Policing beauty — defining what it is and is not, enumerating its varieties, and sketching its hierarchies — has long been the subject of a certain kind of young adult novel (hint: the kind marketed to girls). Two new novels, both by authors who built their reputations writing for adults, revisit, and in some cases revise, the rules of beauty, by taking as their subject profession beauties, the girls and women who are paid to be beautiful and set the standards against whom every other female is encouraged to rank herself accordingly (men are hardly oblivious to these standards, but instead of emulating them, they are mostly trained to consult the standards should they wish to gauge the relative value of their female prize).
Starstruck, by Rachel Shukert, a playwright and author of two previous memoirs, follows three aspiring actresses during Hollywood’s golden era, the period most responsible for establishing the archetypes and myths by which Americans, and arguably most of the world, judge beauty to this day. Gorgeous, the first young adult novel by novelist, playwright, and frequent New Yorker contributor Paul Rudnick, is described in an introductory note by his editor as a “sugar explosion” that “rips open the cult of beauty to show what might happen if every promise in every ad for lipstick or eyeliner suddenly came true.” It is all that, and a fairy tale too, complete with an actual prince, but it is also a wickedly intelligent deconstruction of the beauty myth, its privileges and how it corrupts.
Both novels follow tropes almost as old as American fiction or film: the discovery, by which an ordinary girl is lifted into the stratosphere; the rich and powerful impresario (usually male) who does the discovering; the mousy hometown sidekick who remembers how our star used to be back when and acts as her moral compass of sorts; the dashing leading man and the platonic male friend/sidekick, who, in classic Blaine vs. Duckie style must start off easily confused with one another, the better to keep the romantic tension aloft. (In a now common contemporary twist, the platonic male friend in each novel becomes the gay friend/sidekick). And of course the age-old question: Do gentlemen prefer delicate blondes, sophisticated brunettes, or fiery redheads?
Shukert plays around with inside jokes and allusions that the canny reader will recognize from classic Hollywood (a Dietrich-esque “slender young man in a monocle who turned out, on closer inspection, to be a slender young woman with a monocle,”; modern dance is taught by “coat hanger of a woman” from New York, clearly Martha Graham); as well as many settings lifted straight from life (premieres at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre; the Chateau Marmont, which is both “most famous hotel in Hollywood” and “practically invisible”). Although her cast of characters includes an actress of each hair color, the starring role in her novel goes to the blonde.
Every star is born from a young woman trying to use her beauty to escape her past, but unlike many girls from hardscrabble backgrounds, the fate Pasadena society girl Margaret Froblisher a is trying to escape is one of privilege: the ladylike anonymity that demands a woman serve her husband and children and have her name appear in the paper only upon birth, marriage, and death. Margaret stashes her Lana Turner-esque “starlet” outfit in her school satchel (“snug cashmere sweater, pencil skirt, a healthy pucker of the Helena Rubinstein Chinese Red her mother had forbidden her to wear”) and lurks around Schwab’s, the real-life Sunset Boulevard soda fountain where Turner was rumored to have been discovered. She stands out for her “prim private school elocution” and a sensibility so refined that a shocking comment literally causes her to clutch her pearls. Nevertheless, her “buttery hair” and “wide silvery-blue eyes” can’t escape the attention of Larry Julius, the head of Olympus Studios. With his diamond pinky ring, “pencil-thin moustache,” “heavy,” and yes, “swarthy” features, this “flashy, fast-talking stranger” is “hardly the kind of fellow she’d see having after dinner cocktails with her parents at the Pasadena Country Club” (and in fact, the first thing her Republican parents ask is, “What kind of a name is Julius? Is he Catholic?”) Yes, reader, she takes his offer, disowns her past, and is reborn Margo (classy, vaguely French) Sterling (alluding to both the strength of her spine and the quality of her pedigree).
With a trio of actresses, Shukert gets to play around with three versions of beauty. And in many ways, it seems beauty is an equal opportunity curse: Those who don’t have it feel inadequate, while those who do are punished for it. Margaret’s beauty may be flawless, but it seems to be the very thing that makes her an outsider. As a child, she was taught that the ladylike thing to do is to “plead ignorance of the simple fact of her beauty,” but she is subjected to bullying from the girls and “knowing winks from boys whose tongues would turn to wood when she tried to talk to them; the guilty leers from her father’s disapproving friends and the subsequent chilly smiles of their chilly wives.” Later, when an arrogant preppy attempts to assault her on the golf links back home, the fathers — and even her former best friend — blame her: What was she thinking, showing up in a red dress like that?
