I write about technology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek.


September 13, 2011

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.


Related Posts

August 5, 2014

The Cult of Sharing

The sharing economy’s marquee startup Airbnb recently unveiled a new brand identity and positioning to help propel its international expansion. Airbnb’s new wordmark and logo nicknamed “the Bélo” is said to have been the culmination of a year-long process, including a cross-cultural analysis to ensure their identity would be understood around the world. Exhaustive branding efforts are unusual among pre-IPO Silicon Valley companies. For years they’ve leaned on primary colors, gradients and rounded fonts, default signifiers of fun and friendliness that negate the staid formality of the more conventionally-minded business world, attempting no greater meaning than “this is not your father’s

Read more →
January 6, 2014

The Agile Labor Union

In 2001, seventeen American, British and Canadian software engineers and IT managers met at a ski resort in Snowbird, Utah, to start a movement to remake the way software is built. Over the previous decade, the attendees had independently created similar processes for organizing and managing software engineering projects that broke with tradition and promised to make software development better, cheaper, and more innovative. Their methods were diverse and went by many brand names: Extreme Programming, Crystal Clear, Scrum, Adaptive Software Development, Test Driven Development, and many others. But they also shared many goals and ideals in common. The outcome of

Read more →
July 22, 2013

What Comes After the Man-Child?

Caution: 2,880 words ahead I have mixed feelings about Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child, and will write them down here for whoever cares enough to know. Let’s assume you’ve read it, and know something about the book it is commenting on, Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. I liked the article. I also think Tiqqun is on to something important, although I recognize that their articulation of the idea is, to use the cliché, quite problematic. Weigel and Ahern, authors of Man-Child, want to say that Tiqqun are consciously indulging in misogyny despite any contentions

Read more →

Recent Popular Posts

February 13, 2014

Left Activism Goes Corporate: A Detour Through the Raw Food Underground

One of the most tedious features of the Silicon Valley Hype Machine is its endless repetition of progressive sounding marketing slogans about democracy and freedom, all while promoting a pro-business agenda. But it’s too easy to read this as a sinister corporate ploy to co-opt the language of activists and twisting

Read more →
December 20, 2013

Civility: A Distance That Brings Us Together

Just in time for the holidays, Apple’s marketing department released Misunderstood, an ad about a surly teenager absorbed in his iPhone in the midst of scenes of his family’s idyllic Christmas togetherness. But he surprises everyone when he reveals that the whole time he was making a touching video for everyone

Read more →
January 26, 2014

Ten Parenting Lessons I Learned from Franz Kafka

Here’s an adage which I think is true: every theory of parenting is implicitly a theory of society. It follows that even if you aren’t a parent now, nor ever intend to be one, if you’re interested in society and culture, you ought to be interested in the topic because the

Read more →