Popular Culture  •  October 7, 2002

Indivisible Hal

“Shallow Hal” is a movie about a man who was conditioned by his own father to believe that the ultimate goal in life is to score the best looking woman possible. Hal himself is a chubby, below-average looking man, but he tries in vain to seduce a series of impeccable bombshells. One day, he gets trapped in an elevator with the famous motivational speaker, Tony Robbins. While they are stuck in it, the latter gives him a lecture of his life. Hal is re-programmed to see the “inner beauty” reflected externally, but he is not aware of this perceptual change. He falls in love with a morbidly obese woman thinking that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

This movie is interesting in a few different ways. One; it gives us a tangible material to work with in terms of analyzing the stereotypes of “beautiful” and “ugly” people. Two; it can be used to show the problem inherent in the dualism of “inner” and “outer” characters of a person.

In the movie, Hal is criticized for seeing only the external beauties of women, and at the same time he is criticized for going after women who are “out of his league”. In other words, if he looked as good as the women he is going after, it would be acceptable, because he would be in his own league. At the same time he is called “shallow” for seeing only the looks of women, he is told that the proper way to choose a woman is to consider what he can reasonably afford with his own looks; that is, in the end, it is about the looks.

In our society, a couple where one is considerably better looking than the other is perceived with a certain amount of friction. If the man is ugly and the woman is beautiful, one possible scenario that we conjure up is: he must be filthy rich. If the woman is ugly and the man is handsome, then perhaps: he is a closet-homosexual. And so on. We assume that there is something going on behind the facade to make up for the apparent discrepancy.

Beauty is a matter of taste, and when it comes to taste, there are two independent standards to keep in mind: personal and social. There is what you like and don’t like personally, and there is what the society as a whole, statistically, with the consensus of the majority, likes and doesn’t like. There is a value in something that the majority likes independently of what you personally like. The term “league” refers to a class of surface beauty specifically determined by the society, the market. Someone who is beautiful in your eyes personally, can be considered ugly in the eyes of the public, and both perceptions unavoidably influence one another.

In the movie, Hal says that beautiful women are mean, and that ugly women are nice. This is not quite true. The more accurate way to put this is: a woman more beautiful than you are is mean to you, and a woman uglier than you are is nice to you. It is a function of relative value in the market, not of absolute value. That is, even a beautiful woman would be nice to her man, if he is even more beautiful than she is, which means that an ugly woman would be mean, if her man is uglier. What this means in the end is that, on the average, everyone is as nice or mean as everyone else. This stereotype is misperceived.

Even if you claim not to care about the market value, this relative market value between you and your love interest still influences your perception. Hal at the end of the movie accepts and loves obese Rosemary for her “inner” beauty. The reason why he comes across as a hero is because he is above her league, and he knows it. If he were unaware of himself being above her league, there would be no beauty in this ending. There is a big difference between proposing to her to marry him with a full knowledge and understanding that she is below his league, and proposing without knowing how the public perceives her. The reason why this is a happy ending is because he came out of his delusional state and still loved her. The only difference here is that he was not aware of the social value of her looks while under the spell of Tony Robbins. Hal says at one point in the movie that he would not care what other people thought of her as long as he saw her as a bombshell. The movie could have ended here, him still being delusional, but there is nothing heroic in this. What makes it heroic is his awareness of the social value of her looks; and his decision, in spite of it, to marry her. In this fashion, market values have influence over personal values even if one sticks by his own.

The dichotomy of “inner” and “outer” selves has been expressed in a variety of ways in the histories of philosophy and psychology. It is roughly equivalent to mind/body, personality/looks, inside/outside, and exterior/interior. Though they are all common expressions, these dichotomies are impossible to substantiate. In a thorough analysis, what is inside shows something deeper inside thereby making what was originally inside, outside.

