"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Deconstructing Compliments

Recently I attended an event event in my neighbourhood at which Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Presidential candidate John Edwards was a guest. Although I am committed to a different candidate, I admire this woman very much, and the Chap and I took advantage of the opportunity to hear and to meet her.

After her talk, filled with eloquence and detail and humour and pragmatism, she circulated around our friends' sitting room, shaking hands and exchanging comments with the guests--while her handlers waited somewhat impatiently to whisk her away.

Our turn came. As she shook my hand, I introduced myself as a member of the NH House of Representatives, and introduced the Chap. As she held my hand, she cried, "Oh, you're so pretty! And you have such wonderful skin."

I had three reactions.

1. I was disconcerted that her perception of my looks trumped my belief that we met on common ground, as two women involved in the political process and mutually dedicated to improving social policy.

2. I was flattered. I mean, I'm human. I'm female. 'Nuff said.

3. Here was proof--not that I needed any--that she's a Southerner. There we stood in a room full of undemonstrative New Englanders, and we're complimenting each other on how we look, not on what we've accomplished.

I spent many years Down South in a culture that placed a high premium on how a woman looks, what she's wearing, who does her hair, which cosmetics she uses. I'm not saying these aren't universal issues. But when I think about the past, I am swamped by memories of being constantly scrutinised, commented upon, criticised, and improved. By Southern women.

I'm also reminded of my years on the stage playing some of the great ingenue roles in dramatic literature. I'd put heart and soul and much study into the part, for weeks on end, until during dress rehearsal week, my appearance seemingly became more important than my performance.

I'd stand there under the lights while the director and costumer eyeballed me and exchanged opinions. About me. (Is it any wonder I'm so painfully self-conscious?)

"What colour is her hair?"

This was a perennial question coming from the other side of the footlights and as far as I could tell, the answer was always, "The wrong colour"--either too dark, too light, or not quite red enough. Could I dye it black, would I henna it? Yes. I dyed it black for the Court of Siam. (I acquired a boyfriend during the run of the show who, for some weeks had no idea that my natural colour was something very different.) I applied henna to impersonate a fiery redhead (think Katherine Hepburn.) I would do anything as long as it was semi-permanent and would wash away. But when cast as Cinderella, I flatly refused to go blonde. I was a Rogers and Hammerstein (Lesley Anne Warren) sort of Cinderella, not a Walt Disney one.

I never say never, but my very early experience with hair colour might be responsible for my lack of interest in concealing any strands of grey that might sprout in the coming years.

For another role I had high-waisted Regency gowns--and I needed to look a lot more bosomy than I was. So my director insisted that I wear falsies. (A woman director. I've never forgiven her.)

Incidents like the abovementioned were partly responsible for my desire to abandon the theatre--where people told me where to stand, how to speak, and what colour to dye my hair--for film and television production. Where I was ensured of at least some measure of authority and control. Ditto for my eventual writing career.

Here are some thoughts on compliments.

If anyone expresses a positive opinion of one of my novels, or say it was an enjoyable/entertaining/good read, I'm delighted. I put a lot of hard work--years of it, in some cases--into creating and refining the product. If I give a workshop and a participant tells me it was valuable, I'm glad and glad to hear it. Again, this is the result of significant planning and effort on my part.

But when somebody compliments my looks, I find myself at a loss. I do, of course, promptly say "thank you" as my mother taught me to. I'm glad my appearance doesn't offend--especially after all those years of intense scrutiny. But for the most part when preparing to meet the world I do no more than clip my hair back and put on some make-up, which efforts I regard as a public service.

It was pounded into my brain from an early age that "Pretty is as pretty does"--by people who seemed to expect me to look really, really wonderful.

Since then I've found that it's a lot more productive and rewarding to focus on the "doing pretty," which I can control, more than the "being pretty," which--basic grooming aside--is purely the result of genetics.

When I was in my teens, and had to get all spiffed up for a party or a formal occasion (a debutante ball, a military ball, a hunt ball), and I presented myself to the parents for inspection, my father always offered the same compliment: "You look just like Hedy Lamarr." It was the pinnacle of commendation.

Back then, I knew only that Hedy Lamarr was a movie actress who had clearly impressed my dad. He definitely has a thing for beautiful brunettes with large, dark eyes and delicate features. Hedy took second place in his heart on the December night his appreciative eye fell on my mother.

Later, when I was in college, spending time with hard core movie fans (not fans of hard core movies, I hasten to add), hanging out at the funky downtown vintage movie cinema, I discovered that Hedy Lamarr's early fame derived from her appearance in Ecstasy, a German film, in which she appears nude--the most notoriously erotic film of its day. As a graduate student studying film, I had to watch Ecstasy.

A few years after that, as a novelist working from home, I sometimes spent my writing breaks watching old movies on the Turner Classics channel. At that time, and sometimes still, TCM celebrated an actor's or actress's birthday by screening several or many of their films in a row.

Whenever Hedy came up in the rotation, I lost an entire working day.

Previously I had regarded Vivien Leigh as the most beautiful female in filmdom. I knew everything there was to know about her. I needed to know more about the sublimely glamourous Hedy, my dad's favourite film star.

(Who looks not at all like me.)

I discovered she was incisively witty. Her most famous quote resonated with me: "Any girl can be glamorous, all you have to do is stand still and look stupid." (I would only add, "And wear falsies and dye your hair.")

Pursuing biographical facts, I learned that she was positively brilliant. She was a co-inventor of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum, and made it available to the government in order to defeat Hitler.

She was a co-patentee for her discovery, utilised by the military for warfare applications. It even enabled Bluetooth technology. (Don't ask me how.)

She was a humanitarian and visionary.

Hedy became my heroine for reasons that had nothing to do with the way she looked.

Whenever the Chap and I are getting ready to go out and I ask him how I look, he never invokes Hedy Lamarr. He always says, "You look cute."

Cute? Puppies with floppy ears are cute. Shirley Temple is cute. Kittens dressed in doll clothes are cute. I own shoes that are cute. After (mumble mumble) years of wedlock, I'm finally learning not to even ask.

It's incongruous, thinking about beauty and cuteness and female objectification as I sit here beside the Big Lake, my hair in a tangle and my face bare of cosmetics. I wish the misguided folk who have, over the years, referred to me as a "Georgia Peach" or an "English Rose" can't could see me now!

I'm spending this day dressed like a hobo, reading and writing and generally striving to "do pretty" instead of be pretty. That way lies all hope of happiness and contentment.

Hedy would understand.

And so, I could tell, does Elizabeth Edwards.

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