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


September 14, 2011

The Girl Next Door is No Neighbor

It has been my experience that men who insist that women should have a “natural” appearance tend to have a vague air of sexism about them. This might be simply because any demand that women should look a certain way is inherently sexist, but maybe there is more to it than that. Googling for “too much makeup,” the first search result is a crudely sexist article on AskMen.com by their alleged “relationship correspondent” which describes a problem that he encountered when trying to pick up a woman in a club: the combination of dim lighting and makeup caused him to overestimate her true beauty, opening up the possibility of inadvertently sleeping with a woman who is less attractive than expected.

In an article that directly refers to women as cockroaches, very little needs to be said to expose the author’s misogyny, but it’s worth noting the frame that he sets up around their interaction:

I was standing by the bar enjoying a great conversation with my buddies when out of nowhere, the swinging fanny of a beautiful woman walked past our little tribe and interrupted our conversation. She really knew how to capture my attention with a perfectly flirtatious smile. She winked in perfect harmony with the music and strolled her sexy behind in an inviting manner. Needless to say, she had me hooked… There was absolutely no reason for me not to speak to her, especially after her hypnotizing and inviting gaze.

These are familiar tropes: woman as evil seductress, luring a hapless, unsuspecting man to his doom by preying on his weakness for beauty and the promise of sexual gratification, a myth that is routinely used to turn the tables on women who object to sexual harassment. In this particular telling, what makes the woman dangerous is not her sexuality directly, tempting men to deviate from traditional notions of chastity. Instead, she’s dangerous because she instrumentalizes her sexuality, putting it to use – she “really knew how to capture” his attention, etc. – and crucially, because of her deceptive appearance.

This reveals what is referred to by Lacan as the inconsistency (or lack, or castration) of the Big Other. Western culture stigmatizes women who do not conform to conventional beauty standards, which forces women to adopt all sorts of beauty technologies up to an including plastic surgery, which in turn exposes them to the opposite stigma of artifice and deception. Effectively, both non-adherence and excessive adherence to the law is stigmatized. Women are expected to follow the law, but not completely; to maintain a distance from its commands.

Lacan tells us that fantasy is the mask of the inconsistency of the Big Other, and for this inconsistency, it may be the fantasy of the girl next door. For some men, the girl next door is appealing because she is approachable and domesticated, in contrast to the fashionista, who is unfathomable and intimidating. The standard advice women get about makeup is that you’re supposed to make it look like you aren’t wearing any, it must appear natural – an illusion of no illusion, an illusion of transparency. The fashionista is threatening because the illusion is too obvious, her appearance is a contrivance that creates the anxiety of not knowing what she really looks like. Rather than highlighting her “natural features,” her appearance renders her opaque.

Apropos of the burka, Žižek writes:

From a Freudian perspective, face is the ultimate mask that conceals the horror of the Neighbor-Thing: face is what makes the Neighbor le semblable, a fellow-man with whom we can identify and empathize. (Not to mention the fact that today, many faces are surgically changed and thus deprived of the last vestiges of natural authenticity.) This then, is why a covered face causes such anxiety: because it confronts us directly with the abyss of the Other-Thing, with the Neighbor in its uncanny dimension. The very covering-up of the face obliterates a protective shield, so that the Other-Thing stares at us directly.

Another common association that’s made about a woman using too much make-up is that it supposedly makes her look like a prostitute. The implication is that it signals her excessive readiness to have sex, which is alternately deemed slutty. Often we see the figures of the girl next door and the slut set in opposition via sexuality: the girl next door is innocent, virginal while the slut is sexual. But this seems problematic, since the appeal of the girl next door as a male fantasy rests on her potential as a sexual partner. The difference between the “girl next door” and the “slut” is that a girl next door is innocent, not so much of the transgression of sexual activity, but of power. The girl next door is sexual(-ized), but not in a way that’s threatening to men, because she does not know it. She is understood as ignorant of men’s fascination by her, so she cannot exploit it for her own advantage.

As I wrote previously in Erotic Capital and the Power of Beauty, in a patriarchal society, the fundamental or zero-level relationship of men to beauty is that it’s a destabilizing, weakening force. Like Ulysses and the Sirens, the risk is that men will become hypnotized by beauty and sexuality and be smashed on the rocks. In this myth, the crucial asymmetry between the men and the sirens is the song, which is dangerous for the men but harmless to the sirens. What if we read this myth as a patriarchal culture’s paranoid fantasy and what does that tell us of patriarchy’s own perception of its vulnerability? We find a paranoia that women will learn to deploy sexuality and beauty as a weapon against men, that beauty is an opaque screen that blinds men and conceals a woman’s true, malicious intent to overturn the patriarchal order.

The normal story about patriarchy is that men are physically stronger than women and that advantage was justified to create a system of cultural, political, economic dominance of men over women. What I’m trying to do is emphasize the way that patriarchal culture evinces an unconscious belief in the opposite, that men are the weaker sex and patriarchal culture is a system of protection of men from women. Despite the official message of male superiority, patriarchy already secretly believes that it is based on a lie.


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