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Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009

MEDIA MIX

Obsessed with 'ugly' women


When I read the news item in early November about the three men in Tottori Prefecture whose mysterious deaths were linked to a woman already under arrest for fraud, I associated them with the similarly mysterious deaths of several other men linked to a Tokyo woman who was under arrest for swindling.

This initial confusion had to do with the fact that the major media weren't revealing much about either woman at the time, so it was easy to make the mistake that they might have been the same person. The particulars have since been clarified, and the public now knows that the two cases are separate and distinct.

The 34-year-old Tokyo woman is from a fairly well-to-do Hokkaido family and allegedly tried to maintain a high-end lifestyle on her own by tricking single men into thinking she wanted to marry them and then getting them to give her money. Some of these men later died under suspicious circumstances. The 35-year-old Tottori woman is a poor, single mother of five who once worked as a bar hostess. She was arrested for telephone fraud, but police are now investigating her possible involvement in the deaths of several men, at least two of whom she once had relationships with. The closest similarity between the two cases is that sleep-inducing drugs were involved in some of the deaths in both cases. Another similarity is that both women are overweight.

This latter aspect hardly seems like a distinction worth pointing out, but to the tabloid press it explains a lot. The latest issue of Shukan Post has an analysis of the two cases entitled "Fat and Crime." Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, but the magazine doesn't take any chances and runs unflattering photos of the two women. Basically, the reporter attempts to explain how "unattractive" women use their sexual wiles to take advantage of lonely or desperate men.

The article is filled with psychological terms like "the lure theory," which says that when a woman displays a desire for intimacy a man will interpret it as an interest in sex and is then attracted to her "regardless of the degree of unattractiveness." It quotes a professor who asks rhetorically, "Why are men fooled by ugly women?", and then answers by saying it's the wrong question. He contends that the "right to choose" in a potential sexual relationship is always on the "female's side," as if he were explaining mating habits on "Animal Planet."

Sunday Mainichi takes a similar approach, saying that men, especially if they are middle aged, drop their guard when they encounter younger women "who are not beautiful." In contrast, an attractive woman who shows interest in such a man automatically sends up a red flag in his mind: This woman must be up to something.

Though the television wide shows are more circumspect with their language, they have reached pretty much the same conclusion in their feverish coverage of the two cases, which isn't surprising since it's the media that basically defines what's attractive and what isn't. The term busu (ugly) would seem to be a subjective attribute, but the media treat it as an objective one, like "blonde" or "left-handed."

And according to critic Koichi Yamazaki, writing in his TV Katachi(The Shape of TV) column in Aera, busu has become a "new genre" for TV producers to exploit. Just as there are specific terms for beautiful female announcers (bijin ana), alluring young men (ikemen), stars who attended prestigious universities (interi) and rich women (serebu, short for "celebrity"), Yamazaki proposes the term busu kirei (ugly-pretty) to describe TV personalities like Tsubaki Oniyakko, Asako Ito and the comedy trio Mori Sanchu, whose main sales point is that they are considered plain.

Yamazaki believes that these women "bear the hopes" of all female viewers who think of themselves as unattractive by joking about their appearance and trying to improve on it. He mentions a recent segment on the TV Tokyo variety show "Yarisugi Koji" ("Koji Who Does Too Much") in which several busu TV personalities engaged in a "mud-pack Battle Royale." The winner would receive ¥100,000 worth of treatment at an aesthetic salon. A group of models, female announcers and male comedians observed the competition, laughing condescendingly.

To Yamazaki, the joke was on these attractive observers, in particular the women, whose beauty, he says, is "transient." Ugliness, however, is "eternal," as illustrated by the old Japanese saying, "In three days you get tired of a beautiful woman while in the same period of time you get used to an ugly one." He uses the same logic that underscores the coverage of the Tokyo and Tottori suspects: Unattractive women don't make people anxious or uncomfortable, so it's easier to enjoy their company, whether on TV or in person.

What Yamazaki doesn't mention is that "busu talent" are paid for being unattractive. Last week, the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization complained about the "discriminatory bullying" that's prevalent on variety shows, but the issue is more fundamental. Pigeonholing someone as being ugly reduces that person's qualities to one overriding trait having to do with her appearance, and in that sense paying a woman because she's ugly isn't really any different from offering a big cash prize to the winner of a beauty pageant. Money says who is beautiful and who is plain.

Or at least it does in show business. Nobody has said that the two women under investigation considered themselves ugly. That conclusion was made by the media. And the men they may or may not have swindled obviously found them attractive in their own ways. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, just not on TV.



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