Beauty is an Impediment: Julia Pastrana and the Modern-Day Politics of Being Seen

While critics were debating if Lena Dunham gets too naked too often; or if Melissa McCarthy is too fat to be a movie star Julia Pastrana’s mummified remains were being collected from an Oslo medical facility and sent home to Mexico to be laid to rest. In her death, as in life, the subject of Ms. Pastrana's looks and the public's needs and right to view her as an oddity took center stage. The New York Times recently devoted several columns to Miss Pastrana’s life story and how more than 150 years after her death in childbirth her preserved corpse remained unburied and forgotten; a relic of a previous era of scientific and social mores During her lifetime, Pastrana suffered from rare medical conditions, which produced hair all over her face and body and gave her a pronounced mouth. Labeled “the missing link” or “bear woman,” she toured the world as a freak show attraction. In her life and beyond, the mere display of Miss Pastrana’s body served both as public spectacle and the receptacle of each generation’s fears, expectations and controversies.

Julia was billed by her husband/manager as “the ugliest woman in the world” and he charged strangers to see her mummified remains along with those of their infant son. Since her passing, her body had been hidden away in a medical facility, toured Europe as an oddity and was mutilated by vandals. In death, as in life, her body was not her own. In her own short lifetime she was examined by doctors and scientists, including Charles Darwin, who all tried to place her unconventional body somewhere on the spectrum between human and wild animal. What is also widely recorded in the contemporary accounts of Julia was that she was apparently a woman of great wit, charm and talent. Actress Jessica Vera, who recently played her in a Texas production of the biographical play, The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, notes that Julia spoke several languages, and had considerable skills as a singer and dancer, all of which continue to be a subheader to her physical appearance. Even most contemporary news outlets screamed “ape woman” from their sensational headlines when reporting the news of Julia’s interment.

It was a role that Jessica explains challenged both her skills and her vanity as an actress, since the entire production takes place in total darkness. A bold and smart choice in staging, it takes the emphasis off of Julia’s looks and puts it back on her humanity. In her research for the role, Jessica discovered that Julia was “innately curious” and, while isolated from the world around her by her appearance, was always eager to learn new things. It was these details that were particularly striking to her in creating her performance and finding ways to express herself through voice, breath and footfalls with her expressions and body language taken away. Additionally, Jessica explains, she became intrigued with those who surrounded, controlled and befriended Julia, particularly her husband and manager, Theodore Lent. Lent arranged her appearances and tightly controlled her ability to even leave their home for fear she’d be seen in public and give away his money-making show. Julia’s appearance in a comedic play caused a particular furor with German censors. The role called for her to appear as a veiled beauty, who is only revealed when she has captivated a suitor and grants him a kiss. The mask is lifted and the results were viewed as more than cheap comedy or easy shock to local critics, who actually dubbed the revelation as a “moral abhorrence” and shut the show down. The issue was not so much her appearance in public, but that she had made her ugliness a laughing matter and not one of scientific inquiry or societal moralizing. Encapsulating the display of the disabled, foreign or otherwise different in terms of public health or moral warning was a common practice by showmen like PT Barnum, since it removed much the stigma that surrounded the display of the female body in public during the Victorian era and made it a psuedo-educational form of entertainment. This meant that having Ms. Pastrana seen as an object of desire (even in a comic setting) was considered a far greater threat to public decency than viewing her as a pitiable, subhuman creature or one of “nature's mistakes.”

So, how far have we come from that moment in our cultural history? Recently, Stephen Marche invited comment and controversy when he opined in a glowing profile of actress/underwear spokesperson, Megan Fox for Esquire, “…women no longer need to be beautiful in order to express their talent. Lena Dunham and Adele and Lady Gaga and Amy Adams are all perfectly plain, and they are all at the top of their field… Today, unfettered sexual beauty is an impediment. To be serious and respected, it is better to be homely or cute. Or else you must disfigure yourself, like Charlize Theron in Monster. ” Read contextually, his thesis seems to be less about applauding a widening definition beauty itself and more about a concern for a small number of female entertainers who have managed to carve out careers for themselves despite their meager looks. Moreover, the fact that looks and not quality are central to cultural critics’ reviews of performance suggests that we’ve barely moved at all.

