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'Pretty Privilege,' Where?

Writers are wrong to assume the male gaze affords privileges to "pretty" women.

08/21/2017 18:37 EDT | Updated 10/11/2017 16:37 EDT
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Janet Mock wrote a disappointing article about the privileges of being pretty. In this article, Mock analyzed the intersections of her identity that complicate whether she would ever meet Eurocentric standards of beauty. Despite how unlikely she, as a Black transgendered woman wearing a size 8, would ever be to meet, let alone reap benefits from said standards, Mock identified herself as a beneficiary of “pretty privilege.”

You can find the article here: https://www.allure.com/story/pretty-privilege

Unfortunately, this article wasn’t nearly as groundbreaking or trailblazing as I’m sure Mock intended it to be. I reference her intentions not because I can read her mind, but because her platform, which conversely is very worthy of praise and admiration, amplifies the visibility of this piece, thereby heightening the likelihood that it will remain indelibly imprinted in the minds of women, “ugly” and “pretty” alike, everywhere. My acknowledgment of her hard earned platform furthers my reasoning that this article was irresponsible at best, and ultimately useless for one reason and one reason only:

We’ve heard this argument before; and rightfully, it was challenged and debunked!

Remember when we tricked ourselves into thinking that being a house slave was a privilege? Black narratives trivialized the role and work of house slaves, and dismissed validations that they experienced hardship because their duties were perceived as easier than the duties of field slaves. The context of these and many other varying roles on the plantation were also notably gendered.

A comprehensive analysis helped us realize that discrediting the work of house slaves was an inherent dig at Black women, who were no strangers to field work, but disproportionately placed in their master’s house, especially if they were attractive. If “Massa” had slaves in his house, he’d make sure they were easy on the eyes. The strategic placement of house v. field, and “pretty” v. “ugly” slaves worked in tandem to fulfill domestic roles not occupied by White women. Of critical importance to the historical comparisons between house and field slaves was the infamous “slave mentality,” which accused house slaves of single-handedly perpetuating slavery because they were so comfortable being slaves, they didn’t care to resist, let alone be free.

Imagine that. Comfortable slaves! C’mon now, you already know White people weren’t having that!

What we know now, which wasn’t analyzed even symbolically in Mock’s piece, is that proximity to White people during slavery on the basis of perceived preference (whatever that preference may be) bestowed no benefits to house slaves, but rather the opposite was true: they, too, experienced brutalization which included rape, as well as the emotional and psychological trauma of tasks reserved only for house slaves, such as breastfeeding racist White children while being separated from their own (knowing their children would be or have been sold to another plantation); preparing meals they’d never eat; and raising future slave masters who would inherit them as property and reinforce the fallacy of inferiority on which the enslavement of Black people was premised. And while field slaves would eventually retire in the evening after working long arduous hours, there was no such thing as retiring after a day’s work for house slaves; they were on-call around the clock!

To address the insult of the slave mentality: yes, slavery was legally perpetuated by enslaved women who by default, gave birth to enslaved children because of the law, partus sequitar ventrem, which is Latin for, “the child follows the mother.” To be free, a free woman had to give birth to you. Slave masters populated their plantations by raping enslaved women, which not only saved them money, but also left a bad taste in their wives’ mouths about seeing their husband’s half Black children, everywhere.

And this is what happened to the “pretty” slaves! Need I recount the narratives of slaves who were considered “ugly” to make it resoundingly clear that slavery was horrible for every enslaved person?

While I’m prepared to concede that being “pretty” has advantages, I will never concede that those advantages are tantamount to a privilege. A privilege, which by definition is an unearned benefit, is something that reduces, if not eliminates altogether, a person’s likelihood of experiencing a particular set of hardships or unfavorable circumstances. There is no such hardship a “pretty” woman can avoid by just being “pretty.” It’s never happened, and it never will! Even if at best, it meets the same definition of other privileges (an unearned asset), it doesn’t operate as a privilege.

