LIM COLLEGE FACULTY BLOG
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...Who is Fairest of Them All?
posted by Robert Clark
This week, People Magazine announced that Gwyneth Paltrow was The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Wow. That is some accolade, but is it true? To be sure, she is cute and fresh-faced (which is nice) and certainly seems to have a funny and engaging personality. But put her next to Greta Garbo (whom The Guinness Book of Records still maintains had ‘The Most Beautiful Face of All Time’) and Ms Paltrow rather pales into cutesy insignificance. The same can be said when comparing Gwyneth’s toothy sweetness to the drop-dead gorgeousness of Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway and – yes – even the world’s most beloved blonde of all, Marilyn Monroe.
All these women were considered among the most beautiful woman in the world in their various heydays, and although they all look very different, they are united by one strong and remarkable factor. They are women, not ‘girls’. Paltrow (even at her age) still looks like, sounds like, and dresses like a girl. That’s okay, I guess – but clinging to girlhood as so many of our currently stars are wont to do, (Jennifer Anniston especially keen at 44 to present herself as a Malibu teenager on a volleyball team) should perhaps be enough in itself to disqualify a star from an accolade intended for a woman.
Of course, our ideals of beauty are constantly changing. I teach this every day in my courses Who Wore What When and Cultural Connections to Fashion. Diminutive redhead Clara Bow wowed ‘em in the Twenties. But she would not have stood a chance against Amazonian Raquel Welch in the 1960s. Yet both were considered the ‘ideal’ in their day. In his interesting book, On Beauty, historian Umberto Eco neatly ties ideals of beauty to their broader socio-economic landscapes, explaining why the oval faced and slender elegance of the Medieval ideal differed so much from the cherub cheeked rosiness of the 18th century. History’s aesthetic sensibilities are forever in flux. So what does this say about us?
People’s headline set me thinking, and I tried to isolate which of today’s female movie stars one would truly describe as The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Angelina Jolie comes close. Her looks recall the great beauties of The Golden Age of Hollywood (to paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, “They had faces then!”). Yet when it comes to the legions of cute blondes who are heralded as beauties, I confess, I can’t truly differentiate Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson, and Charlize Theron (except when the latter played that serial killer and wore false teeth!).
Have we become so bland and homogenized as a society that cute is now beautiful? As long as a woman has blonde hair, blue eyes, good teeth and clear skin, she is declared a legendary beauty? It seems that looking the same is the new standard of female perfection, which is probably why when people such as Christina Hendricks hit the scene (fiery red hair, Betty Boop speaking voice and va-va-voom Size 14 figure), she caught everyone’s attention simply by virtue of not being just another blue-eyed blonde (or uber-tanned, long-haired brunette, a la The Kardashian clan).
Cookie Cutter Prettiness seems to have replaced the idea that for a woman to be beautiful, her face must have some character. We joke about the Old Hollywood system of type casting’(where it would be decided that an actress was the "sultry" type, or the "girl next door," or the "femme fatale," or the "tomboy type"). Yet at least this system offered up an interesting array of faces. And beyond the Golden Age of Hollywood, there endured a belief that if a face had character, this could be--by way of talent and charisma--transformed into its own kind of beauty. It is difficult to imagine Barbra Streisand being allowed to reprise her Broadway role in Funny Girl on the big screen today. Yet in all of her earlier movies, the interesting looking Brooklynite was given leading roles. Her romantic co-stars were drawn from such legendary hotties as Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neil. Today, Streisand’s looks would condemn her forever to the life of a character actor, a fate the wonderful Toni Collette is seemingly suffering. Why? She does not fit into our current, cookie cutter ideal of feminine beauty.
As I write this, my thoughts drift to what truly makes a woman beautiful. Again, to borrow a line from a Classic Movie (my personal favorite, Now, Voyager), “There is a kind of beauty that can be attained.” I know so many women whom I would describe as truly beautiful, yet their physical beauty is mostly the outward manifestation of beautiful qualities: intelligence, humor, kindness, gentleness, lovely speaking voices, stylish self-confidence, etc. When taken all together, these beautiful qualities make for a beautiful woman.
The other aspect of People’s proclamation that annoyed me was that their Most Beautiful Woman accolade always goes to a famous person! If the headline read, The Most Beautiful Woman in Hollywood, then fair enough. But yet again, our current obsession with celebrity has tainted our common sense, and if Garbo’s modern-day doppelganger is working as a kindergarten teacher in Ohio, you can bet the world in general would still vote Paltrow prettier. How could a kindergarten teacher possibly be prettier than….a movie star?!
I know it sounds like I’m knocking little Gwyneth, but I’m truly not. I can prove it, because, guess what folks--I do think she’s beautiful. But it’s not because of her cleanly scrubbed face, flowing blonde hair and cute little figure. She is beautiful because she seems kind and funny and smart and, above all, engaged in a world beyond her own love life and career (quite a rarity in Hollywood today). But is she The Most Beautiful Woman in the World? Well, probably not. I am sure that out there, somewhere, there is a woman who--as I write this--is devoting her every deed and thought to helping others, going without so that others can have more, and doing it all with generosity, grace, and a smile on her face--and maybe even a bit of lipstick.
And in my opinion, she is The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
Amanda Hallay is a full-time professor at LIM College where she teaches courses that concentrate on the relationship between fashion, history and culture.