The phrase is a popular misquote. Hamlet actually said, “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Strange that such an expression has taken on a life of its own, put words into our mouths and permeated our culture.
So what does this say about women and their centuries-long pursuit of physical perfection?
“Frailty” has an old French cognate, which means weakness. “Vanity” is a descendent of the Latin word for empty or idle, and of the 13th century French for futile or worthless.
It’s as if, to the western world, women’s obsession with appearance is equivalent to infidelity, with which Hamlet is accusing his mother when he spits out the heated soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2.
A quick Wikipedia search will bring up examples of vain women throughout the ages. Artists have depicted the biblical deadly sin of vanity, or pride, as a female before a mirror or lounging with a comb in her hand. A few artistic examples of vain men do actually exist — Dorian Gray and Narcissus, for example — but the vice of vanity still seems to be a woman’s battle.
Shakespeare slapped a label upon a fictional woman 410 years ago and it became a definition for womankind.
Today, my roommate suggested I watch an episode of “The Simpsons” titled “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy.” Disgusted with the latest talking Barbie-esque doll, Lisa creates her own version and names it Lisa Lionheart.
Where Malibu Stacy embodies everything that is wrong with Barbie dolls: unattainable body proportions, appearance-based play pitched to impressionable girls, and misogynistic recorded phrases, Lisa Lionheart is equipped with "the wisdom of Gertrude Stein, the wit of Cathy Guisewite, the tenacity of Nina Totenberg, the common sense of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the down-to-earth good looks of Eleanor Roosevelt."
These are women who refused to let vanity be the definition of who they are.
Only one Lisa Lionheart doll sold.
It is a sad, but true, reflection on life, because girls would much rather play with something they can relate to — a woman who over emphasizes looks and falls under the definition of vanity.
When I started No Makeup November, I wanted to be able to find a definition for myself that was separate from my appearance.
It hasn’t been easy.
I started wearing makeup in ninth grade, and it made me feel powerful. I knew I could bat my mascaraed eyelashes and get what I wanted. I was tenacious with teachers, arguing my point like a lawyer.
What I am realizing now that the mask has been taken away is when I get fired up about something, or when I tell a particularly witty joke, I forget my face is naked — in fact, I almost forget about my face completely. Some people are genetically blessed with traits that are interpreted as beauty; frailty, in the form of vanity, comes when beauty is all someone is concerned with.
Someone can be beautiful, of course, but there is always so much more to everyone we meet. No one is simply one thing all the time. No single word can define a person perfectly — let alone an entire gender.
I may be a journalism student, but I’m also a coffee addict, a pet parent and a “Lord of the Rings enthusiast.” In the same way, a woman might be attractive, but she is also smart and creative and sarcastic and brave.
These are the traits we need to amplify and should pass down to our daughters one day as being more important than beauty.
I think Lisa Simpson put it perfectly as she brandished Malibu Stacy at Marge, “I can’t believe you’re going to stand by as your daughters grow up in a world where this — this! — is their role model.”