauty," you could argue otherwise.  I do: the men I'm most attracted to aren't conventionally good-looking, but they inspire in me the deep thrill that means "beauty" to me.  Most people who don't conform to white-supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal standards of beauty still find sexual partners who want them, and who themselves may not conform to those standards.  Given that reality, why bother with standards at all?

The gay photographer Tom Bianchi thinks otherwise, and has belabored the point for decades, notably in a small book called In Defense of Beauty (Crown, 1995).  Bianchi has often been criticized for the narrow range of men he photographs.  Among the authorities he cites in his defense are Oscar Wilde, Edmund White, Stephen R. Covey (think The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and Deepak Chopra.  Bianchi sets out his position early on:

I am no longer surprised when I hear the charge that the people in my pictures are "too beautiful" or "only the most perfect bodies," for I have come to see the mistake in perception from which these comments come. The implication is that I am elitist, or as one friend suggested, the new word is lookist.  But people who find fault with beauty, who trivialize it by assuming a negative quality in it, diminish themselves.  The ability to appreciate beauty in others is a prerequisite to express it in oneself [8].

I might concede that Bianchi's critics are wrong about his work, but Bianchi has his own "mistake in perception."  He assumes that the kind of men who populate his photographs -- gym queens, in a nutshell -- are beautiful, with "the most perfect bodies," members of an elite.  He defines "beauty" to mean such men, and only such men.

Now, I disagree that his models are beautiful, let alone "too beautiful."  I don't think that these overmuscled bodies are beautiful or perfect, and their faces (which to me are at least as important as the body below the neck) are quite unattractive, either grimly serious or with tight, anxious grins. This is of course a matter of taste, but that's the point: there is no universal standard of male (or female) beauty.  Bianchi relies, I believe, on the ancient Hellenic model, which is fine, but other cultures had very different ideas about the beauty of men.  In East Asia, for example, sculpted muscles were of no interest, though the advent of European imperialism changed that to a great extent.

Bianchi would probably charge me with "find[ing] fault with beauty," with "trivializ[ing] it by assuming a negative quality in it."  I would deny it, because physical beauty is very important to me, though it's not the only human quality that matters.  I just find beauty in people whose beauty Bianchi would deny, because he lacks the ability to appreciate them.  We could agree to disagree, but Bianchi's stance leaves him no room for greater inclusivity.  Beauty is what he says it is, and nothing else; it doesn't seem to occur to him that it could be otherwise.  He's entitled to his taste, of course, but it seems impoverished to me.

I'm reminded here of the far-right Christian pundit Rod Dreher, who has complained that modern Americans, especially the young, "have more generally lost our receptive capabilities to things numinous."  It would be more accurate to say that Dreher is unreceptive to things numinous from any tradition other than the one he has chosen. Likewise, I'm not not hostile to beauty, only to a narrow conception of beauty.  But I have to admit that I'm not receptive to the beauty of Bianchi's models either; the difference is that I'll recognize that he and other people find them so.  The eye of the beholder, anyone?

Monday, August 16, 2021

We Will End No War Before Its Time (And It's Never Time)

The rapid collapse of the US client government in Afghanistan is getting heavy coverage in the corporate media, and the party line is predictable: Oh my god, they're taking over, how can this be happening, it must be Afghan corruption, what about our helpers, what about the girls and women, it's going to be terrible, whose fault is it, and so on.  

These aren't bad questions in themselves.  I am worried about the safety of the Afghans who worked for the US, and I am worried about what girls and women will face under Taliban rule. As we've seen, the Biden administration dawdled about getting our helpers out, ignoring well-known precedents, and it's probably too late now.  But the Beltway perspective, based in US propaganda about the war with its historical amnesia and the inviolable assumption that the US can do no wrong, dominates most of the reporting and commentary on the Taliban's victory.  The best I can say is that it makes me turn off Morning Edition sooner than I would otherwise.

Except for one segment that aired this morning.  Host A. Martinez interviewed Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who spent years in Kandahar and speaks Pashto.  She filled in the historical background of the original Taliban takeover and went off in a direction that I don't think NPR expected.

And so my question is, what democracy did we bring to Afghanistan, you know? Meanwhile, we're building a banking system during the very same years that we were incubating, you know, the crash of 2008. By 2010, the Afghan banking system crashed because it was a Ponzi scheme. And so I think the painful thing I have to ask myself is American democracy - is that what we brought or is cronyism, you know, systemic corruption, you know, basically a governmental system where billionaires get to write the rules - is that, in fact, American democracy as we are now experiencing it?

"Wow," says Martinez, and that's the end of the segment.  There may have been more, these bits are usually not broadcast live, they're edited, but I'm surprised NPR aired this interview at all.  At that, I wish they'd let Chayes talk a lot longer, but you know: concision.

And by the way: as with so many hot issues, it appears that a solid majority of Americans, including Republicans, support US withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Which, of course, is why the corporate media are trying to scare them.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Are There No Pre-Publication Referees? Are There No Copy Editors?

