Interviewer: I’ve read that you’ve gone as far as to say that the “tyranny of beauty” in our culture has taken a tremendous psychological toll, and it has the tendency to bring out the worst in us. Expound on that.
Bret Easton Ellis: You know I grew up in a family of three women — my mother and my two sisters — all very smart, educated, beautiful, and yet still have problems that they don’t feel they measure up or add up to what the media’s ideal woman is: that they don’t have the hips of a Christy Turlington or a Kate Moss… that if they don’t look a certain way they won’t be accepted. And even though you know that’s wrong, and even though you know most people don’t look like that, those are really the images that flood our culture.
And the images are set up in such a way as to have a maximum impact on you when you look at them — and cause a feeling of desire in you, cause a feeling of wanting to have this stuff, and feeding an insecurity so you will go out and buy that product, buy that dress, buy that makeup.
And that is damaging.
And it’s not only women. I’ve seen in the last ten years men become effected by this too. I mean, the idea that you should have a full head of hair when you’re sixty, or this washboard abdomen when you’re a forty-five, fifty-year-old guy. Or, just that you have to look like a really great looking nineteen-year-old boy for the rest of your life — it’s really ridiculous.
And I don’t think, as humans, we would be thinking about things in this way — or that these would be the ideals which would be of the utmost concern to us — unless it wasn’t for this thing rising up in the culture to hit us in the face.
And it’s damaging.
From Bret Easton Ellis’s interview with Allan Gregg, shown below.
I admire Ellis as a writer, even though all but two of his novels have been — I can say without a shred of ego or exaggeration — pieces of garbage. Less Than Zero is a punchy and iconic chronicle of adolescent decadence (Ellis wrote it when he was nineteen); and American Psycho is a vivid and unsettling and very good book — or at least about 98% of it is. The subtexts of both of those two books, moreover, orbit around the issues Ellis is discussing here. They’re really all about the superficiality of our culture — superficiality which does not mask banality, but spiritual emptiness and evil.
I would though take issue with the term “tyranny of beauty,” because it is, however evocative, a misnomer. Yeats spoke about “terrible beauty” as a way to call attention to a type of aesthetic allure that was somehow transcendent. Donna Tartt, who in fact went to school with Ellis at Bennington College in Vermont, and dedicated her first novel to her friend and former classmate, observed that, “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming… Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” And this seems to be closer to the truth, even if it is a tad overwrought. There’s nothing uglier than a culture so frenetically obsessed with systematized cosmetic standards that are, even in principle, unobtainable. No, the tyranny under which we suffer isn’t that of beauty; rather, it’s a tyranny of vanity — which can be the ugliest trait of all.