If you're an adult (and I don't mean behaving like an adult all the time, I mean, that you have passed a certain number of years on this planet), you probably remember this scene from "When Harry Met Sally":
HARRY: I mean, "should auld acquaintance be forgot" - does that mean we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we do happen to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible, because we forgot them.
SALLY: Maybe you're just supposed to remember you forgot them, or something.
I've thought of this piece of dialogue more than once in contemplating one pop song that has taken up permanent residence inside my ear, and which I've found myself both relating to and abhoring at the same time. The part of me that adores One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful" is my eternally crush-susceptible inner teenager, which is exactly the audience this (and all) dreamy-eyed boy-band pop is designed for. But because I am a grown-up (at least most of the time), I view this kind of music with both contempt for having captured me and with significant academic confusion about what the lyrics are meant to convey.
"What Makes You Beautiful" has a central narrative (please indulge my use of the word narrative to describe the "story" within this song – see here for complete lyrics and music video) that seems to paint a modern fairytale replete with love, beauty, desire and modesty.
Once upon a time, a boy likes a girl. She is beautiful but doesn't know it, exhibiting this through seemingly unconscious Downton-era indicators as flipping her hair, being shy and smiling at the ground. (Classics.) Buteveryone else in the room can see that she's beautiful. Everyone else but her.
The lovestruck teen boy, who wants her desperately, also wants her to understand that she's beautiful (because she doesn't know that she's beautiful). And to prove that he's right, he put it in a so-ho-hong that calls out her insecurity even though everyone else is looking at her and sees that she's beautiful. Then he repeats it, over and over, until he drills into her thick skull (underneath all that flipping hair and just to the north of that ground-smiling mouth), that she is beautiful. Because - in case you're just joining us now - she doesn't know that she's beautiful. And that's what makes her beautiful. (Feel free to illustrate this tale and publish it as a children's book - all I ask is 30% of the profits.)
Except it's not the end.
But after listening one too many times to this incredibly infectious tune, the message takes on a different tint. This Beauty has been evilly bewitched - her appeal is visible to everyone else and invisible to her. She gets a B.A. in flipping her hair and smiling at the ground. The teen villagers, instead of chasing her with torches like they would a Beast, hold torches for her, worshipping her from the midst of her blind oblivion. Prince Charming tries to shake some sense into her through his so-ho-hong, trying to break the spell, free Excalibeauty from her stony sense of self and show her once and for all that she is beautiful. (Even though she doesn't know it, because, well, you know.)
But if she doesn't know she's beautiful, and that's what makes her beautiful, once the curse is lifted and she becomes aware of her own beauty, her suitor has lost the thing that has most attracted him to this enigmatic creature of unconscious beauty. Once she can see what he can see, and understands how he wants her so desperately, we might see one of several less lyrical endings to this love story:
- She will look in his eyes and fall desperately in love with him, but since she now knows she’s beautiful, he will no longer find her beautiful, and he will dump her. The End.
- She will become aware of her own beauty and trade up to another suitor who's more in her league, perhaps one of the leering villagers. The End.
- She will become creeped out that the entire community has been gazing on her lecherously this entire time, shrieking and running out into traffic. Smash. Boom. The End.
- She sees everyone in the room looking at her, and as they stagger-lurch toward her like the lovelorn undead, she grabs the nearest shovel and decapitates them one-by one; when the last admirer has been cut down, she wipes the sweat and blood from her brow and says, "Now THAT's what makes me beautiful, bitches!" Then she tosses away her weapon, and she walks off into the sunset, as the strains of Miserlu play and the credits roll. (“Directed by Quentin Tarantino.”) The End.
But consider another option: perhaps she does, in fact, know she's beautiful. I mean how often does an entire room think someone is beautiful if that person does not, in some way, understand her own appeal? And if she does know she's beautiful, how would that change our understanding of the song? Whereas once our heroine was demure, shy, casting downward glances in subservient or self-deprecating postures unknowingly displaying beauty, now we're back to a more calculated model: the woman as temptress, feigning ignorance of her appeal, whilst weaving a web of slavish, teasing devotion involving her aspiring paramour, his bandmates, and everyone else in the room who can see it. Everyone else INCLUDING her.
In this scenario, she is complicit in the obsessive nature of the singer's connection with her. Suddenly, this beauty is a Mean Girl. And part of me wants to report her to the folks at Miss Representation. (Another part of me wants to use the plot of this song as some kind of inverse fairy tale basis for a webseries, but that's still an idea in process.)
As I consume culture aimed at the masses, enjoying the intense catchiness of the tune, and the irrepressible youth enthusiasm of both music and lyrics, I apply a generous dose of intellectual analysis. Perhaps this woman is a manipulator. (Or, as a friend reframed it, “knows her own power.”) But I would like to believe that her beauty blindness is due to the aspired-to but still-rare self-possessed sense that outer beauty isn't worth the effort if it doesn't match what's inside, that effortless, modest beauty is something that will be as powerful an attractor as its obvious, more flashy cousins. Beauty is intimate, relative, situational, specific, amorphous and different, person-to-person, day-to-day. And that’s what makes us beautiful.