Thursday, June 11, 2009

Brains and Beauty

Has anybody here heard the country song "Carlene" by Phil Vassar? If not, click on the link and peruse the lyrics. Wouldn't you think by now the weary stereotype of smart girls being plain and dull would have faded away? The song's narrator was the quarterback, therefore one of the popular kids, although not much of a student in high school (another stereotype, the dumb jock, but that point isn't mentioned after the first line). He remembers Carlene, the valedictorian, only as "little miss four-point-oh" and the "whiz kid in horned rim glasses." He doesn't recognize her at first sight, as a gorgeous redhead in a sports car, until she takes the initiative to speak to him. Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with her using her intelligence and money to get herself a makeover into society's image of beauty. What exasperates me is that the narrator says she "surpassed everybody's expectations" because she's now a model on the cover of VOGUE. In other words, they expected her to excel academically (which she did, by earning a Ph.D.), so that's no big deal. Her great success consists of capitalizing on her physical appeal. Carlene the valedictorian isn't vindicated but simply replaced by Carlene the supermodel. The former quarterback, by the way, has succeeded by means of talent rather than physical attributes; he’s a singer on “country radio.”

When I tried to explain to my husband why this song bothers me, he didn't get it. He pointed out, quite rightly, that if her Ph.D. were in English lit and she had a career in teaching rather than modeling, she'd be driving a VW bug instead of a blue sports car. But couldn't she have a degree in a more lucrative field? Why couldn't the former quarterback be impressed that she's used her doctorate (for example) to become the multimillionaire CEO of a cutting-edge research and development company?

I don't have a personal axe to grind here. In addition to being "miss four-point-oh" in high school, although I was socially awkward, I was also pretty, and I had sufficient dates even though I wasn't part of the inner ring of popularity. (I didn't know I was pretty, of course; at five feet four and 113 pounds, thanks to the distorted body image taught to girls by American culture, I thought I was fat. But that's a whole nother topic.) Nevertheless, this song's wholesale endorsement of the cliche infuriates me.

I have a fantasy of an alien culture in which all young women from puberty until their wedding day wear the burqa, not as an instrument of oppression but as a feminist statement. Young men, unable to see any part of a girl's body except eyes and glimpses of hands (sure, those parts can be artificially adorned, but the scope for variation is much narrower than with face, hair, and figure), would have to pick their mates on the basis of such factors as intelligence, conversational wit, practical skills, and compassion. Etiquette would allow married women and unmarried mature ones—past the age of thirty, perhaps—to be free of the cover-up garments as a symbol of their freedom from having to worry about their appearance overshadowing their character (presumably because they'll be dealing with mature men, who should have developed better sense by then). Yep, fantasy.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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