Friday, February 22, 2008

The Marilyn/Audrey Effect

Women compare themselves to other women. I may be pretty, but when I see the girl standing next to me is VERY pretty, internally some part of me decides not only that I am less attractive than her but that I am less attractive than I believed I was just moments before. Her attractiveness actually makes me mentally subtract from my own. It's not a conscious thing and it's not quite as pathological as that - I'm oversimplifying - but it is, essentially true. In some weird-ass unconscious way, most women think this on some level (just because you say you don't doesn't mean you don't. It just means you aren't consciously aware of it). We feel thinner of fatter or prettier or plainer or more stylish or more awkward based on our unconscious mental comparisons with other women, both in person and in the media. Partially because we perceive from an early age that other people - male and female - make similar distinctions.

Popular women's magazines now run sections where you can compare two different celebrities wearing the same frock - and see the results of readers voting on who they feel looked better in the outfit. No matter how different the two women are, no matter how irrelevant it is that the dress looks different on different figures and each should be appreciated on her own merits. A standard of beauty is established by popular consensus. For example - the popularity of the television show Ally McBeal not only spawned a rash of ingenues showing up gaunt and waifish at red carpet events, but actually resulted in multiple co-stars of the (purportedly) naturally uber slender Calista Flockheart (the title character) later doing tell-all stories about their own eating disorders. They stood on set and watched the popularity of the young star of the show grow and compared their own build to her delicate physique and decided that it was high time they stopped ingesting anything. Women compare themselves to other women.

I read GoFugYourself on a pretty regular basis. Is it hollow and useless information? Yes. But I enjoy seeing what Bai Ling decided to wear as a skirt this week. It makes me smile. So I don't mind the loss of IQ points... AND the popularity of GoFug is probably a throwback to the comparison effect - i.e. "I may not be gorgeous or famous but at least I know better than to show up in a public place with my underwear showing! HA!" It makes people feel good to know that thin, pretty people can make stupid choices about what to leave the house wearing. Because we compare ourselves to them (And all of us dress better than Bai Ling).

Due to the recent promotion of the film The Other Boleyn Girl, there have been a couple of entries regarding the two female leads hitting the carpets and doing the publicity schtick. The result, of course, is all these pics of Natalie Portman (who plays Anne Boleyn) and Scarlett Johansson (who plays her elder sister Mary - although I believe the book and film choose to inaccurately depict her as the younger. Perhaps to explain her ability to attract the King's attention? Who knows. Leave history alone, people.) standing side by side.

Johansson, a petite 5'4" and physically quite svelte, looks somewhat large next to Portman (who is actually only an inch shorter than her, but built so very differently). Portman looks dark and wispy. Johannson looks zaftig and pale.

It's like someone took a picture of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn next to each other (interestingly enough, I found, AFTER I had drawn that conclusion, that a W Magazine article had made essentially the same comparison).

Neither is less beautiful. They are both lovely women. But the contrast is striking. Portman is so small and delicate that she actually makes Johansson look less so. Johannson's vibrancy and overtly sexual presence makes Portman look more mousy. I find the contrast odd, but I also find my awareness of it rather telling.

The article in W discussed the fact that the casting seems "backwards" to many people. Anne (played by Portman), as written in the book and screenplay, is the driven, outgoing and perhaps even conniving sister while Mary (played by Johansson) is portrayed as the innocent and wholesome sister. And the public expect to see those two actresses taking opposite roles. Ironically, in life, history suggests that things were quite the other way around. Mary had an affair with Henry VIII in spite of the fact that she was married and after having already been the mistress of the King of France (she caused quite a scandal with her promiscuity). Anne was a very religious woman and best known for her dedication to the church and her wrongful execution for crimes she was later said unlikely to have been guilty of, in addition to being the mother of Elizabeth I. The women's roles in life may have been quite the opposite of the portrayal we can expect to see on film. Either way, even in history, these two women are compared to each other. Some accounts depict Mary as the prettier sister, some make mention of Anne being considered pretty but too dark for the fashion of the time. Even back then, women's appearances were being judged not just based on their own merits, but on a comparison to their contemporaries.

Is voluptuous better than sylphlike? Is dark, delicate and genteel better than bright, blonde and cheery? Is my red hair, pale skin and curvy figure less attractive because I am sitting next to my beautiful olive skinned friend with her thick, dark mane and slender, boyish figure?

Of course not. But we do compare. We cannot help ourselves. As women, the healthiest thing we can do is to try to embrace variety and learn to appreciate our own personal attributes completely separately from any contrast with our peers. But that isn't an easy thing to do. It isn't easy to remember that someone else being thinner or more fashionable or more feminine in no way impacts your own appeal. Seeing ourselves as individuals and appreciating the beauty of that is a difficult thing when we are so programmed to compare.

Click the photos for links to the posts about them on Go Fug. Kinda' hilarious.

In spite of any sartorial missteps, sometimes they DO both get it right:

While still, of course, being so vastly (and fascinatingly) different.

...Oh, and on a completely seperate note, isn't Eric Bana hot?

I really doubt Henry VIII was so good looking.


  1. This reminds me of a quote i run across every once in a while... "God, if you can't make me skinny, could you please make my friends fat". Lol

    You hit the nail on the head w/ this one babe!

  2. Yesss, I've been reading the same type comments on GossipRocks. Heelarious.
    Incidentally, I'm barfy sick, so I hope I don't completely ruin the evening with you and the Boy.

  3. It's true, though. At first glance Johanssen looks so big. Then you remember - she isn't that BIG, Portman is just that SMALL. Of course, a lot of gossip sites are probably not even entertaining that aspect of it.

  4. Not that the way she looks in the photos is technically big - it's just that next to Portman she looks all normal people sized instead Hollywood starlet thin.

  5. That was a great post! I found it to be thought-provoking on a number of different levels.

    It's so much easier to have guy friends... :-)

  6. i haven't seen the movie although i've heard it deviates a lot from the book and the book deviates a lot from history. that's just what i heard.
    i think you've made a very interesting point. we are not just who we are, we are also what we're compared against.
    i visit go fug yourself on a semi-regular basis as well. it's such a guilty indulgence!
    btw, i MIGHT be coming to new haven for a few days this summer. if i do, we should meet up! and discuss...bad fashion. lol. btw, did you see the oscars last night? i was a bit disappointed (regarding the fashion that is).

  7. It was a safe year at the Oscars but I think the media is to blame for this - hollywood luminaries watch as risky choices on the red carpet are eviscerated year after year - the wild cards that get applause are so few and far between! I think the result is a year like this - careful classics chosen by people who simply have no desire to see themselves spashed across the interweb with unflattering headlines yet again.

    Then again, Tilda Swinton maintained her usual devil-may-care signature austere and androgynous look so that was sort of awesome. She's wierd but she's totally herself which is pretty awe inspiring to me - a woman who completely ignores comparisons!

  8. Great observations. At home, I may feel fine about my curves, but put me next to a boyishly built woman and I feel like I'm culturally obligated to start mooing or something.)

    (Oh, and I know this movie is all wrong historically speaking -- as was the book -- but I am still ALL over it!)