Throughout my childhood and even today, I have been accustomed to society’s views of romantic love and physical beauty, expressed through the media and even my peers around me. Back in 7th grade, I remember my friends and I having a crush on a girl named Victoria, who was considered to be the prettiest girl in our grade. Long blonde hair, skinny, blue eyes and outgoing, she had all the traits that I (and almost everyone else) found attractive at the time. Many of my comedic peers even referred to her as the “love of their life”. I remember that we would often go out of our way to try to impress her at times, like trying extra hard playing basketball at recess, or participating more in class to look smarter. Something about her made us into completely different people when we were around her and it was almost uncontrollable. It was like an epidemic, even girls in our grade noticed, and many of them I noticed attempted to look and act like her, wearing similar clothes and even talking the same way. At first I looked back on this as a peculiar experience, but as I started to take notice of the influences around me: TV shows, commercials, stories I’ve read, and people around me, I realize that the adoration of romantic love and physical beauty is actually quite common in our society, it’s just not as obvious. Our views of physical beauty and romantic love have been shaped by everything around us.
In The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Morrison asserts that romantic love and physical beauty are “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” She defines and equates these ideas by saying that they both “originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.” In Morrison’s story, Pauline, a Black girl of the working class, describes going to the movies and seeing Clark Gable and Jean Harlow on the screen: “I’d fix my hair up like I’d seen hers on a magazine…It looked just like her.” She later puts her hair back to the way it was and “settled down to just being ugly.” This reminded me of the girls from middle school who would try to copy Victoria looks because that was what they thought beauty was. Pauline attempts to emulate Jean Harlow, a famous white actress, at an attempt to be what society deems “beautiful”. After losing a tooth from biting candy, she seemed to snap back to reality; “I was five months pregnant, trying to look like Jean Harlow, and a front tooth gone” and put her hair back. After snapping back to the reality of her current situation, she then refers to herself as ugly. Pauline praised Jean Harlow’s “beauty” and tried to copy it, which ended in disillusion when she realized that she didn’t look like Jean Harlow. Just like people today, Pauline’s idea of romantic love and physical beauty is heavily influenced by what the media seems to feed us. Our culture constitutes the idea of beauty. In Pauline’s case, it was not only the movies, but magazines that also influenced her: “I fixed my hair up like I’d seen hers on a magazine.” Pauline thought that by doing her hair like people in the movies or on magazines, she would be considered beautiful. Because of her disillusionment, she carelessly bit into candy that pulled a tooth right out of her mouth. Perhaps this is what Morrison meant when saying that romantic love and physical beauty are the most destructive ideas of human thought.
Morrison also compares the idea of physical beauty with virtue, saying that “[Pauline] stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.” Because of popular culture, Pauline reevaluates her idea of physical beauty with society’s view, attempts to emulate it, and feels self-contempt when she realizes she can’t emulate it. It is also for this reason that she forgets “lust and simple caring for”.. One of the reasons that physical beauty is so destructive is because it fools us into thinking that we are worth less because we aren’t “on par” with what society has defined to be physically beautiful. Pauline has been so entrenched at what popular culture has taught her about romantic love and physical beauty that she forgot what it meant to lust and care for someone, probably her own idea of what romantic love and physical beauty really meant to her. I think what Morrison is saying is that romantic love and physical beauty are interchangeable; Romantic love is based on physical beauty and vice-versa.
In Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie LePrince De Beaumont, the youngest daughter of a wealthy merchant was deemed the most beautiful of her sisters and developed the name “Beauty”. Because Beauty was deemed the most beautiful, it made her two sisters “always very jealous” (p. 32) or in other words, envious. The jealous sisters try later in the story to get Beauty killed but fail and are turned into statues as punishment. The idea of physical beauty, which “originates in envy”, drove these envious girls to try to kill their own sister. Later after Beauty stays with Beast to spare her father’s life, Beast asks Beauty to be his wife. Beauty rejects him and says “it is too bad that he is so ugly, for he is so kind (p.38).” Beauty implies that if Beast were not ugly, she would have married him. Marriage is often referred to as a “sacrament of love”, or possibly a symbol of romantic love. Beauty rejected Beast’s marriage proposal because he was too ugly, which seems to imply that romantic love cannot happen without physical attraction. Although Beast was kind and intelligent, it was physical beauty that was the determining factor. I also think that this story agrees with the idea that romantic love is destructive by also depicting romantic love as possessive by the way Beast basically kept Beauty captive at his home, even telling her “Promise me that you will never leave (p. 39).” This seems to demonstrate Morrison’s remark on romantic love, that she regarded it as “possessive mating”. At the end of the story, Beast is turned back into “a young prince more beautiful than the day was bright” (p. 41) and then they get married.
We also learn a lot about the ideas of romantic love and physical beauty in the 1933 and 1976 movie depictions of King Kong. Although these movies were made more than 50 years apart, there are more similarities between the two then one might think. In both movies, the beautiful girl protagonist is white-skinned and blonde-haired which shows how the standards of physical beauty in the media has changed over the decades. Either way, her beauty plays a huge role in the movie. In both versions, the main female protagonist (Dwan from 1976 and Ann from 1933) was recruited for the lead role a movie because she was beautiful. Not surprisingly, the recruiters were men, which also seems to show that physical beauty is largely determined by men. Also, both movies exemplify the destructiveness of romantic love. King Kong, a giant gorilla that could destroy anything in his path, dies in vain of trying to be with the beautiful Dwan/Ann Darrow. King Kong loses his life in pursuit of romantic love caused by the physical beauty of Dwan/Ann Darrow. Romantic love drives us to often act irrationally, even when lives are at risk. Perhaps this what Morrison meant by saying romantic love is destructive. Like Beast from The Beauty and the Beast, King Kong is portrayed as keeping the girl captive, even though King Kong really just loves her. The King Kong films also support the idea that physical beauty and romantic love go hand in hand. King Kong and the girl, although they wanted to be together, couldn’t because King Kong wasn’t attractive, or human for that matter. Society misunderstood King Kong because of his looks, refusing to believe that such a beast could possibly be capable of love. This movie shows us that romantic love cannot happen without the presence of physical beauty.
Morrison says equates romantic love and physical beauty, and we can also see that in the Disney Movie The Little Mermaid. Ariel, a beautiful, skinny, big-eyed mermaid, falls in love with a human prince but can’t be with her because she is a mermaid. Ariel then gets help from Ursula and trades her beautiful voice and her soul for a few days of being human so that she can be with the prince. In this instance, romantic love is destructive because it clouded Ariel’s judgement and made her risk everything for love. Once Ariel became human, she left her family and spends time with the prince, who is attracted to Ariel even with her inability to speak. This seems to undermine the importance of agency in physical attraction. Ariel didn’t say a word used only her physical beauty to make the prince fall in love with her.
Morrison asserts that romantic love and physical beauty are the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Through these stories and movies, I am able to see how destructive these ideas can really be. Firsthand, I have also seen how our cultural ideas of physical beauty and romantic love have negatively impacted my peers, causing them to do things they never would have done if those two ideas weren’t motives. The cultural denomination of physical beauty and romantic love has caused everyone, including me, self-contempt, envy, insecurity, above other negative feelings. We realize this, yet we still make the same mistakes and still choose to accept this “universal” definition that is slowly eating away at our own unique ideas of what romantic love and physical beauty is.
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