Posts Tagged ‘Beauty’

A few days ago, I went on a Twitter rant about female characterisation and Mad Max: Fury Road which ended up attracting rather more attention than I’d anticipated. As such, a few people replied to ask for advice about how to write good female characters, and while I answered in brief at the time, it’s something I’d like to address in a bit more detail.

Whenever the topic of how not to write women comes up, usually with reference to such narrative basics as avoiding objectification, lone Exceptional Girls and gender stereotypes, there’s a predictable sort of outrage from people who’ve missed the point. Are you saying we can’t write beautiful women? they ask, only semi-facetiously. Is there a quota for female characters per story we have to hit to avoid being called misogynists? Is romance allowed at all? Can women have any feminine interests, or is that sexist, too? And because we’ve already gone on at length about all these things, we’re usually too exhausted to reply.

The thing is, there’s no one “right” way to write women, just as there’s no one “right” way to write any type of person. In talking about common mistakes, and particularly when we’re talking about them in brief, we’re rarely saying “avoid this one, overly simplified Bad Thing in its entirety,” but are rather expressing frustration at how that particular element is overwhelmingly used in certain quarters, while emphasising how to do it well.

As writers, it behoves us to get into the mindset of our characters: to understand their personalities, backgrounds and motivations, whatever they might be. Bad characterisation is what happens when a writer fails to do this; and while that failure can occur for any number of reasons, one of the most common (and therefore most frustrating) permutations occurs when the writer has a reductive, inaccurate or otherwise stereotypical view of what certain types of people are like in real life, or when they fail to acknowledge that their own experience of the world can’t be universally applied to people from different backgrounds.

So: let’s talk beautiful women and the ostensible ban on writing them, which is one of my personal bugbears.

Culturally, women are expected to be beautiful. In the West, the mainstream concept of “beauty” is held to expire at a certain age while being inherently fetishised, diminished or inaccessible to anyone not white. This means that, in a large number of Western narratives, female characters skew conveniently young, even in contexts where you’d expect such a person to be older; are conveniently long-haired, fashionable and permanently made up, even when disdain for such trappings is ostensibly part of their characterisation; and are frequently written as though beauty is a personality trait instead of a personal judgement. What this means is that we’re all collectively conditioned to make female characters “beautiful” as a reflex, because if we’re going to invent a woman out of thin air, then why on Earth would we want to make her ugly?

But as even the type of misogynist prone to rating women’s looks has tangentially realised, not being beautiful isn’t the same as being ugly. Even given the massive cultural dominance of mainstream Western beauty standards – white, blonde-haired and light-eyed, slim but busty, of medium height, able-bodied, aged between sixteen and thirty, or thirty-five at the absolute most – most of us are generally able to acknowledge the attractiveness of women who differ from those parameters by virtue of more than their hair colour. And when it comes to the question of individual preference – well. The world, as they say, is our oyster. Beauty is not an absolute, but a personal judgement, and that’s before you get into the question of attractiveness as determined by personality rather than looks, which is a great deal more significant than many reductive persons care to admit.

All of which tells us a great deal about how female beauty is perceived, and which is therefore relevant to how female characters are viewed by the audience. But when you’re writing a story, the character has their own internality: you have to know them from the inside, too. When a story tells me in the raw narration, rather than from a character’s POV, that a woman is beautiful, it invariably feels forced, as though the author is imposing a false universal over any judgement I might prefer to make for myself. But in a narrative context where women have every reason to be aware of the value placed on their looks, a story that goes out of its way to tell me about a female character’s beauty from an external perspective only is doing her a disservice.

One of the great paradoxes of mainstream beauty culture is that, while women are expected to look good for men, the effort that goes into maintaining that beauty – physical, emotional, financial – is held to be of zero masculine interest. On TV, it’s common to see a hard-bitten female detective whose hair is worn long and sprayed into perfect coiffure, whose heels are high, whose face is permanently made up, and whose fashion choices visibly outstrip her salary, because we expect all TV characters to be exceptionally pretty. It’s just that, with women, by virtue of the extra accessories and effort “mainstream” beauty requires, making any and all characters strive to clear that bar can’t help but impinge on their characterisation in a way that it doesn’t for men. A flock of teenage boys all showing up to school in various dapper vest, suit and tie combinations would raise eyebrows on TV, but we’re inured to the sight of teenage girls in math class dressed like they’re off to a movie premiere. And what this means, whether intentionally or not, is that we void the prospect of women who, at the level of characterisation, have different approaches to beauty, not just in terms of individual style, but as a social expectation.

