I was thinking the other day about that Nathaniel Hawthorne story, "The Birthmark." It's the one, you remember, where beautiful Georgiana grudgingly agrees to let her mad scientist husband, Aylmer, remove a birthmark from her cheek. Aylmer succeeds, but Georgiana dies. I remember discussing the story in a college English class, and how one woman said Hawthorne must have been a feminist, since he killed Georgiana off for submitting to her husband's fanatical definition of beauty. I thought it was a strange brand of feminism that would punish Georgiana instead of Aylmer, but after all this was pre-Civil War America and maybe Hawthorne was doing what he could.
What made me think about "The Birthmark" was, I took my 5-year-old to see the dentist. I love it there because there are always about 400 People magazines in the waiting room and the very second the hygienist leads my child away I jump on them like a jackal on a gnu carcass. On this particular day there was an article about FOX TV anchorwoman Greta Van Susteren's recent plastic surgery, and how some feminist-minded "industry analysts" are predicting that Van Susteren's decision to go from plain Jane to glamour girl will kill her off as a credible news woman. That from here on out she'd be looked at but never listened to. Gawked at but ultimately dismissed. Just another network babe.
It isn't just industry analysts either. I hear lots of women complain about Van Susteren's new look. That she's Judas in a power suit, a traitor to the cause. Another mother at the dentist's office said she felt "betrayed" by what she called Van Susteren's "fraudulent feminism"; two women at the Harris Teeter agreed they could never watch Van Susteren again. They were quiet for a minute. "That leaves Larry King," one of them said unhappily.
A week ago I went to the beach with a dozen very sharp and successful women. When I brought up Van Susteren's name, the very ions in the room became charged with indignation and nearly every woman had a deft and incisive rebuke to offer.
I began to wonder about the intensity of the reaction. Part of it is, there aren't many TV newswomen out there that other women can really like and respect. It's just such a relief to see a female media celebrity who's made it on her smarts alone. Who has, in fact, laughed up her sleeve at every expectation of female presentability. Let's face it, in almost every arena that has ever mattered in TV news, Van Susteren couldn't hold a curling iron to the Paula Zahns of the world. Her mouth was crooked. Her hair looked like Laura's on Little House on the Prairie. Her eyelids sagged. There was something puckery going on under her chin. To me she always looked like a veteran newspaper reporter, smudged and wrinkled, who had accidentally wandered onto the set.
Now the crook is a little straighter, the wrinkles are smoothed, and Van Susteren's eyes are tight and almondy, set tilted in their dainty shelving. And I admit, it's disconcerting. News anchors are like your parents: You never want them to change. You count on them for information, and their credibility can be weakened by the slightest change in appearance: a flashy new tie, for instance; hoops instead of pearls.
So sure, I was sorry to see Van Susteren's new look, the same way I was sorry every time my mother frosted her hair. But I don't see it as an outrage, a slap in the face to the nation's suffragettes and bra burners and every woman who ever wore a sandwich board for the cause. In fact, except for the cost, and the fact that mistakes are harder to correct, I don't see cosmetic surgery as qualitatively different from makeup or highlights or even moisturizer.
I said this to the women at the beach, and they flickered their eyes at each other, like they were gauging the effort it would take to drown me in the surf.
I keep puzzling the thing, though, because even though I'm right there with the mission of seeking political equality, I know very well that my own feminist credentials are suspect. I mean I've read my de Beauvoir and my Faludi, but the landscape--or maybe I should say the wordscape--of gender politics has a bad effect on me. Sometimes I try to read the latest cutting edge "discourse," and after about six paragraphs I'm either catatonic with depression or bent over giggling. That's why I like women like Greta Van Susteren, who go soaring along as feminist icons, then do some screwy thing that makes Betty Friedan rend her garments.
