Need a program (virtual or in-person) to empower teen girls around media messages? See our menu.

The feminist value of Amal Clooney’s beauty and brains

“Some readers may wonder how a woman described by Elle magazine as having ‘stunning looks, flirty dresses, tailored pants, colorful heels, and gorgeous hair’ is involved in such a complex legal matter? … It may be astonishing to most people that Amal Alamuddin, now Mrs. Clooney, is much more than a pretty face! In fact, she is perfectly qualified for this critical assignment.” ~Harut Sassounian

Unfortunately, the rampant sexism in the above quote from The Huffington Post’s Harut Sassounian is commonplace in articles surrounding the newly minted Amal Clooney.

Regarded for her human rights work, but always scrutinized for her appearance, Ms. Clooney contradicts what our society traditionally expects of women: that they can never truly be both beautiful and smart. Ms. Clooney is a member of a rare breed that seems to “have it all” — an exclusive club, imagined by Anne-Marie Slaughter, of women who have a perfect work-life balance.

Hollywood has reincarnated this vision of “all” as women who are accomplished and conventionally beautiful. Ms. Clooney’s seeming perfection puts her in an elite group of tabloid-scrutinized women that previously only included the likes of Kate Middleton and Beyoncé – except Ms. Clooney has upped the ante, demonstrating a new level of accomplishment that even Hollywood heavyweights had not achieved.

Thanks to Ms. Clooney’s new standard, even the most intelligent and hardworking of women have to be conventionally beautiful to be perfect. On one hand, she challenges harmful cultural norms that separate beauty and brains. On the other hand, her media image may increase expectations for effortless perfection.

So what does that mean for feminists? What reaction to Ms. Clooney’s image best aids the cause — excitement that there is a woman who proves beauty and brains can coexist, or exhaustion that a woman who does “have it all” actually has emerged in the public eye?

At the risk of offering an easy answer, the most “feminist” reaction may be to stop nitpicking what Ms. Clooney “does” for cultural views of women. While her media presence does raise provocative questions, trying to effectively “pick a side” about what she represents ignores a crucial element of the practical application of feminism: mutual female support.

Women should rally behind Ms. Clooney simply because of who she is. She is our sister, and it is much more feminist to criticize the pundits who disparage her inconsequential white gloves and deliver the idea that she is both smart and beautiful as if it were breaking news than it is to criticize any of her choices.

Although I question the value of celebrities as feminist brand ambassadors, I think self-proclaimed feminist/celebrity Taylor Swift was right when she said, “In order for us to have gender equality, we have to stop making it a girl fight, and we have to stop being so interested in seeing girls trying to tear each other down. It has to be more about cheering each other on, as women.

Practically, I think this means we must largely applaud Ms. Clooney’s impressive career. Feminists — men and women alike — must make it clear that her work is more important than her appearance, and celebrate the fact that there is a strong female paving the way for others to do the same kind of work (Emma Watson may have an Amal-Clooney-like future). After that, we cannot judge her appearance as either beneficial or detrimental for women. We must applaud her just for doing what she pleases and — from what little we actually know of her life — being herself. That is a feminist reaction that will continue to affirm global sisterhood.

Caitlin Lansing is a 2014 graduate of Princeton University, where an adamant belief that “freak shows turned into beauty pageants” propelled her to write a 90-page history thesis about it. A former dancer and college cheerleader, she is no stranger to body scrutiny, and seeks to challenge the idea that one’s worth is intimately tied to appearance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *