Pretty and “Not Pretty, Really”

Debbie says:

Mark McKinney, who some of you may know from Kids in the Hall and I know from the incomparably wonderful Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, made a documentary short in 2006 about “pretty people”: The Art of Seduction: Not Pretty, Really. For some reason, Sociological Images recently posted the trailer:

First, let’s say that McKinney has done a fine job of diversifying “pretty” across gender and race lines, and even somewhat along age lines. Not everyone doing a film like this would go there, and I appreciate it.

Sociological Images picks up the main message that McKinney seems to be presenting: that there are downsides to being pretty, as well as the culturally “obvious” advantages. This is a true, important, and under-explored point. Even in the brief trailer, we see not only a young woman breaking into tears as to how she is objectified, but also a couple of excellent acknowledgments that being “pretty” is a simplifying characteristic. One young woman says, “If you’re the pretty girl, you’re often not the smart girl, not the funny girl, not the nice girl.” Another talks about people’s astonishment when she won an academic prize.

What the trailer doesn’t acknowledge, and I bet the film doesn’t either, is that the pain the interviewees are talking about is universal. Being “unfortunate looking” (as one pretty woman in the film describes the opposite of being her) doesn’t open up the landscape for what you can be: the ugly girl might possibly be the smart girl or the funny girl or the nice girl, but she’s not going to be all three, and she can’t be the pretty girl. Being unfortunate looking (or ordinary looking) doesn’t mean that people expect you to win prizes. The Internet phenomenon of Susan Boyle–“Global interest in Boyle was triggered by the contrast between her powerful voice and her plain appearance on stage”–proved that in a big way.

Being fat or disfigured or acne-scarred, or whatever else keeps people from being pretty, is hardly a guard against objectification. You won’t be given gifts for your looks, you won’t be paid to sit in the window at restaurants (did you know that happened? I’ didn’t), and you won’t be an object of envy (at least on that axis). You will be the target of other people’s assumptions, stereotypes, inappropriate comments, and sometimes cruelty.

The conclusion that I very much fear McKinney doesn’t draw in the whole film is that everyone is objectified for how we look. People who are culturally identified as “pretty” often don’t understand is that the pain of objectification is real, whether it’s objectification for pretty, for unfortunate looking, or for ordinary and simultaneously that being pretty is a form of privilege and people who don’t have that privilege generally experience the same pain … without the perks.

The film’s title is extremely telling. The tearful young woman says, sadly, that the ways she’s objectified for being pretty make her feel “not pretty, really.” And what that says to me is that she still can’t imagine anything better than “feeling pretty,” and that “feeling pretty” means, to her, never being sad about what people see when they look at her.