I'm kinda circling around Nicholas C. Edsall's Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World (University of Virginia, 2003).  I've been meaning to read it for some time, and I hadn't realized how long that was until I typed in the publication date just now.  It's intended as an overview taking recent scholarship into account, and it might be that Edsall would have a different take on the essentialist vs. social constructionist controversy with which he opens the book if he were writing it now.  As so often, Edsall seemed to be addressing that controversy dutifully rather than from a conviction that it's all that important, and as so often, he's not very clear on its import.  I intend to return to that issue in another post, to update my own views, but for now I'll look at another topic that trips up scholars: Alfred Kinsey's research on human sexuality.

Edsall devotes several pages to Kinsey, and this passage jumped out at me:

Kinsey's statistics were based on questionnaires gathered from a large, random sample of ordinary people.  (Unfortunately, his report on women, published five years later, was based on a far smaller sample and was not accorded the same authority or fame) [265].

That's a lot of errors to put into just two sentences.  First, "questionnaires" suggests that Kinsey handed out paper forms for people to fill in.  The problems with that method were well-known when he began his research, and Kinsey opted for in-person, face-to-face interviews based on a complex and flexible protocol that the interviewers memorized.  You could call that a questionnaire, but it's really not the correct word.

Second, Kinsey's sample was large but it wasn't random.  He used a method called stratified sampling instead.  There was a lot of public debate about this when the Male volume was published in 1948, and it's hard to understand how Edsall could have missed it.  (I recommend Peter Hegarty's chapter on the controversy over Kinsey's statistical methods in Gentleman's Disagreement [Chicago, 2013], but anything you read about Kinsey will deal with it.)

Third, the Female volume, published as Edsall says in 1953, wasn't based on a smaller sample than the Male.  If anything, the sample was somewhat larger: six thousand women versus the Male volume's 5300.  (In both cases, Kinsey didn't use all of the eighteen thousand histories he and his team had taken.)

Finally, the claim that the Female volume wasn't "accorded the same authority or fame" as the Male volume is pretty obviously false.  The "authority" of both volumes was fiercely contested, but the Female volume outsold the Male, which had moved 200,000 copies in hardcover from a medical publisher; Sexual Behavior in the Human Female sold 270,000 hardcover copies in the first month, and unlike its predecessor was later issued by Pocket Books as a mass-market paperback.  "Infamy" might be a better word than "fame," because Kinsey's claims about the number of American women who had pre- and extra-marital sexual experience outraged "decent" people; the furor led to the Institute for Sex Research losing its funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.  (Ironically, women still were a lot less sexually active than men according to Kinsey, but still too active for the sensibilities of American moralists.)

I've often noticed that writers on human sexuality seem to feel no need to check their facts when they write about Kinsey.  Some of this reflects confusion about "sexual orientation" and its relationship to sexual behavior, and can be put down to differences of interpretation, but much of it is a failure of factual accuracy, as with Edsall.  I suspect it's partly because Kinsey, like Noam Chomsky, is a safe target, and nobody cares about facts; but even Kinsey's (and Chomsky's) fans get him wrong.  And the errors I've found in Edsall's book should have been pretty easy to avoid.  Academic publishers in particular are supposed to care about factual accuracy, but in at least certain instances they don't.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

A Modesty Proposal

A few weeks ago NPR ran this little item about a high-fashion headscarf company that has made a deal with Nordstrom to "carry [its] luxury line of hijabs."  My first reaction was that it's hard to think of many things that are less important and less newsworthy than a luxury hijab; it's right down there with Nancy Pelosi's taste in ice cream or Barack Obama's sixtieth birthday party.  An online search showed me quite a number of companies putting out such things, so why did NPR decide to promote this one?  

The interviewer is presumably a Muslim woman herself, and she's obviously into the idea of a fashionable hijab.  It seems to me that luxury and fashion are at odds with the whole idea of a hijab, which is meant to make women less conspicuous.  Flaunting one's wealth and trying to draw attention (especially male attention) to one's appearance are also at odds with religious teaching about "modesty," which the interviewee cites as one of her concerns in designing her product.  It's not surprising that women who wear the veil would also want to tart it up with "high-fashion, pretty" designs.  Women are just as competitive as men, they love pulling rank as much as men do.  If feminists are going to criticize men for such behavior, we should also criticize women for it.

Then yesterday another public radio program, The World podcast, ran a segment entitled "Turkey's New Look: Observant and Chic."  It's more of the same, with the word "modest" used much more often.  Is it comforting to know that standard advertising discourse can be used for any product?  Maybe to some.  The trouble isn't that some women are more comfortable wearing clothing, including headscarves, that cover more of their bodies than other women choose to cover.  The trouble is making a principle of it, so that women who wear less covering are defined as "immodest."  This is not, as apologists for the hijab like to claim, a "personal choice."  (But then, I would say the same of "chic" and "fashionable," which are also intended to turn personal tastes or quirks into cultural principles.)

