The Unreal Power Of Pretty

This originally appeared on The Beheld. Republished here with permission.

“The apartment is yours,” says the man who would become my landlord. “On one condition—that you call me before you go sunbathing in your bikini so I can come over and watch.”

He’s got mottled skin and moves in this way that makes it clear that he’s in an old man’s pain, but he’s got boyish features and occasionally wears overalls, giving him this bizarro-world Peter Pan schtick. His tired Queens accent makes everything he says sound like it’s a low-effort put-on, like he’s playing a bit part as a jokester in a film he doesn’t particularly want to be in.

But he’s willing to rent me a junior one-bedroom with hardwood floors, butter-yellow walls, ample sunlight, and a backyard—a New York backyard, consisting of 90 square feet of concrete and a view of my neighbors’ garbage, but a backyard nonetheless. So when he raises his eyebrows and makes this stupid joke about seeing me in a bikini, I wave it away with a sort of laugh. Everything he says is a put-on, right?

In the weeks that follow, his comments keep coming, and I keep laughing them off like I believe I should. My legs, my hair, how stunning I look when awoken at 8 a.m. for temperature control checks. He frequently mentions how harmless he is, a comment I think is designed to put me at ease. It doesn’t work, but then, he makes me feel merely uncomfortable, not unsafe. Harmless? Yes. I believe he is that.

I think that we’re in on some kind of joke together, even if it’s a joke that I didn’t script and don’t really find funny. He’s twice my age, married, and harmless, after all; I’m the thirty-something lady tenant who wears sleeveless minidresses with my sunglasses up flipped atop my disheveled updo. We’re in a middling 1940s screwball comedy, and he’s supposed to come around with his toolbelt every so often to help out his lady tenant, and then he’s supposed to say something about how fetching I look and wiggle his eyebrows, and I’m supposed to lightly swat him on the arm and say “Oh, Mister Smith!” And then he’s supposed to prune my hedges, or paint the stoop, and tra-la-la, plot resumes.

So I tell him that my back porch light went out—the first time I’d asked for anything—and instead of setting up a time for him to fix it, I hear how he isn’t legally required to have a light back there, he just has it there as a courtesy, but it’s too much goddamned trouble anymore, and I don’t have a right to it anyway, so thanks for calling but no.

And I am furious. Furious beyond reason. I’ve had bad landlords before—I once stepped over a bowl of water on my bathroom floor for two months because of a leak one refused to fix—and have handled it appropriately. Not now; my ire is matched only by my blood pressure as I look up housing codes, vent to anyone who would listen (any many who would have preferred not to), even as I just stay at home and think about it. I feel a swell of tension begin in my solar plexus and creep up my chest, my neck, my face, until I’m talking out loud to myself like a madwoman, red-faced, cursing at a man who isn’t there. My heart rate rises, and at one point I come dangerously close to throwing something across the room because I want the satisfaction of hearing something in that apartment break. In other words, I am being terrifically unreasonable over something that, while inconvenient, really doesn’t matter. (Tiki torches turned out to be the solution. The highly glamorous solution.)

It’s only several days after his refusal that I realize why I’m so unreasonably, and uncharacteristically, pissed off. I’d believed that we’d entered an unspoken bargain together, and that he’d broken it. My end of the bargain was that I’d shut up and smile while he lasciviously commented on my appearance, and his end of the bargain was that he would fix my fucking porch light. And I’d held up my end of the deal perfectly. I’d played my part, my oh-gosh-Mister-Smith lady tenant part, with a pert flair, only to find out that the script was rewritten halfway through.

There was, of course, no such deal, no such script. In his mind he could say whatever he pleased to me, a particular privilege given to him by being a man from a certain generation who probably felt that as long as it was clear he didn’t really mean anything and that he was being what he might have considered complimentary, it was all fun and games. And there are all sorts of reasons why he’s in error there, but that’s not what was making me flush through my throat.

What was making me so angry was my complicity in—nay, my invention of—this bargain. I’ve never consciously exploited being a young-enough, attractive-enough woman for personal gain. But that’s just it: I’ve never consciously done it. How many times have I told myself that I’m just being friendly—and meant it! I am a friendly person!—quietly knowing that on the back end there’s a small reward that I might not get if I weren’t a young-enough, attractive-enough woman? That I’ll get drinks a little quicker if I go to the bar myself rather than send my boyfriend; that the guy who makes my salad every day doesn’t charge me for all my toppings? I really do think it’s because I’ve got an open expression and a quick smile, an easy laugh. It might be. Or is it that I’m sailing through life expecting that if I play a certain part—the part assigned to pretty-enough women, which really just means any woman willing to play the role—that people will give me that drink quicker, or give me a discount, or fix my back porch light?

Some women blithely say that we shouldn’t give up any of our power, even if that power is merely a genetic accident or a bit of trick grooming, and in certain moments I’m inclined to agree. But that only works when both parties play by the script: The power of pretty only works when the person with the real power gives it to you willingly. And other people’s power can be taken away on a whim. On their whim.

So I showed up with my ace in the hole, the few things I had that he didn’t: youth, femininity, charm. I played my hand—the only hand I believed I had, besides simply being a good tenant who pays rent on time and possesses neither a mouthy pit bull nor a nagging meth habit—and then felt cheated when he trumped my best hand with his real power over me. He didn’t want to fix my porch light, and he doesn’t have to. My polite, eyes-averted giggles, my ingratiating tolerance of his speculation about my nightwear—no matter, those. My hand had been worthless all along.

I can’t blame him, not entirely. Much feminist discourse on this sort of thing tends to point toward the one making the comments as being at fault. Which he is. But the fact is, I was complicit in all of it, because I was expecting perks for playing my part. I didn’t have to laugh when he said that allowing him to watch me sunbathe was part of my monthly dues. It was a joke, of course, but it wasn’t funny; it was gross, and to laugh showed that I thought it was the other way around. He’s my landlord, not my boss; all I would have risked by letting him he know he was being a dirty old man—or just not played along, even as I didn’t invite his attentions—was some uncomfortable moments here and there. Yes, he should know that he’s wrong. But he’d know for sure if I told him.

A week or two go by after he tells me he won’t fix my porch light. He calls to say he’s coming by to do something in the backyard. I come home and see a bit of pruning done, and a new, fully functioning porch light.

“I know you didn’t have to do that,” I say to him. “But I appreciate that you did.”

“No problem,” he says, and continues working. I let him be. He knocks on my back door when he’s finished, to let me know he’s leaving. I open the screen door to see him off. He takes a step away, then stops, turns around, and looks at me. “By the way, you look sexy as hell in those pants.”

“Scram!” I say, and close the screen door. I say it with my voice lilting, my pitch raised, the corners of my mouth upturned. I have no excuse other than habit. I watch him scurry off, exaggerating the hunch of his shoulders in mock defense. We’re back to our parts, in a way. But he doesn’t know that my choice of word is a beginning for myself, a way of finding language I can use with humor and grace but still keep my dignity in a script that I have an equal hand in writing. It’s not perfect. It’s just a start.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes about concepts of beauty at The Beheld. Her essays have appeared in Glamour, Marie Claire, and Salon.

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