By Charlotte Houston, Intuitive Writing Project student
“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle,” is the first line of the ubiquitous coming of age book and movie, Paper Towns by John Green. The main character, Q, believes that his miracle is living next door to the beautiful and mysterious Margo Roth Spiegelman. Margo, whose “six-syllable name was often spoken in its entirety with quiet reverence,” is a legend throughout their school (14). She and Q were childhood friends, but haven’t spoken since then—until they spend a vengeful night together playing pranks on classmates. The next morning, Margo is gone. Following clues seemingly left just for him, Q becomes obsessed with finding her. He’s convinced he is in love with her, even though his only knowledge of her is through her reputation and from their one adventure together.
Q and his friends embark on a road trip to Agloe, New York, a “paper town,” where they’re convinced Margo is hiding. These towns are made-up cities a cartographer will mark in order to know when someone else plagiarizes their map—if someone copies the paper town as well, that’s how you know they didn’t go out for themselves and see that the city doesn’t actually exist. This is a concept that Margo is obsessed with, and when they finally make it to the abandoned general store someone has crafted in the fake town’s honor, they find her holed up there.
It isn’t the great reunion that Q thought it would be. Margo is confused, surprised, and not how Q remembered her. Even though she’s only been gone a month, he expects her to look “older,” and “different.” But, besides being a little dirtier, she looks exactly the same. And her eyes look “dead”— not lit up with amazement at having been found. In fact, she starts yelling at them for being there, disregarding their worries about her disappearance. Q feels mad at her, but why? Margo explains how she felt trapped by their hometown and the people in it. She had to get out, and she didn’t want to be found. Q is mad at her for “not being the Margo I expected her to be…The Margo I thought I had finally imagined correctly,” (284). Through the pieces of what she left behind, Q thought he knew her. Instead, he was in love with only the idea of her.
When Q asks why she chose to runaway to Agloe, Margo responds, “A paper town for a paper girl,” (293). Margo feels as though people only think of her as this idea, and that started to be all she thought of herself as too. Q even refers to her as his “miracle.” When she doesn’t match up to what Q thought she was, he gets angry. Margo is actually just a flawed, self-centered girl who runs away in order to fix herself, not to liberate Q, give him this great adventure, or whatever he thinks she’s doing. Q learns what “a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person,” (282). Margo’s character didn’t end up being the “miracle” Q believed her to be, because she’s not just an idea—she’s a real-life, complex human being.
In the essay “Woman’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source,” Susan Sontag discusses how labels and ideas forced on women can impact them. She explores the idea of “beauty” and the pressure accompanying it. Once girls can listen, we’re told in overt and underhanded ways that being pretty is something to strive for, a priority. Men, on the other hand, are only referred to as “handsome,” which “is the masculine equivalent of—and refusal of—a compliment which has accumulated certain demeaning overtones, by being reserved for women only,” (Sontag, 245). In the exclusion of men from this classification, masculinity becomes about what one does and achieves, whereas femininity is “thought to name something essential to women’s character and concerns. (In contrast to men—whose essence is to be strong, or effective, or competent)” (246). Sontag’s distinction between beautiful and handsome adds a new level of complexity to the idea of societal expectations.
Sontag affirms that beauty is a form of “self-oppression,” and administered as “a way of making women feel inferior to what they actually are,” (Sontag, 246). This is proved by how women are taught to break themselves up into measured parts—waists, breasts, thighs, complexion, hips, hair, etc. We end up scrutinizing ourselves in light of unrealistic standards. Whereas men’s looks do “not need to be confirmed by giving measurements of different regions of the body…As for perfection, that is considered trivial—almost unmanly,” (Sontag, 245). Men are not subjected to this oppression because being “beautiful” is inherently linked to being feminine.
In a world that values appearance in women over almost everything else, the pressure to be beautiful is high. In a world that also has stick thin, clear skinned models on every billboard, magazine, and website we see, it’s further inescapable. All the actors and models we ever see who are rich, popular, famous, getting the guy— the only people who are ever represented positively— are molded in this guise of “perfection.” Anything outside this realm of looks is normally the butt of the joke. These faces of “beauty” are edited to be impossibly skinny. They have shiny, flowing shampoo-commercial hair. Freckles, blemishes and scars are nonexistent. There’s little to no representation for people of color in mainstream television and movies. These are what set the standards of beauty.
