Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Whatever happened to the eye of the beholder?

I remember enough from working in textbooks to say with 92.6% certainly that this Natalie Angier piece about mirrors will be anthologized up the wazzoo. It's got everything! References to popular Greek myths, a sprinkling of statistics, some fluff, some science, all in two highly-readable pages. My beef with Angier's latest attempt at channeling Malcolm Gladwell? This graph:
In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive.
20% more attractive, Natalie? Wow! You mean there's an objective standard to these things?

The fact that people conceive of themselves as better looking than they are is fascinating. But the idea that readers will take it for granted that there is a concrete way to look 20% more attractive -- fewer wrinkles? smaller nose? fuller lips? -- makes me want to walk into walls.

Luckily I've been in too good a mood lately to let an ideological disagreement get me down. Birfday Saturday was all Food-Show-Food-Show, with friends along for the loopy ride. Show #1, the Dark Knight, was great, as I'm sure you've heard: too long -- two movies buckled together, really, and played consecutively -- but seriously well-directed. Still, my favorite parts all had to do with Heath Ledger. [SPOILERS AHEAD!] He has the most compelling performance and the funniest lines, and he gets to mock one of my least favorite cinematic/psychological conventions, the idea that all crazy adults had a pivotal moment in childhood that made them the way they are. It was my father, the Joker says, and you feel for him, you really think he means it. Then, later, equally seriously, It was my wife. He tries to tell a third story when Batman, who, of everyone, understands him best, cuts him off.

Watching the Joker, I found myself thinking about the line from the New Yorker's recent piece on Obama: "Who sent you?" But just like that article ends up shrugging and admitting no one sent Obama (there wasn't much dirt on him to dig up, it turns out) it's not nearly so simple in the Joker's case either. He is chaos, manic, like Twain's Mysterious Stranger. Whether that's intended to be a commentary on terrorism or God or the weather -- whatever we Americans can't control -- is up in the air. But regardless, it works. Throughout the movie, I was scared enough that my hands were shaking. [Okay, spoilers finished. Those were pretty minor/pathetic spoilers too, but I'm trying to be sensitive.]

Show #2 was the very meta, very enjoyable [title of show], which just opened on Broadway. (It moved after running at the Vineyard for a while.) Much like Passing Strange, which Mr. Ben and I saw recently, it's a smart, self-aware musical targeted at young people. Apparently, in the case of the latter, the strategy didn't quite work out, which is really too bad. I'm glad we got to support it a little bit and I hope [title of show] has better luck.


Chris said...

Actually, the best way to objectively judge how attractive someone will be found is to measure how symmetrical his face is. They've done pretty extensive studies. Pouty lips and small noses and what have you may be a cultural/personal preference, but you can increase people's visual appeal immediately by reducing differences between one side of their face and the other.

I couldn't begin to tell you how they arrived at so specific a number as 20% though.

ester said...

i've heard that too, but i've also heard the counterargument (women with slight asymmetries are often seen to be more attractive -- cindy crawford, marilyn monroe). there seems to be an awful lot of je ne sais quoi involved, and the idea that beauty can be objective AND quantifiable seems really silly to me.

Chris said...

See, but I would argue that these women are not chosen as sex symbols for how attractive they were, but how attractable. There's a lot more to choosing a mate (or sex symbol) than just who you find sexy, and many people tend to try to date and even fantasize about people they know they'd have a better chance of actually getting.

It's a survival thing. Yes, we'd love to be with the person who is perfect, but we also understand that the competition for that perfect person makes trying for them impractical. And so we're more attracted to the less attractive people, thus the appeal of "girl next door" photo spreads.

ester said...

this may not surprise you, chris, but i completely disagree. :) i don't think marilyn monroe and cindy crawford were "girl next door" types, i think they were the opposite: smoldering unattainable sex goddesses. it's the whole supermodel/pin-up fantasy, isn't it? "imperfections" might make them memorable, but no rational guy thinks, "thank god for that mole! otherwise i could never bag cindy crawford."

more low-key actresses like katie holmes and natalie portman are the "girls next door." they're more pretty than hot and thus more (seemingly) attainable. also they're bad actresses, but that might be a coincidence.