Here is the annotation for Kim’s story: A dangerous plague is turning high school girls into ravishing beauties. We found this story’s illumination of teenage girlhood and its passionate desires to be a quite heartbreaking meditation on the meaning of beauty and femininity in the media and popular culture. Especially lovable — the main character. Especially pertinent to us — our protagonist’s hopeless assurances that really, girl geeks can grow up okay. Especially fabulous — the marvelous voice of the piece and the amazing ending.
At least one person on the jury that year believed that feminism is currently located in intersectionality; that it’s no longer possible much less desirable to discuss gender and divorce it from race and class, etc. The primary focus of the Kim story is on a traditional issue of feminism, ie ,physical female beauty. But it also provides a textbook example of intersectionality, particularly with regard to race. I thought we could start there, with the story’s various intersectionalities and then, of course, go wherever you all would like.
The story is available online here: Strange Horizons Fiction: Beautiful White Bodies, by Alice Sola Kim.
Here is one thing I’ve been thinking about with regard to Beautiful White Bodies. I’ve been working with the concept of the uncanny valley response in my current novel, that slightly repelled reaction we have to things that look almost human, but not quite. In Kim’s story the beauty upgrade the girls get clearly takes them past human beauty. They become so beautiful they don’t quite look human anymore. So I’m wondering if it’s true that there is a beauty exception to the uncanny valley response. I suspect there is. But I’ve never seen it speculated on before —
I’m under the impression that in animation, making characters look perfectly human creeps people out. That is, that they have to be a bit off to be acceptable. Come to think of it, the exaggerated beauty of movie stars might be a variation of that. Cameras add pounds, so actresses (I’m being gender specific on purpose) have to be impossibly skinny so that they won’t look fat on screen. They look emaciated in real life, but just fine in a movie.
Maybe beauty has to always be over the top? Is that part of what this story is about?
I wanted to toss in a side note about the uncanny valley: there’s a lot of disagreement about what exactly is meant by the phrase “uncanny valley,” and the little research that’s been done so far is ambiguous about whether there actually is such a thing (under any definition). For details, see here:
I haven’t gone back to reread the story yet (I loved it when I first read it, and I will reread it). But just thinking about the “uncanny valley” concept, I suspect that if something slides outside the human conception of beauty it no longer looks beautiful.
What I remember most about the story was wondering if it was a response to Ted Chiang’s “Liking What You See,” and wanting to read the two stories together, which perhaps I will do now.
In the fictional world of the story, the girls are clearly so heartbreakingly beautiful they no longer look entirely human — more like anime than people — but you may be right in the real world. Still, what it makes me think of is the Hollywood beauties who have their faces done. I saw a picture of Lindsay Lohan illustrating an article that argued that the new aesthetic was to no longer to look naturally beautiful, but instead to look as if you’d had work done. The worked-on face was argued to appear about thirty years old, so older than Lohan — the work she’d had was deliberately aging — but also polished and historyless and therefore slightly inhuman. I thought she’d made herself look sadly terrible, on the road to Michael Jackson’s face, but according to the article this (Lohan’s not Jackson’s) was a desirable face to have.
Now I find myself wondering if Lohan will continue to get work done so that she will always look about 30. I cannot imagine that she will want to continue to look older than she is; I assume there’s a point where she will reverse the process.
Though I went to a benefit dinner for my father’s retirement community the other day and decided the most beautiful women there were the ones 70 and up. The younger women — especially the ones who had really dressed up and were wearing strapless evening gowns — looked conventionally pretty, but kind of generic. But the older women, who had taken care with their makeup and who were wearing a wide assortment of dress up clothes, were all different, individual, and stunning. I particularly remember one woman at our table, in a bright red dress that came up to her neck. And another I saw in the ladies’ room, who was wearing a silver and black tunic over black pants. They were just so well put together. (As someone who loves unique looks, but has never master well put together, I really admired them.) So perhaps Lohan is on to something with looking older. Gonna have to do better than 30, though.
This raises other ways of changing appearance: multiple piercings (eyebrows and tongues and such), hair colors not found in nature, tattoos (both the incredibly beautiful ones and the intentionally ugly ones). It seems to me Lohan making herself look older is just another version of that, albeit a somewhat creepier version. I find cosmetic surgery creepy enough as is, perhaps because I consider surgery something done for desperate illness, a risk I wouldn’t want to take for something as mild as wishing I had better cheekbones or fewer wrinkles. To undergo surgery so I can look the way I’ll look in another five or ten years seems extremely odd to me.
