Erotic Capital & the Power of Beauty
The issue of media depictions of female beauty is topic that is fraught with difficulty, and even more so when an outsider wades into. At the same time, men are media consumers and the impact it has on male perceptions and expectations is part of the issue, and they are often assumed to be straightforward - men are simply enjoyers of female beauty and sexuality. Or at least, this is how the media depicts men.
Is “depict” the right word? Men are not usually part of the picture. How about “construct,” or “interpellate?”
The image of an ideal woman is presented for the gaze of the ideal man, so that images of women tell women how they should look and how men should look at her. Just as women feel a gap between themselves and the ideal image, men can feel a gap between themselves and the ideal gazer. It’s too easy to assume that the media is simply a capitalist machine that is responding to market demand and it is unnecessary to hear from actual men because their experience can be reverse-engineered by analyzing media that is aimed at them.
This is my justification for why men can contribute to this discussion, but the impetus for writing this is Rachel Hills’ post seeking the “tiny diamond of truth” in Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, despite the regressive, anti-feminist message of the book. I think Rachel is right that beauty is power. And that’s because it scares men.
Men are afraid of beauty because it is destabilizing. In the presence of beauty, your knees go weak, your heart pounds and so on. Beauty weakens men, makes them vulnerable, makes them lose their minds, the opposite of the expectations of strength, stoicism, control and rationality. Admittedly, this is usually the reaction of teenage boys and most men don’t have that reaction any more, but that’s the point. The fact that teenage boys are so weakened is part of what makes them boys, not yet men, even though prepubescent boys aren’t fazed at all.
There’s a socialization process that happens to cure us of our fear and eliminate the paralysis that stands in the way of becoming the active initiators of sex that we’re expected to be, and part of that involves the reduction of beauty to an ideal image. As Rachel’s post makes clear, real women see themselves as having a relationship characterized by lack with respect to the ideal image - being not as pretty, not as perfect, not good enough. By in the male perception, real women are excessive with respect to the ideal image - the image is “less than” the real woman in the sense of lacking the threatening destabilizing potential.
The image is “only an image”, its borders are a frame through which we view a different world where beauty exists away from us. The image is the decaffeinated and sugar-free alternative – all the taste, but with zero calories. When a beautiful woman ceases to be an inert object of the gaze and comes through the frame into “our world,” she becomes threatening, destabilizing, powerful.
This is the sense in which I think beauty is power - not the power of empowerment, but of a weapon.