In a comment article for the Guardian US, Roxane Gay wrote that people are more receptive ‘when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism’. But the union of the beautiful with the angry does not always sit comfortably. The ‘Cool Girl’ truism from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl illustrates this fact in topical twenty-first century terms:
Men say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? […] Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
In fact, in terms of both the inception and reception of behaviour, I would like to argue that being hot and being angry are a bit like brothers Chiron and Demetrius in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: often at war with one another; potentially powerful when in cahoots; deemed less controversial, or dangerous, when driven apart.
First: the inception. I wondered whether Flynn’s typical male was right, and hot girls really were less likely to get angry. According to the Social Issues Research Centre, a pretty conclusive ‘all’ of experiments reflect the ‘bias for beauty’, wherein we respond more favourably to good-looking people. However, they go on to add that ‘studies show that attractive people don’t benefit from the ‘bias for beauty’ in terms of self-esteem’. So, as a pretty person you might be more popular, score a higher paid job, get a more lenient prison sentence (a welcome reminder of ‘hot felon’ Jeremy Meeks; although he is currently serving 10 years, so clearly meme-led glory can only get you so far); people might even assume you are more morally virtuous. But you will still feel bad about yourself, and act out as a result.
Of course, low self-esteem and griping are not the same as anger, which, according to the University of California, ‘serves as a nonconscious bargaining system, triggered when someone places too little weight on one’s welfare’. Anger flares up when we feel that someone is not giving us our due; it is an attempt to make them treat us with more respect. People who only get paid attention to, or appreciated for, their beauty might be just as likely to get riled by this as people who find themselves sidelined due to their less conventional looks. But the same research goes even further, since ‘using anger to renegotiate how one is treated will be more effective if one has more bargaining power’. In fact, the study found that men with more upper body strength and women who see themselves as more attractive feel entitled to better treatment, so they get angry more easily—and can more frequently resolve conflicts in their own favour.
Maybe the fact that big guys often use anger to get their way – the Harry Wormwood philosophy for life – isn’t news, but it is strange to think that pretty people might be getting angrier just because they can. It makes it seem as if there is an imbalance in the amount of slack we cut those who are gorgeous and the non-correlative level of satisfaction they display. This goes some way to explain the (shit) argument people make that Jennifer Lawrence et al should see the leaking of intimate photos as a minor, tolerable downside to their otherwise cushy and beautiful lives. “You’re rich and fit; get over it”—or so the argument goes.
Obviously a lack of self-esteem can inhibit self-expression, and anger must be no exception. Surely it is a good thing if a person – who happens to be good-looking – can confidently express their anger and fight for a fair result.
But it’s as if there is a short circuit in our brains—in our reception of the anger, that is. We look at someone pretty and our (biased) anterior insular conducts an appraisal of their value: is this person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for me? When we deem them ‘good’, we expect them to embody that positive valuation. We objectify the beautiful before they have a chance to express their feelings. Sometimes, as in the case of the advocates of feminism Roxane Gay wrote of, this makes us more amenable to their cause. But more often, once they have been objectified (often sexually, particularly in the case of women) and attributed with value, the anger and insecurity of the beautiful can seem unacceptable or unmanageable to us, especially if it disrupts the paths of our desires. We call them irrational for feeling angry; but our feelings for them are just as blind as their rage can be.
Take the characters of Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, and Amy Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl. The first time Alex is acknowledged on camera is when Jimmy (Stuart Pankin) checks her out and says: “Jesus. If looks could kill,” before joking “She was undressing me with those eyes.” When Dan (Michael Douglas) apologises for his friend, Alex says she hates it when guys “think they can come on like that.” This links the objectification of beauty to the inception of anger—Alex resents being valued solely as an attractive object. In the course of the film it is as if her anger becomes possessed and is exorcised symbolically, in accordance with the value ascribed to a beautiful, but ultimately unmarried and unwanted, woman.
Alex’s deviation from calm, enviable object of beauty begins with her sexual deviance—when she sleeps with married father Dan. This is part of an interesting parallel between the two films: Alex and Amy are both associated with ‘pure’ feminine colours, like Amy’s white negligee and Alex’s cream outfits and all white apartment; Alex’s sultry proposition, “Have you ever done it in an elevator?” is matched by Amy’s initiation of a public library quickie. Both women have the veneer of effeminate fragility but the thing that sets them apart from the films’ other female characters – Dan Gallagher’s smiley wife Beth; Nick Dunne’s pally twin Margo; or the stoic Rhonda Boney – whose name probably wasn’t intentionally ironic – is that they are sexually assertive. The only other girl who gets any, in either film, is Nick’s student lover Andie, and she’s being used as a porny pawn in whoever’s game will have her.
