Hey Good Looking: or, Beauty Is Going to Get Its Way

Hey Good Looking: or, Beauty Is Going to Get Its Way

Steven Connor

I suppose this must have been written around 2002.

In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie wisely and devastatingly asks us to ask of any revolutionary political movement, ‘What will you do when you win?’

So what will anti-racism, feminism, anti-homophobia, anti-ageism, all the movements of anti-exclusionism, do when they win? I know, because they’re already doing it, and I’m going to tell you. I think that to answer the question, we may need to change it slightly. For what kind of society are feminism, anti-racism and anti-exclusionism clearing the ground for? A more tolerant society in which difference, and the different forms of difference will thrive and multiply? They are making way for a more far-reaching, more resilient, more unanswerable system of exclusion than there has ever been, based on the most widely-accepted and unarguable principle of value and distributor of advantage. They are helping to sweep away archaic forms of privilege and intolerance and exclusion to allow for the most fundamental, the most unarguable system of all to assert itself, undistorted: the system of beauty-power, or callocracy. Indeed, we may come to see (though my bet is we will never quite manage to get it in focus), that the principal achievement of feminism, anti-racism and anti-exclusionism was to help get rid of all the grotesque and intolerable anomalies in a system that allowed fat white ugly old men to exercise power over, well, people who were much less horrible-looking than they were. Systems of class power had always approximated to forms of beauty-power, but had become much too crude and inflexible; class power was pretty good at making sure that miners carried on looking like goblins, but it was no good at making sure that the people in power were as beautiful as they represented themselves to be. In the past, tyranny would have been condemned on the grounds that the holders of power were cruel, or stupid, or self-serving, or unrepresentative of the will of the people. Now, the greatest and most self-evident horror is for the ill-featured to have favour over their physiognomic and physiological betters. Such a situation could not be allowed to continue.

The society of spectacle and media did not come about specifically in order to promote the all-conquering principle of beauty, but it has done it nevertheless. There is no doubt that, all the rhetoric to the contrary, we all know and agree, uglies even more than pretties, because the tooth gnaws more sharply at them, what beauty consists of. The great alibi for the new callocracy is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that judgements of beauty are variable, everybody can be beautiful in their own way, and that there is consequently a free market in good looks. But this free market, like every other one, is rigged. For beauty is emphatically not in the eye of the beholder, or rather it is securely lodged in the eye of just about every beholder. Simple tests show repeatedly that everybody knows and agrees how beautiful everybody else is, and everybody knows almost exactly where they are on the scale of physical beauty. Far from there being variability of judgement, there is an iron consensus about this scale. Global media society is ensuring that we all come to closer and closer agreement about what good looks consist of. Race has nothing to do with it, and even age is less important than one might think. Beauty is the exception to every rule, the loophole in every system of exclusion. Why? Because beauty is the rule: beauty is the system of systems, the core distributor of relative advantage.

In the past, we have hitherto thought, theories of beauty have been deployed by powerful groups in order to legitimate themselves and allow others – lepers, non-white races, the Irish, the Jews, non-Aryans, the aged, the disabled – to be abjected. These peoples were held to be consequentially, not primarily ugly, ugly because of their inferiority or degeneracy, not inferior just because they were ugly. There was always a problem with this – namely that a lot of abjected groups were in fact going to turn out to be not physically loathsome at all, while a lot of the persons belonging to groups which arrogated ideal beauty to themselves were such breathtaking mirror-crackers. Hence the discomfort in the late 1930s of all those finely-chiselled English aesthetes and aristocrats forced to contemplate making common cause with so many ugly, smelly indigenes and émigrés against other finely-chiselled, teutonic aesthetes and aristocrats. Things only resolved themselves when it became clear how vulgar and ghastly-looking the Nazis really were. In the end, the worst thing about fascism for a Virginia Woolf was that its proponents were just as nauseatingly ugly as those it was bent on exterminating. The slogan ‘Black is beautiful’ was rightly intended to point up the fact that whites had cornered all the definitions of beauty, and had defined black as ugly in itself. Why did this prove intolerable and unsustainable? Because a system which can reliably distinguish between and distribute advantage to beautiful people (whether black or white) as opposed to ugly people (whether black or white) is so much more natural and congenial and efficient. The sinisterly unquestionable sentiment beneath the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’ is not ‘Everyone is Beautiful in Their Own Terms’, but ‘Beauty is Power’.

Who, thirty years ago, at the beginning of the great revival of feminism, could have predicted what it would have done to men? That the single greatest victory of feminism would be to have subjected men to precisely the same callocratic regime as that which had subjugated women, without releasing them at all, except in so far as they became consumers as well as consumed. The fact of feminism’s success is proof of the fact that what was at stake was not the subjugation of women at all, or was then, but is so no longer; now, what is at stake is the beauty-system, and the power to distinguish between beauty and ugliness. Loosen all the bonds of sedimented male power (the work, not of feminism, but of global capitalism in the media and information age, which makes it its business to loosen everything that blocks the circulation of commodities), and what asserts itself is a much more powerful and subtly disciminated, but increasingly gender-indifferent, callocratic regime. The beauty system is indifferent to gender, which is an anachronistic clog upon its workings.