So: you tell me your character is beautiful in context, wildly attractive to the men around her. Great! But what does she think about that? Did she go through puberty so early that she was teased about having breasts for years before the same boys started to hit on her? Is she uncomfortable with the attention? Does she enjoy it? Does she deliberately “dress down” to avoid getting catcalled? Does she even like men? Is she confident in her looks? Does she feel insecure? Does she enjoy make up? If so, how much time, money and effort does she put into using it? If not, how sick is she of being cajoled into trying it? How does she dress? Does she actually enjoy shopping at all? What cultural norms have shaped her idea of beauty? Have you noticed how many of these questions are context-dependent on the modern world and our implicit association of beauty with makeup and fashion? If your setting is an invented one, have you given any thought to local beauty standards, or have you just unconsciously imported what’s familiar?

I’m not asking these questions to situate them as absolute must-haves in every narrative instance. I’m asking because I’m sick of “she was beautiful” being treated as a throw-away line that’s nonetheless meant to stand in lieu of further characterisation, as though there’s no internal narrative to beauty and no point in mentioning it unless to make clear that male readers should find the character fuckable.

This goes double for warrior women in SFF novels particularly, not because powerful, kickass ladies can’t be beautiful, but because there’s a base degree of grime and practicality inherent in fighting that’s often at odds with the way their looks are described. A skilled fighter who has no scars or bruises at any given time is as implausible as a swordswoman with baby-soft, uncalloused hands. Long, silky hair might look good, and it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility for a warrior to have it, but your girl is still going to need to tie it back when she’s in the field, and if she’s out on the road or in battle with no more bathing opportunities than her male comrades, it’s not going to fall out of her helmet looking like she’s a L’oreal model. If your armies are gender diverse and there’s no stated reason why women can’t hold rank, but the only women we ever see are young and hot, then yes, I’m going to assume you’ve prioritised beauty over competence at the expense of including other, more interesting characters. A woman’s looks are far from being the most salient thing about her, and if a subconscious need to find your female characters conventionally attractive (unless they’re villains) is influencing who you write about, believe me, it’s going to be noticeable.

I could address those other, early queries at similar length, but what it all boils down to is a marriage of context and internality. No, there’s no quota for female characters per book, but if you’re going to give me a POV perspective on a lone woman associating with an otherwise all-male cast, simply telling me “she’d always gotten along better with men than women” is not sufficient to explain the why of it, especially if her being there is contextually incongruous. By the same token, if you show me the POV of a woman who has every reason to associate primarily with other women but whose thoughts are only ever about men, I’m going to raise a disbelieving eyebrow. If you can’t imagine what women talk about when men aren’t in the room, or if you simply don’t think it’s likely to be interesting, then yes, it’s going to affect your ability to write female characters, because even if you only ever show them with men, those private judgements should still inform their internal characterisation.

One of the most dispiriting experiences I’ve ever had in a writing group was watching a man in late middle-age describe a young woman of his own invention. As an exercise, we’d all taken fifteen minutes or so to write out a detailed rundown of a particular character, either one we’d invented on the spot or who featured in our fiction, and to share that work with the group. This man produced an unattractive girl in her late teens who had no interests besides working in a dollar shop, who lived with her mother but didn’t really have any friends, who liked shopping and eating chips – and that was it. Every time a member of the group prompted him for more details, he just shrugged smugly and said she just liked being in the shop, and that was it. When pressed further, he insisted that he saw plenty of girls like this on the bus and around his area, that she was a realistic character, and that there was no need to develop her beyond this dim outline because she just wasn’t clever or interesting or curious, so why would she have opinions about anything else? It was maddening, depressing and so unbearably sexist I wanted to scream, because by his own admission, what he’d done was look at women in the real world and assume that his reductive judgement of their goals and interests, made on the basis of their appearance, was genuinely the be-all, end-all of who they were as people, such that even when it came to putting a woman like that in fiction, he didn’t feel moved to develop her any further.

Ultimately, if you want to write good female characters, there’s no one way to do it. But if I had to distil all this into a single piece of advice – a practical thing for writers to do, to try and better their skillsets – I’d say: as an exercise, try writing a story with only female characters, or in which men are the clear minority. When women only ever appear singly or in contexts where they never talk to each other, it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting their gender and beauty stand in for characterisation, because you only need to distinguish them from men, not from each other. But try your hand at a story whose five characters are all women, and suddenly the balance shifts. You can’t just have The Feminine One and The Tomboy, or The Ultra Hot One and the Girl Next Door, and nor can you lapse into defining them as such in their own perspectives. You can certainly pick a narrative setting that explains why they’re all or mostly the same age (high school, for instance), but it’s harder to lump them together.

And if it’s never occurred to you to write women as a majority before? Then you might want to ask yourself why that is, and consider how your answer might be impacting your ability to write them as individuals.

