How do we read Tumblr pages, Facebook updates, and Instagram feeds for plot? What sorts of narrators do social media enable and promote? The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi and The First Bad Man by Miranda July both feature narrators who continually reflect on how they externalize their inner selves. Their worlds function like Tumblr: selfhood becomes an accumulation of circulating images, postures, and performances.
Like many people born in the 1980s, my first quasi-sexual encounter was online, at a friend’s house, as a joke. Olga said, “Want to see something funny?” and logged onto AOL. We pretended to be 17 and were reading a description of genitals (“18 years old, male”) when Olga’s mom walked through the door and Olga yanked the computer’s power cord out of the wall.
At the time, it was clear that such interactions were not real. They had nothing to do with you personally (what’s in a screen name?) or with your immediate social world. The sheer amount of time it took to log on with a dial-up modem distanced the Internet from the world around you and visual presentation of self was limited to font size and color. But that was the mid-’90s. Today, Internet companies are all about authenticity. Facebook not only insists you use your “real name,” but also polices what qualifies as a real name.1
To hear the “sharing economy” entrepreneurs tell it, we are on the cusp of a new socioeconomic system where the importance of virtual interactions will overtake that of face-to-face ones. The basis of this new system is rooted in trusting people online and developing metrics to measure the authenticity of online profiles. Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, celebrates a “global movement” of online exchange that is “empowering people to make meaningful connections, connections that are enabling us to rediscover a humanness that we’ve lost somewhere along the way.”2 Through our Internet profiles we can express an authenticity that is no longer possible in the real world; as Kim Kardashian says of her half-sister, “You have to look at her Tumblr. It’s like, so, her soul.”3
A Tumblr soul is an externalized soul, the soul of a person who meticulously reflects on and curates her or his own appearance. The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is narrated by a woman who decides that she needs to disguise her overwhelming beauty. She is convinced that her best friend committed suicide out of unrequited love for her and wants to protect other men from her dangerous beauty. At the same time, she is sick of men hitting on her because of her appearance and believes her ugly suit will cull superficial, flighty men so that she can find true love. She covers her long silky blond hair with a short frizzy gray wig, her blue eyes with brown contact lenses, and her perfect body with a fat suit. She wears the costume constantly, though every so often she strips down in public to make men regret ignoring her while she was in ugly mode.
There are two central conflicts in The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. The first follows the plot of a mass-market romantic thriller: the narrator needs to solve a mystery while also figuring out the true intentions of her love interest. The second conflict is a more fundamental one: the problem with the narrator’s search for someone who will love her for her authentic self is that she is herself completely vacuous.
READING Filipacchi’s BOOK WAS LIKE SCROLLING THROUGH YOUR FACEBOOK FEED AND THINKING ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU DISLIKE YOUR FRIENDS.
The narrator is aptly named Barb: she looks like a Barbie, but is also singularly unsympathetic. We get to know her through repetitive descriptions of her luxury apartment and her appearance (her “aqua” eyes are described no less than three times in the first 30 pages). The other characters are introduced through clichés and résumés. Barb’s best friend is “a successful novelist. The five novels she published were critically acclaimed, translated into two dozen languages and taught in universities. The second one, The Liquid Angel, was made into a film.” Her love interest is “America’s favorite local news anchor … Even if he weren’t so charismatic and charming on camera, the incident a few years ago when he ran into a burning building and saved three children would make him America’s sweetheart.”
It was difficult to get through the first hundred pages of the book. After that, though, it had almost a lulling effect, like scrolling through your Facebook feed and thinking about how much you dislike your friends. Filipacchi transforms the most annoying social media tics into novelistic narration: the check-ins at cultural institutions (Zankel Hall) and expensive restaurants (Cipriani Downtown, Per Se); the humblebrag (“My face felt shrunken and shriveled, ravaged by sadness, as though it must have aged twenty years, but each time I gazed in the mirror, hoping I looked as bad as I felt, I never did.”); continual status updates about completely banal feelings (“I’m sad for Penelope, after the fight with her father, and I’m sad for Georgia over her lost novel. Mostly, though, I’m angry on Lily’s behalf.”). Filipacchi’s novel succeeds where it taps into modes of self-expression that the reader immediately recognizes as cliché.
