By Amelia Wallworth
Disclaimer: the article does not try to make comment (neither endorses nor shames) on the actions of any real-life women named as examples; the examples are purely for the illustration of the article message being analyzed
In my November article, Pretty Tears, I wrote about how the media romanticizes female pain. Pain is often angry, messy, and emotional while femininity is associated with purity, beauty, and docility. Women’s reaction to hardship often contradicts the patriarchal conception of womanhood which is expected of them. As such, media — especially when produced by men — romanticizes female pain to make it fit into the societal narratives on how women should look and behave. A woman’s beauty is the ultimate qualifier of her femininity — even when she is sad, she must remain beautiful. But is this always the case? Are there situations where the media’s obsession with portraying women as feminine and beautiful is absent?
In 1998, White House intern Monica Lewinsky made international headlines following the revelation of her affair with then President, Bill Clinton. The media coverage was intense, with the affair quickly being labelled as a major American scandal. Despite the fact that Clinton was married, in a position of immense power, and twenty-seven years her senior, Lewinsky was the one who took a disproportionate amount of blame for the affair. Overnight, Lewinsky was vilified by the media and the public, painted as desperate and attention seeking. Her name was synonymous with “slut” and “whore”. But it was not only her actions which were viciously attacked and overdramatized by the media — so too was her appearance. Lewinsky was the victim of incessant body shaming and fat shaming. She was constantly bullied, unfairly labelled as overweight and unattractive. In the public imagination, she was a fat girl so desperate for male attention that would degrade herself — and even the most fundamental institution of American democracy — to receive it.
Lewinsky was not alone. Yoko Ono — who many Beatles’ fans disproportionately accused of breaking up the band — was called “ugly” and “dragon lady”. The latter insult demonstrates how the vilification of marginalized people draws on both gender and racial stereotypes. Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith became a target of media and public scrutiny after marrying a wealthy man who was 63 years her senior. Along with the insults of “gold-digger,” Smith was met with criticism for “buying” her body and then failing to maintain its perfect physique as she aged.
Vilified women are seldom criticized for their actions alone. Their bodies are almost always brought into the equation as well. In fact, the conversation on a woman’s
appearance often takes on a life of its own, growing independent of the actions she was originally maligned for.
A woman is often vilified because she has, in some way, digressed from the behaviours and qualities expected of her. The public hated Monica because they thought she was promiscuous, not pure; they scorned Yoko because they saw her as assertive, not docile; they laughed at Anna because they saw her as trashy, not elegant. These women were maligned because they contradicted the social understanding of femininity, and the fundamental qualifier of femininity is beauty. Because our social understanding of gender — specifically femininity — is rigid, we find it difficult to separate beauty from behaviour. The media and public alike attack both at the same time because these are seen as interdependent variables.
In my article Pretty Tears, I mostly focused on fictional characters. Stories, I argued, are shaped by those who create them, and, in turn, those creators are shaped by their society and its expectations. It is for this reason that the pain of fictional women is often depicted as beautiful and elegant. We can contort and compress made-up people to fit inside our social expectations of their identity, but real life is more tricky; women cannot be re-written to fit perfectly within their gender roles. So when they violate them, we act appalled. We call them ugly. If they cannot be feminine in one way, they cannot be feminine in any way. Either way, fictional or real, women are not given the right to control their own narrative.