 

 

 

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One week ago, I blogged a piece about the necessity of feminism, a reasonable percentage of which was given over to a selection of pertinent links I’ve been filing away since April. Since then, it’s struck me that I’d like to make such posts a weekly endeavour, so that instead of just dropping pieces into a folder and potentially forgetting about them, I can actually group them together. As the vast majority of my bookmarks get dropped into either of two main folders – Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality and SFF, YA and Literary Culture – it only seems fitting to present those links here in two comparable categories: General and SFF, though doubtless there’ll be multiple points of crossover.

Here, then, is the first installment of Weekly Feminist Linkspam.

General

SFF

You guys, that is literally how many links I’ve spotted since the start of September. ONE WEEK. Admittedly, a few of the SFF ones were written a while ago, but all of those are tied in to more recent pieces. Thats *counts* THIRTY-FIVE LINKS. In a WEEK.

Maybe it’s just been a really exceptional seven days for lady-matters, but somehow? I don’t think so.

*headdesk*

One of my favourite things to do in the shower (and don’t you wish more sentences started that way?) is to rake my fingernails over my face and slough off the wet, dead skin. Reasons for this include, but are not limited to: because I am deeply weird; because it feels nice; and because it keeps my complexion pretty. Leaving aside the first point as both an inevitability of my existence and a perennial lost cause (I also collect hats!), the latter two motives combine to form a habit which is both satisfying and, insofar as I can tell, cleansing. And lest you be disturbed by the image of long, sharp, manicured talons being gouged down my rosy cheeks, please bear in mind that I am, in fact, possessed of the shortest, bluntest nails in Christendom. Seriously. They are messed up.

There’s a point to all of this. Honest. Just bear with me.

Last weekend, my husband and I went on a picnic, taking advantage of what has thus far been one of Scotland’s four genuinely sunny summer days. Much to my surprise, this actually resulted in a light sunburn, such that I’ve been gently peeling all week. Today’s nail-enabled exfoliations therefore took longer than usual, which afforded me time to wonder: Do other people do this, too? Did I start doing it because it felt nice, or because it improves my appearance? And if it didn’t feel nice, would I still do it to look pretty? And that made me think about all the other things I do to maintain myself, and whether they count as active beautification – and that was interesting question.

Because the thing is, I don’t wear makeup. This is not a shorthand to indicate that I only sometimes wear makeup, nor is it a dishonest means of saying that I wear very little makeup, be it regularly or semi-regularly. I mean, quite literally, that I wear no makeup at all. I own one tube of fifteen-year-old lipstick, worn maybe three times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, that my mother gave me a decade ago. I wore clear lipstick at my wedding, and nothing more. Twice, female friends have given me party makeovers: once recently for the hell of it, and once as a teenager, when we were dressing up as vampires for a fantasy fancy dress birthday. I certainly experimented with makeup as a young tween, putting on blush and lippy and foundation and eye-shadow that I’d found in my mother’s bathroom cabinet, or else trying those same things at various girls-only sleepover parties, but that never really translated to my actually wearing makeup as an adult. There’s a number of reasons why this might be so – my mother rarely wore makeup herself, I was proudly a tomboy, I was too lazy to bother, I’d rather have spent my pocket-money on books – but the practical upshot is that I’m a grown woman who doesn’t wear any makeup, something which seems to be comparatively unusual.

And what really struck me today – the thing that made me sit down and blog – was the realisation that my decision to avoid makeup was not, in fact, a decision at all, let alone a political one. I never chose a makeup-free existence, because that would imply an actual, active thought process on the matter. I just never bought or wore it, in much the same way that I neither buy nor wear designer clothes: it’s simply something other people do. And that bothers me, because the more I think about the sexism and inequality of our culture and its obsession with unrealistic and frequently negative beauty ideals, the more it feels as though my abstention from makeup should be part of my politics. Which is where the comparison with designer clothes falls down: because while I can postulate a theoretic future, no matter how distant and unlikely, in which I take an active, positive interest in clothes design and the aesthetics and history of fashion (which is, for the purposes of this example, a different creature entirely to the horrific inequalities of the actual fashion industry), I cannot think of a similar future where I’d suddenly take an active, positive interest in wearing makeup. Or, to put it another way: despite the fact that I never decided not to wear makeup for ethical, moral or political reasons, I would nonetheless feel it to be an ethical, moral and political capitulation on my part to start wearing makeup.

That doesn’t seem so irrational, surely? And yet saying so makes me feel horrifically judgmental – a gender traitor, even, for all that I’m trying to make a case in support of women. Because the fact is that most Western women do wear makeup, and for much the same reasons that I scrape the dead skin off my face in the shower: because they enjoy it, and because doing so makes them feel cleaner and prettier than if they didn’t.

