Finance Capital is Very Sexy, Don’t You Think?
I saw a magazine with a “confidence is sexy” mantra splattered across the front this morning, in which it was implied that the actress Sophia Vergara’s willingness to show off her body was the reason she was so sexy. “I’m comfortable with my body and not afraid to show it off,” she is seen to declare, putting it exactly the opposite of how most people seem to observe the process: instead of the I can wear this article of clothing if I lose pounds, build muscle, etc that you usually hear, this magazine encourages us to think If I flaunt my body as if I were sexy, I will actually be sexy [like her].
Now, the obvious first point is that this is obviously untrue, but then, doesn’t everyone already understand that? Sophia Vergara is not able to be a professional beautiful person because she’s unusually confident, but because she’s a genetic outlier and a highly disciplined manufacturer of “beautiful body” in her own person. You will not be able to replicate her results, no matter how much confidence you have, and you know it. You are not as naturally gifted with her physical attractiveness, nor are you possessed of the particular kind of drive, discipline, and opportunity that has allowed her to end up on Shape magazine, and in various movies. This is why you are not on the cover of Shape magazine or whatever.
But you already know this. At the same time, you probably also know that confidence is related to being sexy, that people who act confidently are, in practice, given a certain amount of credit for having something to be confident about. If I act like I’m something special, people will treat me more like I’m something special than if I walk around in a cloud of shame and dread. And you also know something about the limits of such behavior: we know how much elasticity our sexiness has, and (more or less) how far we can push it. We know these things because we know a lot about how attraction works in practice; pretty much everyone, I think I can safely say, spends a sizeable portion of their formative years worrying both about how to be attractive and about who to be attracted to. And we learn a lot by doing it. We are interested in understanding how to master the process and profit from it, so we acquire a great deal of practical expertise in how it works, what its values are.
Credit. Confidence. Manufacture. Opportunity. Desire. Interest. Profit. Elasticity. Value. It isn’t a coincidence that these are (or are also) economic terms, is it? As George Lakoff will remind us, for example, we use economic metaphors for practically everything we think, expressing how we think about the world (and thereby shape the world we live in) through a kind of economic logic that thinks about possibility and potential through an idiom of economizing: what we have, what can be done with it, and what can be produced as a result.
This might be good or this might be bad; mostly, I think, it’s bad; with magazines like the one I spied this morning — at the café I frequent which just happens to be right next to two gyms — the work being done is to make us raise our expectations of what we should be, internalize our failure to be that, and then buy products to make us closer to that impossible ideal. Feminism helps us understand this, and so does comedy: “Women, sort yourself out.” And their dividend is psychic baggage, etc.
But it occurs to me that the idea that we could manufacture something from nothing is qualitatively different than the kind of rational resource maximization that your average hormone-addled sixteen year old spends so much time being tortured by and trying to rationally puzzle out, and which is the frame of mind to which that magazine mostly needs to appeal. For that perspective, “sexy” is a knowable and empirical thing; one’s calves must be a certain shape or whatever, since there is a knowable and empirical ideal to which one must aspire (Sophia Vergara, for example). It is because “sexy” is a particular thing — external to your disgusting body — that you must alter your body to match it, and for which you will require products and services.
So, then, is the idea that “confidence is sexy” actually at odds with Shape magazine’s need to sell you products and the services of their advertisers? If you can be sexy merely by being confident, why would you even need those things? If you can produce sexy merely by imagining that your sexy already exists, then you have no need to go through the laborious process of manufacturing it: by imagining that it exists — by being confident that it does — it can suddenly be sold on the open sexy market.
It’s a sort of bubble-logic. The same way that economic speculation seeks to create something from nothing by manipulating the market: why go to all the trouble of manufacturing value — spending resources on a process that will produce surplus which can then be reinvested — when you can just imagine it into existence? If someone else can be convinced to pretend that it does, after all, it does, right?
I suppose that such a fantasy is not completely at odds with the larger mission of Shape magazine, which is still to impress you with the importance of being sexy, and still manages that. Your efforts to create beauty merely by being confident will likely fail, such that you will still need to purchase products and gym memberships to acquire that confidence. But there’s a speculative logic to it that feels distinct to me, and I wonder about it. For example, I unscientifically discovered that the majority of the google-books returns for the string “confidence is sexy” are from 2005 or later. You get a few earlier ones, but without developing the kind of rigorous methodology you would actually need to actually know something, a perusal seems to confirm what I was wondering if I would find: the idea that “confidence is sexy” used to be mostly something that older men in search of younger women would tell themselves (making their age into something that can be sensually appreciated, and as such, a specific replacement for the particular physical qualities that they lack as a result of being old). Jack Palance’s “confidence is very sexy, don’t you think?” commercial from the 90‘s, for example, is still burned onto my subconscious:
In that commercial, I think, “confidence” is mostly the performance of experience: while an old man lacks virility/youth/physique, his youth has been converted into power/money/knowledge over the course of a long life of being a Man. As such, his confidence is rooted in something real, albeit a “real” that is thoroughly constructed by sharply intuitive gender narratives. It has the usual incoherence of a product-pitch that starts by disclaiming the need for products — an interesting symptom in and of itself — but it works only because we understand the narrative of “Man” that it is appealing to, a sharply gendered “I am a man because being rich and powerful is sexy” assertion, which could not be converted (especially then) into an analogous expression of female sexy.
After the handful of older men in the 90’s trumpeting their sexy-confidence that has replaced their wasted sexy-physique, however, what you get from that point on is a different kind of sexy confidence, repeated expressions of a much more generalized “confidence” as the secret to a completely generalized sexiness, for women and men alike. And when it’s for men, it’s not specifically as men that they are targeted: in sharp distinction from reality, sexiness for men and women is sort of analogous, an externally appreciable quality that is, because it is a product of market demand (inflated by false confidence) not reducible to any particular empirical reality. Instead of a quality that could be measured and defined — and would be shaped by specifically normative gender categories — sexy has become not merely a completely fungible currency, but has become a quality sufficiently hypothetical and abstract that you could even share it with Sophia Vergara. Instead of having use value, you might even say, it is a pure function of market demand, to such an extent that it can have no shape at all .