Beauty and the Beastly

I’ve mentioned Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class in a few previous posts; this book was very popular at the time and many applauded Veblen for his wit, though modern readers would likely find his style dense, dull, and extremely grating (or maybe that was just me…). Anyway, I’m returning to The Theory of The Leisure Class after seeing a few brief references to the major dog shows in the last several weeks. Crufts, the world’s largest dog show, took place earlier this month and the Westminster Dog Show was held last month. These exhibitions cater more toward a niche market now, and are the subject of quirky comedies like the 2000 film Best in Show, but in the late 19th century, dog shows were enormously popular. Veblen noted this in his book and related the popularity of and fascination with purebred animals to displays of conspicuous consumption. One had to be very wealthy to own the obviously genetically manipulated breeds that could serve no practical purpose in the home. (An interesting side note that perhaps undermines or at least complicates Veblen’s argument, dogs from the toy group very rarely win Best in Show. The most successful group has been the terrier, followed by the sporting group.)

One of Veblen’s more intriguing sections concerns the treatment and perception of animals among the leisure class, especially his characterization of the “standards of beauty” for dogs as degrees of grotesqueness and deformity. This association of beauty with physical deformity recalls Veblen’s earlier discussion of feminine standards of beauty. For dogs, their economic value “rests on their high cost of production, and their value to their owners lies chiefly in their utility as items of conspicuous consumption,” strikingly similar to his descriptions of the house wife (Veblen 142). Veblen never directly addresses sexuality, his discussions of gender differences and the pervasive language of breeding necessitate considering sexual exchange, especially in this intersection between feminine and canine beauty. Veblen views the attractiveness of deformity and monstrosity in female and canine forms only as evidence of conspicuous leisure, but the issue presents itself as much more complicated than that in The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Because of his Darwinian perspective, Veblen views humans as animals, but he also views the “progress” of society as a reversion to a subhuman state. His narrative indicates a desire to uncover the animal in the human, especially with regard to sexuality. The term “breeding” suggests controlled sexuality; dog breeds were developed by restricting and manipulating animal sexuality, only allowing certain dogs to mate. The language of dog breeding is also tied to that of eugenics (Veblen’s use of the cranial index to differentiate between human ethnicities is also used to differentiate types of dog breeds), but Veblen observes that the fittest for survival were not the most venerated with respect to women and dogs. Rather, an aesthetic of weakness (e.g., the extremely small size of toy breeds, dogs with thin and silky coats that would provide poor protection against harsh weather conditions) and unnatural proportions (extremely short snouts with large eyes) signaled beauty in lap dogs.

For feminine beauty, Veblen suggests that the deformation of corseting and other cosmetic alterations place woman somewhere between human and animal. Veblen claims that this visual indication of costliness and conspicuous leisure becomes conflated with attractiveness; thus, male sexuality is also controlled by leisure class standards, to such an extent that men genuinely find the corseted form attractive, because their sexuality is entirely enclosed in pecuniary standards. Costliness comes to stand for sexual attractiveness, and there is a continual displacement of sexuality; this is crucial in Veblen, and I think this is why he never directly addresses sexuality, despite the obvious ties between sex and commerce in prostitution, sexualized performances (e.g., burlesques). Male sexuality is also contained by standards of aggressive masculinity, sublimated in sporting activities. Sports are also closely tied to animals, in the “wildness” of aggression and competition, and the use of animal mascots to symbolize the team. But, men are rarely described as “creatures” the way 19th century romance writing often characterizes female characters. The animal serves as a symbol of male aggression and virility in the sublimated sexuality of contact sports, but it takes on a different power dynamic than the association between feminine sexuality and animality that Veblen posits. One is a wild animal completely under his own power; the other is a weak, domesticated animal dependent on another for survival.

Although Veblen reads the corset as strictly evidence of a lady’s incapacity for physical labor, it also effaces female fertility by compressing the abdomen, indicating the woman’s incapacity for the physical labor of childbirth. This is controlled sexuality to the extreme. Veblen does not address the sexual freedom associated with the New Woman, but the looser clothing associated with “bloomers” and women bicyclists were inextricable from notions of looser morals, a freer sexuality. As mentioned in an earlier post on the New Woman and the Gibson Girl, the corset was not obsolete in the 1890s; the skirts of women’s garments became less voluminous, but the ideal of an extremely slender waist held for much of the decade.

For Veblen, the New Woman is situated between human and animal: “It is a type of human nature which… belongs to a cultural stage that may be classed as possibly sub-human” (Veblen 361). This subhuman cultural stage he describes earlier in the book is also prior to the institution of marriage (derived from the violent practice of wife capture), without regulated sexual competition, and, perhaps, without regulated, constrained female sexuality. So, the fear persists that the New Woman embodies a more masculine type of animality; she is not a creature of beauty, but a wild animal that resists control.

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