And so I ask myself: am I a total hypocrite? After all, I still have a beauty regimen. I exfoliate; I use body wash and a loofah, facial scrub and moisturiser. But I do these things as much in the name of cleanliness as beauty. The nice feeling they give me overlaps, is equivalent to, the sensation of having freshly-washed, non-greasy hair and sweat-free skin. But I also shave my underarms and, when I can be bothered, my legs, which is something different again. There’s nothing innately clean about the idea of hairlessness – our culture  just teaches us to prefer clean-shaven men and women with minimal body hair. And there’s problems with that, because who the hell decided it, and why do most of us do it anyway? But while it makes perfect sense to keep such social imperatives and their malleability in mind, ultimately I don’t foresee a version of the human species wherein we don’t have some beauty norms, and if I were given ultimate control over humanity for a day such that I could forever revoke a particular beautification practice, shaving wouldn’t be it; or at least, not leg/arm/facial shaving, the practice of women removing their pubic hair to effectively recreate the image of prepubescence being considerably more problematic. Anyway: what I’m getting at here, or trying to, is that we adhere to different norms for different reasons, and even though women’s hairlessness is politicised in ways that men’s is not – hairy-legged or unshaven feminist being well-known terms of abuse – the trend ultimately seems to be more in line with the vogue of hairstyles than the application of makeup.

Possibly that’s a false distinction, and I’m very much open to the idea of being wrong: it’s something I’ve thought about before, and something I want to keep considering. But when it comes to sculpting, altering and otherwise emphasising our physical appearance (and ignoring the much more complex issues of body size and type, which is worth myriad other essays in its own right), what ultimately puts me off makeup is the extent to which it conceals and alters our faces. If I shave my legs and arms and crotch (or not); if I cut and colour my hair (or not); if I wear jewelry and pierce my ears (or not); if I paint my nails and get a tattoo (or not), then I am, for whatever reason of preference and aesthetics, changing my physical appearance: I am striving to look different, and regardless of whether I’m doing so to conform to an external standard of beauty, a social standard of beauty or simply to my own tastes – and those three things overlap more often than not – they are changes which serve to emphasise my identity and selfhood, rather than obscure it. Obviously many women – probably most, in fact – feel the same way about makeup: that wearing it serves to emphasise who they are. And I can understand that position; it’s why I’ve bothered writing this piece, because I’m honestly conflicted about where the line is between expressing oneself through physical beautification and objectifying oneself through adherence to (potentially damaging) cultural norms. Perhaps there’s no single solution, after all – maybe the question will never be answerable on anything other than a case-by-case basis; and that’s fine, too.

But makeup doesn’t empower me. The few times I’ve ever put on a face (and isn’t that a telling expression?), it’s made me feel, not beautified, but erased. It feels like compensating for my features, instead of emphasising them; like saying my native self is, if not actually ugly, then insufficient. Bland. Unmemorable. I don’t define myself by my hair or nails, my legs and arms or groin; I don’t consider that dyeing, styling and cutting my hair is anything other than an aesthetic act. But my face is what others see of me, and what I see of myself. It’s where people look when I talk to them; it is how we talk, and the act of acknowledging, even tacitly, that my primary means of expression could benefit from cosmetics, leaves me feeling utterly unbeautiful. And what’s worse, makeup is a considered to be a strictly female domain. Men bathe and exfoliate; they shave and wax their body hair; they use dyes and moisturisers and hair gel and even nail polish – and yes, it’s still more common for women to use those things; and yes, some few men do use cosmetics; and yes, they have every right to do so, and more, should be allowed to do so without fear of social reprisals. I know all these things, and they are relevant and important. But knowing them will not convince me that I can find an iota of self-confidence, one ounce of esteem, in the application of tinted animal fats and powdered chemicals to any part of my face – and nor, I think, should it.

I’m not trying to claim superiority over women who wear makeup; far from it. I’m not even trying to suggest that the concept of makeup is innately wrong – only that, for me, it crosses a personal line, and that part of that crossing is exacerbated by the fact that it applies almost entirely to women. The lines between personal aesthetics and social aesthetics will always be blurred, because we’re all creatures of the world in which we’re raised, and even if we can see where the habit of leg-shaving or lipstick comes from, that doesn’t automatically mean we should strive to destroy those practices out of pure contrition. Or, to put it another way: we are all empowered by different things. There will never be a perfect world where none of our customs have problematic consequences, and while I fully believe in our ability to create more and better societies than the one in which we now live,  the way to do that isn’t to issue a new mandate to the masses about what they should and shouldn’t do with their bodies.

But in order for that to happen, we have to think about why we do things, the better to understand – and, in some cases, change – our reasoning. And so I ask: if you do wear makeup most or all of the time, why? Is it habit, or ritual? Does it empower or undermine your sense of self? Does it make you feel happy, or sad, or nothing at all? Does it give you a sense of belonging, or dislocation? Does it feel right or wrong, natural or unnatural? Does it make you feel beautiful or ugly, enhanced or lessened? Do you wear it because you want to, or because you feel you have to?

