I’ve been thinking about Shannon’s post from Tuesday about the Mad Men finale, when Don Draper chose Pretty over Smart — even though Smart was herself quite Pretty. Now, I tend to think that Don went from rock star to weenie when he proposed to his 25-year old secretary on a sex-charged whim: He rendered himself ordinary, morphing from interesting to cliche faster than you can say “I do,” by buying into that age-old distinction between pretty or smart. But that’s another story.
Nonetheless, I found it somewhat synchronous that Maureen Dowd’s column in Wednesday’s New York Times also touched on that same dichotomy: beauty or brains. Sexy or smart. Elite or Just Folks. She starts with a riff on Marilyn Monroe, who was sexy, but wanted to be smart:
The false choice between intellectualism and sexuality in women has persisted through the ages. There was no more poignant victim of it than Marilyn Monroe.
She was smart enough to become the most famous Dumb Blonde in history. Photographers loved to get her to pose in tight shorts, a silk robe or a swimsuit with a come-hither look and a weighty book — a history of Goya or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Heinrich Heine’s poems. A high-brow bunny picture, a variation on the sexy librarian trope. Men who were nervous about her erotic intensity could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually.
Marilyn was not completely in on the joke. Scarred by her schizophrenic mother and dislocated upbringing, she was happy to have the classics put in her hand. What’s more, she read some of them, from Proust to Dostoyevsky to Freud to Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln (given to her by husband Arthur Miller), collecting a library of 400 books.
Miller once called Marilyn “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”
That last one breaks your heart, right? Dowd then segues nicely to her real point: the false dichotomy, cooked up by the women of the far right — on Sunday, she dubbed them the Mean Girls — who have set up a political either/or between the Smart Kids and, you know, the Rest of Us:
At least, unlike Paris Hilton and her ilk, the Dumb Blonde of ’50s cinema had a firm grasp on one thing: It was cool to be smart. She aspired to read good books and be friends with intellectuals, even going so far as to marry one. But now another famous beauty with glowing skin and a powerful current, Sarah Palin, has made ignorance fashionable.
You struggle to name Supreme Court cases, newspapers you read and even founding fathers you admire? No problem. You endorse a candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who is the nominee in West Virginia? Oh, well.
At least you’re not one of those “spineless” elites with an Ivy League education, like President Obama, who can’t feel anything. It’s news to Christine O’Donnell that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It’s news to Joe Miller, whose guards handcuffed a journalist, and to Carl Paladino, who threatened The New York Post’s Fred Dicker, that the First Amendment exists, even in Tea Party Land. Michele Bachmann calls Smoot-Hawley Hoot-Smalley.
We can hoot and laugh all we want. But I wonder: How many of us hold ourselves back because somewhere along the line, we bought into life according to the Cool Kids: Beauty or brains. Sexy or smart. Straight A’s or prom dates. Are we still trying to follow the code of some mythical arbiter of high school Cool? Is that one of the reasons so many women talked themselves out of majoring in math? Or opted for Physics for Poets? Or stick with a job in a cube versus one that takes you outside the building because, well, it’s pre-approved?
Do we still let that mythical arbiter of Cool define who we are — and make our choices to fit, whether those choices involve a white picket fence — or Zooey Deschanel bangs and/or a couple or three tattoos?
The tastemakers may change, but the habits die hard. No wonder we second guess ourselves. Or, like poor old Don Draper, let silly stereotypes cooked up by Someone Else dictate who we are and who we want to be — rather than making the discovery on our own.
If we did make that inner trek, we might find out that we’ve got beauty AND brains. We’re sexy AND smart. And, you know, we’re even good at math.