Everyone Else in the Room Can See It

I have a problem with a mini trope in songwriting and a recent Dove commercial. It's when the song's about a girl who doesn't know she's beautiful. It has never crossed her mind that she is good looking. It's up to the singer to tell her that she is gorgeous.

The first example I have is a country song by Sammy Kershaw. (Who? I have no idea, but this song has stuck with me since 1995.) Here it is on YouTube:

The first issue I have is that the possibility that this woman has no idea - it has never crossed her mind - that she's beautiful is ridiculous. People, especially women, get feedback on their appearances all the time. So unless Lady Don'tKnow was raised in a vacuum (culturally, I mean. A physical vacuum would be fatal.), she's been told that she's beautiful. And if she's very beautiful, she's being told in numerous ways, subtle and not subtle, in every interaction she has. Girlfriend knows this stuff.

Except, in the song, girlfriend doesn't know this stuff even though people do tell her. Sammy tells her time and time again. Why doesn't she know, in that case? He explains, "She's not that kind." Not what kind? Not the kind who receives input from her surroundings and accurately interprets it? Does she have a condition? It's not attractive when I imagine her failing to respond to someone saying, "That is not food!" while she gnaws on fingernail clippers and small pieces of wood.

Another example is One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful". I've included a clip, not of that, but of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra's version, "One Direction meets Giuseppe Verdi", because I love orchestral covers of pop songs.

The thrust to this song is "You don't know that you're beautiful, and that's what makes you beautiful." Ignoring, for a second, that the subject of this song might have cognitive issues, this song taps into something else I have a problem with. It's the idea that "vanity" in a woman is ugly or wrong. Like I said, people experience lots and lots of feedback based on their appearance. Furthermore, appearance for women is touted, from an early age, to be most powerful factor in determining her success and happiness. In spite of this, it is considered wrong or silly for a woman to be concerned with how she looks. It's an expectation that slices twice. Also, it's stupid.

This recent Dove commercial continues the theme of the beauty unknown. They have women come in and describe themselves to a forensic artist. He draws them based on their descriptions. Then other people describe them and he draws those pictures too. The drawings are, predictably, somewhat different.

The biggest issue I have with all three of these, with this trope in general, is that it wants women to trade the trustworthiness and accuracy of their minds for the possibility that they might be more beautiful, and it calls it inspirational.

It's awesome when I find out I'm wrong about something because reality is better than I thought. As humans, we will always be wrong about stuff. We have biases, histories, insecurites, and various other "ees". Uncertainty is the price of being sentient. But I think it's a problem when women, who suffer from stereotypes like being unreliable, untrustworthy, and silly, are told, again, that they don't know what they're talking about. And worse (!), that their ignorance is a good thing.

Why can't we have a song that goes, "Reasonably accurate self-knowledge: that's what makes you beautiful"?

The message I would like to send and have sent to women is trust yourself a little bit more. You think you're a bit ugly? You very well might be. You might not be turning lots of heads or be headed to the cover of ladies magazines. (This is my first reaction to that possibility: "NOOOOOOOOOO!") But at least your assessment tools aren't broken.

It means that your interpretation of things that are happening in your life has weight and meaning, that there is coherence to how you see things. If you feel like something's wrong, bring it up. Talk about it. Run. Whatever. Your impressions are connected to real life. If you really like something that other people don't or don't think is cool, stand behind your thing because there's something in it that connects with you. And that's real.

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