I already know how I feel. So what about you?

Somewhere in my workplace lurks a young woman, who, whenever I glimpse her at functions or in the lift, I cannot help but think of as the Dollybird. Note that I’ve never spoken to her, although we have occasionally swapped awkward smiles. My only knowledge concerns her wardrobe. Which is pink. Very, garishly, pink, complete with extraordinarily high heels, an abundance of gold ornaments, heavy make-up and violently peroxided hair. It’s a Barbie look, and while it’s so far distant from my own tastes as to occupy a different fashionverse, she’s not unattractive. But something about her always strikes me as slightly off, as though, despite the pride she clearly takes in her appearance, the clothes still sit uneasily on her.

Last week, I realised why; or rather, I pinpointed what, subconsciously, she’d been reminding me of. Namely: this cover of a book by Muslim author Randa Abdel-Fattah, called Ten Things I Hate About Me. It’s not a novel I’ve read, but as someone who routinely peruses the young adult section of the bookshop, it’s one I’ve picked up now and again, familiarising myself with the blurb. The reverse images of the same girl – one comfortably Lebanese, one striving for blonde – had stuck in my mind, and now, looking at my anonymous Dollybird, I realised with a jolt that this described her, too. Beneath her make-up, I finally saw the real structure of her face, her dark eyes, the minute natural blackness at the roots of her nearly-white hair. What I’d taken before to be a purposefully dark tan, part of the sundrenched Malibu look, I realised now was her natural skin colour, something every other aspect of her wardrobe suggested she was trying to downplay. Underneath all that Anglo Barbie pink-and-gold was a Middle-Eastern girl. And, like Abdel-Fattah’s heroine, she was hiding.

All this flooded to the forefront of my mind as I read Porochista Khakpour’s Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, provocatively entitled Islamic Revolution Barbie. As a little girl growing up in Tehran, Khakpour recalls her childhood love-affair with Barbie, a doll introduced to her by her similarly-infatuated mother, until the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s forced their family to flee, and her collection was lost. She subsequently rebuilt it in their new home, but talked about her growing unease with the dolls the older she grew, calling them by Iranian names and colouring their hair black. And yet, she says, despite the creation of Islamic equivalents to Barbie and Ken back in Iran, called Sara and Dara, the more-expensive black-market Barbie still prevails. Even though Mattel’s American sales have been steadily falling, girls like Khakpour have been buying.

If Khakpour had any bigger thoughts on the implications of a blonde Western doll selling so successfully at Muslim bazaars, she kept them to herself, focussing instead on her own personal relationship with Barbie in honour of the product’s 50th birthday. But reading her article, I thought how very human it was, that an icon so many Western feminists have come to revile for her unrealistic representation of female beauty can be, in other countries, a symbol of female emancipation. After all, Barbie ran for president before Hilary Clinton and reached the moon before Neil Armstrong, among her host of occupations; she’s remained unmarried for half a century and even broken up with her long-term beau for a younger man. And even when she was with Ken, you could hardly argue that he wore the pants: it was always all about Barbie. 

But generations of young western girls have had fifty years to get this message; fifty years during which it’s become increasingly part of their lives, and less a dream inspired by a childhood toy. Now, the need for a career-oriented doll is less powerful than the desire for girls’ rolemodels to present a realistic standard of beauty. If the injection of feminist principles into society could be said to come with a booster shot, then innoculation to the Beauty Myth is still some years away. But elsewhere, that first jab is still fresh, and the message of Barbie, while pertinent in one sense, has been rightly complicated by image problems that her original audience is just now beginning to appreciate. Because idealised though Barbie’s physique may be, she was never representative of a different culture, and despite the racial diversity of nations like America, she still looked like a large enough portion of the population that her beauty, although unrealistic, was never foreign.

And out of this confusion come girls like Abdel-Fattah’s Jamie/Jamilah, like my unknown office Dollybird. I’m not saying all would-be Barbie lookalikes are automatically prey to this scenario: as I’ve said before, some girls just want to be princesses, and aesthetics are different for everyone. But for many girls, the pressure to hide themselves, to become the Blonde Ideal in order to be seen as beautiful, is intense. Which is where I find the advent of Bratz dolls both proactive and, like Barbie, ultimately socially anachronistic: because although these girls are multi-ethnic and their bodies more cartoonish than that of their blonde progenitor, the emphasis on physical beauty remains. Consider the Devil’s advocate response: why make an ugly doll? But if we automatically define ugliness as anything less than what Bratz and Barbie currently epitomise, then we’ve already put our finger on the problem.

