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.

s1m0ne

http://www.lovely-pics.com

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.”

webbie-still50

http://www.sandyressler.com

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.

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