As the novel progresses, the characters become more and more surface-level phenomena, until finally Barb’s heartbroken friend Lily literally falls to pieces by turning into glass and shattering on the floor. Filipacchi suggests that the value judgments that can shatter a woman’s life are both arbitrary and changeable. After Lily disappears, fashion editors decide to “turn Lily’s ugliness into the new beauty.” No one thinks that “radically redefining modern beauty” can happen from one day to the next,
But they’re wrong.
Here’s what happens. First, Georgia’s article stirs up a vigorous debate in the media about beauty. Two days after the article appears, Ellen DeGeneres announces she is going to devote a show to the topic of the unfortunate importance of physical beauty in our world.
It builds from here for several pages, until soon plastic surgeons begin to do operations to make people look more like Lily. Through media and social networks, the novel suggests that anything—even a pair of closely set eyes—can become a meme that changes the way people behave. The women in the novel, especially Barb and Lily, are all victims in one way or another, subjected to capricious trends in beauty and desperate to find men who love them. It all rings true, though little of it is very surprising.
Filipacchi is skillful at writing things we already know in modes we can quickly recognize and consume. By contrast, Miranda July addresses some similar themes of selfhood and love in prose that is often unsettling and unexpected. While Barb is primarily concerned with whether men love her for the right reasons, July’s narrator, Cheryl, has more existential worries about the relationship between self and appearance: “Was I like honey thinking it’s a small bear, not realizing the bear is just the shape of its bottle?”
Cheryl is a middle-aged single woman who is extremely socially awkward and lives mostly through her vivid fantasy life. Like Barb, she is continually trying to externalize her inner self. But whereas Barb wants to reveal her inner self to others, Cheryl wants to cast out and discard her inner self entirely. Some of Cheryl’s strategies of self-erasure are as quotidian as her rigid system for household chores, which “gives me a smoother living experience … After days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, it’s as if I don’t exist.” Others are connected to sexual fantasies, in which Cheryl steps further and further outside of herself as the novel proceeds. For Cheryl it is not that her fantasies or sexual encounters draw her out of herself—leaving herself behind is the fantasy.
Cheryl has two love interests in the novel: Phillip, whom she has loved unrequitedly for years, and a young woman, Clee. Toward the start of the novel, Phillip invites her over for dinner. She uses the bathroom, already convinced that this will be the start of a relationship with Phillip:
I sat on the toilet and looked at my thighs nostalgically. Soon they would be perpetually entwined in his thighs, never alone, not even when they wanted to be. But it couldn’t be helped. We had a good run, me and me. I imagined shooting an old dog, an old faithful dog, because that’s what I was to myself. Go on, boy, get. I watched myself dutifully trot ahead. Then I lowered my rifle and what actually happened was I began to have a bowel movement. It was unplanned, but once begun it was best to finish. I flushed and washed my hands and only by luck did I happen to glance back at the toilet. It was still there. One had to suppose it was the dog, shot, but refusing to die.
Ironically, given this fantasy of shooting herself, Cheryl works at a company that specializes in teaching women self-defense. Through the company she meets Clee, the daughter of her bosses, whom Cheryl grudgingly agrees to let stay in her house. The relationship between Clee and Cheryl begins as a sort of fight club, their erotic tension channeled into breathless physical and verbal fights. After a number of spontaneous clashes, Cheryl starts to fantasize about reenacting self-defense videos. Cheryl initially worries what will happen when Clee realizes that Cheryl has learned her moves from the DVDs: “Now she would see me, see who I really was. A woman whose femininity was just copied from other women.”
The title of the book is taken from one of these reenactments—Clee tells Cheryl she will play the “the first bad man” in the video: “It was the way she was standing when she said it—her feet planted wide, her big hands waiting in the air. Just like a bad man, the kind that comes to a sleepy town and makes all kinds of trouble before galloping off again. She wasn’t the first bad man ever, but the first I’d ever met who had long blond hair and pink velour pants. She snapped her gum impatiently.”