Beauty has become autonomous from its signifying function. The most important thing about beauty is not that it signifies wealth, health, power or virtue. Beauty is a virtue, and an absolute good, in itself and unconditionally. The erosion of other seemingly absolute forms of good or value opens the way for the universal dominion of beauty as the good.

Walk around Tottenham, and then get a taxi over to Hampstead Village. What do you notice? People are so ugly in Tottenham. People are so beautiful in Hampstead. Surely, you will say, this is because beauty is so eminently purchasable; because, given a large enough budget for clothes, hairstyling, personal training, cosmetics and plastic surgery, anyone can look beautiful. This is of course, true, but only within limits. For, take away economic barriers, and some of them have been taken away, and the effect would not be to stir the pot. It would be, it already is, to accelerate the general rising of the beauty standard in NW3, and the deepening of the ugly-sink in N16.

The achievement of global media society, mightily assisted by most of the movements of emancipation, is to get us moving to a situation in which there is now no system of exclusion that cannot be trumped by beauty: beautiful women (oh, and from now on, and as far as the eye can see, and for ever and ever, it is going to be beautiful women), beautiful blacks, beautiful men, beautiful babies, beautiful old people. Neil Kinnock told a luckless and, as it turned out, heedless population: ‘I warn you not to fall ill. I warn to not to be poor. I warn you not to grow old.’ Even he missed out the key factor, the one factor that can set all the others at naught. I warn you all, he should have said, and I say now, not to be ugly.

Beauty is virtue. Beauty is strength (this is why we strictly a callisthenic society, from Greek kallos, beauty and sthenos, strength) It is fitting that our word for beauty comes from the Romance languages, and the word ugly from Old Norse ugga, to dread. The idea that ugliness could be meritorious is not just an inconvenient or comical idea: it is the unthinkable itself. Beauty is now just what we mean by value and worth; not just an indicator of good, but good as such. Ask yourself what you like about ugly people, and you will find that it is the bits of them that after all can be construed as being a bit beautiful. We can revise our estimates of ugliness, to make their bearers conform to certain specialised criteria of beauty and attractiveness (such expressive eyes) but we cannot, cannot find ugliness attractive. To like ugliness would be to say that we thought that badness was good, that death was life.

What do I look like? It depends on how much you like and value what you are reading. Tell me truthfully that the knowledge that I am pustular and misshapen will make no difference to your estimation of what I am saying, and I will withdraw it all. (Naturally, I withdraw it all anyway, because the beauty-police are remorseless and I have a job to hold down.)

Of course there are exceptions. They are there to be exceptions, for a while, at least. I want to ask you not whether you can think of exceptions to the beauty-rule, but why it is so easy to think of them. It is surely because the exceptions (in politics, for example, Mo Mowlam, Cherie Booth, 80% of all male politicians) are more and more scandalous. We just don’t see why we should put up with hideous creatures like that governing us any more. We won’t have it.

The widespread disgust at the presumption of the aged and especially, since they have managed to weight things in their favour for so long, the male aged (Tom Jones, Clint Eastwood, Keith Richards) in living as long as they do, and trying to impersonate the quick, is really a disgust that ugliness should have such continuing power in the face of smooth skins and glittering dentition. Unless, of course, Death-in-Life knuckles down and strives to stay beautiful, like Cher, or Joan Collins, in which case all is forgiven, or almost, for the order of things stays intact.

Can anyone think of a justification for a system that systematically shovels economic and political and cultural power into the hands of a particular group of people on the grounds of physical characteristics alone? So why don’t we care? (We surely and absolutely do not.) Why is this system more irresistible and impermeable to criticism than all the systems which it is upgrading? Partly because, unlike racism, it does not rely upon absolute distinctions, but upon an infinitely variable scale; it looks as though everyone has a chance, and because nobody quite realises how horrible-looking they really are, or are going to get.

More subtly and powerfully, it is because the beauty-power system cannot itself be abjected. You could not find the system of beauty-power repulsive without agreeing that repulsive things should indeed be repelled. And everybody agrees what real beauty is and everybody agrees what repulsiveness is. For this reason, there never has been and never will be solidarity among the repulsive. Nobody wants the uglies to win, least of all the uglies themselves, whose very self-esteem and capacity to carry on living is based upon the hysterical denial that there is such a thing as objective beauty (objective beauties having no difficulty with such a determinist notion). There will never be a union of the ugly.

By contrast, true beauty can never be democratic. I once knew a beautiful girl who remarked to me that she felt personally disgusted and insulted if anybody not themselves beautiful made advances to her. How dare they presume even to share the world with beauty such as hers? All beauty is of this kind. Beauty knows. Fascism may attempt to harness beauty for its ends, but beauty outfaces fascism in its lust for power. Beauty will not have ugliness in the world, wants to see it put away, exterminated; and, because all of us are on its side, beauty is going to get its way.