Monday, January 31, 2011
She Walks in Beauty
This is the full article I wrote for Out There magazine, considering beauty from the vantage point of trans/third gender. It appears in the current issue of Out There as "The Beauty of the Third Sex" but was originally titled "She Walks in Beauty". You can buy the magazine online or from stockists in the US and Europe, I'm not sure if it's distributed further afield yet. Anyway, here goes:
Karis Wilde by Jaime Baker
Beauty is a nebulous thing, it is indescribable, it can’t be captured, though that hasn’t stopped millennia’s worth of artists, writers and thinkers from trying. Baudelaire called beauty, “A sphinx no mortal knows,” yet, we know it when we see it. Of course it differs from every viewer’s vantage point, but that is the beauty of beauty; its consistency in tandem with its fluidity, its interchangeability and fixity, its permanence and its mutability. How one thing previously unremarkable, can be transformed by a stray ray of light, into the purest representation of perfect aesthetics, sometimes only for a moment.
Plato spoke of an ideal world, beyond ours, where there exist true forms, which appear in our world only as copies. Beauty is one of these ideal forms, what we see physically before our eyes (if our eyes can be believed) is only a representation of true beauty, a shadow cast by it. That’s maybe why we see it in so many forms, what we’re experiencing is only a reflection of the ideal of beauty, shining from the a beyond. Seeing beauty is like catching a glimpse of the moon’s reflection, it’s there, in every reflective surface, but it is only a copy, only a physicalization, sign posting the existence of beauty. A beautiful person (object, landscape, or emotion) is never beauty itself, but rather a souvenir of beauty.
Since Plato, beauty has been bound intrinsically with symmetry, the equal size and shape of both sides of the face and body. It is a value that has fed into phrenology and Renaissance portraiture, eugenics and ballet, nineteenth century Italian gardens and Art Deco architecture all equate symmetry with aesthetic achievement. Likewise, today’s highest paid professional beauties have almost perfectly symmetrical faces (Kate Moss being perhaps the prime example) and beauty is still for the most part seen in terms of balanced proportions. But more so, these most celebrated lookers represent another kind of symmetry, that of a balance between the modes of being we call “male” and “female”. Models, muses, movie stars, span the most beautiful qualities of “both” genders. Isn’t there always something very masculine, or at the very least boyish, about the most beautiful women of history? Elizabeth the First, Joan Crawford, Agnes Dean. And without even emphasizing the feminine connotations of the word “beauty”, the world’s most gorgeous men, from Alexander the Great, to James Dean, have all had a most definite prettiness to them. After all, if beauty is symmetry, then what can be more symmetrical than a beauty spanning both sides of the gender divide we currently insist on?
What makes symmetry so beautiful to behold is not purely the aesthetics of geometry, it is not just pure rational mathematics, curves, lines and angles which capture our attention. What makes symmetry transcendent and indeed beautiful is its rarity. The universe is basically asymmetrical, as are we. If it blossoms on our bodies in pairs, it will likely be asymmetrical. Balls, breasts, feet, eyes, limbs, all unequal in size and shape, represent the central trait of an existence that is askew, not square on. The very rareness of symmetry in our world makes it dazzling, because for better or worse we prize uniqueness, be it in jewels, animals or people. Often this lust for the unusual leads to fetishism, violent skirmishes and the formation of a psychological starvation economy, but to the positive, the desire for the different shows that there is still hope for individualism in a world defined by conspicuous conformity.
The twentieth century’s most mundane re-thinker of beauty, Andy Warhol, said, “I have never seen a person I couldn’t call a beauty.” Though not a common thing, you can find beauty in just about anyone if you try, lover. But, when you do find it, when you do strike upon beauty, you realize that it is never that which is most expected, homogenous or everyday about a person which makes them beautiful, never something High Street or immediately recognizable, but actually, the reverse. It is the things which marks out a person as unusual, that marks them out as beautiful. A unique blend of features signaling a blend of ethnic heritages, a sense of style informed by imagination not commerce, odd-colored eyes, a gap toothed smile, shoulder length hair in contrast with a gymnasts musculature. The unique is beauty, the incandescent and intangible strangeness of something wholly original is beauty, self-possession is beauty, uniqueness is beauty, non-conformity is beauty, the other is beauty.