Ultimately, if we must have a concept of beauty, it should be personal, not externally idealised. And dolls, rather than icons of beauty or fashion, should just be things that little girls play with.

It’s fair to say I think about elves more than the average person; that is to say, firstly, that I think of them at all, and secondly, that a sizeable chunk of this time is dedicated to theorising what elves really are. Among other things, this makes me slightly crazy. But I’ve come up with a theory. And now, rejuvinated by the illustrious Harkaway’s recent musings on cryonics, I’m ready to show and tell. Or maybe just tell, in this case. Whatever.

Anyway.

Elves, according to a wide range fantastic and mythological sources, are essentially very pretty people who live damn near forever in beautiful cities considerably superior to those of other races by the grace of their higher intellect, magic, advanced technology or a combination of all three. Outside of cities, they dwell in forests or natural areas, usually in a deeply symbiotic relationship with their surroundings, but in either instance, elven society is usually lauded as being progressive, or at least very successful. They are highly culturally advanced, but despite professing a preference for peace, tend, when roused, to be lethal in war. Outsiders often know little about them, as they prefer not to mingle with humankind, and their settlements are often isolated; typically, they also exhibit a low birth-rate in compensation for their incredible longevity. There is also a strong tendency to infer relationships between elves and dragons, or elves and white horses of superior stamina and intellect, both of which species are, in such instances, rarely if ever found elsewhere, granting their elvish masters the exclusive advantage of swift transport in largely medieval settings. Finally, elves are frequently described as placing a dual emphasis on learning, academic or otherwise, and on leisurely, creative passtimes.

Got all that?

Good.

Now, if we take the above hallmarks of elfness, remove the fantasy connotations, and render them as a set of socio-cultural markers, we end up with the following list of real-world characteristics:

1. Longer than average lifespans;

2. Objectively exceptional but culturally normative looks;

3. Technological superiority at an everyday level;

4. An outward preference for pacifism underwritten by extreme martial capabilities;

5. A preference for isolation from less advanced societies;

6. Largely urban lifestyles balanced against deeply held environmental convictions;

7. Access to superior modes of transportation and information relay;

8. A low average birthrate; and

9. A largely functional societal model extolling the virtues of both learning and leisure.

Sound familiar?

I find it both amusing and ironic that the mythical beings of early European culture are starting to look like the end point of modern Western society. True, we don’t live hundreds of years, but our lifespans are ever-increasing thanks to the ongoing advance of medical science. Give it another couple of decades, and who knows where we’ll be? And true, we’re not universally beautiful, but there is an increasing emphasis on physical perfection and achieving a set body type. With the advent of plastic surgery, many people now choose to alter their own appearance, and consider, too, the unveiling of the first ‘designer baby’ clinic in LA, where the new practice of cosmetic medicine allows parents to select the appearence of their future children.

Technological superiority? While it’s true that most of the world is now online, there’s certainly accuracy to the statement that affluent western, eastern and northern European nations have access to more and better gadgets than their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia and South America. Similarly, technological prowess confers the advantage of both swift, secret information relay and rapid transportation worldwide. The notion of esposuing pascifism but practicing violence is, traditionally, a hallmark of nations throughout history; nonetheless, it seems particularly apt in a day and age when countries can initiate wars or engage in battles so geographically removed from their own turf that no risk of invasion is run, and where stockpiling WMDs has become routine practice. As for isolation, one need only look at the recent global tightening of immigration laws, particularly in the west: we might praise the notion of living in multicultural societies, but still remain fearfully recalcitrant when it comes to the very process which allows them to take shape.

The recent passion for reducing our carbon footprint while retaining an urban lifestyle is, to me, a particularly elvish dualism, and one which is sweeping most of the developed world. Similarly, while it’s difficult to try and argue for a lowered birthrate on such an enormous and diverse scale (although China’s One Child Policy is an intruiging counter-example), anecdotally, there seems to be a trend of affluent, educated women giving birth later and to fewer children, while our childhoods – or, more particularly, the time we spend at school and under the parental roof – is growing. Our current social model promotes a minimum of thirteen years’ schooling, while more and more people are attending university as a matter of course. At the same time, we deeply value labour-saving devices, the creation of entertainment and the right to leisure time, which is arguably a kind of social symbiosis: we work hard at learning how to do less in one sphere of daily life in order to create more time for learning in another, which in turn leads to more time, and also to the necessity for each generation to learn enough to keep up.

In short, we are growing into elves: not the fey creatures of our early imaginings, but into long-lived, scientific, face-selecting humans of a new technological era. Whether for good or ill, I’m not prepared to judge, but in either case, the comparison seems warranted. Which leaves only the question of magic, that elusive quality so associated with mythological elfhood; and yet even here, we might find a real-world comparison, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Because if any one of us went back in time to the genesis of elven myths; if we stood before our ancestors, iPhone-wielding, smooth-skinned, nylon-wearing, bedecked in even the cheapest, meanest jewellery and spoke of our world, what else could they name us – what else could they think us – but elves?