We start from the outer beauty of, say for instance, Kate Moss. For the sake of argument, based on the popular belief that beautiful people are mean, we assume she is ugly inside. When we say someone is ugly inside, we can think of several typical qualities: needy, mean, bossy, demanding, selfish, etc.. If we further analyzed these qualities in terms of how they were formed, we would probably find that they were results of her unfortunate past predicaments, that is, not of her own choosing or doing. And, we will further discover that behind these psychological problems, she still has a “good heart”. In fact, Tony Robbins in the movie tells Hal that though he is shallow he still has a “good heart”. Kate Moss’ neurotic personality (hypothetical) and Hal’s shallowness are what we refer to as inner ugliness, but here we are further dividing this by outward character and inner “heart”, whereby the original inner ugliness becomes outer in relation to their “hearts”. By “heart”, presumably, we are referring to someone’s inborn nature. Could someone be born with a bad “heart”? Don’t we assume that we were all born equal in this sense? If so, the argument for inner and outer ugliness becomes meaningless since we are all beautiful deep inside. Everyone, in this case, should appear beautiful to Hal.

Obese Rosemary at one point in the movie complains about his ex-boyfriend’s lack of sense of humor. This is a typical quality that women look for in a man. Sense of humor is perceived as a noble quality to seek since it is after all an “inner” quality of a person, but at the same time we often hear stories of women who were deceived by these charming men who in the end only used these “inner” characters to have sex. If we follow the familiar guideline of “what counts is what’s inside”, where is the justice in this scenario? Isn’t someone’s charm, after all, an inner quality?

Part of the reason why beautiful people are perceived as being mean is because they often have no choice. When you are beautiful, you attract so much attention that if you sincerely attended to every attention you get, you would have no time to do anything else. It is much like the way New Yorkers are perceived. Within a day, we come across so many people who want something from us, whether homeless or con artists, that it is not possible to pay attention to all of them. From the perspectives of the outside visitors, the way New Yorkers blatantly ignore beggars in the streets appears extremely cruel and mean, but when we are certain that someone truly needs help, or someone can be truly helped, most New Yorkers are very willing to help others, especially since we feel somewhat guilty for ignoring beggars daily. In the same way, just because beautiful people appear mean or insensitive, to assume that they are truly that way would be unfair.

What most people are looking for, when they say “inner beauty”, is emotional and psychological stability. People want to avoid those who are needy, depressive, bitter, egotistical, delusional, insecure, paranoid, schizophrenic, etc., but avoiding these qualities is just as shallow as avoiding those who look ugly since these qualities are, for the most part, acquired out of no choice, i.e., they are victims of their environment. Certainly there are those whose emotional problems are of their own doing, but the same can be said of the looks. These outer personalities are just as shallow as the looks.

Here we face a paradox: If we were to look for inner-inner beauty, that is, people’s “hearts”, everyone is beautiful, because no one is born with an ugly heart (at least so we assume if we buy into the ideal of everyone being born equal in essence.). If the standard for choosing our love interests were this inner-inner beauty, then we would have no standard; we might as well pick anyone randomly. If we believed in the fundamental goodness of everyone’s heart, then the only things that can matter in choosing our love interests are these shallow factors, since the deep factor cannot serve as a criterion. So, Shallow Hal who seeks only beautiful women, is no shallower than anyone else, since there are no deeper criteria by which to measure a person. Looks is as deep or shallow as a sense of humor. Just as you can cultivate a sense of humor to a degree, you can cultivate your looks too. Some people were born with looks and others were born with a wit. Some people were born ugly and some were traumatized as a child resulting in a permanent psychological damage. What is the difference in depth?

It is impossible and pointless to divide a person into two parts, whether inner/outer, mind/body, or personality/looks. If you like beautiful women, I’d say, go for it. If you like funny men, go for it too. The apparent depth is only an illusion; an artifact of an artificial division that our minds perceive. The only thing that Shallow Hal achieved at the end is to reduce the friction inflicted by our society by having a discrepancy in market values, or to turn the discrepancy to his own advantage by reversing the position. The less friction you have, the longer it would last. This is why, in general, a beautiful person marries a beautiful person, an ugly person marries an ugly person, a fat man marries a fat woman, a white man marries a white woman, a famous person marries a famous person, etc.. It has nothing to do with shallowness or depth. It’s all about what can flow naturally with the least resistance. Resisting or accepting these forces will not make you any deeper, but there may be a better chance for you to become happier if you gave in to them, which is what Hal did. He did not get any deeper; he just became shrewder.