Last week four white men in dark suits and neatly parted hair stood before US lawmakers defending their company, Goldman Sachs. They were accused of selling “shitty” deals to innocent clients and making billions while the stock market collapsed all around them. The financial equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome was burning.
In late April, pugnacious Lalit Modi—sometimes scornful, sometimes bitter, always vowing to fight—was suspended as Indian Premier League (IPL) chairman. And much earlier, in what now looks to be the beginning of the end of the IPL as we know it, Shashi Tharoor was forced to resign as minister.
Face value: Tharoor, with his dapper image, has had a rough initiation into politics. Prakash Singh/AFP
All of which beg the question—do different professions have different beauty barometers? Let me explain.
A boy wants to enter politics. He stands in the hot sun in a political rally waiting to meet a great leader, someone with longevity and a weird sort of charisma; say someone like Lalu Prasad. Finally, the moment arrives and the boy, all of 18 years old, touches his idol’s feet and expresses his fervent desire: “Sahib, I want to enter politics. I want to run for office.”
Lalu’s proxy (as we shall call him in this story) takes a good long look at him and says, “Boy, you are too handsome for politics. Try films instead.”
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Every profession demands a certain look. Casting agents know this when they choose the long-haired lanky guy in torn jeans to play the role of a musician in a movie or a show. Jury selectors intuit this, as was magnificently illustrated by actor Gene Hackman in the film Runaway Jury. And college students embrace this as they change their demeanour from being recent graduates to consummate professionals. They play a role; they try to look the part; and pretty soon, the “look” becomes them; it becomes who they are.
Doctors, for instance, tend to look reassuring. Their job programmes them to look this way. Nurses look matronly—“sisters”, we call them. Priests look avuncular or fatherly. Journalists, particularly television anchors, have to look cerebral to be taken seriously. The blondes wear spectacles; the men look thoughtful even if they are not. Scientists are, and look, maverick or contrarian— clean-cut Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and wild-child Einstein, different looks but scientists both. Teachers look wholesome—they are in the kid business, after all. Aid workers on the other hand can afford to look like flower-children, in ethnic skirts, flowing hair and free spirits. That is their garb. Corporate executives, particularly in the US, have taken to looking penitent, particularly if they are on Wall Street. Prior to that, however, most looked both hungry and smug, fitting the “fat cat” description. Bureaucrats look stolid; and film stars, glamorous. These are generalizations, of course, but they play to type. Modi looks like none of the above, which I think is the problem that the British press has with him. He doesn’t fit a type—he could play the part of a Mafia boss and an oily salesman on the make. Is he a Master of the Universe as caricatured by Tom Wolfe in the book The Bonfire of the Vanities, or simply a corrupt politician?
Historically, politicians have tended to be bellicose, old and balding. Think of Gorbachev, Churchill, Castro, Arafat and Narasimha Rao. The world, it seems, likes its netas ugly, with a few tragic exceptions—Kennedy and Rajiv Gandhi come to mind. The current crop of politicians are no different: Mayawati, Hu Jintao, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and even the respected Manmohan Singh. The best we can muster about them is that they have inner beauty. Their job is not predicated on looks.
Someone should have mentioned all this to Tharoor before inducting him into electoral politics. The Indian electorate doesn’t mind dimpled Youth Congress leaders; it doesn’t mind cabinet ministers who dye their hair or wear a toupée. But we certainly don’t want our politicians to look pretty. We may admire beautiful people; we may envy them and want to be like them. But we don’t trust them. When it comes right down to it, the electorate doesn’t even like good-looking people. Tharoor made many mistakes. But his greatest misfortune, perhaps, is that he, like Sarah Palin, was born beautiful and chose not to make amends for it. Worse, he chose a field where beauty is not only undervalued, it is viewed with outright suspicion. I use the word “beauty” here in the neutral gender, mostly because “born beautiful” is a better alliteration than the more grammatical “born handsome”.
If you are a politician and have the misfortune of being good-looking, you do what Rahul Gandhi and Barack Obama are doing. You grow a stubble. You hide behind a uniform: white kurta-pyjama or boxy black suits. You do damage-control instead of acting like a dapper dandy. You certainly don’t preen in multi-hued peacockish clothes.
Scientific studies don’t necessarily corroborate what I am saying. Handsome men have an edge over the others with respect to their careers, studies say. But that’s like saying that tall men have an advantage over short ones. They did, until the world invented the Napoleon complex. Short men have been ruling the world ever since.
So it goes with beauty. As plastic surgery becomes affordable; as more and more people appear better groomed—on television and elsewhere; as image consultants spruce up CEOs, politicians and other leaders, beauty simply isn’t as unattainable as it used to be. It is, in fact, ubiquitous. So in a historic repetition of the Napoleon complex, we begin to cherish ugliness. As beauty becomes fake thanks to plastic surgery, ugliness is equated with rustic authenticity.
We may elect handsome politicians, but once they become netas, we expect them to put their nose to the grindstone and get on with it. Tharoor didn’t do that. He sought attention. Modi tried his best to stay quiet and get on with it, until he got caught. Now, he needs to take a lesson, or at least look the part of the Goldman Sachs bankers who are trying their best—with sober suits and contrite looks—to play the part of the “fall guy”, who takes the blame for events beyond the control of a single man, or a single firm, or even a billion-dollar franchise.
Perception equals reality.
Shoba Narayan thinks that looks are overrated. Easier for her to say, she has little to lose. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org