Sorry. Got busy with work and family (and having discussions on what’s wrong with Jonathan Franzen with Eleanor Arnason and Josh Lukin on Facebook) and forgot to check in to see where things were. I’ll get to the story in the next day or two and weigh in.
I do think this story is a good example of how impossible it is to discuss gender issues without dealing with race and class. Beauty in particular is so racially tinged.
I see the racial issues in this story as almost background. I don’t mean that negatively; I mean that it’s just a given that beautiful is a certain kind of white look, even when exaggerated. The story’s not about beauty in regard to race per se; it’s simply that you can’t write about beauty without writing about race.
But the story seems to be primarily dealing with other things. And the most chilling aspect for me is not that the girls are willing to risk death to be beautiful — I think it wouldn’t be hard to find a lot of girls, not to mention grown women, who would do that — nor even that many of them are willing to kill to stay alive and beautiful, but that the story’s assumption is that they will be successful doing this, that the desire of the world for their beauty will be enough to overlook the trail of bodies.
The killing aspect — I gather the girls have become cannibals, though I keep thinking of them as vampires — leads me to an unexpected conclusion. These beautiful girls, these girls I want to hate because they are sacrificing their lives for artificial beauty and because I was never able to figure out how to be beautiful when I was a teenager either, have power. Life and death power. It’s creepy power, but it’s power. I’m not sure what to do with that. But it’s Justine who’s running away, in the end. And she’s not all certain she’s going to make it.
One other thought here: I don’t know what to make of the fact that this beauty sickness does not infect slightly older women like Justine. I would think women in their 20s would still be vulnerable to it, and for that matter, I would suspect some women quite a bit older would be. What is the significance of confining it to teenagers? I’m not quite sure and would be interested in what others think.
A bunch of good points here. Especially “Beauty in particular is so racially tinged”; I wouldn’t have thought to put it that way, but now that you say it, yes, totally, and great point.
And that combines with various things others have said here to make me wonder about exoticization. Is the beauty in the story exoticized? Or is it an extension of a Western beauty ideal? Or both, or neither?
…Re teenagers: one aspect of this might be the line “He was one who had cast off the stupidity of his teenage years.” And another: “You’re, like, a sexy older woman.” And the “boomeranging” thing in the third paragraph of the story. In my reading, there’s a lot of age and coming-of-age and growing-into-one’s-adult-self stuff going on in the story (and maybe even a sideways sort of nostalgia/longing for teenagerhood), mixed in with the beauty stuff (and plenty of other stuff, of course); I think those two aspects intertwine with each other interestingly.
I don’t think the beauty is exoticized. I think it’s an extreme version of the Western beauty ideal.
But then the word exotic when used with beauty almost always indicates someone who isn’t white but is considered beautiful by white people. So I may be hearing something different in the word.
A tangential though on the race and beauty issue: In The History of White People, Nell Irwin Painter says that at some point, the beauty ideal was defined by white women from the Caucuses — that is, truly Caucasian. And the women most often identified as the perfect beauties were slaves — white women sex slaves from the Caucuses. That the ideal of female beauty is found in slaves is another one of those chilling thoughts. This story doesn’t go there, but it made me remember Painter’s point.
OK. I have now made up for coming late to the discussion and will sit back and see what others have to say!
I’m interested that Justine doesn’t want to get the beauty disease. Is that because she feels that the girls aren’t human? Is it because she’s beautiful, or can at least approximate ‘beautiful’ and knows how artificial that airbrushed, made-up thing is? Is it because she’s older?
Because I’d sure be tempted.
I think it’s because Justine is older? So she KNOWS she is actually is beautiful in her own way, and has a list of things she wants to accomplish that have nothing to do with beauty.
Even though Justine describes Pearl as genuinely, objectively not beautiful, I still recognized my own experience here. And my experience was one passing through period of prettiness, but barely recognizing them at the time. I was desperately unhappy when I was at my “cutest” in college and high school–because everyone else was prettier, and that’s all that seemed to matter back then.
The older I get, the more accepting I seem to be of my appearance. And the less important it seems to be to my goals and dreams. Back in high school, being ugly all my life was just such a frightening, no-way-out, no-future-forward prospect.
Would you really be tempted, Maureen? At 27? I was certainly not part of the beautiful crowd when I was young, and while by the time I hit my 20s I had figured out I wasn’t ugly, I also knew I’d never meet the standards for beauty queen or fashion model or movie star no matter what I did. But I wouldn’t have been willing to do something that risked my life — and my humanity — for beauty.
Jackie, your comments about passing through periods of prettiness without recognizing them hit home. Not long ago, I was talking with an old friend of mine — a man — and the subject came up. I said, “I looked at some old pictures of myself from the 70s, and I was really cute.” He said, “I certainly thought so.” But at the time, I didn’t know it at all.
