Pretty People

Here is a controversial issue that can be illuminated through the use of sociological role theory. There are a number of  asymmetries between the sexes that feminists regard as unfair or unjust or to be remedied by social action. Women have weaker upper body strength, but that should not bar them from going into combat because some women can meet rigorous physical standards. Other asymmetries are regarded by feminists as just the way it is. Women are supposed to believe in compromise while men are stuck with a rigid sense of justice. Men live, on average, seven years less than women, but that is outside the interest group to which feminists find themselves responsible.

Let us turn to what may be a more essential asymmetry in that it has to do with the everyday conduct of the sexes. Attractiveness is something with which only women have to struggle. Men may clean up for a date but hardly primp the way women do even if they are also anxious about how the date will go. Women, for their part, are the sex that dresses up in tight fitting clothes, high heels and makeup so as to appear at their most attractive to a date or even at a meeting in a workplace. So women work hard at being attractive, even if there are bounds to which men must restrict themselves in looking at well turned out women, not “checking them out” for too long, or making remarks that are too appreciative of how nice they look in their presentation of themselves, for then it might be understood that the women were being judged on their looks rather than on their other qualities, though to be judged at least passingly on looks is the reason for gussying up in the first place.

Ever has it been thus. Tamar, in “Genesis”, dressed up so as to seduce the relative who had mistreated her and who would have to pay the price for mistaking her for a prostitute. Bathsheba bathed on her rooftop within view of the palace so that she could display her charms to David. Judith made herself attractive when she went into the tent of the enemy general. Helen’s allure was not lost on Paris. Beau Brummell may have been a clothes horse, but it was that oddity that made him something of a celebrity rather than the fact that he was doing better at what men always do.

The “Genesis” story of Tamar is very instructive about why women manipulate their appearances so as to gain their ends. Tamar had to deal with a very intimate problem. The man who was supposed to impregnate her so as to give her a son who would carry on his father’s family name-- and presumably support her in her old age-- refused to do so because, according to the law and custom, he would have no claim on the child. Instead, Onan spilled his seed outside her. She appealed to the father of her late husband, but he would do nothing other than suggest she wait for his next son to come of age. How to deal with that cruel rejection by both father and son? Presumably, she could not disclose her disgrace in public. So, instead, she dresses up as a prostitute, goes to a place where prostitutes hang out, and has sex with her ex father in law. She then confronts him with his own disgrace, presumably for consorting with prostitutes as well as for having had sex with his daughter in law, and he makes amends, admitting to her that she had been wronged by both himself and Onan. The significance of this story is that disgrace has to be met with disgrace, law upheld through subterfuge, and that this is done by manipulating attractiveness so that the power of male sexual urges is overcome by female allure.

There are women, of course, who opt out of the challenge of working at being attractive, at using what we might call the supplementary secondary sexual characteristics of heels and makeup and short skirts. But that is a choice individual young women make and older women decide when they no longer are in the game of being attractive but simply want to remain presentable, which means properly clothed, clothing becoming at most an expression of style or character rather than allure that connotes sexuality.

The asymmetry of the two sexes because of the one having to be (or decline to be) attractive has many consequences or causes depending on how you look at it. Men can be indifferent to their own feelings about sex other than to know that they have these urges that have to be constrained because of the social proprieties however much the urges dominate the way they think about social relationships while women have to negotiate their urges with other feelings having to do with not falling for men who have only one thing on their minds, women keeping in mind that they have desires and interests of their own aside from getting a man. Women can also desexualize the issue of attractiveness by treating fashionable clothes or the many more possibilities of dress available to women than to men as a way to express personality.

There are a variety of psychological consequences for the ascription to women of the option of becoming sexual objects, of turning their allure on or off, sometimes dressing up to show they are available, sometimes dressing down, as in combat, so to make their captors less interested in them as sexual figures. Looking nice and attractive can seem or be a source of stress for women, something they have to come to terms with as they grow from being girls to women, and something they may come to resent, because they know themselves to be inevitable fodder for male urges. On the other hand, some women may luxuriate in their ability to make men helplessly follow their male inclinations. So female psychology may have a complicated dynamic where it is not clear what is being sublimated and what expressed, what is an expression of weakness or power.  Some women may dress to show the occasions on which they are available, while other women may always want to be unalluring in public, and some women will at all times dress to the nines to show they are sexual creatures, leaving it to situations, such as an office milieu, to protect them from being considered sexually available or for their sexual allure to be more than noticed in passing. Whatever the disposition of the woman, there is an ongoing cultural negotiation of what and where sexual allure is acceptable, women insisting that they determine the ground rules so that even alluring dress is not a ground in the contemporary world for regarding a woman as sexually available. Women can dress any way they want to, so some women say.