Beauty for Shukert’s redhead, Amanda Farraday, a.k.a the Rita Hayworth type, with a “rather spectacular backside” that even Margo finds intimidating, is even more dangerous. “Watch out for the Gustafson girl,” the neighbors back home said, of young Norma Rae, to their sons, brothers, husbands, “even their fathers if the old coots looked like they were getting any ideas.” Norma Rae takes off at fourteen, “with no more than the dress on her back and a pickling jar filled with cash from doing things she’d rather not recall, and by doing the same, and with no more in her belly most nights than grit and fear, she’d made her way West to Hollywood.” The “doing more of the same” part includes working as a gentleman’s companion, for which she uses a third name, Ginger. But even after she reinvents herself as Amanda and becomes engaged to a New York playwright turned screenwriter named Harry Gordon (the parallels with the life of another girl born Norma are unsubtle), she is still not safe: In order to play the future wife, she has to feign virginity. “Leave it to Harry Gordon,” she thinks, “to want the one thing she couldn’t give him.”
Margaret’s bullying mostly takes the form of rumor-mongering, while many of the incidents in Amanda’s past unquestionably cross the line into rape. But both cases, it isn’t really about what the beautiful girls want to do to men, but what the brothers and sons and fathers want to do to them. In their minds, the guilty party is beauty itself.
Gabby Preston, the good-natured, curly-haired brunette sidekick with a beautiful singing voice (the Judy Garland type) illustrates the dangers of not quite being beautiful enough. Although Gabby has genuine skills as a singer and dancer, she is deemed too fat and told to lose twenty pounds by the studio. An astonished Margo, looking at the already frail Gabby sees only “the kind of delicate fairy you’d see tiptoeing over the petals of a Victorian picture book” and asks, “From where? Your head?” To which Gabby replies, in a studio parlance that will soon be familiar to Margo, “The camera adds ten pounds.” Which is why, of course, studios employ doctors who prescribe the little pills that will give Gabby a tiny waist, enough energy to work twelve-hour days, and the kind of drug problem that ends with Lobster Newburg all over one’s party dress at the premiere (for which, naturally, the actress, not the studio, will be held accountable).
Throughout, Starstruck elevates the power of beauty to something positively mythic. One actress who mysteriously disappears is recalled by Margaret as “more than a person. She was a vast moneymaking enterprise, practically a whole corporation. For her to simply vanish without a trace was like Wall Street suddenly forgetting where they had put US Steel.” But taking up the mantle of a goddess, Shukert suggests, confers a burden that can’t be borne indefinitely. the early twentieth century, symmetrical features and golden hair might be both a girl’s best chance at hitting Wall Street, and the thing most likely to make her want to melt back into Main Street, never to be found again.
Rudnick’s novel takes place in contemporary times, but it takes its structure from classic Hollywood archetypes, and even his heroine, Becky Randle, recognizes that her movie magazines and obsessions with celebrity minutiae harkens back to the even older archetype of fairy tales. But whatever his reasons for entering the young adult market, Rudnick is not slumming: The surface of the novel pops and fizzes with sentences and dialogue so well crafted and hilarious that one is tempted to shout them aloud (there is, for example, a teen heartthrob named Jate, so named because his “his parents had wanted to mix the earthiness of ‘Jake’ with an antidote to hate and gesture towards his future when he would ‘create’”). He manages to make even supermodels and royalty subtle and human and empathetic; and he takes beauty as a topic worthy of serious attention.
Unlike Shukert’s girls, Rudnick’s Becky Randle was not born beautiful, and from the very first line, she bristles with hostility, personality, and character: “I grew up in what some people would call a mobile home and what other, snobbier, people might call a manufactured home, but I was always fine with calling it a trailer. That’s right, I said I grew up in a trailer. Fuck you.”