It’s surprising how much this story is about the uncanny valley. There are lots of parallels, of course–dying to be beautiful, dying to be thin, dying to be white. And zombies. These girls flatten out until they are like media representations of people–airbrushed as models on magazine covers. It’s interesting that Justine is described as conventionally beautiful, because she doesn’t feel that way to me. No doubt because I identify with her and I’m not conventionally beautiful–just older than the people I work with.
Karen, regarding the uncanny valley: I remember I didn’t have a problem with it watching Avatar. (Avatar has other issues, but that isn’t one of them for me.) I also remember that Cameron went to great lengths to motion capture face and eye movements (http://www.wired.com/2010/02/avatar_oscarnom_gallery/3/). The other data point I have for you is that I once tutored a schizophrenic. When I was tutoring we did a fifty minute ‘hour’ of tutoring, the way therapists do, using the last ten minutes of the hour to write notes for the student’s file. But for this session, the woman who tutored regularly said that she only did a 30 minute session. She explained to me that many schizophrenics don’t cue normally in conversations. When we talk to someone there’s this whole unconscious dance of eye contact, looking away, returning your gaze (and I’ve found that if I mention it, for a few minutes the person I’m talking to and I don’t know when to look at each other and when not to, but once we forget to be self-conscious it’s okay again.) Anyway, the tutor said that working with someone who doesn’t do that is exhausting, and she was, at least in my one experience, right. Or so I thought.
So the beautiful girls might not fall into the uncanny valley if their eye and facial movements feel nuanced enough. And they may fall into the uncanny valley if, for example, they stare.
(Errol Morris built a special camera rig for his interviews in his documentaries so that he could create the sense in the audience that they were making direct eye contact. http://errolmorris.com/content/eyecontact/interrotron.html)
Thanks, Jed, for the information on the uncanny valley. I’ve been using the concept in my novel so it’s important to learn that I must be more tentative in my use of it. In fact, I’d read that chimpanzees also show evidence of this response and now I must track that back down and see how this was tested and etc.
The comments on the racial aspects of beauty have me wondering — is it possible to write about beauty and eliminate the racial aspect or is it just a matter of being aware that you’re using a racially-tinged concept or not being aware of it.
Maureen, I’m not sure why Justine is not tempted. My impression is that the disease is just not an option for Justine because of her age and she is always clear on this, so there is no point in even thinking about it. There is also a phenomenon, or so I think, of reaching a certain age and realizing you are pretty enough. Justine is described as a pretty woman and in point of fact there is no advantage to being incredibly beautiful. And the possible disadvantages of scaring off potential sexual partners who will find you intimidating. Pretty is better than beautiful unless you want a movie career.
I see that Nancy has already suggested that it’s impossible to write about beauty and not bring race into it. But I’m not sure. Can’t you write from within a non-white tradition about non-white beauty and not have it be — confrontational? Just have it be what it is?
I am currently fretting, as always, about how to identify various characters in my novel. If my protagonist meets a black person on the bus, and I say that it’s a black person, then aren’t I normalizing white people if I don’t also identify them by race? If I identify every character, white, black, Asian, Indian, etc, then aren’t I’m making race far too important as a designator of character? I’ve tried from time to time to make the identification clear with the surname or some more subtle thing than describing the skin color and then a certain percentage of readers just figure the character is white. Even if the last name is Takahashi.
Karen, I think the race/beauty issue depends on when the story is set and the underlying issues of the society the story’s about. I don’t think you can set a story in the current or near future US and not deal in some way with race. If you don’t mention it, if you ignore it, that’s just another side of the coin. The US is a multiracial, multicultural society, and while race is biologically meaningless, the history and culture and — god help me, I hate to use this word because it is so loaded but there’s not a better one — oppression associated with it are still relevant.
I don’t think it necessarily has to be confrontational, and if you’re writing in another time and place, it might not be an issue. But I suspect that even if you’re writing from a non-white tradition, but setting the story in the current or near future US, you have to deal with that tension.
As for your struggles in your own work: I have the same problem. It’s easy enough with major characters, because those get described. I don’t think you have to hammer it home with the terminally clueless. But how do you make it clear that a society is multi-ethnic and multi-racial without giving everyone a label? I don’t have good answers, but it’s worth thinking about.
I loved this story. But the ending somehow didn’t work for me. Justine’s running away–but from what, exactly, of the many things she has to choose from? She’s wishing Pearl well–but we all know Pearl will be dead in two weeks? I want, I don’t know. More.
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