The cost of beauty

by Rob Horning

10 August 2006


Prodded by a new biography, Laura Miller at Salon surveys the career of Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction under the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr. I’ve never read anything by Tiptree, but Miller does a good job of making it sound interesting—Sheldon, who had a PhD in clinical psychology, was a woman writing as a man about female experience in a genre stereotypically held to be written and read by men. By biographer Julie Phillips’s account, Sheldon, unlike another woman with scientific interests who adopted a male pseudonym, George Eliot (who even general readers knew was Marian Evans shortly after the publication of her first novel, Adam Bede), remained cloaked behind the male persona and conducted lengthy correspondences with other science fiction writers as a man. Miller writes, “Those who exchanged letters with Tiptree felt they really knew him, and both Russ and Le Guin have confessed to being more than a little in love with him. ‘Tiptree was a man designed by a woman,’ Phillips writes, ‘and that made him as appealing as any Darcy or Heathcliff.’ ” When she was ultimately exposed as a woman, she was not entirely liberated: “Sheldon wrote in her journal of Tiptree, ‘I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was—though an aging intellectual—of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman ... Tiptree’s ‘death’ has made me face ... my self-hate as a woman.’ ”

According to Miller, Phillips makes much of Sheldon’s youthful beauty, and the expectations it generated in both her parents and herself, citing this passage: “Alice had the bad luck to be extremely pretty. If she hadn’t been, she might have given up the popularity contest. She might have studied harder, prepared for a career, and not cared what people thought ... Instead, she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl.” Of course, this constrasts with the famously ugly George Eliot, who frequently agonized over the idea of female beauty (consider the string of pretty, insipid characters punished in her novels) but apparently was free to pursue social and personal recognition through other channels. This also reminded me of the point I was trying to make a few days ago about the new Sesame Street muppet, the made-to-be-marketed Abby Cadabby, designed to appeal to “girly-girls.” The producers want to justify the girly-girl character by arguing it reflects the wishes of actual young girls (just as, say, the Notorious B.I.G. merely reflected life on the street in his violent, crime-ridden, frequently sexist songs). But the wishes of the girls and their parents—even if they reflect some in-born evolutionarily designed predilection for nurturing and passivity—can nevertheless have the sort of effect Phillips describes in regard to Sheldon. Girls can be encouraged to become preoccupied with prettiness and the attention it easily commands in lieu of the attention that is more difficult to come by, in ways not immediately understood to be appropriately feminine. (Beauty can be hard work, harder than being interesting, but it’s never hard to get attention with it once you’ve achieved it.) It may not be a zero-sum game, but still, when the kind of attention that comes from playing the prettiness game is sanctioned, some of the value of attention earned by other means is diminished. “The rewards of being a pretty girl” are not negligible but they are extremely contingent and could be withdrawn at any time. I find this persuasive, but that may be because it’s a considerable consolation to the average-looking that beauty comes at some great psychic cost. But Miller’s not buying that, anyway. She suggests that the beauty-as-distraction excuse masks a more pervasive and non-gendered problem of occupational focus, accusing Sheldon of essentially being a dilettante who couldn’t commit wholeheartedly to any of her interests. That old “fear of success” strikes again.

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