Beauty and The Uncanny Valley
In our discussions about Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the notion of beauty and humanity stand in stark contrast to the unnatural or alien physicality of ugliness. Our conceptions of beauty and ugliness bear with them social implications that extend far past the basic definition of physical attractiveness. In answer to a question raised in our discussion, “What about the creature is ugly?” it seems to me that the unnatural aspects of the creature, coupled with its proximity to ‘humanity’ are the sources of both the characters’ in the novel, and the readers’ sense of disquiet and disgust towards him.
In Frankenstein, beauty is strongly tied to the natural; the text often focuses on the beauty of nature and the beauty of the cottagers, the ‘humans’. Frankenstein describes a view of mountains and trees as “sublime” and “magnificent” which “afford [him] the greatest consolation that [he] was capable of receiving” [p.79]. The ugliness of the creature emerges from his unnatural conception and existence. Therefore, for the creature it is more than ugliness or the unpleasant configuration of his features, which causes his misfortune. In making the creature, Dr. Frankenstein is trying to create a new human life, however the true nature of his attempt is transparent to all those who view the creature. The mimicry in his “watery eyes,” “yellow skin [that] scarcely cover[s] the work of muscles and arteries, ” and “straight black lips” is transparent, and it is these slight markers of inhumanity that repulse the villagers and make the creature ugly [p. 42]. Today, we can find our own modern day versions of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature in computer games and robots in what is known as the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley is a phrase coined in 1978 by Masahiro Mori, a roboticist, who noticed an interesting trend in the reactions of those who viewed his robots. A quote from Slate describes the phenomena as follows:
“We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward.”
The comparisons, in this quote, of androids and robots to an animated corpse, and the failure to completely simulate humanity recall images of Frankenstein’s creature. Almost human replications rouse a feeling of discomfort and unease in human viewers, as if we could almost forget they weren’t human except for those hard to pinpoint details that strike us as simply wrong. Take some of the robots made by Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of which was created in his own image.
If you search “Hiroshi Ishiguro robot” in Google, some of the very first article titles to surface include:
Here’s a video of Hiroshi Ishiguro and other scientists attempting to teach the android to talk and express like a human:
While a creature reassembled from various corpses’ body parts may seem very different, or much more morbid at least, from the human-like simulations we have today, our reactions to androids and computer-generated images and videos, share a common sentiment with those villagers in Frankenstein. In the third headline, the author refers to Ishiguro as a mad scientist and the others refer to his creations as creepy and in one case even evil despite the lack of any indication that the androids have any sort of intelligence or moral compass.
An interesting side-note about the Uncanny Valley is that humans are not the only species to experience it. Monkeys too, when shown man-made simulations of monkeys in experiments were recorded to exhibit similar responses.
What is it that engenders this revulsion and distrust towards synthetic or unnatural human appearances and behaviors? This association of beauty as intrinsically tied with humanity and naturalness it apparent, albeit in a more subtle way, in other areas of our culture as well. You don’t have to look any further than the disdain a woman incurs who wears too much make-up, or displays obviously surgically enhanced features, or wears clothes that are ‘too young’ for her or wears body-shaping clothes to find hints of it. The ideal of feminine beauty demands a natural beauty that does not reveal all the efforts required to attain it. After all the plucking, shaving, waxing, make-up, hair and skin product, careful selection of a flattering outfit, and surgery it’s of utmost important that the final product appear as if none of it ever took place at all, as if it was natural. So to, the women who fail to achieve, or do not even attempt to achieve, this paradoxical natural beauty receive a certain level of contempt from others.
In reality of course beauty and technological/unnatural interventions are practically inseparable. I’m sure most people have seen this video by now, but it’s an interesting look at how much technology can alter our standards of what beauty is:
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However, once again, this only holds true if in the end the process is invisible.
Besides the not-quite-human, the unnatural, alien aspect of the creature’s ugliness, Frankenstein also features examples of the social baggage of ugliness and beauty. For the creature in Frankenstein, the idea of beauty carries with it more than invokes ideas of acceptance, inclusion, and happiness, while his ugliness marks him as inhuman, alone and evil. An interesting piece that raised some good points about these associations and the value of beauty is a thoughtful post by a blogger named Lesley Kinzel titled “Uninvested in Being Beautiful.”
“While the objective truth of an individual person’s beauty is up for debate–and acknowledging the question of whether an objective beauty exists at all, being ultimately in the eye of the beholder–the feeling of beauty is something else altogether. It’s internal, it’s visceral, it’s a deep, penetrative assurance, it’s something you get in your very cells. It’s not necessarily something that has any visible effect on how symmetrical a person’s features are, or whether her hair is shiny and flowing, and so forth. It’s not tangible.
But if I might interrogate our assumptions for a moment: what do we really mean when we talk about feeling beautiful? We mean that we feel good about ourselves, don’t we. We mean that we feel happy and confident and alive, and the fact that this combination of feelings is so rare and so magical and so intoxicating that we have to call it “beauty” just breaks my heart.
That feeling is beautiful. But you don’t have to be beautiful, to feel it.”
The first thing that struck me about her post was the title. The idea of being completely unconcerned with, of being uninvested, in being beautiful seemed like a very foreign idea when I first read her post. This is precisely due to the conflation of the ‘feeling of being beautiful’ and beauty itself that Kinzel describes. What are we giving value to when we hold ‘beauty’ to such a high level of importance?