Marla is a Utah native and a professional writer and editor. She is just weeks away (fingers crossed) from completing a master’s degree in English. She loves running, biking, reading, writing, and lurking on the Segullah blog. She blogs at mindofmarla.blogspot.com.
I went to the Victorian exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art a few weeks ago and couldn’t take my eyes off one of the paintings (click to enlarge):
What you’re seeing is unmarried, dowry-less women being auctioned off to the highest bidders in an ancient Babylonian market. The women have been lined up according to their beauty—the most beautiful woman is standing on the platform; the least beautiful sits on on the far right. According to Herodotus, whose writings on the market inspired the painting, the money earned from the purchases of the beautiful women was used to pay men to take the least beautiful women home. Examining the figures and their interactions in this masterpiece is like watching a movie—from the faces and gestures of the men in the crowd to the reactions of the women at being put in the order they were, there’s a wide variety of attitudes and thought processes happening here. That the painting is the size of an entire wall made it easy to live in the scene for a minute or two, asking myself (as a coincidentally unmarried, dowry-less woman) what it would feel like to be placed somewhere in that line. I saw a little of myself, at one point in my life or another, in each woman.
As I took it all in, I wondered if the artist painted this ancient scene to provide a commentary on his 19th-century day, and if that commentary, now that it’s been over 100 years since Edwin Long made it, is still relevant. My initial reaction was no, it probably isn’t, because hello—it’s 2010: women aren’t sold, auctioned, or ordered by how they look, right?
And then I thought back to that wonderful period of my life called high school, where everyone was handed a ballot to vote one girl out of all the girls “queen” of homecoming. No criteria were set forth—we all voted on the premise (one we most likely gleaned from TV and movies) that the homecoming queen should be the prettiest and most liked among us. And then we were all asked to crowd in front of a stage and clap while the winner, wearing a ball gown, was crowned.
I also thought of a blog post written by a group of young single LDS men someone showed me that painstakingly details the breakdown of their “Looks Only Scale,” which they use to rank a woman’s attractiveness on a scale from 1 (“seriously deformed”) to 10 (“even Super models, centerfolds, and movie stars on their best days struggle to achieve this rating”). The comments below the post are filled with girls asking to be rated according to the scale—the guys willingly oblige, later posting these girls’ photos and their accompanying scores.
Finally, I thought about how on some collaborative creative projects I’ve worked on, it’s the most attractive women on the team who are plucked out to be models in photoshoots and designs, a fact painfully evident to the women not chosen.
So yeah, I’d say that Babylonian auction block, even though it’s become figurative and not necessarily tied to marriage, is still being used.
And in case you think the auction block of present day is reserved strictly for women, check out ABC’s new show Conveyor Belt of Love, in which five women each chose a partner from among the guys rolling by them on, yes, a conveyor belt.
This isn’t a bitter rant. I realize that sometimes things just are the way they are—we like the people on our movie and television screens and in our magazines and advertisements, not to mention our significant others, to be attractive, and naturally there’s going to be an evaluation and selection process that takes place there. But looks are just part of any package, so when physical appearance becomes the sole factor in determining value, something’s wrong. I’m just asking the same question Edwin Long might have been asking with this work of art: Why is it, after 2,500 years, that we’re still making visits to the Babylonian Marriage Market?