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disembodied or disappointed [a&c]

the gatekeeping of female intelligence on paper and screen

It must have been seventh grade when my younger sister, my cousin, and I set our minds to making a VideoStar of “The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamilton. It was a warm day right after Christmas, and the basketball court next to my grandparents’ house was covered with moss. I was the oldest, so I got to be Angelica. 

I had the whole song memorized already. You want a revolution? I want a revelation! So listen to my declaration. I lined us up facing the basketball hoop, with Eliza (my sister) and Peggy (my cousin) on either side. We flounced forward and stomped back. We spun around in circles so our matching cotton dresses flew out around our legs like parachutes.

We HOLD these truths to BE self-evidentthat all men are creAted EQual—and when I meet Thomas Jefferson (oh!)—Imma compel him to include women in his sequel (work!) 

Another Seltz cousin was the camerawoman, and, when the song ended, she let us gather around to watch the final product. I was eager to witness the fruits of my directorial debut. But as our LED bodies flashed across the tiny screen, I remember only the nausea that swept through me. My bony elbows stretched the sleeves of my dress, my belly refused to recede, and my chest hadn’t swelled enough to compensate. I had braces and my hair was frizzy in the damp D.C. weather. I looked nothing like Angelica. 

***

There were never any Barbies in my apartment growing up. My parents taught me the Bechdel test in the same breath they used to teach me to tie my laces. They flipped through stacks of canvas cards with words printed on them—for sounding out—and when I got one right, I got hugs and extra dessert. Before I had the words to say it, I knew—it was obvious—that girls were to be valued for what they did with their minds, not what they looked like in their bodies. 

Of course I knew that my parents’ view was not the only perspective. No one could shelter me entirely from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and all the other damsels in distress in the childhood canon, and I knew that their appeal was chiefly aesthetic. But original-mix fairy tales seemed to be falling out of favor—they were old, they were boring—and that gave me hope. 

I liked Annabeth Chase of Percy Jackson, Little Women’s Jo March, and of course Hermione, from Harry Potter, was my favorite. I dressed up like her for Halloween one year, and my sister was Tonks. We made our own wands out of Central Park sticks and pipe cleaners, and we walked around our apartment building armed with the etymological explanations for all but a handful of the spells (Avada Kedavra comes from “cadaver”, you see!). I was no Cinderella in a shiny blue dress; my robes made reference to a “plain” little witch with bushy hair and buck teeth. But I was met with cheers and smiles of recognition nonetheless. Everyone loves Hermione. 

My looks hadn’t mattered that Halloween, but, in general, I did want to be beautiful. Very badly. At home, before the mirror in a blue-flowered tunic when my hair let loose from its typical braids to hang in damp waves against my shoulder blades, I often believed that I was. But in photographs with my friends—sitting on the monkey bars, lined up at the ice rink in front of the swinging door—it was quickly obvious to me that I’d been wrong. 

In those moments, I thought about Hermione and the promise that had been made to me through her. Those days you didn’t have to be pretty—you could be smart instead. I was consoled by this certainty. I’d never seen Emma Watson in the movies, so it was the image of Hermione I’d conjured from text that floated before my eyes—an image that looked like me. 

I was always a ‘read-before-you-watch’ kind of person growing up, which is probably why I’m writing this article. Books are not like movies. Movies are visual items—they will never escape that imperative. From the first shot, everything is laid bare to you: streetscapes, storm clouds, bodies. 

The author of a book, on the other hand, could go 200 pages without letting you know how your protagonist looks. Of course, that’s rarely done; what’s more common is just a page or two, or maybe 20, where description is left out. And when the character’s physicality is finally revealed, it’s by necessity an ambiguous definition. Maybe the protagonist is tall and thin, but what color are her eyes? 

You can’t say it all. So it’s left to the reader to fill in the blanks, and to the extent we can—within the limits of what we’ve been told—we self-insert. 

This kind of ambiguity facilitated a fierce debate, a few years back, about whether Hermione was Black (or whether you could cast a Black actress in her role). The absence of explicit racial identification in the text made room for some readers of color to find representation in the character and her world. But some of the more vitriolic elements on the internet made it their cause to defend the white Hermione. They cloaked their arguments with good intentions: You have to respect the author’s vision! A Black Hermione is simply not accurate! But it’s hard to imagine that their critiques couldn’t have derived from the conviction, however conscious, that a Black Hermione was somehow wrong—that a smart woman couldn’t be Black. 

