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  • Ariyana Brittingham

Through Dorian's Eyes: A Look Into Social Attraction and the Privileges that Come With It

“I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose?”

A fictional classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, stands on its own as a tale of beauty, morality, and the search for self in 19th-century London. It takes off with Dorian Gray, the story's lead character, making a Faustian bargain—a pact someone makes selling their values for a material benefit—to remain young and beautiful. Dorian wants to sell his soul to a picture that will ensure his beauty remains, but only the painting will age. He is moved by the words of Lord Henry, the main antagonist, who describes “intellect as a mode of exaggeration” that destroys the “harmony of any face.” It presents one of the leading controversies of the story, such that favoritism of physical attraction over character is, ultimately, worth the sacrifice. Despite pioneering the aestheticism movement, Wilde critiques the focus on the seduction of beauty and art while alluding to its dangers for aesthetes. 

Aestheticism valued art only for its attractiveness because it believed it served no political purpose that pushed society forward. Oscar Wilde prefaced his support for aestheticism by arguing, “All art is quite useless,” except for its aesthetic allure. Today, public favoritism towards attractive people can be seen on social media, where the term “pretty privilege” begins to grow in popularity. Pretty privilege can be defined as the unspoken but powerful advantages bestowed upon individuals who fit society's standards of physical attractiveness. This does not imply that attractive people are viewed less than others, combatting the aesthete's belief that art served no purpose in pushing society forward, but instead that society has prejudged individuals based on their looks and not character. Many instances can be seen on TikTok, where the #prettyprivilege has amassed 30k+ posts from creators commenting or critiquing the concept. Users like @madelineaford have discussed the “Beauty Pass” app, which gives access to those accepted within the community opportunities to advance their careers—creating division between groups of people based on their looks. 

In addition, there has been scientific evidence to understand pretty privilege and how it affects our daily lives. Researchers found that when our brains perceive beauty, it activates a region of the brain known as the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which deals with our feelings of reward and pleasure. When that part of the brain is activated, people tend to garner interest towards that individual. An experimental labor market asked “employers” to hire “employees” based on their ability to solve a maze, and the results showed there was a  12% to 17% higher compensation reward based on the beauty of people. In contrast, employers attributed the rest of the compensation to oral communication and confidence. In addition, jobs like modeling, acting, news broadcasting, etc., rely heavily on the person's physical appearance in the hiring process. So, what does it mean to privilege those who fit into the societal conventions of beauty and overall attractiveness, as shown in social media?

Image showing adverse effects of social media pressure by Andrea Worthington

“Life has everything in store for you, Dorian. There is nothing that you, with your extraordinary good looks, will not be able to do.”

Indeed, no one is pulling a Dorian Gray by selling their soul to a painting to remain youthful, but many social pressures are placed on individuals who feel they must change their appearance to fulfill a beauty bias. Leon Festinger, a psychologist, developed the social comparison theory, which argues that people have an innate drive to evaluate themselves and determine their social and personal worth based on how they measure up against others. Social media today has become a catalytic force for these social comparisons. People are constantly viewing other users' profiles and comparing themselves to others without getting a chance to really know the individual.  Furthermore, social comparisons have increased the adverse effects, i.e., depression and lack of confidence, on adolescent well-being. In the case of Dorian Gray, due to his high appraisal by the people around him, he exhibited a downward social comparison—meaning he viewed himself as better than others— and took on the traits of unconstrained hedonism. He transformed immensely from his pure innocence to his dreadful selfishness. It eventually became a conflict he would have to face near the end of the narrative. 

“To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,”

While society frequently appraises the looks of someone, it does require an examination of the ethical foregrounds society is building upon itself. Such that the view of appearance as indicative to someone's socio-economic status can negate a person's character. Beauty is too subjective only to be considered for its tangible parts. It is easier to progress as a society when we pay attention to the meaning of art and how the artist's intention is fulfilled by analyzing the work itself, not just its more superficial elements. The examination of art is more than surface level; it is the examination of the profound meaning and complexities that make the message possible. This can be applicable to people as well. When these parts are contented, discussions can be had that shift the way we view beauty in hopes of altering the zeitgeist and the impact it can make on the future.

So, contrary to Oscar Wildes's statement, all art can be quite useful.


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