Is beauty really a curse? Or, Unattractive haters gonna hate

While marching aimlessly on a treadmill last night,  I had the dubious pleasure of watching a  Today Tonight segment posing a typically hyperbolic question: ‘is beauty really a curse?’.

For those uninitiated into the ways of Australian television, each evening the three commercial channels battle it out in a Hunger Games-style race to the depths of journalistic depravity. So, to be honest, there is something inelegant about critiquing the journalistic integrity of Today Tonight.  It’s kind of like quibbling about the quality of your Big Mac.  But, sometimes, even Today Tonight outdoes itself and broadcasts a segment so irksome that there is no option but to compose an outraged, shouty sort of blog post about it.

The single most frustrating aspect of this segment was that the central question was not invalid.  There is probably some value in reflecting upon the way in which women perceive other women, and way that dispelling a socially ordained sense of sexual competition would be in all our interests (if only to avoid what Madeleine Albright described in 2006  as the ‘special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’

I do not doubt that there is a need to critically analyse the underlying perceptions and power dynamics that lead to women being sexually harassed in the workplace – made still more pressing by the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report  that 25% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.  I concede that t is conceivable that some women are sexually harassed in part because they are perceived as being sexually available on the basis of their appearance.

Of course, Today Tonight failed spectacularly to grapple with either of these issues.  Instead, they presented us with 4 minutes of bikini glamour shots and undercover camerawork in mug shot-style black and white recording the glances of women on the streets of Sydney.  ‘Nearly every woman who passes [former model Virginia Hey] stares daggers’.  We are urged to consider whether the catalogue of facial twitches could be attributed to simple jealousy or something more sinister.

This amorphous sense of violence reaches a dramatic climax when the former Bond Girl describes the day she was attacked by a female stranger on the tube – obviously driven to a jealous frenzy by Hay’s ‘angular beauty’.  The addition of ‘Generation Y ‘It Girl’’ Ruby Jacenko does nothing to elevate the segment to loftier heights, as she describes the jealousies of the wives and girlfriends of her (male) bosses or potential benefactors.

Each of these instances are part of a broader social ailment described as ‘lookism’ – discrimination against the ridiculously good looking.  (We know this is a real thing because a ‘PR guru’, with shoulder pads that would make Joan Collins raise an eyebrow, just typed it onto a computer screen).

While Today Tonight does briefly genuflect towards objectivity by quoting writer and social commentator Melinda Tankard-Reist  as stating, ‘These women who fit society’s ideal of a beautiful face are privileged – in life and in society.’  Having dispensed with that unpleasantness, it is possible to return to the point at hand: trying to make lookism sound less like a short-lived artistic phase and more like a social phenomenon.

(I can sense myself crossing over the line that demarcates the righteously indignant from the crazy-person-who-stands-on-boxes, so I will try to keep it brief).

Setting aside the fact that the image of beauty exalted by this segment excluded anyone other than Anglo-Saxons with preternatural tans, this story irked me because it perpetuated the impression that women spend their days wandering around in feral bands, united only by their jealousies and desire to shame members of their gender.  Worse still, Today Tonight dramatized this point by presenting the audience with women who personify the sort of hyper-sexualised vacuity that rebuts any legitimate attempt at challenging society’s (perhaps unfair, perhaps spot-on) perception of them.

This musing has led me to conclude that the 4 minutes and 38 seconds that Channel 7 dedicated to this segment would have been better spent broadcasting white noise.

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