Lena Dunham’s character Hannah in Girls in particular has been a litmus test with our current levels of comfort with the display of the female body. Part of the reason her appearance may be so noteworthy is that it fills our current idea of what constitutes a “moral abhorrence.” Both supporters and critics have all commented in one way or another on how unapologetic Ms. Dunham is about her appearance. For example, in the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to Ms. Dunham’s display of an unconventional body as democratizing nudity, whereas radio personality Howard Stern (generally a huge fan of female exhibitionism) just put his foot down at “I don’t want to see that.” At both ends of the spectrum is the expectation that the female body is put on display for deeper reasons than serving the plot or character and that the body itself is a legitimate target. Female bodies, especially those outside of a very narrow construction of thin, white, young and unmarred, seem to fill the role that we once reserved for “freaks” or the physically different, where they are made to serve as a some sort scientific or moral warning. In Dunham’s case, her character Hannah’s active, if not aggressive, sexuality has come under fire; Described as “assertively ugly” by Slate’s Daniel Engber, she’s been routinely routed for dating out of her presumed league. There’s a certain “how dare she” tack to all of the critics who have had their suspension of disbelief shaken by her success with the opposite sex—a tack which has seemingly never been applied, by way of example, to the level of suspension of disbelief required for a universe in which Woody Allen is consistently the object of young women’s desires. It’s as if Hannah had also fiendishly seduced an unwitting suitor and then suddenly ripped away the veil to reveal a hideous creature underneath, rather than a normal 20-something just going through the ups and downs of dating in today’s New York.

In the case of Melissa McCarthy, her fitness to be seen hinges on our pseudo-scientific and moral fascination with health and thinness. In 2010, author Maura Kelly was forced to issue an apology for her Marie Claire article in which she suggested that the very idea of McCarthy being allowed to portray a sexually active wife on TV left her feeling “grossed out.” Swathed in a wrapper of concern for Ms. McCarthy’s health and social hygiene, the editorial expresses a seemingly genuine concern at the danger of the image of presenting a happy, sexual and yet overweight person as an acceptable entity to the increasingly weighty American public—a responsibility for public wellbeing that has never been placed at the feet of generations of chubby TV husbands from Jackie Gleason to Kevin James. Currently the standard of the body as warning sign is largely attached to gender, requiring women to make any perceived fault or difference in their physical selves a source of shame and comic apology. McCarthy’s refusal to play along has earned her the ire of several critics, including Rex Reed, who not only panned her most recent film Identity Thief, but lit into her appearance, reviewing her personally as “…a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success.” The film was a hit and Reed was roundly reviled in the popular press, but not before his labeling of her as a “female hippo” made the headlines in much the same way “ape woman” capped the news of Julia Pastrana’s return to her native land.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also a societal construct and a biological imperative. The fact remains that Miss Pastrana’s appearance while alive and as a preserved specimen was strange and frightening. To argue otherwise would be disingenuous, but the continuing cultural challenge we face is to see beyond the surface of a person. In the New York Times artist Laura Anderson Barbata, who arranged for Miss Pastrana’s burial in their hometown of Sinaloa, Mexico explained she embarked on the project because she “…hoped to help change her position as a victim to one where she can be seen in her entirety and complexity.” She might have been a rare physical specimen, but she was also a person. Lena Dunham and Melissa McCarthy are not atypical people. In fact they’re probably more indicative of the average American physique than the prized waifs who make up the bulk of female characters in our popular media. How we talk about both the physically different and the seemingly ideal says an enormous about how far we have come – and where we have yet to go – as a society. Marginalizing them as simply “fat” or “ugly” goes a long way toward making them “freakish” or “other” in the public consciousness and, therefore, somehow deserving of abuse and criticism. Ms. Dunham and Ms. McCarthy, as do all female performers, politicians and journalists, et al., deserve the dignity of being seen front and center for whatever their professional strengths or weaknesses really are, rather than as a sideshow to the ever-present, ever shifting expectation of physical perfection.

-The Lady Aye