Having grown up in a household that revered old TV shows, I am no stranger to the 1960’s sci-fi thriller, The Twilight Zone. Upon reading Eaton’s article, and coming across the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, my mind instantly snapped back to this classic episode:

For those who haven’t seen it, or aren’t aware of the Twilight Zone, each episode is marked with a “twist” or a total reversal of what you might “expect”, the consequences of which are often thought provoking along political, social, and technological lines. This episode is no different, and considering that concepts of beauty, aesthetics, and morality play a central roll throughout the story, I consider it an interesting (if perhaps not ideal) example of Eaton’s discourse.

SPOILER WARNING: IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE EPISODE, I’M ABOUT TO REVEAL THE EPIC “PLOT TWIST” AT THE END. CONTINUE READING AT YOUR OWN RISK. I ASSUME NO RESPONSIBILITY IF I SPOIL THE EPISODE FOR YOU.

In some respects, the start of the episode serves as a counter-example to Eaton’s dialogue. Eaton examines the difficulty in defining “art” or “aesthetics” – how individual interpretations vary from person to person and therefore elude any common or concrete definition. Yet, little is said about when the opposite is true – when a large group of people decide that one particular experience is “aesthetically pleasing” or “beautiful”. There is mention of the individual critic – someone who has “authority” to make that judgement – but little about a large-scale societal understanding of what is, in fact, beautiful or aesthetically pleasing. The twist in the above episode works because it plays upon are aesthetic assumptions – we, as viewers, understand that the woman in bandages has a hideously deformed face, an aesthetic issue that has far-reaching social and political implications. The society in which she lives values conformity above all else, including conformity to a particular aesthetic or a common notion of “beauty”. We can only imagine the mangled lump of flesh and bone beneath the bandages, the warped mouth, the burned or mangled skin, and we await in a kind of schadenfreude horror for her face to be revealed. Keep in mind, the director has intentionally kept the faces of the medical staff out of the light. They move in shadow, and we can no more see their facial features than that of the woman.

As the moment arrives, and the bandages are finally removed, the operation appears a success. Her face is certainly pleasing – beautiful even, to our understanding of the human form. But the nurse screams and the doctor cries out “No! It didn’t work!” Only then are the faces of the medical staff revealed. There eyes are sunken, their noses more similar to the snout of a pig than that of a human. Their lips jut up and out at awkward and displeasing angles. They are, in all respects, the aesthetic opposite to that of the woman sitting before them, who touches her own face in horror as she realizes the operation indeed did not make her “beautiful”.

The reason why the plot twist has its desired effect is because it plays upon our common or societal understanding of what is “beautiful”. When someone says that person has a “beautiful” face, we conjure up an image of that face in our mind which conforms to a type of aesthetic experience – the experience of seeing a “beautiful face”. When the twist is revealed, we become intensely, even uncomfortably aware of this mental aesthetic model, and we are at once reminded of the “subjective” nature of aesthetics. How do we “know” that this woman’s face is beautiful, when to some person, it may not be? What’s more, how do we justify our stance that something (especially a person) is aesthetically pleasing? Is it by comparing that person to our mental and poorly-defined definition of beauty? Is it based off of our first emotional response? How much does emotion drive these aesthetic judgments?

What’s more, Eaton talks about the government’s roll to improve the aesthetic lives of taxpayers. Yet, as Eaton ponders, how are these aesthetic judgments made? In the Twilight Zone, the government paid for the women’s operations to make her “beautiful” so she could participate in the desired societal aesthetic experience. In fact, that curated experience mattered so much that she received no less than 11 operations. And, while this might be an extreme example, to what degree does morality play in this? Especially when a large portion of the episode is dedicated to calling our attention to the socially marginalized?

Ultimately I’m asking more questions than I’m answering, but I thought this proved a thought-provoking example of Eaton’s discourse.

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