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The beautiful French notion of jolie laide

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Les jolies laides SJP, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Marion Cotillard, Shu Qi et Karen Mok

Leave it to the sophisticated French to devise a concept of female beauty so abstract, so nuanced, as to defy logic entirely. Their slangy “jolie laide” literally translates as the contradiction “pretty-ugly,” but think of it as “oddly beautiful.”

Use it this way:

He scanned the crowd expertly, passing over the typical blondes, and was immediately captivated by the jolie-laide; with her oversized nose and coquettish eyes, she moved languidly in a vision of urbane elegance.

Jolie laide hints at a world where it might be not be just OK, but uniquely beautiful, to be a little odd.  It means that a woman can be irregular and yet still wonderful to look at.

I love this concept, jolie laide. It’s not the uncomplicated, rural-America pretty of Playboy bunnies. It’s not the perfect-symmetry-pretty suggested by my cosmetic-surgeon friends at dinner parties: “See that? I can take care of that!”  No, as I get older, I find myself increasingly drawn to the more interesting, complex beauty implied by jolie laide.

At this point, some of my feminist sisters will sigh that I’m surrendering women to the position of being objectified the male gaze. It’s true that I do love beauty in all its forms, and I do love beautiful things. But I believe that beauty carries its own power, and I love jolie laide by placing that power within greater reach for all women.

Jolie laide offers hope for the rest of us

In fact, I think of jolie laide as not passive at all, but a very active form of beauty.  Because it arises not from a surgeon’s scalpel, or expensive skin potions, but rather from within the soul of a woman.

Me, I never was a conventional beauty. I grew up the strange, silent Chinese girl in a white American suburb. I have funny dimples on my cheeks.  My face, with its swooping angles and planes, is growing more angular with each passing year.

Jolie laide offers hope for the rest of us.  It opens up the democratic possibility that a woman can be beautiful because she thinks she is, in spite of her oddities. She loves herself, and that love shines through in how she carries herself, in how she expresses herself to the world. Others who would not otherwise be drawn to her looks are yet enchanted because of who she is.

Who is and is not jolie laide

To be a jolie laide requires both the jolie (pretty) and the laide (ugly). The laide stems from what’s outside; the jolie radiates from within.

Who is not jolie laide? Lindsay Lohan. Constantly cycling in and out of jail for shoplifting and drugs and alcohol, she’s too conventionally pretty, too confused, too laid-bare. Lindsay possesses neither the external laide nor the inner jolie required by the French. A jolie laide does not put her problems on public display.

Who else is not jolie laide?  Maggie Cheung. I love and admire Maggie Cheung. But her beauty, inside and out, is so luminous, so ethereal, so otherworldly, as to be incontrovertibly undemocratic. Maggie Cheung is not jolie laide because she lacks a single molecule of the requisite laide. For the same reason, I disqualify Fan Bingbing – pas de laide.

Who is jolie laide? I propose the following women:

* Sarah-Jessica Parker. People accuse her of having a face shaped like a horse’s, but it’s her horse-shaped face, and she does wear it beautifully, along with every other thing she wears. I still miss Sex and the City, the TV version, but it’s always fun to see her pop up in magazines and fashion venues. SJP is a regular presence in my life, and I like it that way.

* Kristin Scott-Thomas. Another lovely animal-shaped face. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, her desperate crush on the Hugh Grant character was made even more endearing by the fact that he referred to her as Duckface.  So acutely talented, so witty, ironic, elegant, an Englishwoman who’s lived in France since age 19, Kristin to me represents the very best of both the English and the French. Magnifique!

* Marion Cotillard.  With her sleepy/sultry eyes, Parisian Marion Cotillard’s look is not at all cookie-cutter, and thus I think it would have been hard for her to have made it big first in American Hollywood. Marion so naturally balances art, fashion, film, music, and environmental causes in just her own way. And she’s ravissant in her campaign for Dior.

* Shu Qi and Karen Mok.  As I’m in Los Angeles, I don’t know many of the Chinese celebrities, but to me these are two jolie laide stand-outs. Shu Qi with her wide-set eyes, and Karen Mok with her long face, are so fresh and so gifted as to redefine pretty. I hope they go global across the Pacific, because I want to see more of them both.

A jolie laide is driven by ideals of her own. And that makes her irresistible.

Each of these women offers up prodigious creative talent coupled with a beauty all her own.  Each has not only avoided being submerged by society’s norms, but has transcended and redefined those norms, establishing herself as an icon of beauty for our generation.

A jolie laide radiates with her own grownup sophistication, her own delicious sense of innuendo. She’s independent. She’s an original. Its her very own particular je ne sais quoi that the world finds simply irresistible.

UPDATE:  To the above post, blog reader Erin raises an interesting question:  Do men like jolies laides? Well, yes, the world does contain common, unexceptional men seeking simple, uncomplicated young girls, but you are not interested in such men, are you?  You want an exceptional man who will have a singular love for exceptional you. The way to attract him is to revel in and then radiate outward your own unique beauty.

** Let’s play a game!  Which women do you propose as jolies laides? They need not be movie stars! They could be your friends – and you!


Comments welcome, in Chinese, on the Chinese version of this post, here.
To hear Joy read this post in English, subscribe to the GlobalRencai podcast on iTunes, or hear or download the MP3 here.