Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Am I Not Pretty Enough?

In writing Last Call for Sin, I tried to find the linguistic equivalent of a masculine slut. Couldn't find the word. Julia suggested "manho," but I rejected that as just a derivation of whore, which, because we have to put "man" in front of it, denotes we think the category is innately female. Sort of like we used to say female doctor, or male nurse. It got me thinking about the linguistic devices, about words, about ideas that don't have words to them, and that if there are no words, then the idea doesn't exist.

Case in point: When I was an undergraduate at BYU, there was a name for some women, Molly Mormon. There was also a name for certain men, Peter Priesthood. There was, however, only one gender that could fit the notion of a "special spirit." A special spirit is always female. The term tacitly implied a larger, female subject complete with patchwork scripture case covers, shimmery eye shadow reminiscent of Ariel under the sea, and sensible shoes. To call a man a special spirit would be committing the same semantical faux pas as the speaker who says, Man being a mammal breastfeeds his young. A Mormon audience would know you have used the term incorrectly.

As well as being female, a special spirit is, if not ugly, at least sufficiently plain as to have few physical redeeming qualities. A beautiful woman may be a Molly Mormon; she just hides herself behind gathered waistbands, floral skirts, curled bangs (fringe), and nylons even in the summer. A beautiful woman can never be a special spirit; her beauty alone gives her valued status in a society which supposedly regards all as God's children--except, we reserve special names and linguistic values for some of God's special, ugly daughters.

Given this identification of special spirit as female, Mormon men can, apparently, not be ugly. They might tote all four standard works and Preach My Gospel, wear their mission shoes, and talk in that distinctive sing-songy post-mission cadence, but they cannot be ugly. Traditionally, the absence of a name signifies the absence of a concept. We Mormons have no word for ugly, non-interesting, non-marriageable and therefore non-valuable men. Therefore, we have no ugly, non-interesting, non-marriageable, non-valuable men.

In fact, I'm not sure the ugly man as a concept exists. Even Quasimodo found somebody to love him. The ugly man-beautiful woman literary/cinematic motif may speak heroically of the capacity of women to look past the obvious. It does not, however, speak any hope to the ugly woman. As a special spirit who has not been chosen, she is semantically and physically barred from any valuable inclusion into society. Should she marry though, with her husband's name and protection, she will be allowed to enter the social conversation. After all, if he finds her attractive enough to marry her, she must have some redeeming qualities, even if they are not physcially apparent.

Truth be told, women know that merely being brave, virtuous, kind, always interested, compassionate, loyal and trustworthy isn't enough. (That's why men have dogs) They must be beautiful in some way to be valued by men. Hair, eyes, legs, butt, hands, smile, skin--something has to be attractive. If they aren't, and a man chooses them anyway, the man's masculinity is bound to be called into question.

A male friend of ours is married to a large woman. Doctors would call her obese. Most people would groan inwardly if they saw her coming down the aisle toward them in a plane. She does have a beautiful face though. It's her face that rescues both her and her husband. Her face marginally excuses her from the offense of her body. Her face also allows other males to almost understand why her husband would want her. Without her face, her husband would be without excuse for finding her desirable. He would find, instead, his masculinity doubted and his maleness questioned. Whenever we meet this couple, somebody (normally a man) is bound to remark later on the courage it must have taken "George" to marry somebody who looks like that. I think they mean the courage "George" just have had to marry somebody others could surely not have wanted. I wonder if it occurs to them that "George" is not much of a looker either. He did play on the high school basketball team. But, he's not much of a looker either.

In Shakespeare's play, All's Well That Ends Well, Helena tries to hook up with Bertram, a beautiful man about court, asking for his reluctant hand in marraige and then following him into battle to make him love her after they have been wed and he skips town.

I don't blame Helena. Bertram was a looker. Helena herself desribes his physical attributes with the proficiency of a love-sick swain: She loved "his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls." Helena, on the other hand, is described as beautiful only once. The rest of the time she is wise, constant, young, courageous, skilful, virtuous. Had she been born Mormon in the late twentieth century, she could have been a special spirit, save only for her beauty, which means she's really a Molly. She might have been one of those girls whom mothers love and sons initially detest--something to do with their "great personality." Throughout the play, Shakespeare deliberately avoids much mention of the physical Helena to accentuate the superficiality of Bertram's aversion to what was a magnificent creature.

You see, Bertram doesn't love Helena initially. He has grown up with her. He despises her as "a poor physician's daughter," and is unable to see her "wisdom and constancy," all these qualities that are so obvious to others. Only after she reveals herself to be pregnant by him in the old Tamar and Judah bait-and-switch, and after he realizes others think she's just heavenly, does he love her. And how does he describe his new love, with language of comparison. He calls her, "she whom all men prais'd." It seems that because other men valued Helena, Bertram felt he could love her too.

I understand Bertram's reluctance to love a creature who has no social approval. When one does choose to love, it is comforting to know that the person you love is respected and admired by others. Knowing that the other has induced love and admiration in others confirms the wisdom of personal choice. Often, there is no valid reason for the thesis of love that springs suddenly to life. Sometimes, it's just that you saw them from across the room, and noticed a smile. And there it is. Other loves and lives give support to the new idea, show the lover that the beloved is real, capable of giving and receiving love, worthy of devotion. While others' opinions do nothing to change the inherent nature of the beloved, they do make the lover feel not quite so lonely. Thus, Bertram comes finally to see his Helena for all she is, only after he sees that others love her too.

Lucky for Bertram, the woman who choose him was, in addition to other qualities, beautiful. Even if she hadn't been, because she had the power to choose, she was, by definition, valuable and non-ugly. Therein lies the rub: when one has the power to choose, one can never be a special spirit. It's the power to choose, to flip through the catalog, that transforms. Which is why, in our culture anyway, there is no linguistic device for an ugly male. Simply put: they get to pick; we get to preen.

(Title: Kasey Chambers, Am I Not Pretty Enough?)

No comments:

Post a Comment