Sunday, June 14, 2009

To Be or not To Be . . . "Pretty"?

Yesterday I read Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, which closed on Broadway today, after it didn’t win any of the Tony awards for which it was nominated.

LaBute is well known for his searing portraits of misogynists (in the film The Company of Men, for instance) as well as his not-quite-innocent women (in the play The Shape of Things, which Mr. C saw in London).

(I chatted with LaBute once, at a premiere, and was struck by how utterly affable, genial, and just plain likeable he was. He seemed like he’d be a great pal, as long as he wasn’t doing “research” during the friendship.)

Reasons to Be Pretty opens as a young woman verbally lashes her boyfriend for comparing her face to that of a “pretty” girl, and, while finding his girlfriend’s face regular” in comparison, he still prefers her overall.

Thus the play begins its riff on a number of literary texts, with the unspoken reference to Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 130"—you know—the one in which the Bard compares his very real beloved to an idealized Elizabethan beauty, and ultimately prefers someone who treads upon the ground to an unattainable goddess.

After that unnamed foundational source, LaBute has his hero (the one who made the "regular" comment to his buddy, who was, in fact, encouraged to do so in an Eve Sedgwick locker-room homosocial kind of moment) reading several works: an unnamed Poe (remember his heroines?); Hawthorne’s “The Birth Mark” (a scientist feels his bride’s beauty is marred by a facial birth mark; he chemically removes it, but the process kills her; the most beautiful woman is a dead woman?!); Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (chap awakens after a long sleep; parallels the awakening of our hero, but also refers to Rip's freedom from “petticoat government”—the tyranny of his wife); and finally, something by Swift (Gulliver? Man becomes very small and then very large in terms of political [and moral] importance? “Modest Proposal?” Is this all satire?)

I often ask readers whether they’d like to receive or send Sonnet 130 as a love poem, and they usually say “NO!” or “ . . . Maybe, but with lots of context.” Because people don’t like to be told that they’re regular, not pretty.

So I appreciated the monologue by the one “pretty” woman, Carly (which, along with the other three monologues, were deleted when the show hit Broadway), because it examined the “pretty woman’s” plight in society: she becomes defined by her prettiness.

A former professor of mine once went to a party at the home of David Janssen, the movie actor, and when his beautiful wife Dani opened the door, my prof. was speechless; he couldn’t stop gazing at her. “It’s a burden, isn’t it,” she offered, as she knew that her beauty was another guest at the party.

It’s the Farrah Fawcett/Charlize Theron syndrome: to be taken seriously as actresses they had to deprettify; even Jessica Biehl has been quoted as saying that she’s considered too pretty for a number of roles.

So LaBute raises—but does not try to resolve—some important issues: do we want to be told we’re Shakespeare’s “regular” “dark lady” or the shiny, artificial beloved?

How about neither?


Belle de Ville said...

Let me be the first to come out on your blog and say that yes, I am willing to shoulder the burden of prettiness. I should be so cursed!

Sal said...

Hmmm. It's hard for me to feel real empathy for people whose beauty is traffic-stopping, since that kind of beauty opens more doors than it closes. But to be put in a position where your life's path is determined solely by your looks - be they amazing or repulsive - must be frustrating, depressing, angering even.

La Belette Rouge said...

So sad that a lack of a Tony nod put this play out of the running. I was intrigued by it from the few moments they showed of it on the Tony's.

As to the problem of beauty, I did have a friend who was a very successful model. As she has aged she has had a hard time not having beauty as the door opener it had once been. Truth be told, I think her beauty hindered her developing other skills that would have served her well.

miss cavendish said...

Beauty can also lead women to cultivate a certain aloofness, having learned from experience that men often take simple acts of friendship--a smile, a chat--the wrong way . . . So indeed those "people" skills would be underdeveloped . . .

Anonymous said...

Many of the beautiful I have met have problems somewhat of their own making. I'm thinking of Jessica Biel and how she said her beauty keeps her from getting good acting jobs. I don't think I've ever seen a performance by her that I've thought was decent.

I think there's a "nurture" aspect to how beautiful women fare in life. If parents and family value a child's beauty above all else, then the child grows up thinking beauty solves all problems.

I think the truly breathtaking women do have a problem. I had a stunning model as a bridesmaid. Everyone was amazed that I would even be friends with her...surely she would outshine me on my wedding day. Guys were too scared to ask her out. Girls were jealous or wouldn't believe she would be their friend.

Thumbelina Fashionista said...

I think that beauty has its downsides as the other bloggers have pointed out. I know a stunning woman in her 40s who is still single, but who doesn't want to be. People just can't get over her looks. And she can't, either. It's annoying. (Everything is about her looks.) On some level, it's like wearing a mask in which nobody sees the real you. Then again, the same applies to "ugly" people. It's unfortunate that either extreme elicits this reaction.