The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

Doppelgängers of Facebook February 17, 2010

A few days late to the party, I decided to join Celebrity Doppelgänger Week on Facebook, during which members change their profile picture to a look-a-like celeb and let the flattering comments roll in. As a general rule, I latch on to Facebook trends just as everyone stops paying attention to them. The difficulty of living away from real-time friends is you’re pretty slow on the uptake.

I’ve always had a fair amount of people tell me I look like *insert fair, dark-haired and -eyed celebrity here* or someone they know. I had a classmate tell me I look just like their friend Wendy and then call me by her name the rest of the class. One day on campus I had an entire conversation with a girl I desperately tried to place, before realizing I actually had no clue who she was…and she didn’t seem to know me either. She had mistaken me for someone else.

The BooHooWhatAboutMe part of my brain says I must look pretty generic if I look “just like” so many people. The OhGrowUpNotEverythingIsAboutYou part of my brain says that people are generally just not that perceptive. The majority of the world has no reason to be as interested in me as more intimate acquaintances. We observe in broad strokes, discarding idiosyncratic minutia for a passable short hand (tall, pale, brown hair. Done.). When considering the big picture it’s also interesting to note that the physical limitations on facial morphology for humans mean all of us are going to look like a lot of other people.

After discarding Anne Hathaway (pale and brunette, but totally unlike me in all other meaningful ways) and Sandra Bullock (thanks Dad and random hobo guy outside my office building, but meh…not really similar), I tried the MyHeritage face recognizer. What I got was a selection of stars who neither looked like me, each other, or themselves – the photos were from odd angles or with weird faces or very dated. I suspect that MyHeritage simply cobbles together a random list and hopes you’re so flattered that you’ll just run with whatever they give you.

I also suspect this may be the point of Celebrity Doppelgänger Week. It’s a way for people to have their appearances validated by association with cultural ideals. I’m attractive – see! I look just like So-and-so!

Other bloggers have pointed out the problematic racist/sizeist elements to the doppelgänger game. With the limited number of popular, non-white celebrities, should someone select a doppelgänger that is of the same race, but otherwise unlike them (playing into the “All *people of group X* look the same” stereotype) or should they select a celebrity with similar features who may be of another race (eliding their racial identity). If you are fat, are you required to chose from the minuscule pool of celebrities with a similar size or should you risk ridicule by selecting someone whose features are more similar of yours, but happens to be smaller than you? What do you do when there really isn’t a celebrity who looks like you at all?

Celebrity Doppelgänger Week is simply another way of reinforcing the reductive power of beauty ideals. I look enough like a celebrity to be considered attractive OR I don’t look like any celebrity and thus I must not be attractive. It’s a way of sorting, dividing, and excluding the majority of people in favor of the few who posses prized and rare physical qualities. We don’t really question the dubious connection between physical perfection and perceived intellectual/spiritual perfection, but the implication is deeply ingrained in our communal identity. For myriad reasons, beautiful people are treated as valuable people.

In reality, the vast majority of us don’t look like the narrowly defined and ever-homogenizing beauties that populate Hollywood (taking into account the overuse of Photoshop, neither do they). Which is okay! It really is. Not only because it’s demonstrably false that outer beauty is a necessary condition for inner beauty, but because the parameters of a term like Beauty change based on time, place, point of view, etc – everyone and everything is beautiful to someone.

A lack of celebrity doppelgänger is especially good when you think about what the word “doppelgänger” actually means. A doppelgänger is not a super attractive celebrity that everyone will pretend looks just like you so you can get a self-esteem boost. Although the Facebook meme uses it as a synonym for “twin” or “double”, “doppelgänger” is actually a very old and well-used trope of the horror/fantasy genre:

“In German folklore, a wraith or apparition of a living person, as distinguished from a ghost… To meet one’s double is a sign that one’s death is imminent.”

Sure, celebrity “doppelgänger” profile pictures might not be a sign of imminent mortal peril, but they do seem to be indicative of a certain kind of identity peril, a willingness to discard our unique features in favor of those approved by society as “correct.” It invites the erasure of intimate beauty that lies in the individual nature of someone’s form. Isn’t that a different kind of imminent death?

After climbing out of that philosophical rabbit hole, I decided to change my profile picture to Waterhouse’s “Pandora” instead.

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