In different ways, Alex and Amy show the impossibility of assimilating their lust, rage and beauty into a loving yet challenging romantic relationship. In Gone Girl, Neil Patrick Harris’s creepy character Desi seems like he might at least offer Amy a place where she can stop running from the national manhunt that depicts her as America’s Sweetheart, and allow her to enact her retribution on her husband in peace. But he insists on rehabilitating her beauty in its old form: silky breakfast attire, weight loss, blonde hair dye and, crucially, smiles and sexual submission.
In both narratives, Alex and Amy are basically challenging men who sexualise them, and then behave in ways that make them angry. Dan Gallagher gets Alex pregnant then tells her to forget it; Nick Dunne is unfaithful, lazy and violent. It is almost as if beauty is what stands in the way of these two women. They look nice and delicate, like a flower you can pick and then depend on to wither and die. When Alex challenges the passivity of female sexualisation and tries to reclaim it, she is rejected. Dan’s negative reception of her anger – and the news of her pregnancy – sends her spinning into irrationality, violence and destruction. And when Amy is forced to play the Nice Suburban Wife to Nick or wear her pretty, unthreatening sexuality like a badge for Desi, her anger explodes into retribution.
So the inception of beautiful anger, however extreme, is understandable. Gillian Flynn proudly acknowledges her wish to write ferocious female villains who still retain a sense of their reality, a motive for their madness. But for James Dearden, writer of Fatal Attraction, it was not the inception of Alex’s anger that caused a problem; it was the way it was received. After testing a first cut of the film on US audiences, the filmmakers found that no one watching could bear to see Alex go unpunished. She had to die, at the hands of Dan Gallagher’s wife Beth, for the film to deliver a box office smash. Dearden (and Glenn Close—who almost refused to shoot the new ending) see Alex’s violent end as “shame-inducing”.
Fatal Attraction was made in 1987 and some people might see Gone Girl as more of a modern-day equaliser, leaving Nick crushed into submission by Amy’s pregnancy—and her intelligence. But the sense of opposition between this clever, potentially frightening, anger and beauty subsists in our modern media, as Gay acknowledges in her article. Recently a New York Times review got into trouble for praising the “Angry Black Woman” in the work of Shona Rimes (Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder) by saying:
Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but […] ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful.
It is an emphatically ‘sexy murder mystery’ with ‘more spice than sugar’. Once again non-conformist sexuality is being pitted with anger against standardised beauty. Author Alessandra Stanley and the New York Times have since apologised for the dodgy terms in the piece, emphasising that it was intended as praise of Rimes’s work, and Viola Davis has issued her own response, pointing out that beauty is subjective. But it is as if, like Nick Dunne and Dan Gallagher, the mainstream of film criticism divides intellectual rage, sexual proclivity and vulnerable beauty into divisive, warring instincts that cannot be reasonably reconciled.
In an interview, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko said: “I believe revolution isn’t physical. It’s in the mind.” Coming from a woman who performs topless protests and risks imprisonment in countries like Russia and the Ukraine, this might sound crazy—both her acts and the threatened repercussions are highly physical. She is talking about the power of peaceful protest, but her comment sheds an interesting light on how she sees her own activism. While others see her toplessness as the root of the revolution, she sees it as the symptom or the vessel; the bargaining tool that the University of California was talking about. Whatever we think about the way Femen use ‘beauty’ and ‘anger’ as political tools, by insistently dividing the two and ignoring the way they comment on one another, we continue to miss the point.
In Titus Andronicus, Aaron tells the warring twins “For shame, be friends, and join for that you jar”. While Shakespeare’s twins are conspiring to rape and murder, the beautiful and wrathful are not always as psychotic as Gillian Flynn writes them. But it is still worth keeping in mind. Just like anything else, beauty should not be used as a tool to manipulate and victimise others, but neither should it manipulate its bearer into being an automatic victim. Anger doesn’t preclude physical beauty, and beauty shouldn’t preclude the expression of just anger, for Femen activists or anyone else. Each of the manifold, brilliant female characters discussed here have an ironic power. Their anger and beauty are like gloriously psychotic twins: at first it seems they must be opposites, impossible to reconcile; but they are at their most irascible when they join together and turn outwards to attack.