I am in the middle of a storm, literally and figuratively. Somehow I missed that a hurricane is blowing through my town. That means I am going to make this a very quick diatribe on beauty, power, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the lies we tell about social mobility. No spell-check or editing. Sorry.
This is a continuation of my rantings on Twitter in response to a typically stupid attack on AOC:
I mean, that’s just so trite that its not worth the bother. I made the mistake of responding that AOC’s physical attractiveness (“pretty”) drives the right to these delusional, stupid critiques.
I say it is a mistake because I should have anticipated what would happen next. It happens every time I include even a cursory physical description of a person.
This is what happens: people point out that AOC isn’t “just” pretty. They argue that she is also “smart”. Even when they agree with me, they want to “humbly edit” me to point out that right critiques of AOC are about how smart she is. The implication is that AOC’s physical attractiveness is, at best, an amplifier of the right’s true reason for hating her.
Most of those people mean well. They are just wrong. But, I know why they are wrong.
Good people with good politics do not talk about how someone looks. It’s one of the primary popular takeaways from second and third wave [white] feminism: do not comment on bodies EVER.
When you cannot or will not comment on something, your language atrophies. In the case of what I will call the physical comportment of power, we do not have enough words to talk about how and why being “pretty” matters for how power operates.
People are also wrong in assuming that when I say the right’s attacks on AOC are about how pretty she is, that *I* think that her being pretty is all that matters. They assume that I am reducing her to her body. It is a common logical fallacy, especially in how people consume race and gender analysis. People confuse the signifier for the object. If someone is racist it is because race exists, etc etc. It’s a rudimentary, if possibly necessary, stage of enlightenment. The problem is too few people move beyond that stage.
I do not think AOC is just or only pretty. I am not going to defend myself on this. My track record on such things is public record. I let my archive speak for me.
I do think that we underestimate and misdiagnose the source of AOC’s ability to drive the right absolutely nuts because we want to believe that they share the same values that we share.
This is the power of the lies we tell about society, but especially about social mobility.
The insistence that AOC’s intellectual prowess and academic credentials are part of what motivates the right’s relentless focus on her is about validating our own beliefs in intelligence and education.
We believe that they care about what we care about.
Let me tell you what I believe.
I believe that we ascribe “smart” and “intelligent” post hoc to power. I believe that powerful people, particularly white men, believe that their power is justified by their genetic endowments. I believe that they operate from the assumption that whatever wins, is also smart.
I believe that powerful interests pretend to believe in democratic social institutions like schools and a democratic interpretation of “smart” (i.e. one can become smart) because it serves them to do so.
I believe we learn more by observing how powerful people actually use these institutions for personal gain and social reproduction, despite what they say.
I believe that a “smart woman” and “smart non-white person” is an oxymoron in this worldview. Attacking AOC for being something that you do not think actually exists would not make much sense.
I believe that attacks on AOC’s academic credentials are not evidence of deep feelings of inferiority. Power shapes emotions and emotional lives. Powerful people simply do not experience shame the way that we do and the way that we operate as if they do. It makes little sense that one who believes they are genetically endowed would feel shame when compared to AOC’s superior intellect. Instead these attacks are aimed at the legitimacy of the idea of credentials. The very idea of earning some objective smartness is antithetical to the way most powerful people see themselves and others.
As someone on Twitter posited: the attack on AOC’s intelligence may be part of why those attacks stick but it isn’t why they attack her.
I believe that in this worldview, which is the dominant one, beauty is seen as the only legitimate capital that women are allowed possess. But beauty is supposed to serve power’s interests. When beauty occurs in an “unruly body”, such as a non-white person’s body, then it is an existential threat.
I believe the right’s attacks on AOC (and a few of the left’s to be honest) are a visceral reaction to their inability to control what they see is her only legitimate source of power.
They hate her because she is pretty.
Why does centrist discourse miss this? Because we need to believe that the other side believes in things we believe in. It’s a centrist imperative.
We also feel icky about pointing out that someone is attractive and that is a certain kind of power because powerful women make us squeamish. And beauty as power makes us deeply afraid for our own self-worth.
As much as we want to believe that we are above “looks”, we are all subject to them.
That makes us feel bad.
When we feel bad, we will concede a lot to those we disagree with on everything else that matters. That’s how we get pulled along for a ride where we do not hold the reins.
That’s the power of the myths of mobility. They drag us all along even when we think we are fighting to move in the opposite direction.
My agent would want me to tell you that I expound on this a lot in my essay “In The Name of Beauty” in THICK.
I also nod to Roxane Gay’s pop-up magazine, Unruly Bodies.
For an important analysis on race, class and unruly bodies I recommend Sabrina Strings:
Fat Phobia And Its Racist Past And Present : Short Wave
Where does our preference for thinness really come from? As Sabrina Strings explains in her book, Fearing the Black…
I also recommend reading about disability and unruly bodies. This is a good place to start on what it might look like if we developed a richer language for bodies and power: