Monthly Archives: November 2011

Wanted: Dead or Alive


The cold and inhuman beauty of Snow White or S1m0ne discussed in my previous blogs has many predecessors; thanks to Tim Jones for pointing out a particularly interesting one, John Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre”, published in 1819. Since this was the first vampire story published in English, its establishment of two contrasting modes of beauty – the vampiric and the human, the dead and the alive – helped set up the vampire as a figure through which we can explore what it means to be human, and also what it means for a human to be beautiful.

You can read “The Vampyre” here.

Polidori (1795-1821) travelled Europe with Lord Byron from 1816-17 as his physician, but although he is said to have admired him initially – fancying himself as a mercurial poet and lover in the Byronic mould – he became jealous and left Byron’s party on bad terms (See James B. Twitchell, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, 1981). Recent critics such as Twitchell interpret the vampire of Polidori’s story to be based on Byron, and it was this that Tim thought of when he read my Retouch Me post; I mentioned Byron as an example of ‘imperfect’ beauty having a much more powerful effect than correct and symmetrical looks.

Polidori’s vampire is, ostensibly, a gentleman, causing ripples in the drawing rooms of early nineteenth-century London. In a challenge to the idea of beauty as perfection, “Lord Ruthven” is desired for his “peculiarities”: although his features in “form and outline were beautiful”, Ruthven has a “deadly hue” that “never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion”.


Ah, Spike.

I find it refreshing to have an example of male beauty that is so similar to the motionless, deathly beauty of Snow White – perhaps this ideal is not as rigidly gendered as it is often argued to be (See Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic and Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body). Unlike Snow White, Ruthven is characterised by his actions; however, these actions are implicit, guessed at, and if they happen at all they occur offstage. In an echo of the scandal that led Byron to leave England, Ruthven is surrounded by rumours that suggest vice, perversion and the corruption of innocence.

Snow White may be a picture of purity, but I would argue that the fascination of this particular image of purity (there are plenty to choose from) arises from the uncanny mysteriousness of the untouchable, unknowable woman. Ruthven is the same: the young protagonist, Aubrey, is typical in his reaction to Ruthven, finding that though he was “near the object of his curiosity, he obtained no greater gratification from it than the constant excitement of vainly wishing to break that mystery, which to his exalted imagination began to assume the appearance of something supernatural”. With their expressionless faces and silent lack of emotion, both Snow White and Ruthven seem not quite human, not quite alive. They are disturbing, and utterly fascinating.

Polidori accentuates the inhuman, deathly beauty of Ruthven – who is not identified as a vampire until very late in the story – by contrasting his beauty with that of Ianthe, a young Greek girl with “the eye of animated nature”, who skips through the countryside with him, very much alive and warmly human. Polidori combines this description of liveliness with the surprising claim that Ianthe is so beautiful “she might have formed the model for a painter”, suggesting the motionless, displayed beauty of Snow White. But he immediately follows this with a retraction: “save that her eyes spoke too much mind for any one to think she could belong to those who had no souls”. This admirably feminist statement underlines the contrast between living and deathly beauty, making it clear that Ianthe’s key attraction lies in the movements of her body and mind.

It seems inevitable to us now, raised on Dracula and Buffy, that Ianthe is drained of her beautiful life by the vampire Ruthven. Polidori was one of the first to establish this convention, though he was probably drawing on much older horror stories that were told orally. But it isn’t just an effective plot device; the fragility of youth and beauty is made clearly visible, fed upon by the terrible, eternal workings of time. When Aubrey finds Ianthe’s body, having heard her screams accompanied by the sinister laughter of her attacker, her beauty has been converted into the vampiric mode:

“There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there”.


I think what is most disturbing in this image is that she is still beautiful. She has not been destroyed by death, she has been entirely changed by it. Death has made her its own, a picture of the terrible beauty of the eternal and unchanging. Vampiric beauty triumphs absolutely in Polidori’s story – Aubrey’s sister also falls victim to Ruthven and Aubrey himself wastes away into death, unable to save her. It is intriguing to think of beauty as being at war with itself; in retouched pictures, for instance, the human element that makes Ianthe beautiful is eliminated – in the name of beauty. What is it that we’re afraid of – the enchantment of beauty or its inevitable decay?

Cyber Beauty

While researching glass and ice as metaphors of human beauty for my PhD, I keep coming across the question of why a cold, static and untouchable beauty is so alluring. Think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty… and the 2002 film S1m0ne, in which a computer-generated ‘actress’ becomes far more successful than her human counterparts. Simone, the beauty who was created behind a glass screen and only exists behind it, is the 21st-century cyber beauty.


William R. Newman writes in Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature that,

“Even fashion models are beginning to feel threatened by their virtual counterparts – the New York Times has reported that modeling agencies have begun using cyberspace personalities such as “Webbie Tookay” in their clothing advertisements. The founder of a famous model-management company expounds his semijocular wish that “all models were virtual,” in view of their “hassle-free” personalities and their ability to keep looking good over the long haul.

The virtual model, a two-dimensional creature of unthinking electrons impelled by human artifice, could end up replacing her (or his) natural exemplar.”


It shouldn’t surprise any of us that, just like Simone, Webbie Tookay is female, white, alarmingly symmetrical and comes pre-programmed with interview responses. Perfect beauty, right? I’m not convinced: as I argued in my last blog, ‘perfect’ beauty, correctly formed and surreally smooth, tends to disconcert us rather than turn us on, and the YouTube clip of Webbie Tookay gives a perfect example of that.

Newman may be overstating the ‘threat’ to real-life fashion models by such avatars as Webbie, but there is a genuine threat in the digitalisation of beauty:

Retouching could be just the beginning of our culture’s movement from flesh to pixels.

So what is the appeal? Perhaps the wish of the model-management company founder that all models were virtual, avoiding ‘problems’ of age and personality, comes down to control: a virtual model can be literally modelled into an ideal of beauty, and can stay fixed in that exquisite shape forever (or changed at the touch of a button). Moreover, like Snow White she (or maybe he) produces the desire of the unattainable, a desire that maintains its strength because it can never be satisfied.

In theory this seems a good place to conclude, offering a possible explanation for our cultural obsession with placing human beauty behind a glass barrier. But please, don’t take the ‘desire is strengthened by being unsatisfied’ idea as relationship advice. The notion of a world where everyone holds out is surely not an enticing one – too perfect, too inhuman.

Retouch Me


No one seems to like those impossible pictures of models retouched into waxwork perfection, and I completely agree that the culture of obsessively airbrushing images is far from healthy. It’s true that no-one should feel they have to aspire to such inhumanly perfect ideals, but I think our relationship with retouching is more complex than that. I would like to put forward the possibility that so much censure is directed at these images not because they represent an impossible ideal, but because they are an insufficient ideal.

There is nothing there to aspire to: the faces are so smooth that your eyes slide right off them.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant highlights the problem of drawing a distinction between beauty and perfection (in his Critique of Judgement of 1790). When it comes to people, he claims that perfection is found in the average: for instance, the mind pictures all the men it has ever seen, and then “gets a perception of the average size, which alike in height and breadth is equally removed from the extreme limits of the greatest and the smallest statures; and this is the stature of a beautiful man.”

But wait: a beautiful man? Clearly Kant never heard the phrase, ‘tall, dark and handsome’, nor ever met his contemporary Lord Byron and seen the effect on men and women of his tall, club-footed charisma. Average never turned anyone on. Kant does betray some uncertainty, in his following retraction: “But the normal idea is far from giving a complete archetype of beauty in the genus. It only gives the form that constitutes the indispensable condition of all beauty, and, only correctness in the presentation of the genus.” Like the glossy magazines, Kant is reluctant to entirely give up the idea that perfection is required for beauty, but he cannot deny that perfection alone is not enough. It produces a correct human, but not quite a real one. And not quite a beautiful one either.


This is the problem with retouched images: they turn people, who often are beautiful in the flesh, into perfect, correct mannequins without that compelling spark of beauty. However, there is still an aspirational element to these images – the practice of retouching surely wouldn’t be so widespread otherwise. We may not have that gut (or groin) response to heavily retouched images of people, but:

Who would turn down a bit of retouching on their own image?

I read somewhere that Girls Aloud only agreed to a particularly revealing photoshoot because the retouching would make them look perfect – and, perhaps, make them look less like themselves. One of them wished that they could be “retouched all the time”.

But it would seem odd to claim that what we (and Girls Aloud) aspire to is that waxy, inhuman look which is touted as an ideal of beauty. Maybe the thought of retouching in our own individual cases has appeal as a way of becoming our ideal selves. Individuality remains central, whereas it is glossed over in cosmetic advertisements. Fair enough; they are advertising their products. We are advertising ourselves, so it is no surprise if we would like to put our best face forward. I am certainly not defending the media’s obsessive retouching, just trying to explain its appeal when the consensus seems very much one of disapproval. Problems with the aspirational factor occur if, like Kant, we blur the distinction between perfection and beauty, and aspire to something beyond the capabilities of flesh.

But I still haven’t said nearly enough on the matter – this link shows very clearly how retouching may be seen essentially as the art of lying.


Are you lookin’ at me?