The New York Times recently profiled Adam Driver, the star of Girls and, I’m pretty sure, every movie that will come out in the next two years. Driver, the person, is interesting in the extreme: rejected from Juilliard, he joined the Marines. And now that he has broken through to national stardom, he has a nonprofit, one which “works to bring performing arts to the military.” This is, as the children say, “mad cool.” Unfortunately, it’s buried at the end of the article, because the reporter, Guy Trebay, must first get through the crucial business of parsing Driver’s looks.
“I have this really big face,” added Mr. Driver, whose powerful head suggests a public monument and whose striking features one writer called “worthy of the Mongolian plains.”
Yet it’s precisely Mr. Driver’s unconventional looks — hooded eyes, strong brow, long nose and wide mouth — and his brooding quality, used as a temporal placeholder that permits him to wait a beat longer in scenes than seems plausible, that first attracted Lena Dunham’s attention.
Look, I think we can all agree that Driver is unusual-looking, and that his unusual-looking-ness is part of his odd appeal on Girls. But the way in which journalists linger over it and marvel over it and write 800 words on it unnerves me. It’s not that I feel particularly defensive about Driver’s attractiveness, or lack of attractiveness, or any issue that might be wafting in and around these issues like the scent of burning peat moss. It’s mostly that I find the entire practice of debating celebrity attractiveness in any serious way risible, and not a little boring. I wish we’d quit behaving, whenever writing of them, as though we had been invited to appraise particularly expensive cattle.
I realize, of course, that women often get this treatment. When, earlier this year, Jon Hamm held forth with a complaint about how people tend to focus on, well, his Jon Hamm, implying it was a little dehumanizing, a part of me thought: “Welcome to womanhood, my friend!” As a friend of of mine, at the time, remarked, “Meanwhile, Christina Hendricks is like, ‘…’” That woman has endured more rhapsodic writing about her breasts and ass than any man in the business. And I understand that as a consequence of these things, and of our desire for a more equal world, we might say: tough it out, boys. It’s now open season on your attributes, too.
Well, equality can, in certain circumstances, become overrated. I am not a utopian on this matter, but I have to say that a world in which everyone gives constant voice to their opinions on the bodies of others is one that I would find very depressing. I would find it depressing not because I imagine myself immune to “ogling” or even just to appreciating the good looks of someone else. Nor do I think we should live in a world where no one ever describes someone’s physical attributes in print. It’s just that given that people’s tastes are subjective, and that they tend to issue pronouncements in a sort of reductive thumbs-up or thumbs-down manner (hot or not?) the whole activity pretty quickly makes people into flat caricatures. In other words: it conceals the inevitable fact that the people we’re talking about are actual human beings deserving of dignity and a certain amount of insulation from the daily judgments of others. It makes you, I think, a bad person to be so constantly giving voice about what others “look like,” because it encourages a reflex we’d all be better off stuffing down. I’m not saying you can control the compulsive assessments; I’m saying you can shut right up about them.
Hilary Mantel made a similar point about the royals, earlier this year. She infuriated people, of course, by writing of the press’s obsession with Kate Middleton’s body that:
It is sad to think that intelligent people could devote themselves to this topic with earnest furrowings of the brow, but that’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content, mouthed rather than spoken. And in the same way one is compelled to look at them: to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.
People often say that celebrities are royals in America, and indeed it’s a pretty strong analogy. But it raises a question: do we really want royals in America? I was raised on a strong diet of Princess Diana adulation, and while I don’t regret its presence in my intellectual makeup, I also don’t kid myself that anyone was made better for focusing on her glittery plane of existence to the absence of whatever actual human dignity she surely deserved. We are all the worse for wear from the existence of these baubles-qua-human-beings we hold up like objects in a jewelry store. Let’s try and be some change we can actually believe in.