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.