14 PHI KAPPA PHI FORUM
to the raters’ perceptions of masculinity or femininity. In the broadest sense, then, my students’
comments reveal a societal expectation that evaluating women’s appearance is essential, at least
to the next generation, to evaluating their work.
More specifically, such remarks indicate a student population deeply focused on physical details, often to the exclusion of all else.
I would argue that the problem extends beyond socialized gender expectations, however.
There is another type of funny business going
on: we inhabit a period in human history in
which American imagery becomes the means by
which we know ourselves. In his short treatise
On Fear (see a 1994 collection), Indian philosopher and public speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti observes that fear is not a reaction to a real threat,
the thickening of the blood and quickening of
the pulse, the preparation of the body for fight
or flight. Fear, he maintains, is a state of perpetual psychological comparison in which the self
does not live in the present, but instead exists in
a discursive state of mind ever comparing the
present moment to the past and projecting from
the present into the future. Fear, according to
Krishnamurti, is entirely psychological. We may
be perfectly healthy and content. We can be provided for according to most if not all of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet
we worry that we may not have enough tomorrow or that we are not as good now — not as
thin, not as wealthy, not as happy, not as healthy
— as we might have been.
Krishnamurti and best-selling author Eckhart
Tolle (The Power of Now, 1997) encourage an active presence of mind as the key to mental
health and happiness. Yet images bombard us.
“Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See
an Ad,” ran the headline of an article by Louise
Story in The New York Times in January 2007 —
some 5,000 per day for city dwellers. Substituting positive images for negative ones does not
eliminate the dilemma that we read ourselves
through images, no matter the kind. This (mis)
interpretation places us in a state of persistent
psychological comparison that blinds us to what
and who we are in our actual lived present by
measuring us constantly against (virtual) others
or against imaginings of what we once were or
might become. These virtual others and our
imagined selves are, to an increasing degree, as
real as we are.
In our postmodern world, mass-produced
representations tend to lose their origins so that
“it is the map that engenders the territory” and
the real is scarcely discernible, as philosopher
and sociologist Jean Baudrillard explains in his
1981 book Simulacra and Simulations. Greg Gar-
rard’s Ecocriticim (Routledge, 2004) succinctly
glosses Baudrillard’s four “phases of the image”
• It is the reflection of a basic reality.
• It masks the absence of a basic reality.
• It bears no relation to any reality whatever;
it is its own pure simulacrum.
A variety of U.S. media studies that scrutinize
misrepresentation and stereotyping tend to focus
on the first two stages. For instance, the Geena
Davis Institute on Gender in Media calls itself
“the only research-based organization working
within the media and entertainment industry to
engage, educate, and influence the need for gender
balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a
wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under.” While I
wholeheartedly support these goals, the very existence of such centers assumes the primacy of
media as the predominant measure and shaper
of our lives. Many media studies operate from
the assumption that aesthetic and other qualities
conveyed by media agents provide a link to real
women’s lives. Yet, the far-reaching thesis by linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure
states that the relationship between a sign and
the real-world thing denoting it is arbitrary. Just
as Saussure sees no natural relationship between
a word and its referential object, it is a particularly funny sort of business indeed to base one’s
sense of social outrage on the perception of a
causal relationship between the inherent properties of the object (in this case, perhaps, a
woman) and the signs (media images of tall or
short, fair or dark, thick or thin) that denote her.
If we believe an image can mask and pervert reality, then we assume the image is capable of reflecting reality in the first place — and therein
lies the trouble.
We get into an unending slippery slope, another type of funny business, in trying to reconcile images from media with notions of
beauty as a basic reality. In “What Do Men
Really Want?,” a March 2012 article in
Psychology Today, Eric Jaffe examines, among
other predilections, the figure preference men
have about women. Psychological research
shows that socioeconomically advanced societies
fancy slender women, whereas in tougher
times or in more resource-distressed cultures,
an inclination for larger bodies prevails, per-
haps because size evinces more access to food
and money. This is why changing media imag-
es to reflect a broad spectrum of lived experi-
ence and altering fashion to fit a greater vari-
ety of body types, although egalitarian and de-
sirable, do not fundamentally empower us. In-
stead, we need to acknowledge that these
images are simulacra.
The English Romantic poet John Keats tells
us in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is
truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on
earth, and all ye need to know.” But in today’s
popular culture, images rarely signify beyond
themselves to any truth we might call beauty.
They are their own reality. Witness the simulacra of social media and Internet memes and
Second Life. Our sense of ourselves (our attractiveness, success, happiness) in actual, lived experience is very much molded by the images in
these virtual worlds to which we compare ourselves, and which increasingly measure us.
Changing the images doesn’t change this fact,
only the criteria.
In advising the BUILD group, I have come to
focus less on questions of beauty and more on
the question of what it means to live fully. I
want to be present in the lives of others, including and especially my family, my community,
and my students. The work of the club has been
meaningful, even as creating new visions has led
us circuitously around and around this funny
business of representation.
I think back to that day in Fiction Writing
class when several students read their rants
aloud. They saw funny business, pure and simple, in some of what passes for beauty in our culture, and although they did not have alternative
visions to offer, their rants exuberantly called
out, Hey! Things are not quite what they seem! I
would call it beauty that all of us, the young
men as well as the young women and I, engaged
actively in listening to each other in a moment
of communion. I would call it the funniest of
business that we whooped and laughed.
Amy Sage Webb (Emporia State
University former chapter president) is
professor of English and Roe R. Cross
Distinguished Professor at ESU. She
co-directs the creative writing program
and has served as president of the faculty.
Webb has edited and served on the
boards of numerous journals and presses. She is a consulting
pedagogy specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles and has
directed the pedagogy forums for the Association of Writers
and Writing Programs. Her poetry and fiction appear in literary
journals, and her collection of stories, Save Your Own Life, was
published by Woodley Memorial Press in 2012. Webb earned
degrees from Ohio University (B.S. in journalism), Kansas State
University (M.A. in English) and Arizona State University (M.F.A.
in creative writing). Email her at email@example.com.
We get into an
slope, another type
of funny business,
in trying to reconcile
images from media
with notions of
beauty as a