Forget about smart instead of pretty. You start to think that conventional beauty is a universal companion of intelligence; even a prerequisite to it. Authors and screenwriters establish and reinforce standards of beauty that exclude bodies according to race, gender identity, and sexuality—so the barriers to inhabiting a certain creative world—to feeling validated by the struggles of its residents, and to seeing its possibilities as your own—are often limited for queer people and people of color.  

But it’s easiest for me to think about these ideas and their implications through my own lens. I talk about weight and shape and skinniness because these are the traits that most identifiably distinguish my body from the Hollywood ideal. My Hermione wasn’t Black, because I’m not—but she didn’t look like Emma Watson, either. Her curly hair and her big teeth differentiated the two of us, but we had the same gentle softness around our stomachs and thighs. 

I read myself into every book I owned or borrowed. My reading of Jo March might as well have been me dressed in calico. And from the text of Percy Jackson and the Olympians I drew an Annabeth Chase with a bracketed smile—just gray eyes, instead of green. 

In those long years before I could take the subway when my radius of independence only stretched to the corner store, the worlds I inhabited through reading were much broader than the world I really lived in. My little cast of characters—in their hopes and disappointments, their joys and their angsts—defined for me what was possible. 

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But one by one the characters dropped off. 

Hermione, the first time I saw Emma Watson on the red carpet. 

Jo March, when they put Saoirse Ronan in the calico. 

Annabeth Chase, just a day or two ago, when I googled The Lightning Thief as part of my research for the article. My little sister had already seen the movie, and when I told her I was writing about Annabeth she said: “She’s so pretty it’s scary.” 

Why are all the smart girls so skinny? I can think of plenty of reasons—none of them good. One is that, as clever girls took center stage on the screen, they were forced to accommodate to the same standards that have pretty much always been applied to Hollywood stars: that narrowly curated kind of sexy into which whiteness (and skinniness) is encoded. I also think about threat and compromise. You’ve seen those kitschy magnets in indie bookstores: “A well-read woman is a dangerous creature.” There’s probably some truth to that, and so movies and books alike tend to condense that danger into small packages. 

Maybe it’s also that we’ve linked intelligence to a certain body for too long: a body that is white, male, and lean. In a New York Times Op-Ed from January, philosopher Kate Manne writes about how our judgments of intellect are woven through with “embodied” language: “We praise arguments for being muscular and compact and criticize prose for being flabby, flowery, and implicitly, feminine.” The acknowledgment of intellectual prowess in some women was a big enough step; add non-whiteness, or fatness, or any other disparaged trait, and it’s too much for the old guard to digest. 

For all but the most smashingly, conventionally gorgeous among us, to consume media is to experience a series of disappointing embodiments. Sometimes it doesn’t take the pressures of Hollywood hotness to break the spell; it happens within the text itself. A couple of years ago I spent over a hundred pages of Conversations with Friends feeling like Frances was drawing her words right out of my soul, and then she undressed in front of the mirror. All Sally Rooney can write about then is how thin Frances is, how small her breasts are against her bony frame. I’d felt seen. I’d felt validated in thinking everything that Frances thought, and when she found love, I felt comforted to think that I would too in time. But Frances was clearly at least 30 pounds lighter than I was, and boom: The door to that world was shut. 

The potential for women to be valued for what they think and feel and create is a world-opening one. But that promise isn’t fulfilled if it only applies to a narrow subset: women already proximate, by virtue of race or size or sexuality, to the historic (white, male) intellectual ideal. 

I grew up thinking that I could be whatever I wanted to be—but then I was told that I couldn’t be Hermione. I couldn’t be Angelica, I couldn’t be Annabeth, I couldn’t be Jo, and I couldn’t be Frances. 

Someone still holds the keys to the castle, and it’s not girls like me. Our cultural understandings of beauty and intelligence continue to be mediated by a white male gaze that cedes its power incrementally at best. We can all cheer for the nerdy witch, but her Blackness would be too much to handle. Girls are allowed to take up space with their minds or their bodies. But not both.

But I’m not looking for permission. I’m looking for a world—both real and fictional—that we can all enter on our own terms. A world we can inhabit as people—however complex—however hard to digest. I’m looking for a place where we’re all valued for what we value in ourselves, unconditionally.

 I’m looking for a mind at work (work!) 



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