So I talked to my girlfriend Susan, who's British and a serious feminist and who once took a photograph of her breasts to a job interview and turned it in along with her resume. Susan's also a news junkie; Van Susteren's transformation was pretty hard on her. I gently offered my opinion of the thing, to make her feel better, and she gave me the lidded reptilian look she reserves for philistines of the worst order. She said any rejection of feminism ignored both the hard-won battles of previous generations and the sexism and inequality that still plague many women. She said Van Susteren was just like one of the pigs in the denouement of Animal Farm, who move into the farm house and declare an end to the revolt.
"Women are equal and some women are more equal than others," Susan said darkly.
"She just wanted to be prettier," I said.
"What rot!" she said. "And besides, pretty for who?"
Based on what I remember between giggling and going catatonic, classical feminists hold that feminine beauty is an artificial construct created by men for their own agendas and pleasures. A woman is the sum of her parts--face, breasts, lips, hair--and she accumulates and loses power based on the upkeep and adornment of those parts. So naturally one feminist response has been to discard any attempt at feminine beauty altogether, since it cannot be separated from its malignant origins.
Less classical feminism--the ideas of, say, Camille Paglia--offers another theory about beauty. By virtue of their intimate bond with nature, Paglia says, women are immensely powerful, and their power terrifies men. According to Paglia, feminine beauty is the satin veil men have created to shield themselves from that power, from the searing reality of every woman's primal and unknowable self. Paglia uses a lot of scary mythology and Freudian images and words like "chthonic." Her arguments make men seem like a bunch of red-butted baboons dancing around the temple goddess.
Idon't care for either school of thought. One is too grim and doctrinaire; the other too weirdly psychoanalytical. (Though in a pinch I'd throw my lot with Paglia and her chthonian goddesses.) Even the mass-produced middle ground that has developed over the decades--bimbo feminism and grrrl power and all that--it just seems like more of the same, since it is purely reactive. Deny it, embrace it, co-opt it, exploit it--feminine beauty is still a male invention.
Which, frankly, strikes me as sexist, since it assumes that beauty can only be thought up by the mind of a man. I'm sure there are whole libraries filled with books about the relationship between beauty and humankind, but what I keep thinking about is what People magazine said about how Van Susteren made the decision to have plastic surgery. It says she just popped off the couch one day and said, Hey! I'm gonna get my eyes done! No pressure from the network, no internal anxiety or subtle patriarchal oppression. Nobody to please except her own self.
I want to believe that. I want to think, despite all the smirking, that this brainy no-nonsense woman had her own idea about what pretty is and went after it. I know it's way uncool to postulate objective standards in a postmodern world. But isn't it possible that beauty, even feminine beauty, might be the province of biology or God, and not some bad joke thought up in a troglodyte men's room? Or--even better--that beauty is perfectly subjective. That if you scour away the dross of "gender relations" and various other crapola, beauty is the unique invention of every human mind.
I'm not saying I know what feminine beauty is exactly, or that what we believe about it can't be misunderstood or abused or exploited. I'm not saying it can't twist itself into Malibu Barbie or the Hee Haw girls or burkas or Cher's liposuctioned fanny. I'm not saying anything about the purpose of beauty, whether it's an aesthetic pleasure or an enticement to breed. That's another discussion. I'm just saying maybe there's some ideal out there we strive for that has nothing to do with our fathers or boyfriends or husbands.
I like this idea better, since it places Greta Van Susteren's plastic surgery in a moral vacuum where it belongs. Also because it reminds me of two women I'm very fond of. One is my friend Frieda, who is older than God's grandmother and who used to tell me about being a secretary in Brooklyn. This was in the '50s, the heyday of proper grooming, but Frieda was ahead of her time and refused to wear makeup to work. Every afternoon, though, when she came home to her empty house, she put on lipstick. "Mulberry Silk." Once I asked why she did that and she said, "Well, I was a looker, you know, and it was a good color on me."
The other is my daughter Rose, who just turned two and who wakes up every morning now wanting to brush her hair and put on a dress. Then she stands in front of the hall mirror, smiling and reaching up to pat herself gently on the face. And you can tell she's just astonished by the sight, as if her beauty were a brand-new gift, delivered each dawn on a silk pillow. "Dat's pretty!" she says to the mirror. "Dat's me!"