Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reasons to Be Pretty

I went into Reasons to Be Pretty, the new Neil LaBute show on Broadway, expecting to hate it. The show is about what happens when Greg, our protagonist, offhandedly tells his douchey friend that his girlfriend's face is "regular" (instead of beautiful) -- and she finds out. It has all the ingredients of a LaBute sexist cocktail, in the vein of In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things. The surprise here is that in dealing with the beauty myth, one of the most enduring facets of sexism in America, he managed to create a work that wasn't sexist.

Part of me wants to know what Reasons to Be Pretty would be like if written by a woman -- someone who lived with the beauty standard inside and out, every day. But part of LaBute's point is that men, because they are outside of the beauty standard, cannot understand; instead, they have to try to grasp the significance to the women in their lives of something as potent and volatile as beauty. Women may have to deal with it in a harsher, more daily light, but because of that we intrinsically understand it, even if we're left inarticulate of anything but academic-critique language to describe its effects. Men are left to watch. (Or exploit. Which LaBute, true to form, shows with Greg's buddy Kent, who will surely be played by Aaron Eckhart in the movie.)

It's rare to see tales of the beauty myth from a personal perspective in anything other than a story about overcoming self-hatred. That tack is important, but it doesn't come close to belying the acute pain that the beauty standard brings; we know our own worst moments, but we don't know those of others. Reasons to Be Pretty would be absurd if Steph were freaking out over a female friend saying she had a "regular" face. The play works because the beauty myth creeps into intimate relationships, preying on the very uncertainty that often accompanies romance. Instead of verging on cries of "reverse sexism," as The Shape of Things did, LaBute manages to show why he, as a man, is uniquely qualified to tell this story about the beauty standard.

When, in the play's climax, Greg tells Steph that he was ambivalent about his feelings for her -- it comes off as a stroke of love, believe it or not -- we're left wondering if he's lying in order to sever their tie so that she might be able to embark on a new relationship where the word regular will never cut like a knife. In his author's note, LaBute writes that Greg "just might be one of the few adults I've ever tackled." I can only hope that LaBute himself is growing up and that he can continue to add to the growing number of men in the public eye who are examining gender and sexism with openness and concern for both themselves and the women around them -- not defensiveness.

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