- The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity by Holly Grout
The process of university publishing pushes authors toward conventional thinking. The presses themselves live close to bankruptcy, which makes them conservative. The practice of blind manuscript review, in which anonymous academics critique the work, inevitably holds the author hostage to established views and the personal agendas of senior professors. This ritual, more than any other, is responsible for the tyranny of normal science, as identified by Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It drives what should be the most intellectually daring corner of the publishing world into mediocrity.
The humanities are much more vulnerable to this phenomenon than the sciences. The dominance of certain political theories or beliefs pushes entire disciplines into a powerful “regression toward the mean” from which it is extremely hard to break free. Feminist studies have, unfortunately, been particularly prone to this bullying within ranks, resulting in endless printed replication of established thinking, despite the loud rhetoric about “being critical.”
The histories of beauty practices are probably the most resistant to new thought. Naturalized assumptions about the origins and purposes of grooming, bizarre ideas about “the gaze,” a fascination with outlier cases, and a political imperative to arrive at conclusions pointing to evil manipulation, combine with the typical process of review to produce the same book, over and over and over.
That forced march toward bland assent is perhaps what is behind the failure of The Force of Beauty, a new book by Holly Grout, published by Louisiana State University Press. Grout opens her acknowledgements with the assertion that she began with “nutty theories” that were eventually made “better” by her dissertation supervisor. And that well may be true. However, the work that follows hasn’t a single line in it that would even vaguely resemble nuttiness. Instead, as is too often the case, especially with untenured authors like Grout, the arguments in the book are consistently hedged to the point where the thesis, if there ever was one, disappears.
The all-too-safe position Grout takes instead is that French women were both exploited and empowered by the commercial beauty culture that grew up in Third Republic France. The change in cultural discourse, which accompanied massive social shifts and major historical challenges, apparently “posed contradictions.” These trite conclusions contribute nothing. And it’s a shame. Grout has done an admirable job researching her topic, using sources and addressing historical players of a type usually ignored by this stream of research. One can only imagine what a fresh perspective she might have produced from that work, if only the “nutty theories” had survived.
The book also has some fairly typical blind spots and some irritatingly familiar analytical strategies. One particularly chafing habit is to cast the grooming practices new to Gilded Age France as “work” (or “task” or “duty” or “obligation”). Grooming is universal among humans, male and female, and is very often experienced as a pleasurable respite from work, a way of relieving stress. Body-and face-painting in particular is the norm in human history, hardly new in Third Republic France, and is often seen as an art form and a delight. The ascetic, moralistic, and absurdly presentist presumption that grooming was invented in the twentieth century as a uniquely sinister method for subordinating women is common to the entire discourse on the topic.
It is initially intriguing when Grout sets up the disease and declining fertility facing fin de siècle France as the motivation behind the health care profession’s sudden focus on improving the hygiene habits of the country’s females. But she tells us almost nothing about the causes for the crisis or the rationale that would have connected disease to grooming in the minds of physicians and health officers. Instead, as is disturbingly typical of this discourse, she narrates as if the health crisis was somehow manufactured for the purpose of making women beautify themselves. She does not address what pre-existing, presumably unhealthy, practices were being eradicated or countermanded, nor does she consider that if...