Feminism in the 1970s. Susan Sontag’s “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?”

I love Susan Sontag’s essay “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” as it relates to a subject I am deeply passionate about, women’s equality. Susan Sontag wrote this piece for Vogue magazine in 1975 and my opinion is that many of the points she originally made forty years ago are still valid and, sadly, prevalent in the twenty-first century. Even though women today seem to enjoy a much bigger freedom to make choices about their body and looks, the beauty standards we are held to are equally present in our gender-biased society. We are criticized when we wear too much make-up and when we don’t. A woman in 2016 is still being scrutinized on a daily basis for the way she looks, similarly to what Susan Sontag observed and railed against in 1975. Through her shockingly bold, emotionally charged language and the use of logic, Susan Sontag’s article is a revolutionary piece of writing. In her essay Sontag strives to challenge the American society of mid 1970’s to revisit the limiting views of woman’s beauty and urges her audience to define it in on their own terms.

The author sees women’s beauty as a curse, an obligation to meet certain standards set by the society. She weaves a story of how beauty was perceived throughout history. Starting with the Greeks who believed good looks meant attractiveness through and through, she observes that the influence of Christianity started the schism in the way we perceive beauty today; it created an irreversible rift between a person’s looks and virtues – Cartesian dualism. Sontag believes that women are scrutinized and judged based on their efforts to appear physically attractive. She argues they are seen as narcissistic and shallow should they choose to make themselves beautiful and their merit can even be in question if they indeed look attractive. Men, on the other hand, are judged based on their actions and rarely on their looks. They don’t run a risk of being demeaned and discredited simply because they are good looking. The author’s final observation is poignant, yet powerful, she trusts that women can get away from this self-limiting standard of femininity if only they accept they are free to define it on their terms.

Sontag’s essay was originally published in 1975. Media publications of that era are a good source of evidence that the gender roles were clearly drawn and observed with few exceptions. As an example, Cornellia Honchar in her article “Why Are Pedestals for Women so Illusory?” points out that a married woman’s job was to be a homemaker, even if she had a college degree to boot, while her husband worked to provide for the family (Chicago Tribune). Her happiness was directly related to her man’s success and satisfaction. In the 1970s, media portrayed women as happy only when engaged in the matters related to their homemaker status. Sadly, there is little mention of their intellectual pursuits. Few women pursued a career back then, and if they did, their chances to climb a success ladder and earn an equal pay to that of a man were nearly impossible. This naturally created an even deeper need for women to become “the caretakers of their surfaces” since the only way for them to access the power was through attracting a rich and an influential man (Sontag 388). Only through the application of their own beauty could they be seen, recognized and admired. Sontag observes that “it isn’t the power to do but the power to attract,” and doubts whether it is a power after all (Sontag 388). Perhaps that is why Susan Sontag’s essay appearing in Vogue must have been a revolutionary and controversial piece of writing as it questioned the very sense of woman’s identity.

Vogue started off as a fashion magazine targeted to classy elegant women with high and above average income and was a rather conservative brand dedicated to luxury items. Over time, especially in the 1960s, it took a slightly new direction and offered more edgy content to lure in a younger audience. Still, the magazine was predominantly catering to a female population between the ages of sixteen to thirty-four, mostly interested in fashion and beauty. At that time, “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” must have created quite a stir among its readers. In her essay, Susan Sontag has a limited amount of words to use – so she uses them wisely. She creates a perfect balance between the finesse of her vocabulary and being bold. Her language is brilliant and to the point when she says, “There should be a way of saving beauty from women – and for them” (Sontag 389). She is a masterful wordsmith, and purposefully weaves in the phrases that are powerful and shocking to her readers, who would most likely never use language like “Damned if they do – women are. And damned if they don’t” (Sontag 388). There is a clear intention behind Sontag’s choice of words, to shake and awaken her audience to find their beauty, redefine it and use it wisely, as a source of one’s power. Susan Sontag confidently relays her message to the audience through the use of contrast when she states “nobody encourages a man to dissect his appearance,” with “women are taught to see their bodies in parts and to evaluate each part separately” (388). She applies irony when she points out that “Nothing less than perfection will do,” when she is discussing how women view their body (Sontag 388). She takes on to expose and correct this error in woman’s thinking and by naming a body part after a body part she does it with her bold and scrupulous logic. Her writing, so well crafted and the fact that she is a woman, is an excellent proof that she herself has been able to succeed at something other than preening herself. The talent she owns, the mastery of the language is used expertly to enlighten and inspire Vogue women to go beyond the small talk and pursue more existential goals.

In her attempt to uncover the underlying flaw in our society’s view on the subject of beauty Sontag goes back to Ancient Greece and the beginnings of Christianity. With an unwavering logic she constructs a detailed analysis to determine why our views on beauty are so skewed. Her choice of historic names, facts and Latin words implies she has put some thought into her research and studied the subject. She starts with Socrates as a way to validate her own position on the subject, “One of Socrates’ main pedagogical acts was to be ugly – and teach those innocent, no doubt splendid-looking disciples of his, how full of paradoxes life really was” (Sontag 386). Later on, she dissects the meaning of beautiful as opposed to handsome, the latter reserved to men only. Sontag also mentions Jean Cocteau, a French writer and a playwright to bring more credibility to her words when she refers to beauty again. To keep her audience engaged she uses one of the most iconic actors of all times, Robert Redford as an example that proves her point that men don’t need to be perfect looking, in fact they shouldn’t.

Yet according to Sontag all women seek to be perfect. By giving us real life examples any of her readers can readily identify themselves with the author’s words. Susan Sontag undoubtedly speaks to our insecurities and fears when she describes what it takes to be a woman in 1975. “To preen, for a woman, can never be just a pleasure,” she notes and leaves us to ponder about the inequality of this statement (Sontag 388). We all know how society views a man as masculine and attractive when he sports macho, rugged looks. The same does never apply to his counterpart. If she appears somewhat disheveled she is deemed unattractive, sloppy, and lazy. The author also knows how to appeal to our emotions by simply bringing up the fact that being pretty might be used against us. A woman can never be sure when her efforts to look good can attract an unsafe kind of attention from men.

In my opinion, this essay must have polarized Sontag’s readers. Her bold and thought-provoking ideas could not be dismissed and ignored. I can’t imagine a woman who would not have a strong opinion for or against Sontag’s plea. Perhaps that is all she wanted, to leave a mark, to encourage us to give her words a thought. Even if some of her readers walked away from reading the article being offended or unconvinced, there is a chance some took the writer’s words to heart. Maybe her essay inspired some women to express themselves regardless of what the world thinks of them?

Works Cited:

Sontag, Susan. “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?” 50 Essays A Portable Collection. Ed. Samuel Cohen. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 386-389 Print

Honchar, Cornelia. “Why Are Pedestals for Women so Illusory? – Chicago Tribune. 13 May 1973 Web

3 Replies to “Feminism in the 1970s. Susan Sontag’s “A Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source?””

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