In the way that being a house slave granted closer proximity to Whiteness, being pretty grants closer proximity to the patriarchal gaze and everything that comes with it. While studies show “pretty” women are more likely to be offered jobs and earn more money in the workplace than women who are perceived as “ugly” or overweight, there is absolutely nothing that allows for women to filter how, when, or what aspect of the inherently backhanded patriarchal gaze they’ll experience at any given time. If, like other privileges, being “pretty” is truly a privilege, there must be a way to activate it in service of those lacking the privilege. There is no such way for a “pretty” woman to activate her “pretty privilege.” Mock does absolutely nothing to advise on what should be done with or about “pretty privilege” once she proverbially volunteers to be the first to step on the “pretty privilege” plank.

Okay, you’re pretty…and you wrote an article about it. Now what?!

What should a “pretty” woman do to address being offered a job that would not have been offered to an “ugly” woman? Decline the job?! Fuck outta here! Everyone has to eat, and of all people, Janet Mock understands what it means to be a “working girl.”

Ask the same pretty woman who was offered the job how long it took for her to be sexually harassed thereafter? Or ask a lesbian how frustrating it is to be perceived as heterosexual simply because she presents a femme. Ask her how often she’s harassed by fuckboys, and solicited for threesomes with her girlfriend. Ask her how often it’s presumed that because she declines advances, she’s accused of being stuck up, lying about actually being a lesbian, or threatened with violence because of one, the other, or any combination of the two scenarios. And then tell her that this is a privilege!

What is clear are the actual disadvantages of the perceived advantages of being “pretty.” The widely held beliefs that “pretty” people don’t suffer, aren’t mistreated, live the best lives, are always happy, and are mean, are excellent examples of how stifling it can be for society to pack things into the “pretty” woman’s identity that don’t belong. And like all stereotypes, these concepts are so grossly out of touch with reality. Conversely, should a “pretty” woman experience something unfortunate, they very rarely get sympathy because they’re “stuck up,” “entitled,” or worse, they somehow “deserved it.” Think about the response to Kim Kardashian’s kidnapping and robbery, and Rihanna’s experience with intimate partner violence. We can all agree that being kidnapped and robbed  ―  or beaten until your face is swollen, bruised, and temporarily disfigured  ―  are all horrible things. But for some reason, Kim Kardashian and Rihanna were either accused of lying about these incidents, or if believed to be telling the truth, guilty of provoking these violent attacks against their very own safety. In fact, the social apathy engendered by perceived advantages of being “pretty” has been Halle Berry’s entire career in the public eye! Many people don’t know, however, that Berry is permanently deaf in one ear as the result of one of many abusive relationships. You read that right: Halle Berry was beaten to the point of now having a disability!

And where have we heard of all this before? Rape culture, where God forbid if you’re a woman ― or worse, a “pretty” woman ― your mere existence is provocative and effectively, reprehensible! There is no presumed innocence of the violated, and more rarely, any accountability expected of the violator.

This all matters to me personally because I am fine as hell, and Janet Mock is not only wrong, but she’s wrong with a vast following of readers and admirers who may never interrogate and disabuse themselves of this deeply flawed assertion.

Let’s not pretend Jay Z didn’t just release an album disclosing years and years of mistreatment and disregard for Beyoncé. Let’s not pretend Selena Quintanilla-Perez wasn’t murdered at the tender age of 24 because she had a fan club manager who was obsessed with her... because she was pretty. Let’s not pretend that we don’t know why Marilyn Monroe’s death remains a mystery, because once patriarchy gobbles you up, even if you meet and exceed Eurocentric patriarchal standards of beauty, it will still rob you of your dignity and dispose of you. Let’s not pretend that the movie “Mean Girls” was not intentionally cast with actresses who are categorically “pretty” in efforts to reinforce the stereotype that “pretty” women are shallow, stupid, and mean.

If Janet Mock wants to put on the “pretty privilege” cape, which inherently requires others around her to tacitly agree that they’re “ugly,” she (and they) can do it on her (their) own. No matter how you or others may define your looks or appearance, it is our like-mindedness that must do the work of dismantling oppressive systems. Oppression doesn’t care what you look like, and neither does liberation!

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