”It was a mistake to make her so dowdy,” Professor Silver said of Woolf’s film portrayal. She argues that the dowdiness feeds into the ”belief that intellectual women aren’t stylish or fashionable or beautiful.”
I had seen The Hours years ago and read the novel at the same time. I remember not caring much for either. I think I liked the book a bit more than the film, since the film struck me as so drab. My memories of it are grey and dull and sepia-tone, for some reason. But what I do remember of the film strongly is the prosthetic nose that Nicole Kidman dons in order to appear more like Virginia Woolf (see here).
There is nothing wrong with big noses, except my own because I hate it. But women with strong noses otherwise can be beautiful. Which is where the personal conflict comes in — film-Virginia’s grotesque nose, perpetually threatening to detach itself like a chunk of rotting meat and cartilage, reminds me of myself when it should be beautiful, but it is purposefully ugly. Nicole Kidman’s look feels like it was made with the intent of creating something ugly — it is not about how women with big noses are beautiful and Woolf was beautiful and we need to mimic it. It feels like a creation of something drab, grotesque, tragic; the transformation of the beautiful star into the sad, ugly, dowdy writer. To quote one of the most offensive listicles I’ve ever seen:
But Virginia Woolf, as expanded on in the first article here, was by all accounts beautiful. For whatever reason they decide to make her ugly in film, and by ugly that means big nose and slightly unkempt hair, but we know in reality she was beautiful and thought of as beautiful. But why does it matter? Does the idea that intelligent, academic women writers can’t be beautiful, stylish, or desirable matter? Who cares if they are perceived as ugly, if what matters is their output? Does it change Orlando or Mrs. Dalloway to think: “This was written by a very ugly woman,” or “This was written by a great beauty”?
For me personally, I don’t know if it matters much to know a writer was beautiful, though I might be more endeared to her and more interested in her if I find out she was ugly (I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain amount of a feeling of betrayal when I first saw a photograph of Barbara Comyns, for instance). But I am not the patriarchal masses. The shock at and fetishization of beautiful women who write often overrides them: Sylvia Plath’s all-American blonde looks are all we seem to remember of her, with her smiling and bikini-clad on the cover of her collection of short stories or images of her direct look into the camera, hair loose and waved to demonstrate her natural and earthy beauty, becoming iconic. We rarely think of her in terms of the scene in The Bell Jar where after hospitalization she looks so rough the nurses won’t let her have a mirror. And sadly the first thing you’ll ever read about Clarice Lispector is that you’d never think someone who looked like Marlene Dietrich could write that way (and the second thing you’ll read is that she’s like a new Kafka).
We don’t take beautiful women seriously when they write, and when they express something moving or unique or existentially fierce and terrible, we express shock: you’re lovely, but smart! This is unheard of! The problem is that this is just part of people not taking any women seriously. If you’re beautiful it’s that you must be dumb, some air-head obsessed with hair and makeup. And if you’re ugly, you must be …. also dumb. And pathetic. Probably obsessed with men you’ll never be with, hair and makeup you don’t understand, and increasingly sad and embittered by your lack of desirability (think: thick-browed, bespectacled Bette Davis in Now, Voyager: the angry neurotic that no man would ever touch, who you’d never even listen to because how could something worthwhile come from such an ugly mind). But beautiful or ugly, your talent will be a shock, and you will be reduced to appearance.
So: is there an issue of us not conceiving of smart women as beautiful, or beautiful women as smart? The issue of not thinking of smart women as beautiful is not a problem, except in the idea that we need more ways to reduce women and make them consumable — a woman acquires a voice, but we need her to still her soft and pretty, hot, sexy, nice for you to look at while you don’t listen to her or read her books. You don’t have to be intimidated by her intellect if you’re point of reference is more along the lines of glamour models. And then you can also create your dream woman: sexy and smart (you can sleep with Marlene Dietrich but hang out with Kafka. And when Kafka becomes a bore you can tune out and go back to looking at Marlene). Smart women can be defined as beautiful and be consumed, or defined as ugly and rejected, denigrated, and their intellect denied and credited to their ugliness.