This is a tale as old as sexuality itself: how the physically beautiful are maligned by their admirers for also choosing partners based on physical attractiveness.
I need more than the fingers on my two hands to count the times usually older men have implicitly and sometimes explicitly accused me of being shallow and worldly because I refused to sleep with them. I have been told I did not ‘see the personality’ underneath the skin. They tell me they are attracted to me for my intellect, my humour, my kindness, or any other personal quality they wish to name. They try and present themselves as men who are a cut above the shallowness they now see in me.
Yet, as the Channel 4 LGBT drama series of 2015, Banana, showed, such men do not hold to the same standards they accuse me of lacking and which they present themselves as embodying. After all, there are many people in the world who are intelligent, funny, kind, and so on. Why did they single me out for attention in particular? Why did they message me on Grindr? Why did they ask me to model for them?
In an episode of Banana, a boy called Frank meets an attractive Welsh man, called Aiden. Aiden and Frank meet via a hookup with a third guy. It is clear that Aiden does not find Frank attractive and rejects his attempts to touch him. Next morning, they initially part company, but Frank is persistent and eventually persuades Aiden to get a cup of coffee. This then leads to a glass of wine, and the two of them talk about romance.
Frank begins to fantasise about what life with Aiden would be like. Although Frank has emphasised the personal qualities of their potential relationship, the focus in Frank’s mind is frequently on the sex. The viewer’s gaze is drawn to Aiden’s body.
We then discover that Frank has been fantasising the whole time, and Aiden is extremely blunt with Frank about the ‘potential’ they have as a couple. The impression is that Frank refuses to listen to Aiden’s own preferences and where he is in his life right now: he doesn’t want a boyfriend.
Essentially, Aiden tells Frank that they can’t be together; for Aiden, Frank is too ugly.
As viewers we’re probably meant to sympathise with Frank at this point and to affirm his perspective, that personality is more important than looks. Frank’s rhetoric is that looks fade, and what remains then? The personality.
But what is the personality? Contemporary culture uses this word too indiscriminately, and its meaning is so vague now that it’s a catch-all.
From a personalist perspective, personality is something deeply existential, creative, and connected with a person’s sense of selfhood. Importantly, personalism rejects the dualism which would split body from spirit. The spirit energises the personality, but it cannot be separated from a person’s body. Personality and the body are intimately connected. According to the Christian faith, the body will be resurrected at the Second Coming of Jesus, and so death is not the end. In fact, ageing is something to be mourned rather than celebrated as something ‘natural’. Ageing is the harbinger of death, which was defeated at Calvary.
What Frank does in Banana is to siphon off the body from the personality, meaning that personality is something hidden and only perceptible to those who are morally upright enough to detect it. In fact, personality pervades a person’s presence, body and all.
Aiden’s perception of beauty is another matter, of course, but one that should not be dismissed. Beauty matters. As Berdyaev once said, ‘beauty will save the world’. What he meant by this is that in eternity, good and evil cease to exist and only beauty will survive. Good and evil exist because of the Fall and access to the Tree of Knowledge. Good and evil as moral concepts were developed throughout history and provide an important way of coping with sin. But when time ceases to exist after the Second Coming, it will be beauty that matters. Beauty and love will be indistinguishable.
Admittedly, this side of eternity, our perceptions of beauty may well be skewed. And yet, in an important way they are not. We can all, I think, intuit an ugly building, piece of music, character, and yes, even an ugly body. A person should not be made to feel guilty, for example, for not wishing to have sex with somebody who is obese. They are not a bad person for expressing that wish; they are simply acting according to their instincts about beauty.
This is not to disparage historical shifts in how aesthetic beauty is developed and perceived. Rather, I think there is something instinctive in us which knows when something is ugly or beautiful.
What we do with this knowledge is what matters. Banana is sympathetic to Frank, and so is Aiden. Evidently, human beings do not agree on whether something or someone is attractive. But often, disagreement comes about from failure to recognise the intense unhappiness caused by ugliness in the world. Because many people do not believe in an eternity after time, the impetus is to normalise ugliness — to make it a matter of personal perception which can be contested, as Frank attempts to do. If this world is all that exists and ever will, it would be existentially insupportable to reject things like disability and ugliness. (Note: I do not say, reject disabled people or ugly people.)
And yet in order to have an eschatological mindframe — one which anticipates Jesus’s arrival again — it is necessary to put things into perspective. Ugliness, disability, fragmentation, irrational disorder: these are qualities of a broken world.
The task is to process the experience of this brokenness with love and understanding. What does it mean to experience ugliness, disorder, and fragmentation? Unlike Nietzsche, who advocated the development of a superman because he found ordinary humans so despicable, a Christian and personalist approach would be to exercise compassion, but also to struggle for beauty and to recognise one’s inner strivings after beauty.
This means that actually, Aiden was probably more correct than Frank. Even though Aiden was caught up in the trappings of a particular gay culture (with all its prejudices and idiosyncrasies) and ideas about ‘leagues’, he was still responding to a real attack on his integrity. Frank was trying to undermine his sense of beauty and ugliness, and tried to accuse Aiden of being shallow and superficial. Eventually, Aiden ends up in some kind of relationship with Freddie — the physically attractive boy in Cucumber.
As I go through life, and through the dating mill as well as witnessing friends do the same, I frequently shore up against this elephant in the room: ugliness. I do not know why God gave me the body he did, or why he gave X or Y the body they have, leading to different responses from others. All I can do is develop a rounded understanding of personality, as radiating from the inside out, causing my body to be energised by love and beauty. I can also, of course, recognise when somebody else is ugly. It’s what I choose to do with that perception that matters.
As the missionary Amy Carmichael wrote once: am I going to spread seeds of love or hatred today?