The Beauty by Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley
I often torture my anxiety-riddled mind by reading books about apocalyptic futures caused by new plagues. I am the kind of person who becomes hyper-aware when too many commuters are coughing on the subway car, so I don’t know what compels me to pick up pieces and watch shows about contagion and the devastation it leaves behind.
Recently, I picked up two very different books that discussed diseases that sweep across the globe—their contagions were similar, because they impacted their victims’ health and their vanity.
The first book I picked up was the first in a graphic novel series called The Beauty by Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley. The title refers to a fast-acting sexually transmitted disease that makes the infected attractive by current societal standards: “‘Victims’ of this epidemic were physically changed by the virus. Fat melted away, thinning hair returned, skin blemishes faded, and their facial features slimmed. It became known as the beauty.” When the new sexually transmitted disease was discovered, it seemed like only two downsides existed: “a slight constant fever” and that everyone you knew would realize you were infected. Like other sexually transmitted diseases, there was a stigma attached—but the social pressure to be beautiful was just as strong, if not stronger.
The universe of the graphic novel points out that when people are obsessed with appearance, their natural reaction to a contagious form of beauty would be to search for infection. While there were plenty of characters in the graphic novel who were infected by accident, many sought out the beauty. The STD is even called a “fad.” Within two years, over two hundred million Americans were infected, and there were more infected across the entire world.
Of course, a condition that’s too good to be true ends up revealing its darker nature after two years. A pattern of brutal deaths gains public attention where all of the victims have the beauty. At first it seems like a terrorist attack by anti-beauty activists, but on closer inspection it’s the disease that causes the infected to suddenly self-combust. The world must wrestle with the temptation to be physically perfect and face the fatal consequences, or take the cure and go back to being ugly.
These books explore a primal human fear of being lured into danger. It’s a fear of willingly walking to your own doom.
The second book I noticed was Emily Schultz’s The Blondes, which circles around an epidemic that only infects a particular subsect of the world’s population. Women with blonde hair or light-coloured hair—whether it’s natural, dyed, or highlighted—are the only ones who seem to be infected with a strange illness that makes them horrifically violent. The new disease is called “Blonde Fury” and “Gold Fever” before being officially named the Siphonaptera Human Virus (SHV). The infected attack strangers, throw themselves out of buildings, and run rabid until they die or get put down by law enforcement.
Schultz is not coy about the reasons why she chose blonde women as the carriers of such a violent disease. The protagonist Hazel is studying Aesthetology for her PhD and plans to write her thesis on the representation of female beauty in marketing. Hazel describes the blonde women around her as if they have some special allure that she is incapable of having—they are powerful, graceful, and command attention. The novel begins with an epigraph from Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”: “And beauty draws us in with a single hair.” Schultz chooses a feature we are supposed to yearn for and turns it into a red flag.
In the same vein as The Beauty, Schultz puts the world in a situation where the population has to confront its ingrained social beliefs. After so many years worshipping blonde hair, they would need to abandon it. To prevent infection women were urged to dye their hair dark colours, shave their heads, remove their eyebrows, lashes, and pubic hair. Even in the face of a spreading disease, people would not stray from their habits, especially when it came to their appearance. Some women committed to the safety precaution by shaving their heads, but found other ways to continue identifying as blonde:
She was the first blonde I had seen in at least a week. In the September breeze, her hair didn’t budge, just sat on her shoulders perfectly, like a long golden helmet. On closer examination, I realized it was a wig, cut and styled. She must have shaved her head, but then vanity overtook her.
Some women didn’t shave their heads or dye their hair at all, risking their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
Even in the face of a spreading disease, people would not stray from their habits, especially when it came to their appearance.
Schultz shows how certain people are more than willing to die because of desire. This goes beyond the blonde women who refused to shave their heads or dye their hair—there were men who could have avoided the disease altogether, who risked their lives in order to be around blondes. The protagonist Hazel discovered a newspaper where a sex columnist coined the term “blonde-backing” to describe the taboo trend of men hiring blonde women for sex: “Sometimes they asked the women to perform as if they were crazy, sometimes to play dead, sometimes just to be their own ‘blonde and beautiful’ selves. Just a few tricks would pay for a full semester at an Ivy League school.” One character became so obsessed with the prospect of sleeping with blonde women, that he died because of it.
“He died in a hotel room, surrounded by the blondes. I knew he was doing it, but I couldn’t make him stop. He told me only once, but he did it more than once. Whole gangs of them. He started selling things he’d collected over the years—rare books, prints of films—fucking collector’s items. He had so much. He would package it up in his office at school so I wouldn’t see him doing it. I didn’t know. I realized what he’d done later, when I went to his office and there was nothing much left. He wrapped his stuff in kraft paper and plastic and he Purolator’ed it, and with the money he bought the blondes.”
It was assumed that one or more of the women hired for the night was infected with the virus and that the hotel room quickly became a horrible crime scene. His widow described his actions as a compulsion and addiction that he couldn’t seem to quit. Hazel also noticed that advertisements still used blondeness to entice consumers. A commercial for a product called Blonde Memory used the slogan “Bottle it. Wear it. Fear it.” In the midst of the terror and destruction from SHV, people still couldn’t shake the adoration and allure of blonde women.
The Fear of Beauty
I could say that these novels are commentaries about our current society’s problems with vanity. They definitely are, but I think there’s more than a condemnation of society’s narrow beauty standards going on. These books explore a primal human fear of being lured into danger. It’s a fear of willingly walking to your own doom.
We would all like to think we’re smarter than that, that we can avoid temptation when the consequences are dire. Deep down, we know we’re wrong. It’s why so many of our monsters are written to have beautiful faces, beautiful bodies, and beautiful songs. It’s why we read books about diseases that infect the ones who tempt us most. We know that our desire is what makes us vulnerable. In the end, we aren’t afraid of getting of getting caught in the spider’s web because it’s invisible, we’re afraid that we’ll walk right into it because it glitters in the sun.