At first glance, Carrie Fisher, a contemporary actress and author, and St. Teresa of Ávila, a 17th century philosopher, abbess and mystic, wouldn’t appear to have much in common (even though Fisher was reportedly a script doctor on “Sister Act”).
But the two both wound up in the particularly meaty Jan. 10 edition of The New York Times’ Week in Review as unwitting examples of how far women still have to go when it comes to being defined by men, particularly where their looks are concerned.
Fisher, who reprises her role as Princess Leia in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” found herself embroiled in an Internet brouhaha in which posters were unable to forgive the princess for aging – as if the Web were a particularly petulant Peter Pan. This prompted novelist Jennifer Weiner to write a piece in which she opined that we all need to let it go, including that endlessly self-improving Weight Watchers’ investor, Oprah.
Taking issue with Fisher’s critics, Weiner noted, “Kyle Smith, writing in The New York Post, swiftly put her in her place. Ms. Fisher should be as grateful to the studio for making her drop the pounds as she’d be if they’d forced her to quit heroin or cigarettes, he wrote, lazily equating ‘thin’ with ‘healthy.’”
Meanwhile, on another page, author Jessa Crispin – editor in chief of Bookslut – lauded St. Teresa of Ávila as an early trailblazer for all the single women out there. But much as I admire St. Teresa’s intellectual vigor and understand that in the 17th century, the nunnery offered one of the few career paths and havens to women who were interested in a life beyond marriage and children, such women were still married to the ultimate male – God. And rather than escape looks-ism, they had to surrender their looks to that male in the form of having their hair – an eternal symbol of female sexuality – hacked off and donning a habit that hid their shapeliness. I once made the hair observation to Rebecca Cammisa, director of “God Is the Bigger Elvis,” a documentary about Dolores Hart, a fine actress and great beauty – Remember her in “Where The Boys Are”? – who traded in early-1960s movie stardom for the rigorous life of a Benedictine nun. I know Cammisa thought I was the biggest airhead. (Should that be hairhead?) But I consider myself to be a rather profound feminist who views cutting off your hair – or any other body part for God, see any number of unfortunate virgin martyrs in the Canon – as a form of mutilation in subjugation to male authority. That is not for me. Nor should it be for anyone.
Indeed, the elevation of self-mutilation among female Roman Catholic saints, just like the body shaming of Carrie Fisher, is just another example of the price women have paid for trading power for beauty – or using beauty as power. (Fisher’s situation is complicated by the idea that looks are an important part of a performer’s identity. His or her body is his or her instrument.)
But society remains focused on women’s looks, not only because female cycles remind us of the circle of life and death – which we would rather not consider – but because power remains concentrated in male hands, despite all of women’s advances.
Will this change as women garner more economic and political power? It’s unlikely to, unless we change psychologically as well. We need a new paradigm of beauty that admits men to the sex object club fully. That means more advertising, more media acknowledgement of male beauty.
Gays, of course, have led the way on this. But I’m always happy to do my part. I’ve long written about male beauty – first as an art critic, then as a magazine editor and now also as a blogger and author, creator of the homoerotic “The Games Men Play” series of novels.
It’s foolish to think that we are going to stop contemplating female beauty. And why should we? That’s just another form of mutilation. Besides, not thinking about food, sex, the body, drinking, fame, money and all the other things we’re not supposed to think about just encourages addiction and/or perversion.
The way to level the playing field is to level the playing field.
And keep those pix of Rafael Nadal in his Tommy Hilfiger skivvies firmly in place.