As a girl, Becky grows up loathing the small-town pretty girls, all “dressed alike in tight, micro-short white denim skirts, with sherbert-colored skimpy ribbed tank tops” and “their yards of shiny, flat hair.” Becky is deeply fluent with the losing side of the beauty equation; as an anonymous commenter on her yearbook photo puts it: Becky looks like someone’s “sad cousin,”: “I’m not saying she should kill herself, but it would be cheaper than lipo. She’s just nada special.” Without beauty, Becky is perceived as being barely human, and certainly not anyone’s romantic heroine. Instead, she takes solace in defending her obese but very well-loved mother, and hanging out with her best friend, Rocher (named after the chocolates; pronounced Ro-share, Roshay when she is feeling fancy) with whom she works at a subpar supermarket. But when her mother dies, a few pages into chapter one, her last request to her daughter is “When the magic shows up — I want you to say yes.”
The magic arrives in the form of a ticket to New York City, plus a thousand dollars, that brings her to her own impresario, Tom Kelly, a Calvin Klein-type figure, whose brand is so ubiquitous, on objects both high and low, that he is “like sugar or TV or God. He wasn’t a man, he was a thing, and he’d always been there.” Kelly, the actual man, looks thirtyish, but is at least fifty-ish and is so rich and good-looking and charismatic that even his sexuality is too complicated to be understood by mere mortals (when Becky asks, he replies with a story about sleeping with an entire nomadic tribe while on hash and angel dust; “It’s amazing, and you don’t have to call anyone the next day, because they are gone!”)
Kelly’s offer is simple: He will make Becky three dresses, and when she puts them on, she will become the most beautiful woman in the world. This kind of beauty, according to Kelly, translates in real moral and economic power: “Beauty as a gift, and an art, and a superpower. I’m talking about handing you a passport, and the keys, and the credit limit, to everything you could ever conceivably want.”
The most beautiful woman in the world, we discover after Becky takes the offer and is transformed into Rebecca, is not an all-American Lana Turner blonde but an emerald-eyed brunette, more Angelina Jolie than Jennifer Aniston. As Kelly and Rocher explain to Rebecca before she meets her romantic rival, a blond princess, there is a vast psychological chasm between the pretty girl and the beautiful woman. The pretty girl, with her “perfect, tiny little features” and “perfectly shiny blond, naturally straight expensively and frequently colored hair” has grown up pretty; she is the prom queen, the head cheerleader, Daddy’s favorite, the identical girls in their sherbert-colored tank tops and flat-ironed hair. As a child, the beautiful woman may have had a touch of too-muchness — too tall, too dramatic, her features too large for her face. But as adults, the pretty girl looks “a tad ordinary,” and “when a pretty girl is compared to a beautiful woman, she always loses.”
No one earns their genes, and Rebecca’s own beauty was literally created by a magic spell. But the dichotomy between the pretty girl and the beautiful woman allows space to distinguish between a kind of entitled, privileged beauty, and one that could be infused with elements of character, uniqueness and might perhaps even feel earned. For Becky, dwelling inside Rebecca’s beautiful carapace, “Rebecca is revenge, a gob of well-aimed spit right in the eye of every rejection I’d ever known, and from the lowest and most indefensible judgments of myself, which were the only judgments anyone ever trusts.”
But beauty, unlike real power, usually has an expiration date. As Kelly says: “Aging is every beautiful woman’s kryptonite. And so, yes, it’s ridiculous and no, you don’t have much time, and of course, it’s not fair. Those three statements are the essence of beauty.” One gets the sense that Becky, having never been beautiful like Shukert’s girls, is less damaged by it, and has developed a better sense of how beauty as a tool to barter for more permanent things during the limited time it is available to her.
The idea that inner beauty trumps outer beauty is the stock moral at the center of most fairy tales. But given the daunting specificity with which we itemize outer beauty, most of these tales can be infuriatingly vague about what exactly inner beauty looks like. Not so Paul Rudnick. Becky’s story resolves itself as a kind of inverse tale of the Frog Prince, but over the course of it, we get a very clear idea of what makes her so attractive: Humor. Wit. Self-deprecation. Candor. Unfortunately, Rudnick seems to imply, those who are the most beautiful or the most powerful seem the most likely to have the confidence to relax and just be themselves. Of course it’s ridiculous, and of course it’s not fair.