At my Long-Suffering Husband’s insistance, we rented The Invasion last night. I’d read more than one dud review and was therefore sceptical, but the end product, if not blindingly original, was at least well-executed and entertaining. Based on Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the premise is classic sci-fi horror: humans infected by an alien host become little more than emotionless copies of their former selves, spreading malaise through the populace while a few savvy protagonists fight back. Morally, the film queries the fundamental nature of humanity, asking whether our innate predeliction for violence could ever be removed without rendering us a different species. In this respect, the execution is strongly reminiscent of the main plot-arc of Angel, Season Four, which culminates, in the penultimate episode Peace Out, in an almost identical scenario: a declaration of world peace after an alien, assimilatory force takes control on a global scale, followed by the successful application of a vanquishing panacea. In both instances, our heroes are left with uncertainty as to whether restoring the human race was actually the right choice; and in both instances, this uncertainty is validated by the fact that the invading force was comparatively benign, leaving the memories and personalities of the populace intact, but removing all aggression.

It’s worth taking the comparison further. Jasmine, the assimilatory power in Angel, requires the loss of two human lives to enter the world. While manifest, she consumes approximately ten lives every few days, but these are willing victims whose deaths involve a painless, beatified moment of transcendence. In The Invasion, the only alien violence is towards those who are immune or still human; it is implied, but not demonstrated, that the former are killed, while the latter are purposefully rounded up and infected. Similarly, Jasmine’s acolytes seek to kill the few who resist; the remainder are peaceably converted.

Within the context of both narratives, the heroes are justified for several reasons: there is no freedom to reject the change; hostility is shown to outsiders; deaths are accepted as part of the process; and in each instance, the alien/assimilatory claim that those changed are still fundamentally human is challenged by the emergence of a hive-mind, not quite on par with, say, the Borg, but nonetheless profoundly different to the usual human experience. On the other hand, Jasmine and the Invaders also seek justification: any deaths they cause as part of assimilation are minimal compared to the daily injury humanity wreaks upon itself, and are in any case a one-off; human personalities remain; all religious differences are eradicated; and global violence has, effectively, ceased. Post-victory, it is these arguments which cause our protagonists to doubt the wisdom of their choice.

Objectively, it’s an interesting moral dilemma. As a species, we prize personal freedoms even when they grant individual licence to be unpleasant, vindictive and ignorant, because we struggle to find a workable moral basis from which to allow positive freedoms while disallowing their negative counterparts. This is further compounded by the fact that, particularly as regards culture and religion, we’re far from a universal definition of ‘positive’ freedoms – sexuality is a particular sticking point, both in terms of orientation and practice. Even more challenging is the fact that freedom of and from religion becomes innately problematic if sublimated to a set of universal human rights: as things stand, and as they are likely to remain standing, it is impossible that any such code not infringe on individual belief, which opens a whole new can of worms. Inevitably, our greed for personal freedom denies the idea that, as part of the bargain, we might have to change our minds; and yet, day to day, this is exactly how the world works. It’s a system we simultaneously laud and resent, finding balance in the margins and grey areas: small wonder, then, that the idea of some powerful, all-encompassing assimilatory force sweeping in and wiping the slate clean both lures and terrifies.

Historically speaking, we’re rightly mistrustful of any human agency attempting what Jasmine and the Invaders almost succeed at, Hitler, Stalin and Robespierre having demonstrated what atrocities such plans necessitate in the hands of our own kind. But when we put an alien or external agency in charge, the hypothetical becomes more serious: not only are we removing the possibility of the new order being destabilised by human malcontents, as such dissention cannot actually exist, but we’re voiding ourselves of blame. Proportionally, our main fear is a kind of technical genocide: if none of the social, cultural or behavioural hallmarks of humanity remain – or at least, if lack of violence and passion irrevocably alters their application – then has humanity been destroyed? It’s an uneasy thought, as well as discomforting: that our innate selves are fundamentally tied to our aggression. Even if this is one factor among many, to lose it would be to absent a crucial aspect of ourselves. Which begs the (much harder) question: in a world where, potentially, we can be a less-violent other species, is being human for the sake of being human actually a defensible choice?

The problem, as with all hypotheticals, is that we have no test scenario: along with violence, we don’t know what else we’d lose. Anecdotally and, to a certain extent, culturally, there’s a belief that our aggression stems from the same place as our creativity and passion: that without anger, we couldn’t love, or dream, or hope. Emotionally – and we are emotional creatures – it’s a compelling fear, and one which, on an intuitive level, is hard to combat. In an odd way, it’s a bit like the dilemma of the criminal justice system: let a guilty man walk to save innocents, or condemn innocents to be sure of incarcerating the guilty? Ultimately, I’d opt for the former: for better or worse, I’d rather keep our flaws than lose our virtues, and so – I believe – would most of us.

