The Problem of the Eternally Pretty Woman

“Please Take Miss Vivian Anywhere She Wants To Go”

The year is 2017 and the editors of People Magazine have decided to name Julia Roberts as their pick for “Most Beautiful” woman in the world for a record breaking fifth time. As a white woman of a slightly younger age than Ms. Roberts I could be praising this as a win for female empowerment, against ageist ideals, but that would be a kind of short-sighted delusion. The reality is that this is the type of tone deaf move that insults women of any age more than it helps. Julia Roberts is still beautiful, but she is not a fresh faced example of the emerging women of today, and the choice to name her as a winner for a fifth time is manipulative. The year is 2017 but choosing her as the most beautiful woman of today is more about stirring up nostalgia, and shutting out the march of time.

We could run through a list of reasons why Ms. Roberts is adorable, fierce and wonderful but this isn’t about her as a person, this about her as a commodity. This minor furor is about the insanity that is incubated generation after generation in the corporate board rooms that only want to sell products, whether they be familiar faces or familiar brands of soda and chips. Julia Roberts the brand is now a living sequel, an easy sell whose ultimate value is that of denying change. She’s a “make women great again” kind of entity, one that takes us back to her days in Pretty Woman. In that film, a young Julia was introduced as a diamond in the rough, a fishnet wearing angel who deserved more than she got out of life.

Julia was chosen as a brand more than a person and that brand has launched thousands if not millions of buying decisions at the box office and in the anti-aging aisles and haircare sections of pharmacies across the nation. Her winning a title once again reminds us that the ideal woman is white, energetic and ultimately likes the system as it is. Her role in Pretty Woman was a troubling blend of mixed messages where ultimately she gets saved by a rich prince. Fast forward decades later and we are subtly reminded to believe in those princes, to trust that doors opened by men will redeem us. We are encouraged to keep believing we’ll be saved, either by a mate, or some other male figure.

Now, you won’t hear of a stunning sheep herder or a gorgeous scientist being chosen to this title by People because there’s nothing for them to push in the entertainment pipelines. That’s understandable, since let’s face it, this is People, not Time or National Geographic, but in a way, it is very reflective of how we are stuck.

Female beauty is an experience, and choosing the same person time and again to a most beautiful status elevates Julia’s beauty to the level of being a standard. She is not short, dark skinned, or carrying around a few extra pounds. Her beauty is tall, white and has attained the thigh gap. The calendar may tick, but in the world fashioned by the editors of People, it does not tick for smiling white women who keep themselves in shape. It’s a fantasy, and to some extent that’s OK because fantsy is important in life, but it’s the same fantasy that leads us to believe that American beauty hasn’t changed in at least two decades. This type of reliance on a well known brand is part of the erasure of diversity that has made much of Hollywood more of a diabetes inducing sugar bomb, than a world that explores real existence and its many possibilites. In this way, Julia Roberts functions to erase the rest of us women, and makes the sickness of erasure look like a life goal.

Julia Roberts was the pretty woman of the 1990s, which is a time period that reverberates in the minds of many corporate elites as a golden age. To many of us average Americans it was a time when income inequality wasn’t as bad and paychecks were still decent when adjusted to other economic indicators. It was the top of the hill, so to speak, and Julia is a reminder, a false flag if you will, that there is nothing to see here, that all is still well. In this case poor Julia and her beauty are meant to keep us stuck in that time while our eroding power goes unnoticed.

The 1990s were a special time where it felt like liberation was nigh. Things seemed to be improving for many women, and the messiness of real liberation was not yet apparent. Women like Roberts were cast in roles that smacked of sexism but where we audiences found the heroine triumphing at the end. The ingenue was no longer virginal by the 1990s but she was still very much dependent on men. The triumph of the pretty woman was highly individualized and it left the system of male privilege intact. Miss Vivian will take the gentleman’s car on her own terms, but she won’t get to own the car, at least not on her own.

This type of femininity is exactly the kind of false empowerment that plays out in other parts of our society. From memos telling women to dress in skirts to a first daughter living the life of the most privileged administrative assistant in the world, this type of femininity begs us to look forward by changing nothing. Roberts and the first daughter Ivanka are both truly beautiful women, but neither of them embodies the bigger picture of feminity, in both of them there is a hint of nostalgia, a replaying of tired features and equally tired narratives. Each woman in her own branded way asks us to think about being one of the lucky few while abandoning the worth of the more challenged many. Both of them give us the sense that without a man we really can not exist.

People is a glossy tabloid focused on celebrities and its core demographic is made up women. It’s not a surprise that they picked Julia Roberts as their most beautiful woman of 2017, but it is telling. There are many who wish we could just go back to simpler times where even a prostitute could be saved by a love struck corporate raider. He would be faithful, kind and forgiving and they would travel the world on a private jet improving the lot of old friends in between dinners and nights at the opera. In this simplified dream no one would be angry with them and everyone would know their place, and nothing would ever have changed. Women would always be former prostitutes or madonna like daughters who held in their anger for private moments and there we would sit: voiceless and pale in public.

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