This post was originally published here
When talking about the beauty of people, we tend to discuss those people as passive objects to be looked at. Of course, this issue of objectification is at the heart of many feminist critiques of (usually feminine) beauty. That’s why it’s interesting to think about the beauty of people who are actively working in a sphere that has nothing to do with beauty, and how those people are affected by being judged beautiful. And how beauty is affected by its connection with them.
The beautiful author is a good example of this, and Zadie Smith is a good example in particular.
Writing is not a very public activity, except in the Monty Python sketch in which a running commentary is given on Thomas Hardy writing his new novel in front of a West Country crowd – it’s funny because it’s absurd, and also because watching someone write is incredibly boring.
However, watching someone beautiful write seems to be a different matter. Zadie Smith was heralded as the voice of her generation when her first novel, White Teeth, was published in 2000. Her good looks did not go unnoticed: some said her beauty helped publicise her novel, and some said it prevented her being taken seriously as a writer. I guess that both are true. The point is that her beauty mattered.
In this interview with Christopher Bollen at Interview Magazine, Smith is (of course) asked about the huge success and attention garnered by her first novel, though Bollen stops short of asking her directly about her looks (theDaily Mail, however, is more than happy to focus on this, and the comments below the line do not inspire much faith in humanity). Smith has some interesting answers that suggest a need to separate her public, visible self and her self on the page:
“I just can’t get used to the idea of being somebody unreal in people’s minds. I can’t live my life like that. And it’s just anathema to being a writer. But in another way, what it’s about for me is being good on the page.”
The problem for Smith is that being famous and beautiful creates an image that captures people’s attention, but ultimately has nothing behind it (see ‘Kim Kardashian’), and that is a real problem for a writer – or anyone trying to actually do something. Zadie Smith is transformed by her beauty and a horde of photographers and journalists into an exciting picture (that happens to be holding a book that she wrote). It must be difficult when that book sells millions: is it the words or the body that sold it?
Probably the words, I reckon. Because – and I think this is a good thing – the image of Beautiful Zadie is so empty and irrelevant that no one would bother to actually buy and read a book based on that alone. Beauty might get in the way of sensible discussion of a writer and their work, but I’m not sure it gets in the way of the work itself, or not so much. But it remains a problem that human beauty is seen as so superficial and vacuous that those qualities are imposed on the beautiful person. However, if they keep writing, or whatever it is that they are actively doing, then hopefully we will all get bored of looking at them. The moral of this is obvious: models are not, er, role models. There is no reason why beauty can’t have substance, but this still needs proving in the world of Instagram and Britain’s Next Top Model.
Companion piece: a previous post on the Ugly Philosopher.
Carina Hart works in Outreach at Warwick University, and holds a PhD on human beauty in contemporary fiction. She writes about feminism, beauty and body image at her blog,www.beautifulintheory.com