Narratively, however, we still need reassurance on this point: which is why both Jasmine and the Invaders are selected against by subtle, but deeply intuitive, markers. Beneath her human face, Jasmine has the appearance of a monster: only those with immunity to her powers can see it. The metaphor is one of rottenness, internal corruption; if she isn’t truly beautiful and conceals the fact, then she cannot be trusted, and so – horrifically, in one sense – we feel better about her destruction. Similarly, dogs don’t like the Invaders: they bark, whine, growl, attack and are subsequently killed for their trouble. After tens of thousands of years of co-evolution, it’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche to trust the intuition of dogs: as part of our family pack, they warn us of threats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a story in which our canine companions happily lick the hands of attacking aliens; and so, because we trust the wordless sense of dogs, we know the enemy are Bad.

In the end, we justify our species by providing a pro for each con: love for anger, passion for rage, creativity for cruelty. But that, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, is the fundamental essence of humanity: where the falling angel meets the rising ape, we are what’ve always been. 

Half angel. Half devil. All human.

What is it about human beings and rarity?

When it comes to wealth, fashion and the cultural perception of attractiveness, exotica and the uncommon dominate our tastes. Abundance equals boredom: the easier a style or item is to obtain, the less chic it is – within the given parameters of taste. It’s a mindset that harks back to earlier times, when for most people, ‘luxury’ meant something like glass, lace or satin. Fashions that were strenuous to maintain, expensive to possess and hard to come by were for centuries the hallmark of the nobility, an exclusionary hauteur designed to exhibit wealth and status. The difficulties involved in making purple dye pigments, for instance, meant only Roman emperors were allowed to wear that colour; similarly, the use of rare white ermine to trim royal garments showed how much time and effort the wearer was able to expend on their clothing. In both instances, the scarcity of the components was socially evident: not only were they rare, but the rarity was common knowledge, thus creating an obvious visual distinction between those with wealth, and those without.

In the last few decades, however, traditional Western class and monetary barriers have been eroded. With the creation of a global society and the advent of mass production, there is no longer any implied wealth to wearing this type of material, that type of trimming – and so, by way of development, the concept has evolved in two different directions. Firstly, there is the fashion industry, which praises not the components of clothing, but the notoriety of the maker. This works in a strange reversal of past practice, a kind of fashionista oroborous: designer clothes are fashionable because their expense implies wealth and status in the wearer, but their pricing is linked to random fashionability. In order for this system to function, an entire industry exists to determine which aspects of style – cut, colour, coordination – should bestow fashionability at whatever time. Ultimately, however, the arbitrariness of these opinions mean that fashion is always in flux. Because people must constantly be told what denotes status, as opposed to knowing it as an innate part of their social reality, styles must constantly alter in order to avoid commonality. If lesser designers have time to mimic the desired look for less, thereby spreading it below the intended elites, the entire effect is ruined.

Secondly, however, is the idea of physical beauty. Just as with clothing, human beings have usually preferred a certain physical type or epitome. For much of European history, paleness in men and women was a sign of aristocratic birth, implying that one need undertake no outdoor (physical) labour. Soft hands and long, well-maintained nails meant a woman had servants to do chores for her. The idea of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan beauty was lauded by more people than Hitler, and continues to be echoed, however unconsciously, as a Western ideal. More recently, being tan implied the social status of leisure time: working less and spending more hours in outdoor persuits. Preferred body shapes have fluctuated throughout history, as any quick stroll through an art gallery will show; now, of course, slenderness is emphasised above all else – both for women and men – to such an extent that, socially, we have started to worry.   

Given the origins of fashion, however, I wonder if our present fixation on the physical form is also based on rarity and status. Not long ago, the obsession was fitness – outdoor tans, big muscles, Amazon women, sporting men – in an era when going to the gym was a newly-burgeoned craze. Extreme fitness implied not only the wealth and time for training, but effort. Now, the trend is reversing: slight, skinny and pale are in, while socially promoted leisure has turned away from daytime sports towards nighttime clubbing. Like tightening the notch on a belt, we expect more from our bodies, trying to set ourselves apart from whatever has become average. With fitness currently inseperable from the cultural idea of attractiveness, we are interested in more stringent physical discipline, paring ourselves back to even more exacting standards.       

This isn’t a road down which we can head indefinintely. Already, it seems, we are on the verge of another reversal. Which makes me wonder: what future rarity will sculpt our concepts of beauty and fasion? And might the process ever collapse entirely?