It’s been pretty dark over here, so I thought I’d lighten things up with a quick critique of One Direction’s “What Makes you Beautiful.” This song by One Direction has been praised by many of my girlfriends for how ‘positive’ and ‘sweet’ it is. But if I’m honest, something has always bugged me about this song, and I thought a little critical analysis could tell me why. Let’s break it down verse by verse:
Don’t know what for,
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door.
Don’t need makeup
to cover up.
Being the way that you are is enough.
We’re off to a good start. The singer (Liam Payne in this case) is telling someone (presumably a woman) that she is naturally attractive. Some people might criticize this verse for belittling the woman’s feelings or failing to challenge the idea that only particular women are attractive enough to leave home without applying commercial beauty products, but I think that’s a bit of a reach. So far, so good.
Harry brings us to the bridge:
Everyone else in the room can see it,
Everyone else but you.
Behold the appeal to the public opinion. I’m going to skip to the next verse and save the chorus for last.
So c-come on.
You got it wrong.
To prove I’m right I put it in a song.
I don’t know why
you’re being shy
And turn away when I look into your eye-eye-eyes.
This verse contains the obligatory meta-lyric. It’s very pop, and somewhat humorously informs the listener that the singer (literally Zayn Malik, but more accurately the narrator) hasn’t considered the possibility that this head-turning, hair-flipping beauty simply isn’t into him, and is actually ignoring his attentions. There are some standard “na-na-na”s and more bridging before we reach the chorus.
Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell
you don’t know, you don’t know you’re beautiful.
Translation: I’m infatuated by your appearance but you don’t seem to realize that you are generally perceived to be more attractive than average.
If only you saw what I can see
you’d understand why I want you so desperately.
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
you don’t know, oh-oh,
You don’t know you’re beautiful.
Translation: Look in a mirror, that’s why I’m hot for you.
That’s what makes you beautiful.
This, right here, is my problem with the song. This line seems to belie the entire original intent of the lyrics. Instead of coaxing a girl out of insecurity, this line suggests that it is her insecurity which makes her attractive. It discourages confidence and empowerment by suggesting that it is largely the bashful, insecure nature of a woman that makes her desirable. In short, it romanticizes insecurity as a feminine and ‘beautiful’ trait. If this same woman were to suddenly acknowledge her own beauty, recognize her assets, and carry herself confidently, would the men of One Direction still find her worth writing about?
When I attended high school I knew many girls who were insecure about their appearance (I was one of them). I also knew a few girls who pretended to be more insecure than they were (the emotional version of ‘playing dumb’). They did this because beautiful girls who carried themselves confidently were often written off as bitchy, stuck-up, or stupid (not the soft ignorance of a pretty girl, but the shallow idiocy we assign to anyone who has the motivation to achieve a version of the body we covet). Pretending to be more insecure than they were provided beautiful girls with the social cover they needed to make the most of their appearance without being dismissed as shallow or conceited.
It’s another version of Mary versus Eve. One Direction’s nod to Mary is subtle, but it contributes to a prevalent cultural trope: Woman are often portrayed as either the bashful virgin–the Madonna who embraces unworthiness, or the confident reacher and painted whore. The Eve/Mary dichotomy (also known as the virgin/whore dichotomy) is harmful because it encourages an affectation of two natures–a sort of Dissociative Identity Disorder which divorces self-awareness, sexual awareness, and confidence, from humility, tenderness, and faithfulness. In reality all of these are blended in every healthy woman.
One Direction probably wasn’t thinking of literary/cultural tropes when they wrote “What Makes You Beautiful,” so I want to avoid sweeping generalizations about how this band relates to women. We might, however, reconsider supporting ‘WMYB’ (and other 1D songs) monetarily. Before we write them off as ‘harmless,’ let’s consider that the primary listening demographics of One Direction are junior high and high school age girls.