These western ideals of perfection are shoved in our faces as every turn, and it’s really hard to not want to conform to them. I know personally the huge self esteem dip I get every time I go online shopping, and the models are proudly smiling, showing off sculpted abs and skinny thighs. Nothing feels worse than trying on something labelled “one-size-fits-all”, and having it be way too small. Except, at just five feet tall, I’m definitely a petite girl. So why does it constantly seem like I’m not small enough? Maybe because the average height to weight ratio of a high fashion model is proven to be unhealthy to maintain. Maybe, because even as skinny as those girls are, they’re still photoshopped and edited to “perfection.” I know I’m healthy. I exercise regularly, and I eat well, but that knowledge doesn’t stop me from comparing myself to all the girls with a bigger enhanced gap between their thighs. Not only do I, and almost every other girl my age, compare ourselves to these girls, we feel overwhelming pressure to become them as well.
Because of this word “beautiful,” girls feel reduced to just the way we look. It feels like our attractiveness, a concept that is subjectively decided upon by men, is the only thing that merits any worth about us. Our appearance changes the way we are treated, and restricts the places we can go. Similarly, the way Q looks at Margo as his “miracle,” instead of a complex person with her own problems, is limiting and harmful for her. Because of the way society looks at women—as either objectified or idealized—sometimes it feels like we aren’t more than the labels that are put on us.
The principle of societal identities is broached in the essay “Generation Why?”. Author Zadie Smith discusses the disconnect she feels to our new generation— “Generation Facebook.” Smith cites Facebook as the catalyst for these “People 2.0.” Her idea of what it means to be a person, as a part of “People 1.0,” she worries is “nostalgic, irrational, and inaccurate,” (Smith).
She introduces her ideas through a deconstruction of the movie The Social Network and looks at how what’s on the big screen doesn’t shed any light on the real Mark Zuckerberg’s motives behind creating Facebook. She references Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget and “the ways in which people ‘reduce themselves’ in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate.” Smith explains that since a computer can never truly represent a person and all their eccentricities, online identities are forced to present us as more boring. Smith argues that Facebook not only makes it easier to become mundane, it also encourages us to. With this kind of social networking, there also comes a lack of privacy. Relationship status, education, political affiliation, sexual orientation—all of this information is available with one click, and it has the unintended consequence of making us want to hide it all away. The threat of colleges, potential employers, and conservative family members seeing our interests and the way we document our life can be daunting. Smith explains how “if the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out.” Smith experiences her disassociation with this generation, therefore, as she is “dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists…A private person.” This deeper, three-dimensional person as Smith sees it has seemingly stopped existing. She believes that not only does technology misrepresent complex people, but it causes us to misrepresent ourselves. Lack of privacy and desire to get as many “likes” as possible makes us want to look “normal.” She even goes as far to say that these perceptions additionally stretch to how we see each other, as no more than our two-dimensional online personalities.
Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, as the first successful social network, set the groundwork for every other website or app whose goal is to “connect” us. Since Facebook was created, and since Smith wrote this essay, the way people use social media has evolved. She speaks of “Generation Facebook,” which is comprised of people about twice my age. Therefore, my generation, who has grown up more or less surrounded by social media, are arguably even more “flat” or “reduced,” by Smith’s definition.
The way Smith looks at social media adds a new angle to how Generation Facebook and beyond present ourselves in society. We spend so much time and energy trying to look flawless, because that’s what we think is necessary. The ideals we see portrayed in the media are dishonest—they manipulate what a person really looks like, and it makes us feel like we have to change ourselves to adhere to these standards. This idea of beauty forces women to want to look one certain way in order to be taken seriously and to succeed. It flattens and squeezes us into one word, one mentality, one goal. But we are layered, complex human beings who deserve more worth than what that one word prescribes to us. Margo, similarly, feels two-dimensional because of the labels people put on her. She had to escape from “the idea of a paper girl.” She’s popular, but she is more than this “flimsy-foldable person,” that everyone loves (Green, 293).
Furthermore, Smith’s beef with social media showcases a similar reduction of what people really are. Smith worries that the “person as mystery” has disappeared, but really, we’ve just hidden it away. Technology’s tendency to “underrepresent reality” makes it all too easy. Validation by way of “likes” and amount of “friends,” coupled with the desire to be beautiful makes this “self-conscious generation” (Smith) scared to show our more complicated, messy, and entirely human aspects.
“Everyone loves a paper girl,” remarks Margo (Green, 293). As easy as things would seem if we could just blend in, two-dimensional and flat, we are more than just ideas. Real people have scars, bad hair days, pockmarked complexions, guilty pleasures, idiosyncrasies, and questionable fashion choices. In our desperate attempts to blend in, to be beautiful and liked, we tuck all these things away, iron out all our wrinkles, and we use social media to do it. But our fears, hopes, passions, and chaotic human emotions are all still here.