There’s so much going on in the book On Beauty by Zadie Smith that I finished it a week ago and I’m still digesting it. I was telling a friend about it the other night, and explaining how fascinating I found the character of Victoria Kipps, who is very beautiful and has, at the age of 19, become a stalwart performer of an idealized femininity, the kind of woman who wouldn’t know what a real orgasm feels like but performs like a porn star in bed because she has attuned herself to what the culture tells her men want to see and becomes it. The kind of woman who inexperienced and dumb men become fascinated with, but women and sharp men have very little patience for. In other words, said a friend who came into the conversation late, Sarah Palin. Peals of laughter. Well, sort of. Palin is a deft manipulator of male fantasies and her own image, and this young woman in the book is a broken soul. She’s not evil and she’s somewhat defiant, but because she cannot reject on any level what our culture tells us is the role of beautiful women—to look good and gasp in faux ego-soothing excitement.
The book certainly hits home and hard. I can’t say that I’ve ever read a novel that so expertly grasped the struggle between women’s own experience of ourselves as human beings and our equally strong perception that we’re women and thus objects of fascination to men and, sadly, to each other. And she does this while capturing the diversity in women’s approaches to it. You have Victoria Kipps, who is the sort of young woman throwing up daily and populating college campuses, who knows that she’s smart and has attitude but cannot escape feeling like her ultimate worth is in whether or not she can adequately entrance men as a sex object. But you also have Kiki Belsey, who has very few illusions, and understandably puts all the blame for how her ranking in the world has fallen as she’s grown fat outside herself. But for all that, she doesn’t fool herself into thinking that knowing this and largely avoiding self-hatred means that she doesn’t suffer genuine effects on her quality of life for it. You can’t just will the world to be better because you refuse to have low self-esteem. Kiki’s daughter Zora is the classic perfect girl/starving daughter—she approaches weight loss with the single-minded mathematical grim determination she brings to her studies, and can no more take the time to find pleasure in exercise than she can relish poetry before breaking it up and analyzing it. The poet Claire Malcolm has made her peace with it in a way different than Kiki’s—she accepts the burden of body policing as a part of womanhood no more avoidable than menstruation, and only pauses to regret how feminism has not changed this before flitting mentally to another topic. And Carlene Kipps….well, she’s a figure that is dashes outside the reader’s grasp as surely as she leaves Kiki’s. Does she accept her feminine submission as gracefully in her heart as she appears to? There are tantalizing hints that the answer is no, but the depth of her internal resistance will always be a secret, like trying to know how much your grandmothers and great-grandmothers before resisted inside.
There’s a lot more going on in this book than an examination of women working their way through a world that stares and stares and demands performance. It’s a satire of academia and an examination of the depths of complexity with regards to race in America. It’s a complex mediation on art and beauty of the non-human sort, and how rigid political demands put on art can both make the art itself less powerful and can blind the viewer from really seeing what’s going on. (I loved, for instance, how Howard Belsey thinks that he’s a great proponent of using art for subversion, but is such a bully about painting Rembrant as a non-subversive artist that he misses an opportunity to have a student point out to him that a nude painted of a woman that the male-dominated critical world thinks is ugly is so subversive that he can’t notice it, because it subverts his own unquestioned assumptions.) There’s a lot going on, so I can only focus really on the way that objectification fractures women from themselves into two people—the one that you are, and the one that you figure men want you to be. And the latter is not just one thing. There are a variety of fantasies projected on women. For instance, the more conservative Kipps women (who are therefore more open to the idea that their very beings should be rearranged to suit the demands of men around them) embrace different fantasies. Carlene, the mother, is the idealized Christian housewife, endlessly self-sacrificing and openly living to serve. Victoria is obviously the young woman who has taken the need to be a sex object to heart.
It took me a few hours to grasp what really stuck with me about the Victoria situation in the book, and I think it’s because all the men around her buy her bullshit about how she’s this exciting fantasy girl, either because they really don’t know any better or because they can’t be bothered to care enough about her to wonder if she has an internal life. Only Howard even comes close. Once he’s unsettled because her porn star performance in bed is so obviously a performance, right down to how she carefully arranges parts of her body before she lets him touch them, and once because she blows up at him and shows her real self for a second, and he remembers all of a sudden that she’s a human being. Her other lovers don’t care a whit, though. She makes herself whatever they need to see, and they believe it without pausing to consider how weird that is. These are not bad guys, either. A lot of them have good hearts and real souls, but this is a blind spot. Smith’s observation about the blind spot was chilling, especially since a lot of young women, like Victoria, think the only way to entice a guy to care about that internal life is to be that captivating fantasy.
I loved, too, how Smith deconstructs the hostility between women who do play the feminine parts well and those who don’t, who are often accused of being “just jealous”.* The jealousy Zora feels toward Victoria is not “just” anything. A lot of it is hostility towards Victoria for being such an obvious phony, but really, she’s just using Victoria as a pawn to deal with her grievances against men. (How women objectify women as well!) She’s got a volatile mix of irritation at men for being so shallow to value beauty so highly that other qualities like personality cease to matter and “sophisticated” acceptance that this is just how men are, which means that she should suck it up, stop complaining and lose weight. It’s a mix of emotions most women are probably familiar with, and it’s all the harder to handle because anger against men about this unfortunate reality is unfair in most cases. Individual men can be dicks about this state of affairs, and run around fat-shaming or making fun of women’s looks, but many men don’t do this. But choosing to associate with better men doesn’t make the pressure go away, and so you’re forced to locate the source of the problem outside of men’s direct cruelty. Nor can we always explain why this problem feels so gendered when men also see their sexual stock fall when they gain weight or somehow differ from the sexual ideal. No individual man’s desires are the problem. The problem is that women’s sexual appeal is an overly large part of their value in society, and getting mad at men doesn’t solve this problem. And so there’s this free-floating anxiety.
*Feminists especially get accused of this all the time, as if women who are attractive and can perform to patriarchal standards have no use for feminism. Obviously, this isn’t true. As this review demonstrates, being a pretty It Girl is its own kind of cage, and a lot of women blessed with natural beauty are not especially pleased to be treated like they’re dumb bunnies or public property or receptacles for the anger of men who can’t believe they just let beautiful women walk around and reject the advances of men they don’t want to have sex with. I’ve seen beautiful women shut themselves off from others to a degree because it’s so energy-depleting.