After Clee becomes the “bad man” in their rumbles, Cheryl begins to have sexual fantasies about Clee. Cheryl imagines all of these fantasies as though through the eyes of Phillip. She imagines putting “my hand over Clee’s moaning mouth … Not my hand—Phillip’s. He thrust so hard his tufty ears shook.” They begin the game again, but the new fantasy makes it more difficult: “I was playing something else now. I mimed knee thrusts and elbow jabs, awkwardly wheeling around a phantom erection.” When the Phillip fantasy runs its course, Cheryl takes on other personas: the plumber, an Indian father, “old grandfathers who hadn’t had sex in years, virginal boys named Colin, homeless men riddled with hepatitis. And then every man I had ever known.”
In projecting themselves into the world, both narrators create a world that seems to emerge out of their own neuroses and desires.
As Cheryl reaches further and further to find new fantasies, The First Bad Man reminds us of how the pretend is always embedded in the real. For July this has a lot to do with gender. In her fantasies, Cheryl uses the language of a middle-aged man who watches a lot of porn: words like jugs, puss, and cream (verb) are favorites. The masculinity that Cheryl takes on in her fantasies is hyperbolic and pretty gross: in one fantasy, Cheryl “pressed my balding head into her jugs … after such a long buildup the release was immediate and incredible. When I creamed it was a huge mess, semen everywhere. Not just on her hair and jugs and face but all over my duvet cover and the throw rug. A rope of semen even hit the top of the dresser.” Cheryl’s performances of masculinity, like her performances of femininity, are copies of copies.
The social worlds that Cheryl and Barb inhabit have none of the weight of reality. Both their worlds are strikingly homogenous, made up of people more or less just like them. In projecting themselves into the world, both narrators create a world that seems to emerge out of their own neuroses and desires. The First Bad Man, in addressing the role of gendered violence within the characters’ fantasy life, suggests that Cheryl’s desires are in turn connected to a history and world that extends beyond the narrator. This larger world hardly exists in The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, which is strange for a book whose title diagnoses a social ill.
In a piece about the novel for the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, Filipacchi writes: “For many people, even intelligent and brilliant ones, why does beauty count for more than anything else in their appreciation of other human beings—particularly of women?”4 The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty is about beauty within a very particular group: wealthy urban professional white woman. As an interrogation of privilege the project seems lacking, both in how myopic the social world is and in that success for these women—despite their careers—is ultimately measured by marriage to eligible men. The novel suggests that the way people value beauty could suddenly change, with one episode of Ellen DeGeneres. In doing so it minimizes the ways that perception of beauty is bound up with inequalities that go far below the surface. It can be difficult to tell where beauty ends and class begins. Dental and medical insurance, access to fresh foods, personal trainers, and well-tailored clothes—not to mention cosmetic surgery—all make it a lot easier to be beautiful if you’re wealthy. The fantasy that conventions of beauty might change overnight underplays how standards of beauty in particular and “appreciation of other human beings” in general is bound to deep legacies of racism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and heteronormativity.
People make up identities not only to make themselves accord with social norms of beauty, but also to escape deeper forms of structural racism. Authenticity and democracy may not necessarily go hand in hand.
It is not possible to talk about the importance of beauty without also talking about how race, class, gender, and disability contribute to our assessment of beauty. This is a point that the MTV television show Catfish has been successfully making for four seasons now. The plotline is very similar to The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty: the show is about one person putting on a disguise, (usually) hoping to find love. Each episode follows the same model. The hosts, Nev and Max, interview someone who has fallen in love online (the “target”) but who has never met the other person. Nev and Max then track down the love interest to find out if that person is a “catfish,” someone who assumes a false online identity to lure in the target. In the second half of each show, the catfish and target finally meet. Nev and Max act surprised by the identity of the catfish (who is almost invariably not who he or she claims to be). They mansplain why it is bad to lie and ask the catfish why they could possibly want to pretend to be, say, a white cisgendered man rather than a transgender person of color. The discussion that follows is almost always about privilege and discrimination. Often the catfish becomes more sympathetic than the victim of the fraud.
