The sparkling intellect is now a tick on almost every bucket list and has the potential to become the new, hotter replacement of physical beauty.– Fadilah Ali
Intellectual standards, drastically unlike beauty standards, have always been so low for women that they could as well be considered non-existent. For most of history, the roles of thinking, giving opinions, and hypothesizing have been male-dominated. Women, on the other hand, were tasked with the job of looking pretty. With the existence of these boxes neatly defined in binaries, a woman’s intellect was not only framed as substandard but also a threat to scholarly men. These women were considered a disservice to femininity, for the way they ventured into strictly masculine endeavours.
The amelioration of this sorry plight of women had (the early waves of) feminism to thank. It effectively steered public opinion towards the enlightenment that women had much and more to offer than pretty faces and killer bodies. Radical second-wave feminism, in particular, disavowed beauty and beautification and regarded it as antithetical to feminist ideals. In order for women to be fully empowered, they had to detach and elevate themselves from the need to look and feel pretty. Simone de Beauvoir herself writes, in the classic scripture of second-wave feminism, The Second Sex, that “when (a woman) has once accepted her vocation as a sexual object, she enjoys adorning herself.”
Being conventionally attractive was bad enough, but going out of the way to line those eyes and powder that nose and wear that scent, all to enhance beauty condemned such women as willing accomplices in their oppression. One would argue that this stance was extreme and that denouncing beautification was unnecessary. But, for a society that prized women for their beauty, it was urgent to create a new social currency for women; one that had no set standards, one that wasn’t intended to cater to the male gaze, one that did not base their worth on appearances.
Consequently, beauty and beautification became anti-feminist. Women’s faces and bodies no longer had to appeal to men in order to participate in society and be treated with respect. Women’s intellect (and character) mattered more, and beauty became understood as an accidental characteristic that played little relevance in the personality of the said woman. This paradigm shift birthed many more wins in the area of women’s rights and gender equality, as many of the rights hitherto withheld from women hinged on their being seen as an amalgamation of pretty faces, seductive body parts and nothing more. Because women only needed to be pretty and not smart, they didn’t need to vote or work or hold public offices or even study. Assuring the previously uninformed public that women were so much more than playthings dangling under the arms of their male counterparts questioned the legitimacy of the plethora of rights inaccessible to women, and facilitated the actualization of those rights.
Decades later, the world has surfed on two more waves of feminism (pun intended), and even more rights and opportunities have been secured for women. The question of women distancing themselves from grooming their appearances, and instead focusing on ‘being smart’ still stands. Despite the flourishing cosmetic industries and plastic surgeries, more women are now embracing the One True Objective: being ‘more than just pretty faces. And, the disavowal of beauty has left a gaping hole waiting to be replaced with the nearest commodifiable parameter: intellect.
As earlier mentioned, intellectual standards exist the way beauty standards do. While most beauty standards for women border on the debasing, injurious and even impossible, intellectual standards are so low they plunge deeper into the extremities of the earth every hour. Perhaps, not the intent behind The Second Sex, but it needs to be said that we as a society in the 21st century, have come back to regarding women as intellectually inferior. The difference is, this time, we did it in uplifting language.
The dramatic change in compliments offered to women may yet be the most obvious marker. While women’s social currency still largely remains as beauty, intellect can now be considered a close second. Women displaying even a lick of intelligence are no longer met with hostility, but with approval laced with willful condescension. Brainpower, widely considered a man’s domain becomes a rare asset in a woman, and whenever she exercises it in the most basic affair, she must be praised to the skies. Bonus points, if she pays no mind to fancy dressing. Then, she has liberated herself from the shallow needs of regular girls and is now on par with her male counterparts. This sentiment has given us oxymoronic slogans like “substance over beauty” and “beauty and brains” and “not like other girls”.
As the modelling and fashion industries progress, the leading women make sure to go out of their way to state that they are much more than their appearances. Women in STEM and other traditionally male-dominated careers have an edge in this regard, as their proximity to maleness insulates them from the fickleness of self-grooming. It is not uncommon for the 21st-century progressive woman to look down on traditionally feminine women, for being petty and regular. It has become feminist to condemn women who indulge in beautification, to question them on what they bring to the table (in marriage to a man), or to simply charge them with playing into stereotypes that paint all women as weak and petty. These endeavours go way back to the drawing board; they do not disparage feminine women nearly as much as they benefit the questioner, and her need to set herself apart from the “rest”.
Unlike the initial intent of elevating intellect as superior to beauty in order to place more value on every woman, the modern quest for being viewed as smart exists because being smart has become trendy. In order to be deemed an intellectual, all a woman has to do generally, is to dazzle an audience with some cool niche knowledge, be measuredly grandiloquent, and possess a comfortable level of confidence.
What this commodification of intelligence does to women is that, just like beauty, women will inadvertently be prized for supposed brainpower. It is no longer (as) fashionable to be pretty and breathtakingly so. To actively seek beautiful women now is to be superficial. Therefore, the sparkling intellect is a tick on the bucket list and has the potential to become the new, hotter replacement of physical beauty. Smart has become the new pretty.
The thing about this development is that, despite the initial intent to free women from being judged over physical appearances which they have no control over, it is still limiting. There is infinitely more to a person than math equations, chemistry laws and great grammatical prowess. Seeking women just for being smart is not so far removed from seeking them for their beauty. It is the same commodification, involving the same genre of backhanded compliments, the same need to characterise women based on one or two outward qualities. It could also take root from the modern need to score progressive points.
Before now, women were desired for their ability to wear the best looks and dresses. Now, women are beginning to be desired for their ability to churn out (already popular) opinions, to exercise superficial confidence, to be overly philosophical, all of these under the scrutiny of dismissive maleness. So while we went from thinking that women are intellectually inferior to men to realising that that is not the case, we have gone back to that standard by associating intellectual advancement with men while praising women who have it by making them out to be isolated accidents out of the homogenous crowd.
The need for performative intellectualism somehow blurs out the actual meaning of being smart, because rather than uplift, it undermines the actual women who worked tirelessly for them. There needs to be a new standardized definition of intelligence, especially in this age of politicians and prominent figures in the media, entertainment and otherwise, especially in this peak of social media where every comment fulfils the need to be seen as intellectual, and “not-like-the-others.” Most of what we regard as intelligence is retentive memory, compulsory philology, a certain outspoken personality and a loud voice to go with it.
I still don’t believe that women need to do anything in cultivating their physical appearances in order to be taken seriously. As cliché as it sounds, I believe in a sensible balance within all personal aspects and the counter-commodification of these social currencies. A dear friend would say: “I like being smart and I like being pretty but I don’t like being liked for being smart or pretty.”
Fadilah Ali is the Features Editor for The Muslim Women Times. She has a B.Sc in Microbiology and she is passionate about reading, writing, women’s rights, and tafsir.