Demi Moore, the limits of beauty + why Cleopatra was badass

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I was skimming an article that claimed how the newly single Demi Moore has been partying with her daughter’s friends and chasing men half her age when I came across a quote from one of her alleged friends. It was something like:

“She’s going to turn 50 soon and has no idea what her life is supposed to look like.”


In these rapidly changing times, you could wonder if anyone knows what life is supposed to look like. On some level we’re all forced to wing it, creating and recreating ourselves and our ‘brands’ and innovating our way forward (or sideways or backwards before looping round again) into the rest of our lives.

Those who can adapt shall inherit the world.

People like to say that women have too many choices now, and get paralyzed and stressed and miserable in the face of them, and so blame the evils of feminism. I don’t think that’s true. I think women can choose to be traditional (marriage, kids) or trailblazing (anything else, including the attempt to combine marriage and motherhood with a career).

Once you step out of the “traditional” life script, there are no clear models to follow, which is why it’s so easy to think that we’re fucking it up (or fucking up our kids).

You have to see it to be it, but trailblazers can only “see it” in their heads.

You can look to other women as heroes, but every woman is piecing together her own idiosyncratic path that usually has to weave around and through the paths of others (spouses, children, aging parents).

Being a trailblazer is difficult. You’re always rebelling against some aspect of the status quo. You invite all kinds of criticism. You wrestle self-doubt on a regular basis. You have to juggle twenty different balls at the same time and damn, do you get tired. Etcetera. It’s easy to retreat into fantasies of a golden era (such as before feminism) when these problems didn’t exist and everything was rainbows and unicorns and fairy tales ending happily ever after. (Cause that’s what life was like back then. Right?)

Maybe that’s partly why the Hotness Olympics have such a fierce hold on girls and women. When so much about the kind of life that you’re “supposed” to have is unclear, the one thing that is crystal-clear is how much society rewards and valorizes good-looking people.

(So much so that career counselor and noted blogger Penelope Trunk in her Blueprint for a Woman’s Life advises women to get plastic surgery.)

If you make yourself as hot and sexy as possible, if you manage to finally lose those five pounds and go to yoga everyday, if you hold onto your youth long after your actual youth has passed, then you win, right? You get the prince and he loves you forever and everything comes up roses and unicorns and disco balls and cute happy children who always say please and thank you.

Right.

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I live in Los Angeles, in a social milieu where Botox and plastic surgery are the norm. But when everybody competes according to the same beauty standards, everybody starts to seem, with varying degrees, the same. It’s become very clear to me that the Hotness Olympics are rigged. There are no winners, because even the winners don’t win. In the words of Michelle Pfeiffer, who would know: “Beautiful women get used a lot.” They’re commodities. They’re interchangeable. They have an expiration date.

Which is why the kind of trailblazing I would like to see more of is the rejection of the Hotness Olympics for erotic capital.

EROTIC CAPITAL: The Power of Attraction in the Bedroom and the Boardroom is the title of a book by Catherine Hakim. However you feel about her central message, the book recognizes – in a way that the Hotness Olympics do not – that attraction is multifaceted. Hakim breaks erotic capital down into six components, and physical beauty is only one of them. Even this definition of ‘beauty’ makes allowance for something other than genetics and plastic surgery:

“The French…speak of the belle laide…the ugly woman who becomes attractive through her presentational skills and style. Getting fit, improving posture, wearing flattering colors and shapes, choosing appropriate hairstyles and clothes – such changes can add up to a completely new look.”

The second component is sexual attractiveness, which is separate from beauty:

“….sex appeal can also be about personality and style, femininity or masculinity, a way of being in the world, a characteristic of social interaction. Beauty tends to be static and is easily captured in a photo. Sexual attractiveness is about the way someone moves, talks and behaves…”

The third component is

“definitely social: grace, charm, social skills in interaction, the ability to make people like you…want to know you and, where relevant, desire you…”

The fourth component is

“liveliness, a mixture of physical fitness, social energy and good humor. People who have a lot of life in them can be hugely attractive to others – as illustrated by those who are “the life of the party”…”

The fifth component is

“social presentation: style of dress, face-painting, perfume, jewelry, hairstyles, and the various accessories that people carry or wear to announce their social status and style to the world.”


(This component – otherwise known as personal style – is my favorite. I am fascinated with it.)

And the sixth and last component is

“sexuality itself: sexual competence, energy, erotic imagination, playfulness, and everything else that makes for a sexually satisfying partner.”

All six elements combine into someone’s “erotic capital”: a mix of aesthetic, visual, physical, social and sexual attractiveness to other members of your society in all social contexts. It includes skills that can be learned and aspects of your personality that can be cultivated, like intelligence and joie de vivre. If you lack in certain areas, you can actively develop other areas to compensate.