In the episode “Harold & Armani,” Armani and Harold have been talking on the phone for four years and Harold is considering proposing. Armani turns out to be Tamila, a woman who is heavier-set and has darker skin than the woman in the profile photo. She tells Harold that everything is true aside from the photo; Harold walks away. Tamila explains that she put up a fake profile picture because guys prefer light-skinned girls. She talks about how difficult it is to meet people online with her real picture. This isn’t an issue of low self-esteem with an easy fix (feel good in your skin and men will love you!). Tamila is right: black, white, Asian, and Hispanic men on dating websites are all more likely to respond to a message from a white or Hispanic woman than one from a black woman.5 If we try to pick apart what beauty or attraction means in this context it becomes clear that it’s impossible to cordon off a notion of beauty from racial discrimination.
The lies in Catfish are not only about appearance. The “Rico & Ja’mari” episode reveals that Ja’mari is not the international model he claimed to be, but rather a bus driver named James who lives at home. They also find out he has given a false name and has a criminal record. When confronted, James arrives at dinner with stacks of legal documents and manila folders: he was arrested because “he fit the profile” (young black man) of a suspect in a criminal-mischief case and spent two years in prison before clearing his name.
In Catfish, people make up identities not only to make themselves accord with social norms of beauty, but also to escape deeper forms of structural racism. This is important because entrepreneurs of peer-to-peer websites and the sharing economy, like Rachel Botsman, talk a lot about how these sites offer greater openness, authenticity, and democracy than our material world. Catfish shows us that authenticity and democracy may not necessarily go hand in hand: after all, the more truthfully online profiles represent real-world identities, the more the virtual economy will replicate the inequalities of the real world.6
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty and The First Bad Man both give us narration by selfie. The narrators inhabit and perform varied postures in a series of close-ups. We get a hint of a background, but mostly we just see the narrator obscuring the view. Catfish gives us a wider frame: a snapshot of how very real structures and power relations intersect to impact our possibilities for expressing identity, even in virtual worlds.
- Recent articles on Facebook’s “real name” policy include: “Online ‘Authenticity’ and How Facebook’s ‘Real Name’ Policy Hurts Native Americans,” Washington Post, February 10, 2015; Biz Carson, “The Fight over Facebook’s Real-Name Policy Is Back,” Business Insider, May 7, 2015; Amanda Holpuch, “Facebook Users Plan Protest against Site’s ‘Real Name’ Policy at Headquarters,” Guardian, May 30, 2015. ↩
- Rachel Botsman, “The Currency of the New Economy Is Trust,” TEDGlobal 2012 video, 19:46, filmed June 2012. ↩
- “Kris’s Mother-in-Law,” Keeping Up with the Kardashians, season 8, episode 12 (originally aired August 18, 2013). ↩
- Amanda Filipacchi, “The Looks You’re Born with and the Looks You’re Given,” New Yorker Page-Turner (blog), December 12, 2014. ↩
- Ken-Hou Lin and Jennifer Lundquist, “Mate Selection in Cyberspace: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Education,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 119, no. 1 (July 2013), pp. 183–215. ↩
- Recent studies have shown that black sellers on online classifieds are accorded lower levels of trust and fewer and lower offers than white sellers. Similarly, a recent working paper out of the Harvard Business School reveals discrimination against black Airbnb hosts in New York City. See Jennifer L. Doleac and Luke C. D. Stein, “The Visible Hand: Race and Online Market Outcomes,” Economic Journal, vol. 123 (November 2013), pp. F469–F492; Max Besbris, Jacob William Faber, Peter Rich, and Patrick Sharkey, “Effect of Neighborhood Stigma on Economic Transactions,” PNAS, vol. 112, no. 16 (2015), pp. 4994–4998; Benjamin G. Edelman and Michael Luca, “Digital Discrimination: The Case of Airbnb.com,” Working Knowledge, January 28, 2014. ↩