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Modern Medusas: From Barbara Bush to Barbra Streisand

  Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the decapitated head of Medusa, an 1804-06 marble that’s one of the signature works of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. I could’ve chosen a Medusa alone to illustrate this post but I like to hold men to the same standard of beauty that society holds women to.

Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the decapitated head of Medusa, an 1804-06 marble that’s one of the signature works of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. I could’ve chosen a Medusa alone to illustrate this post but I like to hold men to the same standard of beauty that society holds women to.

Barbara Bush – who died Tuesday at age 92 and was scheduled to be buried today in the presence of four former presidents – has been the subject of many remembrances and reactions this week, most of them admiring of a woman who turned a sharp gaze and an even sharper wit on herself as much as others. So, she no doubt would’ve been amused by The New York Times’ official reflection, whose undercurrent was a motif she often addressed – her appearance.

The Old Gray Lady, The Times’ nickname, drew attention to the idea that Bush’s white hair made her look older than her husband, President George H.W. Bush. (She was a year younger.) It saluted her self-deprecation in her own comments about that hair, weight and wrinkles. They made her, she said, a threat to no one – the secret of her appeal.

But I can tell you as someone who was called “fatty” throughout my Catholic school years – until I lost 20 pounds as a high school senior and emerged from my physical cocoon – and who is still told that I would look years younger if I just died my hair, it’s quite possible that Bush used self-deprecation as a shield against any potential hurt. (Acknowledge what the world considers to be your womanly shortcomings before the world does, with a joking punctuation mark, and the world laughs with not at you. See comedians Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields.)

Still, you have to think: Here was a woman who was the wife of one president and the mother of another – only the second woman in American history who can make that claim, behind Abigail Adams. She devoted herself to numerous causes, but particularly adult literacy, along with a burgeoning family. And yet, gotta get in those self-deprecating remarks about her “grandmotherly” looks, which today’s grandmothers have no interest in sharing, by the way.

Why not self-deprecating remarks about her acid wit?

We are hard-wired, it seems, to consider female pulchritude in a way that we do not consider male beauty. Part of this is biology. Men can reproduce into old age, even though old sperm is said to contribute to such conditions as autism. Women cannot. See also Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” and “North by Northwest,” in which Jessie Royce Landis plays Cary Grant’s potential mother-in-law and mother respectively – even though she was only eight years older than he.

So, how much of this is acculturation? A new exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art” (through Jan. 6), considers the protean, shifting symbolism of the ancient Greek Gorgon Medusa – she of the terrifying visage and serpentine hair that would turn men to stone. Over time, Medusa – whom Sigmund Freud viewed as a stand-in for female genitalia, the sight of which would traumatize the young boy who glimpsed his mother’s – has come to represent female empowerment. But she has also gotten more beautiful, so much so that she remains the prominent Versace logo. (The exhibit includes “that dress” – the slit, low-cut, peekaboo black gown seemingly held together with Medusa-headed gold pins in which Elizabeth Hurley created a sensation on a 1994 red carpet. A Met publicist told me Hurley later said the dress ruined her acting career, because it was all anyone would talk about. All I could think of as I gazed at it was how lovely Hurley was in every sense of the word when I met her for a cover story for WAG magazine and how it would take two of those dresses to make one for me.

That I could think like that at all I suppose is some improvement in women’s attitude toward their looks. At least I could imagine myself in the dress, just a size 12 please. In the new movie “I Feel Pretty,” Amy Schumer plays a diffident woman who works for a luxe cosmetic brand whose attitude is transformed when she hits her head in a Soul Cycle class. (Funny that.) Some critics have said the movie patronizes the very female viewers it seeks to uplift, but give it points for making the de rigueur chick flick transformation scene about a psychological sea change – albeit an accidental sea change – rather than a physical one. Go back at least to the great Bette Davis in “Now, Voyager” (1942) – playing a mama-dominated, neurotic spinster with padding, a gray bun and bushy eyebrows who’s transformed into, well, Bette Davis – and you’ll see that Hollywood can’t resist a female transformation movie. Whether it’s Cher in “Moonstruck,” Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” or Jennifer Lopez in “Maid in Manhattan,” a girl’s looks and status can always be enhanced with the right makeup, hairstyle and color and the right adornments. Clothes make the woman.

The most infuriating of these thoroughly entertaining movies is Barbra Streisand’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” which seems to be about Streisand’s lifelong ambivalence toward her own arresting looks. Here Babs is an accomplished but unvarnished professor with a beautiful but aging, unfulfilled mother (Lauren Bacall) and a beautiful but unhappily married, secretly jealous sister (Mimi Rogers) who decides to marry a handsome, absent-minded colleague (Jeff Bridges) who’s looking for companionship rather than sex. (Show me that heterosexual male and I’ll show you the nice bridge I have for sale.)

When he resists Babs’ sexual overtures – to say nothing of her expertise on baseball statistics and the New York Yankees – to escape to Europe on a book tour, Babs undergoes a diet, exercise, wardrobe, cosmetics and hair makeover that transforms her into, well, Barbra Streisand. Hubby returns to proclaim he loved Babs as she was. But, of course, he’ll be making love with the new Babs.

Huh? Look, there is nothing wrong with this – I myself have always been a glamour queen – but don’t pretend that physical enhancement creates psychological transcendence. It’s the other way around.

The Barbara/Barbras, Bush and Streisand, were always modern Medusas – not the snake-haired Gorgon but the self-possessed contemporary symbol – based on the force of their personalities.

Yet women like them and their less confident sisters – so pretty much all of us – will remain ensnared by the beauty trap until society recognizes that.