Beauty and the Beast
On the unacceptability of ugliness.
There are many lies you will hear when you're newly single. Your girlfriends — the ones that have been married since they were in their early 20s and can't have dinner without their husbands, meaning you are forever making reservations for three — will tell you that you'll find someone the minute you stop thinking about it. Of course they don't mean once you give up. The difference is the frequency with which you shave your legs, how long your ''Buy Ten Pedicures & Get One Free!'' card goes unpunched, and whether you allow yourself to be approachable on the subway or just bury your face in a book. Your (loving, well meaning) friends are setting up a Zeno-like paradox in which you are supposed to care enough to "turn on your inner light!" and actually brush your hair every day, and at the same time not care on a conscious level or be aware of the indifference of the male sex. After six months of Not Caring, if you lash out at their bullshit, well, that's is just proof that you do care and are thereby not following the rules.
- King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes. 160 pages. Feminist Press at CUNY. $15.95.
- Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. 256 pages. Canongate Books Ltd. $20.99.
"I think it's wonderful that there are also women who love to seduce, who know how to seduce, others who know how to get a husband... I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that — as a girl who doesn't attract men — I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn't even be around." So writes Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory: A Manifesto for Women Who Can't or Won't Obey the Rules.
There are no ugly girls, no old hags in popular culture. Every week we are supposed to pretend like Tina Fey is ugly on 30 Rock, that America Ferrera was hideous even beneath the glasses and the braces on Ugly Betty, that every homely girl is a pair of contact lenses, short dress, and good haircut away from being prom queen.
If that is the epitome of public ugliness, well, then the actual hags are way below the line of visibility. Women are allowed to have some power, but only if they're hot. So we have 12-year-old girls in thongs and an emphasis on perfect femininity that we haven't seen in decades. Despentes writes, "The overbranding of femininity is an apology for the loss of masculine prerogative, a way of reassuring ourselves by reassuring them... 'Don't be afraid of us.'" Of course no matter how hot you are now, no matter how many times you go under the knife to restore tautness and smoothness, if you live long enough, you'll find yourself slowly disappearing. In Baba Yaga Laid an Egg — a meditation on aging, crones versus hags, and invisibility — Dubravka Ugresic writes, "You don't see them at first. Then suddenly a random detail snags your attention like a stray mouse: an old lady's handbag, a stocking slipping down a leg, bunching up on a bulging ankle..." All of these invisible old women, widows and spinsters, fending for themselves. We are in Baba Yaga's territory here, the crazy old Russian folk tale of the wise but cruel, decrepit yet horny hag who rides around in a mortar and pestle.
If you find yourself in Baba Yaga's house it never ends, even if in your invisibility you manage to change the world. Even if you are centuries-old-dead. Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen are still routinely referred to as "spinsters" in articles and essays about their work. In this very publication, a writer recently said of Cleopatra's nose that "today [it] would make her an advertisement for cosmetic surgery." Cleopatra! If that's what dead ladies are going through, imagine carrying the same nose on your face all day every day, a living breathing creature in front of other living breathing creatures. It's easier to follow the rules than to overcome your shame of being unfuckable. Yet there are consequences for making an offering of your original face to the outside world. Ugresic writes, "By assenting to plastic surgery on their noses — and rhinoplasty was the first massively popular cosmetic procedure — women consciously disown their (own) symbolic power and submit to a male concept of beauty. The folk saying 'My nose — my pride' expresses the judgment that... by disowning their noses, women disown their pride and power."
Best to try to fit into that sliver of respectability: not invisible, but not too brash or memorable, either. From King Kong Theory: "Since time immemorial, leaving the cage has been brutally punished." Let's think for one second that it's possible Jung's collective unconscious does exist. What exactly do you think the deaths of a million women — the unfuckable, the hags, the spinsters, the disposable — over hundreds of years during the witch hunts dumped into the water there? I have this useless bit of information jammed into my head: Feminism is to blame for serial killers. It was an interview with some serial killer expert, and the question was, "Why are there so many more serial killers today than there were 100 years ago?" I don't remember who the expert was or the name of the publication, but the information is branded into my brain: it's a male response to his inability to control women who no longer stay in their place. The Green River serial killer targeted prostitutes because "no one would miss them." No wonder women don't want to be marginalized, invisible, and unprotected because unwanted. While hitchhiking, Despentes was raped at gunpoint by three men. Ugresic was labeled a witch and forced into exile for speaking her mind about the nationalist turn her native Croatia was taking. And here they are, and they are calling for revolution. From Baba Yaga:
So let us imagine women, those Baba Yagas, plucking the swords from beneath their heads and sallying forth to settle the accounts?! For every smack in the face, every rape, every affront, every hurt, every drop of spittle on their faces. Can we imagine all those Indian brides and widows rising from the ashes where they were burned alive and going forth into the world with drawn swords in their hands?! Let's try to imagine all those invisible women peering out between their woven bars, from their dark bunker-burkas... Let's imagine a million-strong army of ''madwomen,'' homeless women, beggar women, women with faces scorched by acid, because self-styled righteous men took offence at the expression on a bare female face... Let's now imagine all those women lifting their robes and drawing their swords.
Despentes titled the introduction to King Kong Theory "A Gun for Every Girl." And next time? Next time your friend is finding herself two years into involuntary celibacy, wandering the woods around Baba Yaga's house without a male protector, forget the platitudes about soul mates or chastising her for not trying anymore, and instead of a gift certificate for a facial and a bikini wax, get that girl a gun. And copies of King Kong Theory and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Because the marginalized and the de-sexualized may lack the power of seduction, but if you're going to be moving in the margins, voluntarily or not, it's best to be forearmed. It's easy to pick off one prostitute, one old coot at a time, but if Hags International raised an army branch, it wouldn't just make that life less terrifying or less dangerous. It'd be fucking hot. • 14 April 2010
Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.