It is that which we consider different which we also consider beautiful, and vice versa, what we consider beautiful we consider different. That which marks a person as gorgeous marks a person as strange because there is something uncanny too about beauty, because of its symmetry and perhaps, to speak in Freudian terms, its suggestion of mirrors, doubles and supernatural replications. This goes some way to explaining the threat some people feel from truly radical, unfettered beauty. Humans are not know to embrace the strange immediately and with open arms, the unusual and unexpected scare us. Ask any person who has come to be acclaimed as beautiful (through no achievement of their own) and they will usually recount tales of being terrorized for their height, hair color, gender performance, weight or skin color. Because true beauty can be a terrifying thing, it can overwhelm. It can actually approach the sublime, that sensation of terror which Edmund Burke actually marked out as in opposition to beauty; writing that it caused fear not pleasure. It is unsurprising then that beauty is always on the defensive, protecting itself, its delicate, transitory and whimsical nature. Be it Diana turning Acateon ito a stag or trannies carrying flick knives, beauty has learned how to handle herself.
Beauty then is a quality not a quantity and as such its physicalization, is complicated by attempts to categorize it. Husserl wrote that we can never experience consciousness directly, that it is always mediated to us by act and objects in that consciousness. When we see beauty this is in fact a communication with the essence of beauty. There is then, no fixed beauty is there? At least not one we can know, because it comes to us in many shifting forms. We all know what we mean by the sentiment of beauty, but each of us would draw a different picture in describing a personal ideal example, wouldn’t we? And beauty would be the common ground, the essential behind each exponent, the last thing we have when we had abstracted everything else.
Surely then the ideal proponent of beauty would be likewise as unfixed as beauty itself. A person of fluidity, mutability, interchangability, a person who is sealed neither into the category of male or of female? A person who can encompass not just both genders, but all genders, and simultaneously eradicate the use of categorization by sex. Surely the prime examples of beauty in human form are third gendered beings. Is it safe to say then, that beauty itself is third gendered?
When I say third gendered I want you to be clear that I am not talking about some undecided, passive, default position for those who can’t make up their minds whether to be boys or girls. I am talking about an active state of being in which inhabitants have decided most definitively to live beyond the limits of traditional genders; “That shimmering gray area, where anything is possible”, as Justin Bond calls it. The third gender is not an excess option for those who are not male or female, it is not a halfway house, rather it engulfs both sides of the divide and then some. It is not choice C for those who aren’t A or B, rather it is D, F, G,4,5,6, X.Y,Z. The third gender is possibility, it’s potential, it’s limitless, it is not based on definition, it is in fact, an essence like beauty itself. If we try to line it up in a similar manner to the position of bisexuality in respect to sexual preference, then it will not serve anything other than a reinforcement of the predominant duality. We must look at the third gender as everything that is not fixed, everything that refuses to be fixed.
The third gender is beautiful in that it puts forwards the most powerful expressions of both sides of this prefabricated gender divide we labor under, and then offers yet more contributions, combinations, synthesis, and indeed provokes the undoing of that dichotomy. But beyond that, beauty is itself third gendered; limitless, essential, indescribable, palpable but always fluid. Husserl’s pure consciousness and Plato’s ideal forms both speak of forms beyond our sensory world which appear to us through mediation. These forms I believe are much in the vein of love as described by St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, or as string theory as described by new physicists; a universal, mysterious, inherent but not fully known binding principle that spans the universe, and is furthermore ungendered – third gendered. The third gender is a way of being that evokes absolute freedom of choice and expression, it is beauty, and it comprises a radical rethinking of unimaginative socio-biological restraints, a super intelligent approach to conceptualizing categories of existence. I guess that’s why Wilde was so adamant when he wrote, ”Beauty is a form of genius.”