As Diana Vreeland once put it, “You don’t have to be beautiful to be wildly attractive.”

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I am fascinated by the great courtesans and seductresses of history. Ellen T White refers to them as “sirens” who are “irresistible.” Not to everybody, necessarily. Certainly not each person every time. “But a Siren’s batting average is very high.” And in books like Katie Hickman’s COURTESANS or Eleanor Herman’s SEX WITH KINGS or White’s own SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE, a theme that emerges over and over is that true Sirens set themselves apart and make the world take notice through the force of their personalities. They are defined not by physical beauty – in some cases they were actually rather plain – but by “unshakeable confidence.”

“Be she a kook, character, sexpot, intellectual, muse, mother, or moll, the Siren lives large. Each embraces life in her own way and is determined to live it as thoroughly as possible.”

White also says:

“In fact, let me go out on a limb here: being physically exceptional can sometimes be a deterrent to becoming a world-class Siren…Being beautiful is too easy. Everyone naturally gravitates toward beautiful people; consequently, beautiful people are rarely forced to spend any time or thought on becoming magnetic people or in calculating how to get what they want.”

(This reminds me of an incident at a black-tie fundraiser when an acquaintance of Adrien Grenier told me, rightly or wrongly, that “Adrien has no game.” I retorted, “Adrien Grenier doesn’t need any game.” “So if he ever does,” my friend said, “he’s in trouble.”)

Cleopatra, for example, knew the power of spectacle. She also knew exactly whom she wanted to impress. She smuggled herself into a heavily guarded palace and dazzled the great military strategist Julius Caesar; she sailed up the river Cydnus in a pimped-out barge, dressed as Aphrodite, reclining under a canopy of gold cloth while boys dressed as Cupids cooled her with fans, and dazzled the hedonistic and sensualist Mark Antony.

Cleopatra is not reported to have been particularly beautiful.

She was just badass.

White breaks the “siren” down into five archetypes: the Goddess, the Sex Kitten, the Companion, the Competitor, and the Mother.

(The funny thing was, even skimming the descriptions, I could recognize several of my female friends.)

Instead of traipsing off to the plastic surgeon for a new nose, women should, according to White, recognize which of the archetypes predominantly represents their own personality and play up the strengths and advantages: in other words, to become more of what they already are.

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There is so much more to life than being desirable. Then again, we are biologically wired to want the kind of attention that just might deepen into love: so we can band together against the world with all its pitfalls and predators; so we can survive, thrive, and procreate (or not).

“What scares me,” Demi Moore told Harper’s Bazaar magazine, “is that I’m going to ultimately find out at the end of my life that I’m really not loveable, that I’m not worthy of being loved. That there’s something fundamentally wrong with me.”

When she collapsed in a Beverly Hills bungalow, according to People’s assistant managing editor Kate Coyne, she “was so frail and gaunt that some of the paramedics who arrived actually thought that she was a cancer patient who was in the final stages of treatment.”

I saw Demi and Ashton Kutchner at Chateau Marmont once, years ago, and what surprised me was how small she was: this quietly lovely woman with long dark hair who seemed to disappear into Ashton’s larger broader presence.

This is a woman who was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Married to movie stars. Known for her beauty and fabulous body and seemingly unending youth. If life for women is a beauty race – and so many people will tell you that it is – Demi Moore won, and won big.

How did we get to a place where being intensely desirable went from living large and having game and embracing life with unshakeable confidence, to being mistaken for a cancer patient?

How can we get someplace else?

Feb 20, 2012
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19 comments · Add Yours

You write very well about this subject, and you always have. This is an extremely well-written piece, and one reason it is so is because of the confidence you have about your ideas and your presentation of them. The strong voice and relaxed confidence of this piece make it very powerful.

This is the voice, the posture, the confidence, the overall feeling of command that you need to bring to your fiction.

You’ve referred to the main character of your novel as being a muse, but I wonder if she isn’t actually a siren. Although, if she’s a drug addict, she might simply be Demi Moore, or Marilyn Monroe. Beyond a certain point, pain demolishes people from the inside, it dismantles their character. A man who is seduced by a woman who is herself driven forward by her own misery is not having the kind of two-sided experience he thinks he is, although for an artist that not be a very important distinction.

There’s a difference between being a creative badass and whatever kind of badass Cleopatra was: creative mastery is a function of practice. It’s a boring, difficult, solitary pursuit, and its rewards are largely private, silent and hidden. Developing erotic capital involves cultivating an attitude and creating a persona: it’s a kind of theater, and therefore suffers from the great problem of drama, which is that the narrative has to be lit from within or else it collapses from the weight of its own artifice. Although both kinds of badass-ery require self-confidence, often in the face of repeated, demoralizing failure.

