[This is the second half of a piece Saving Erotic Capital From Itself that I began last week]
“Good looks don’t matter”
“Nonsense, that’s just something ugly people tell their children”
So says The Simpsons, as ever capturing the way of the world (h/tWill Self). Given the problems I identified in the first part of the post, though, it’s perhaps better to keep the spirit but junk the terminology of ‘erotic capital’, and instead think about the broader and undeniably valuable group of ‘personal capitals’ that include personality as well as looks.
For me, there are two key questions that come from this:
1. How far can different forms of capital be converted between each other?
If personal capital is randomly distributed and can’t be bought through economic, cultural or social capital, then it’s a counterweight to other inequalities. But if it’s a manifestation of other capitals – if it is a way of concealing other advantages within the concept of the ‘natural’ – then it may have a role in the reproduction of inequality. This was the topic of my original post on Hakim, where I called it the ‘alchemy of advantage’ (the transmutation of elements seeming to capture something about these mystical transmutations, at least to me).
Hakim claims that erotic capital is separate to other inequalities - “one reason why erotic capital has been overlooked is that the elite cannot monopolise it” (to Zoe Williams), or “one of the reasons Bourdieu missed erotic capital was because erotic capital isn’t completely inherited and can’t be controlled by the wealthy” (a talk reported by MadameJ-Mo). But at least in Hakim’s work that I’ve read, there’s not been a single piece of evidence for this assertion, other than her own experience of getting makeup lessons and claiming“where there is a will there is always a way”.
It seems far more likely to me that other forms of capital are critically important in personal capital – be it your friends help and guidance on how to look/behave (social capital), your aesthetic taste, knowledge and distinction (cultural capital), or your material wealth (economic capital). Indeed, middle-class parents seem to invest large amounts in creating the personal capital of their children, generating personality rather than prettiness. Which is why personal capital is such a fascinating area of study.
2. What do we do (if anything) about inequalities in personal capital?
The 2nd question partly stems from the 1st. In one talk, Hakim argued that “We’re happy to reward intelligence achieved through hard work, even though that discriminates against those who are less intelligent. Therefore, we should reward those who are above average in attractiveness through the hard work they put into looking good.”
As the young British feminist Laurie Penny ripostes, Hakim argues that “discouraging [women] from [using erotic capital] is an evil feminist plot to deny women the only real advantage they have in the “gender war” – their physical charms – although Hakim does not enlighten us as to where this leaves unattractive women, older women, women who can’t afford the strict beauty and grooming regimes she recommends, or those of us who forget to wash because we’ve been up all night watching Buffy, eating cheese and scratching ourselves.”
Brendan has spoken about these issues on the blog recently. Picking up from the end of that discussion, one of the key questions is whether we regard low personal capital (personality+looks) as a matter of luck or of choice. ‘Luck egalitarianism’ holds that people should be compensated for bad luck, but not for bad choices. But what do we about being unlucky enough to be the sort of person that makes bad choices?
As a thought experiment, imagine that ‘science’ had given us the ability to completely choose our personalities. Most likely we would not all end up with the same personality, because we would start with different original personalities, and these affect our choice of which personality to have next. Thus starts an endless cascade of blaming your previous personality for your current personality, and tracing this all the way back to where you started from. (This would incidentally make a great sci-fi novel, for anyone with a book inside of them).
The forms of capital
So if I don’t agree with Hakim much on the specifics, I agree wholeheartedly on the value of extending our conceptualisations of the forms of capital. Looks, charms, smiles, charisma – they all matter, but the answer is not to extol their virtues, but to systematically investigate their role in the inequalities we see around us.