Looking at the matter sociologically liberates the analyst from having to posit a dynamic of sexuality. Some roles are sexually neutral even if the people who occupy them can always be accosted by those who would make them unneutral or who act on noticing what men always notice, which is that women are sexual figures. And so there are all kinds of rules and regulations which guide courtship and dating on campuses and within the workplace, more and more situations made sexually neutral as women take up more and more spheres in occupational and public life. A sociological approach can simply say that some women feel demeaned by the expectation of being attractive and others do not.

Taking it a step further, noting that attractiveness is an attributional role, which means it is a role that has to be lived up to, allows more insight into the situation than would be allowed simply by noting that attractiveness is an adjectival role, which means it is a role based on an adjective, like being tall, rather than like a noun, which is the case with bakers and lawyers. There are a number of consequences for a woman having to measure herself up as either making a go of being attractive or doing superlatively well at it. While it may at one time, at the turn into the Twentieth Century, to have a category of “beauties”, those being women gifted by nature and not just art with their good looks, it is now considered gauche to comment on the comparative beauty or attractiveness of women lest one give the impression that one is not considering the quality of their characters in offering an appraisal. Moreover, women not particularly gifted with beauty or with the arts to make themselves appear more attractive, are in the same situation as people without smarts in that this is an appellation thought a source of hurt feelings, a cause of humiliation, and something anyone would want to be spared. Even football players who have not devoted much time to improving their intellects don’t want to be thought of as dumb and women who do not spend a good deal of time on their attire or makeup still want to be thought of as pleasant looking enough.

Gussying up so as to meet some mark or other of attractiveness is a universal process for women and not just for those who work to look specially attractive. Young girls get makeup sets for Christmas. It is a sign that they are going to grow into being women. Nor is this a sign of oppression; those who challenge young women to work on their appearance are their female peers and their female elders. This is voluntary behavior in that females want to do it, even if they will allow themselves to wear sneakers when going to work in fancy dresses just so they can get there and will then change into one of any number of high heeled shoes they keep available at their desks for that purpose.

The social proprieties regarding the traffic in attractiveness are, however, always changing, negotiated anew by the culture. Perhaps the cultural significance of the Trump-Clinton political campaign lies in its potential reassessment of the circumstances where the groping of women is acceptable. Groping is based on the principle of consent, which was Trump’s claim, while Clinton said it was unacceptable because its practice intruded on a general respect for woman. In her view, locker room language as well as aggressive behavior is forbidden. Tamar was a pioneer at insisting, even though only in private, that women had rights when it came to sexual intercourse and would use womanly wiles to get their way.

Add all of these characteristics together. Attractiveness is guaranteed through it being a topic not fit for conversation but yet whose prerogatives are argued and changed in public; girls and young women are universally expected to accede to these standards of judgement; and there are significant anxieties involved in being caught short in the attractiveness department. The result is that attractiveness is a lot like a norm: malleable even if unavoidable, ever changing and yet emotionally powerful to the core of one’s being whatever the role requires at a given moment, people comfortable only when they are doing the same thing that other people do. This characteristic of being norm-like applies to all attributional roles. Smart people train to be what they already are, and it is taboo to suggest that they are not minimally qualified by smarts for whatever walk of life they come into and what that level of smarts is changes over time, now meaning a person has a high school diploma and a generation later meaning having a college diploma or some excuse, like poverty, for not having one, just as disfigurement by disease is a reason for being unattractive and people who resist the need to be attractive can be thought neurotic or worse. Indeed, it might be the case that there is nothing more to the concept of norm than that it is a description of the dynamics of attributional roles rather than a description of the social world in which roles occur.