One of the biggest news stories right now is on Lauren Scruggs, a twenty-three year old US woman who suffered severe injuries, including a fractured skull and a severed hand, when she walked into the propeller of a small plane by accident. It’s a horrible story, and I hope Ms Scruggs recovers as well as she can, and wish her and her family privacy from further media intrusion as well as the very best of fortune.
I’d usually give you a link to a corroborating reputable news source at this point, but that’s not how it’s being reported for the most part. I can’t find any articles that don’t have loads of photos of her with her long blonde hair, tan and big smile, or video (I don’t even want to know of what), or a headline that refers to her as a mutilated model – apparently that’s way more sexy than editor or any of the other roles in her life. Because that’s the thing, it’s being reported in a sexy way, a tragedy committed against conventional standards of beauty more than against a human being.
That’s not quite it, though. To say that the outlets reporting on this think of it as a shock or a misfortune, feel really bad for Ms Scruggs, and are inappropriately sexing it up, misses the main point. There are loads of bigger stories to care about, on economies, wars, and disease. The point is that they are latching on to the most popular plot in the world.
There’s a passage towards the beginning of The Jane Austen Book Club – the most popular novel by Karen Joy Fowler, easily one of the finest writers alive – that has stuck in my head for years. The book club is discussing Jane Austen’s Emma. Having just been taken down a peg or two, Grigg says, “I read once that the Emma plot, the humbling of a pretty, self-satisfied girl, is the most popular plot of all time. I think it was Robertson Davies who said so. That this was the one story everyone was bound to enjoy.”
Everyone is taught to watch the pretty people – everyone including them, because both impossible beauty standards and the invisibility of privilege, such as it is, mean that people coded as pretty won’t necessarily recognise that they are part of that group. We’re taught to admire, and to envy. We also know that such a hierarchy is unfair. And there’s a heavy pleasure in watching the pretty people be laid low. People don’t buy magazines about tragic celebrity break ups and bad plastic surgery because they feel sorry for the celebrities. There’s a satisfaction in smacking down the tall poppies; there is a release.
Women are shepherded into a box in which we’re taught our only worth is in embodying those beauty standards, in being desirable on heteronormative and otherwise narrow terms, and, increasingly, in being famous in ways that relate to this. Women are expected to do this, and feared, envied, pined for, and spat on as a result. Misogyny sets up a sword of Damocles, and the world waits until that horsehair snaps and the tension releases. People like Ms Scruggs cop the fallout: huge, international media attention directed at positioning her as a tragedy, a perfect being fallen.
Being selected as an “ideal woman” in the patriarchal world means being ushered into a royal throne with such a sword dangling above your head the whole time. It’s not that they like you or care about you, it’s that they want to see you toppled from the harmful and utterly false set of standards under which you have patriarchal worth.
Lauren Scruggs still has worth.