Proposed Title: “Subjects: David Foster Wallace’s Hideously Beautiful Women”
David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, opens with the declaration that “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet” and thus begins Wallace’s ambivalent relationship with female beauty. Near the end of The Pale King, there is a long section centered on a beautiful, but damaged woman named Meredith Rand who has spent time in a mental hospital and worries that in men’s eyes, she has no value but as a beautiful object. Likewise, one of the main characters of Infinite Jest is called Joelle Van Dyne, who was dubbed “the Prettiest Girl Of All Time” by Orin Incandenza, and she hosts a radio show under the pseudonym “Madame Psychosis.” Joelle is a deeply realized character, but she’s clearly fetishized and maybe scarified, or maybe just playing at being horribly disfigured and thus able to wear a veil and hide her “hideous” beauty and lead her double life as Joelle and “MP.” Joelle wears a black veil because she was either terribly scarred when acid was thrown in her face or she uses the story of being disfigured as a cover to wear the veil and hide her beauty because of its effect on men; the novel never allows us to know whether she is truly outwardly scarred to match the wounds on her psyche.
Moreover, filmmaker James Incandenza used her beauty in his final project to create a film so intoxicating that people go mad after being exposed to her face and voice. Meredith Rand is also fetishized through her cigarettes, nails, and hair, and like Joelle, she wears her beauty ambivalently. Both Joelle and Meredith fear that men are not interested in them as human beings with full subjectivity, but rather that they exists solely as pretty objects who exist as/for the visual pleasure of men.
Ironically, Meredith is married to a man with terminal cardiomyopathy, and doesn’t really love him. She is bored with him as well as her job at the IRS, but can’t get over the idea that if were to leave her husband or cheat on him, a new lover would only want her for her beauty, not her subjectivity and that she would be abandoning her husband because of his physicality. In The Broom off the System, Lenore Beadsman, Mindy Metalman, Candy Mandible likewise appear less as subjects but as ready-made objects for the male gaze.
It is Orin Incandenza in Infinite Jest (I will deal perhaps only tangentially with the “Hideous Men” in Wallace’s Brief Interviews in this paper) who most clearly articulates the misogynistic views of women that Wallace’s male characters often embody. With the exception of Joelle, whom he usually refers to as only by the acronym “the PGOAT,” Orin never names the women he pursues and sleeps with. Instead, he sarcastically objectifies them by calling them only “Subjects” and employs a system of numbered “Seduction Strategies” that he then boasts of to his younger brother, Hal. “Subject” pursuits ties to a denial of, for many of Wallace’s male characters, female subjectivity—at least his worst men seem that way.
Few of the women in DFW’s works seem to exist without major flaws yet are often cast as embodiments of feminine beauty—or, in the case of poor Kate Gompert, not—but their subjectivity is always seen through the lens of standards of feminine beauty that constricts them throughout his works. Therefore, my paper will examine the ambivalent treatment of feminine beauty in Wallace’s three novels paying particular attention to the tension felt as he creates characters such as Lenore, Mindy, Candy, Joelle, and Meredith who simultaneously are objectified as commodities for the male gaze, while trying to exploit their effects on men, and trying to establish their subjectivities as independent women.
Like Wallace’s explorations of narcissism, attention and boredom, and language, his treatment of feminine beauty grew more nuanced and complicated from The Broom of the System to The Pale King, and my paper will both chart this development and the meanings of his characters’ struggles with femininity and the male gaze.