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The Strange Sublimity of a Face

By Anwesha Dutta

On faces, femmes and fabrications.

What had reached me, so powerfully cast from a human body, was Beauty: there was a face, with all the mysteries inscribed and preserved on it, I was before it, I sensed that there was a beyond, to which I did not have access, an unlimited place.
- Helen Cixous

The first time I heard about the golden ratio was in high school. It was something I’d heard from a conversation between classmates on a random afternoon, and which then I proceeded to google about back at home only to find a bunch of faces of beautiful, white women. I had little awareness of being too conscious of things like racism, ableism, or Eurocentric beauty standards to understand I could never myself have a “golden ratio” face but I do remember looking at my face in the mirror and trying to see if I could somehow measure and fit it in the math nevertheless, as I had seen my classmates demonstrating to each other’s faces a few hours prior. Of course I didn’t fit into the divine square of scientific perfection - most of those faces were longer than mine, which was hopelessly round, and I could never somehow measure the exact gap between my eyes or eyebrows with a ruler.

When we speak of beauty, some of us, especially literature grads like myself, automatically think of John Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ with the perfect lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Or if you’re an Aesthete instead of a Romantic, you would think of Oscar Wilde, who’d said of beauty that it “has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing. When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-coloured world.” The reason I’m writing about beauty today, especially that of a face, is because I’ve been particularly enamoured with a face lately, but only as I encountered it inside the universe of a show - that of Elle Fanning’s face in The Great.

Elle Fanning had taken up no real estate in my brain before I saw The Great this week. I kept feeling, ever so slightly, disoriented every time there was a close-up of her face in the show, or her face was in the frame at all, either crying, laughing, frowning, cumming, shouting, or sweating. The tumultuous journey she undergoes throughout the season seems to me to have been concocted just for her face to have gone through the range of expressions it did. But why did it induce in me the affective responses akin to such astonishment but also blended with a bit of the weird and eerie? Can a face hold that much power? Philosopher Mark Fisher defines the concept of the weird and the eerie as “allow(ing) us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside” often by the “conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.” To my mind, the particularly girlish innocence that her face holds, combined with the magnanimity she is expected to embody as an Empress of a terrifying, wild country in the show, perhaps had something to do with the experience. This cognitive dissonance took me out and put me back in the narrative so many times that I developed a sort of dizzying lens to experience its world with. Nothing however, accustomed me to her face and its varying iterations of intensity - from sweating profusely after playing badminton with her own self in a fit of grieving madness, or getting tearfully humiliated in court after being the subject of a parody play, to the culmination of it all, a concluding convulsion of a dance to AC/DC's “You Shook Me All Night Long” in a new haircut and a black dress.

It is no coincidence that most metaphors of embodied beauty throughout history have been so gendered, and more importantly, associated with notions of fragility or an infantile sensibility. To the surprise of no one, such descriptors of femininity have once again found a fertile breeding ground in the contemporary capitalized interfaces of the digital landscape. If you’ve been anywhere between partially online to chronically online in the last year, you know that everything is about girls now. From aesthetics to diet to wellness to culture to books to media - we’re either eating 'girl dinner,' reading 'sad girl' books, being an 'e-girl,' a 'girlboss,' a 'cottagecore girlie,' watching ‘complex female characters’ in media, being a ‘trad wife’ to our husbands, or my favourite - we’re latently bisexual ‘femcels’ obsessed with Lana Del Rey, Sylvia Plath, Heathers, Mitski, The Virgin Suicides, My Year Of Rest and Relaxation et al. It struck me while writing this that there might just be a subculture or trend lurking on some corner of the internet that is obsessed with face shapes and lo and behold, there is! Not only that, I am now finding out that Elle Fanning has something called an “ethereal essence.” In an era where it is trendier than ever to be a femme, and there is such an overdrive of the aesthetics of girlishness, the material antipathy towards femmes in our lived reality is jarring. We care about girls as long as they are infantilized enough to be nothing more than commodified identities, but we know all too well that this performance of girlish powerlessness doesn’t take long to go from constructed fiction to the reality of womanhood.

Even though analyzing micro trends in culture is hardly ever useful because culture constantly slithers in unpredictable directions, I think it's safe to deduce that we’re more eager than ever to produce our own marketability before letting companies do it to us. However, choosing to commodify our personalities at lightning speed isn't the only route of salvation from these algorithms. Through archiving a personhood that is so specific and idiosyncratic in its iteration that it resists being marketed at all - if it is loud, takes risks, curates for others instead of itself, cultivates multiplicity instead of singularity, and just like Elle’s face, if you never know what comes next - that in itself is a protest. As critic and philosopher Ellie Anderson so succinctly says, "the very presumption that viral expressions of dissatisfaction do not in themselves already constitute a form of collective shift relies on the distinction between passive complaint and active protest that has historically functioned to exclude and denigrate women."

Now that I’ve thought about Elle's face for the long, meandering hours it took me to write this essay, I cannot help thinking about the elephant in the room: what AI would do to it. I do know, though, that no artificially constructed replica put together from the sum of the parts of a human face will ever be capable of inducing the effect that the profuse beauty of human existence has on us. Ultimately, all I know about beauty is through the words of poets, musicians, artists and philosophers, and what I have learnt from them is that beauty is temporal and spatial. We can find it in most people if we know where to look and when. I hope I was able to transport a blurry fragment of one of its ephemeral impressions to you, because in a world so fragmentary, beauty can be the place where our subjectivities merge.

Caveat: The Great was just a vessel through which I wanted to articulate my impressions on beauty and femininity. If you're encouraged to watch it after this essay, pirate it (in solidarity with the WGA strike) instead of watching it on Hulu!


About the Writer:

Anwesha Dutta (@bimbopoetica) is a writer and researcher. She is interested in articulating the subtle gaps at the intersection of culture, literature, and interpersonal relationships to make the world a place of nuance, justice, and equity. Find her newsletter at


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