Does your novel yet have the relaxed, self-confident tone of this piece? I hope so. I hope also that you’re able to see what makes the piece different from so many others that you’ve written here, and what it is exactly — from a craftsperson’s perspective — you’re doing in this piece that makes is so different and so good.

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Love this post, Justine. You bring out many points that have been swirling around in my head for the past couple of years. Today is the eve of my 52nd birthday and I look in the mirror and see a middle-aged woman: neither beautiful nor plain, simply me.

Do I wish I had Demi’s slim figure and gorgeous mane? Yes.

Would I trade her life for mine? Never.

I am fortunate to have a husband who tells me “it’s her job to look like that” whenever I compare myself to famous women my age (models, actresses). And I realize that my face tells MY life story, and it’s good one.

Yes, I’ve met women who seem to become more beautiful as I get to know them (and men too). I have long recognized that what I find attractive are facets of their personalities: those attractive qualities “seep” into their features to make them more physically attractive.

I can only work on my own positive qualities. That’s what trailblazing means: moving forward, learning as you go and hoping what you learned will help you at the next hurdle.

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I think it’s depression that has broken her. she’s so depressed that she sees love as coming from outside herself, rather than from within. I don’t know if it’s years in the spotlight where her self-worth was so defined by her paycheck and the number of people chasing after her, or perhaps she always felt this way but the attention shored her self-esteem up so much that she didn’t have to look within or if the whole thing with Kutcher broke her, as divorce and infidelity is apt to do one’s self-esteem.

A strong, confident woman doesn’t ask if you love her. She tells you what you love her. Physical beauty is often just there, the holder of it didn’t have to do anything to get pretty often times. But confidence, sexuality and liveliness are changeable and something you can learn or even fake.

Every post you write drives me crazy becuase you reference at least ONE book I want to read and I have a huge TBR list as it is. I often wonder about how many books you average a week and how you find time to balance it all.

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Reminds me of why I love Jacqueline Carey’s fantasy fiction. Her heroines are always flawed, and find their beauty–and thereby, their power–though other graces and attributes, mostly cultivated through dedication, study, and training. Each heroine she writes is unique, and yet each is a badass. Great post, Justine!

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I love this. Thank you for coming to the defense of Demi Moore and women everywhere who are desperately trying to live up to this bullshit.

I don’t follow celebrities, but what you described of Demi makes me think she’s well rid of her husband. Now she can find her own light and not be eclipsed or defined by his.

But this isn’t about her; it’s about all of us and how we can find our badass edge – I love that.

I’ve always been disturbed by how much time, energy and money women spend and are expected to spend to compete in the Hotness Olympics. And by the fact that when a woman rises to power her looks are a target in ways that men’s aren’t.

I appreciate the way you write about this and thank you for taking the stand. I’m with you all the way.

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Have you considered writing a novel about a woman who is “piecing together her own idiosyncratic path that usually has to weave around and through the paths of others”?

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Loved the post. Been thinking about this topic a lot, and I think with Demi we are all watching what happens when a woman constructs herself on the ideal of youth and then, inevitably, deconstructs.

Elaine Sciolino touches on similar ideas of eroticism and seduction in her book “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life.” Thanks for the insights.

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Cleopatra was only 38 years old when she died. She may not have been beautiful, but when you’re under 40, 21 years old to Julius Caesar’s 52, or 15 years younger than Mark Anthony, erotic capital is more or less and given rather than an achievement. Perhaps Cleopatra, as bad ass as she was, isn’t the best example.

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Erotic capital, as explained in the post, is about a lot more than youth + fertility. It isn’t just that she got the attention of these men; it’s that she maintained it. She was savvy, political, daring, and she understood better than most that desire begins in the mind.

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Great thought-provoking post, Justine. Thank you.

I really resonate with this move towards the erotic as a guiding force in our lives, and I appreciate the unique way you are framing your inquiry.

I’m 28 years old, and the question of beauty and the erotic has been very strong in my own life and inquiry as a writer for the last 5 years.

I very recently had an article published in an online magazine, entitled,
“Undressing Sex: Re-Imagining the Art of Female Eroticism”

http://www.beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/799-undressing-sex-re-imagining-the-art-of-female-eroticism

I thought I’d share the link in case you had an interest.

Anyways, keep up the great work!
Vanessa

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YES!

We are so totally on the same wavelengths. I’m not as up to date on the Hollywood happenings, but your interpretation of Demi’s recent changes is spot on. Cleopatra was badass and she knew she could wield her power (actually she had to learn how to wield it to survive).

I read Penelope’s post when it first came out and part of me wondered if it was just to stir up controversy. I think that erotic capital is a much better way to explain why beauty isn’t what we need to obsess over.

There’s not much for me to add, except thank you and keep writing about this! It’s amazing!