Besides, everybody knows that one patriarch's observant, modest woman is another's filthy, shameless harlot.  It's a slippery slope: No matter how much a woman covers her body, there will be people who think she hasn't covered it enough, and when it is totally covered, they will demand that she not go out in public at all.  And many observant women are collaborators with that social order, ready to condemn other women for insufficient modesty.  I feel no more obligated to "respect," or withhold comment on, such principles than I do any other cultural or religious bigotry.  If I condemn it in the "West," as I do, I'm certainly going to condemn it wherever it rears its head.  To be clear, I'm not going to harass individual women who wear a headscarf in my line of sight; but I am going to criticize anyone of either sex or any ideology who defends "modesty," the notion that certain parts of the human body are dirty and must be covered up.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Science Is Coming

Numerous people have encouraged me to watch The Big Bang Theory over the years, but since I don't have access to current TV shows I never got around to checking it out.  Then while traveling a couple of weeks ago I watched a bunch of syndicated episodes on the motel room TV.  (This was also how I got into The Golden Girls a few years ago.) They were entertaining enough that when I came back home I got the first-season DVDs from the public library, and I just finished watching the second season.  Eventually I expect I'll go through the whole set.

So, The Big Bang Theory is fun; it's a standard situation comedy, well-written and excellently cast.  It's built around four scientists -- or three scientists and an engineer if you're a purist, as they are -- based in a university near Los Angeles, plus a pretty blonde, young actress/waitress, newly arrived in LA from Nebraska at the beginning of Season One, who lives across the hall from two of them.  That the protagonists were scientists excited the show's fans, who celebrated the arrival of media representation for Sciento-Americans on a major network.  A physics professor was enlisted by the show's creators to fill in jargon for a veneer of authenticity.  According to an interview with him featured in the Season Two DVDs, the writers would write the script, with "[Science coming]" at key moments for him to fill in.

Not all the nerdiness is science, though.  The program is peppered with references to videogames, Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books and their spinoff media, paintball, and other such cultural artifacts.  Without these elements I think the show would have had less mass appeal.  But it works, and it ran for thirteen years.  Looking at the full cast listing from IMDB, I see that a lot of nerd magnets had cameos, from George Takei, William Shatner, Carrie Fisher and James Earl Jones to Bill Nye, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Buzz Aldrin.  And more.

So, is this representation?  I haven't hung around with enough scientists to say.  What I see is that the characters are a collection of stereotypes, which is to be expected in a comedy, but I'm intrigued that scientists and nerds evidently embraced their depiction as stereotypes, even caricatures: Sheldon the former child prodigy and Spock imitator from Texas, probably on the Spectrum; Howard the Jewish horndog engineer who lives with his mother and has a peanut allergy; Rajesh the Hindu who can only talk to women when he's drunk and must fend off his parents' nagging to get married; Leonard, Sheldon's lactose intolerant roommate but still kinda Everyman, who has more romantic success than his buddies but lusts hopelessly after Penny.  

Compare Will and Grace, another landmark of minority representation on network television.  Most of the gay men I know professed to hate it, mainly because of the flaming, flighty Jack, and it was widely attacked for its use of stereotypes.  That I recognized the justice of these complaints didn't keep me from enjoying the show.  The Big Bang Theory surprised me by its use not only of nerd stereotypes, but of ethnic ones.  I thought Political Correctness and Cancel Culture had destroyed comedy?

To me the guys in The Big Bang Theory seem to be normal TV sitcom guys, with their scientific pursuits and nerdy cultural consumption mere superficial details; they could be on Friends or Seinfeld, for example.  Their incomprehension and frustration with women is standard, as is their assumption that ordinary shlubs like them have the right to date and sleep with the hottest women.  (One variation I like is that Kunal Nayyar is not only the best-looking of the bunch but, when he has a couple of drinks and is able to talk to them, the most successful with women until the alcohol wears off.  Sheldon's hot sister Missy, for example, rebuffs Howard and Leonard but is very interested in Raj and frustrated when his voice cuts out in mid-encounter.  The actress Summer Glau also responds to him warmly in her cameo, but is also frustrated.  I'll be interested to see how this pattern continues as I watch more of the series.)

I've said before, in connection with Will and Grace, that great comedy characters like Jack or Karen Walker, or Sheldon and Howard, aren't supposed to be role models or positive images.  Just because they're fun to watch on the screen doesn't mean that you'd want to spend much time with them in real life.  For that matter a real live physicist, George Smoot, has a tiny scene putting Sheldon down in one episode of Season Two; he's terrible, even for a non-actor.  (I wonder how many takes they needed?)  Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, is a marvelous physical comic, exemplified by a scene in which Sheldon realizes he owes Penny a hug and delivers it with hilarious and yet touching pathos.  It's not reality, it's writing and acting.