Courtney Stodden, the seventeen-year-old who married fifty-one-year-old, B-list actor Doug Hutchinson, may very well be the poster child for the decline of women’s equality, rights and self-actualization. She was just sixteen when she began an Internet relationship with Hutchinson and her mother both encouraged and signed consent for her to marry him. Still underage, she is often photographed in provocative poses. One has her in a T-shirt on which Yes, they are real is printed across her enormous breasts. But they aren’t real – photos taken just a year or two earlier show a different girl. She is a regular teen with regular sized breasts, no stripper makeup, no hair extensions, and no pouty mouth.
A strip club owner in Seattle has just offered her $5000 to appear on her eighteenth birthday to perform two strip shows. She hasn’t accepted his invitation, but why not? She’s been stripping on camera for a year now. Maybe it’s not enough money. Maybe her price (or her mother’s and husband’s price) is more like the pay one gets to appear in Playboy. Wait until she is eighteen or maybe not, if someone can figure out how to get around the little problem of her being underage.
I didn’t want to write about her. I’ve avoided it for months. Why take part in her prostitution? She is a child. Her mother, her husband, and the media are exploiting and objectifying her. As many adolescent girls would, she relishes the attention while not recognizing the consequences.
Younger and younger girls are dressing provocatively, sharing intimate photos, sexting, engaging in sex. They also suffer from eating and body dysmorphic disorders. Do they understand exploitation and objectification? What have they been taught about beauty by the media, the Internet, boys and men, other girls and women, and their own pursuits of beauty, popularity and celebrity?
I struggle with the concept of beauty and how it is defined culturally, sexually, emotionally, intellectually and personally. Even in middle age, even as a feminist, I still want to feel beautiful. I see how that renders me less than: less than men, less than other women, less than my own potential. At what price is beauty?
(Excerpt from essay Staying on It: Beauty and Aging)
One of my favorite actresses, Vivien Leigh, played an aging but refined southern English teacher, Blanche DuBois, who is fired from her position for her penchant for alcohol and young men in Streetcar Named Desire.
Blanche gives her perspective on beauty and aging when she says:
"A cultivated woman, a woman of breeding and intelligence, can enrich a man's life immeasurably. I have those things to offer and time doesn't take them away. Physical beauty is a passing transitory possession but beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart, I have all those things."
But the quintessential movie on aging females is Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson, aged fifty, played Norma Desmond, also fifty. Swanson’s declining career closely mirrored that of Desmond’s, only the outcome was different – Miss Swanson had her comeback.
Fran Hortop of Bint Magazine said this of Swanson’s portrayal:
Swanson gives a grotesque, cruel and powerful performance, more than likely the best of her career. She teeters on the edge of the ridiculous: Norma is much larger than life and lives in the black-and-white movie realms of melodrama where every stylised gesture counts for a thousand words. She’s all taloned fingers and bulging eyes, dressed like a psychotic goddess in elaborate turbans and jewels - a brave parody of the kind of über-actress Swanson was herself.
After the film, Swanson was offered other similar roles, but she declined them, saying in her memoir, “I could obviously go on playing [Norma Desmond] in its many variations for decades to come, until at last I became some sort of creepy parody of myself, or rather, of Norma Desmond – a shadow of a shadow.” She was in two more films after Sunset, but chose to pursue other business and artistic pursuits including sculpting until her death in 1983.
Ronald documented the changes in my face, body, and hair over the last thirty-five years in photos, not consciously, but there they all are. He always made me feel beautiful, even as we both mourn my loss of youth. Though I am always shy in front of the camera, he has managed to capture what he sees and avers.
He took one black-and-white photo in 1977 at the record store on Marshall Street near Syracuse University. My hair is cut to the tops of my shoulders with full bangs. I remember the hairdresser had told me, as he cut and styled it, that I looked like a china doll with my porcelain skin, large eyes and shiny, straight, dark hair. My skin is dusted with tiny freckles left over from the summer, and my small downturned mouth is parted so that just my two front teeth show. I stare at the camera, looking hesitant. I remember feeling embarrassed that Ronald was snapping photos in front the other shoppers in the store.
Back then I only wore a little blush, undereye concealer and mascara. I didn’t need anything else.
Ronald saw all the photo albums spread out on the bed, after Cara and I had been through them, so I asked him to select his favorite photo from the many he had taken of me that first year. I didn’t like the one he picked: my eyes cast downward, a shy smile that might have been a grimace, my hand running through my hair.
He laughed when he saw me flipping through the pages of the albums a short time later, looking for one I liked. “Why did you ask me?”
There is another photo taken in 2011. It’s a close-up of my face. I’m looking at and smiling into the camera, having just graduated with my MFA degree.
The lines on my forehead and between my eyebrows are apparent, as are the crow’s feet running away from the outer corners of my eyes. My nose appears longer at the tip than it did in the photo taken in 1977, and it could be a result of age or camera angle. My dimples, doubled on the right side of my mouth, are etched deeply. My teeth, off-center due to only having one adult canine, are bright white. My eyes, crinkled in joy, are vibrant and warm. They are framed by my long lashes and the cocoa and white eyeliners. There is a hint of white at my hairline. I like this photo so much I copy it to the digital photo frame that sits in the dining room. Ronald often points out photos of me to guests, as they flash on the digitized screen.
“See that?” he asks, pointing out a photo where I stand between Cara and Mackenzie, both clutching single carnations, both smiling with lips squeezed shut because they are growing in front teeth. The photo was taken at the end of one of their piano recitals. I am in my mid-thirties. Permed hair frames my face and touches my shoulders, large, nineties-style glasses sit below arched brows, and a slight smile activates my right-side dimples. I wear a blue violet dress, the belt cinching my still-small waist. “She captivated me,” he says.
He tells me one day recently that he has been showing a photo of me to the guys at the golf range.
“Not a college photo!” I respond. That would be false advertising.
“No, this one,” he says, and he pulls out a 5x7 photo taken at work for my ID card picture. I had given it to him several years ago and forgotten about it. “They all said how pretty you are.”
I think he must be speaking about my inner beauty: the beauty of my mind, the richness of my spirit, and the tenderness of my heart. Maybe they were qualities I always possessed but didn’t recognize when I viewed myself through Ma’s eyes.
Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof felt the power of her beauty and sexuality when her husband Brick, played by Paul Newman, asked her, “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?”
“Just staying on it, I guess,” she tells him, “long as she can.”