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@Dan Owen I hope so too. This post was written straight from what I think of as my sweetspot, whereas many of the others are not. I’m still learning how to hit that sweetspot as often as I can. @asraidevin I read obsessively. The Kindle sent me over the edge, because it’s so slim and portable and holds an entire library. It’s always with me, and it’s my habit to whip it out whenever I have a few minutes (waiting in line at Starbucks, etc.). You get a lot of reading done that way; those minutes add up. Also I don’t watch TV or movies anymore, I’ll go for periods without much socializing (except for the boyfriend), I have 50/50 custody, and I have a fulltime domestic staff. I’m always trying to balance my life with my kids against everything else, and I do get frustrated and frazzled by the lack of enough hours in the day.

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She held their attention, but she wasn’t just Cleopatra The Courtesan, she was the Queen Of Egypt. The two relationships had political implications as well as personal ones. The fact that she was young enough to produce potential heirs to not one but two empires raised the stakes. I’m not saying she couldn’t have held their attention if she wasn’t Queen Of Egypt, I strongly suspect she could, but we don’t know.

I mean, you don’t just walk up to the Queen Of Egypt and say: “Honey, I’m not feeling it. I want to date other queens. ”

Or: “Babe, uh…hey… me and Calpurnia, you know, we’ve been talking, and we’ve been going to counseling with the soothsayer, and…well…we decided to give it another go. You and the kids understand, right? ”

That said, savy, political, daring women, who believe, like Cleopatra, that desire begins in the mind, are common. When you’re competing in the theater of ideas with so many other awesome women, things like beauty and youth have nasty habits of counting much more than they should.

I don’t agree with Penelope Trunk when she counsels women to get plastic surgery (she advises sucking up to The System way more than she should. For someone that advocates for Gen Y she’s surprisingly conformist) but I understand the frustration that may have led her to think that way.

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Beauty (which she didn’t have) and youth count, no question, and they’re powerful. As is status. You’re right. But those men could have used, manipulated, discarded her, chewed her up and spat her out (men with that kind of drive to conquer tend not to be nurturing sensitive types who want to talk about your feelings). Her life — including her ascension to queenhood in the first place (her family was deadly)– demonstrates how formidable she was. She knew her audience, she knew how to put on a show, she knew how to strategize, she knew how to capture imagination, be it of a man, or of a public. She had big ladyballs, and that in and of itself can be very appealing (the competitor siren archetype).The fact that we’re even talking about her now is pretty amazing.

Probably what I should have stressed is that beauty + youth are a powerful draw, but they’re not a lasting advantage unless backed up by other qualities. In my experience, anyway. Appreciate your comments, thanks much.

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The interesting thing is the whole image thing. We have all seen her as someone in a perfect relationship. Perfect, no issues. Then all of the sudden like a storm after a sunny day – it came out of nowhere that they broke up.
Why so out of the blue? They must have issues before. Why noone talks about problems until it’s a disaster? It is because noone would like to hear about them or is it because it’s not the norm?

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I live in Los Angeles, in a social milieu where Botox and plastic surgery are the norm. But when everybody competes according to the same beauty standards, everybody starts to seem, with varying degrees, the same. It’s become very clear to me that the Hotness Olympics are rigged. There are no winners, because even the winners don’t win. In the words of Michelle Pfeiffer, who would know: “Beautiful women get used a lot.” They’re commodities. They’re interchangeable. They have an expiration date. – i read this and i want to cry because it is so true. sadly men really are visual creatures, and it takes a good man to see past all of this. after all, beauty is temporary and annoying is forever.

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Just saw a commercial for antiperspirant that helps even your underarm skin tone. Seriously. The problem with our view of beauty is that all those insecurities in our own heads feed so readily on the crap we’re fed by the media. It’s so easy for us to go “now that you mention it, my underarm skin tone is really uneven….” So we fight for what we’re told is pretty. And then shun anyone who doesn’t participate because it means that the fight we’ve spent so much time, energy, and money on is for naught. If everyone laid down their arms (i.e., makeup, botox, weight loss pills) at the same time, on the same day, I think our perception of beauty could finally rest in our own heads and hearts, and not in the latest cover of Cosmo.

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“She did not approach Caesar wrapped in a carpet, she was not a seductress, she did not use her charm to persuade the men in her life to lose their judgement […] She was a skilled naval commander, a published medical authority,and an expert royal administrator who was met with adulation throughout the eastern Mediterranean…” –Cleopatra: A Biography, Duane W. Roller

“A notice by Plutarch is often misquoted to imply that she was not particularly beautiful, but what was actually written is that the force of her personality far outweighed any physical attractiveness.”
–Cleopatra: A Biography, Duane W. Roller

I still really like this post, though.

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M. — that’s the point. She was a badass. She used her brain and “the force of her personality” including her charm (there’s no way she could navigate the corridors of power without picking up a few social skills). She was highly strategic.

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