Every New Year, the Syfy Channel runs a multi-day marathon of Twilight Zone episodes. Settling down to watch with a bunch of special-occasion snack foods became a yearly tradition in my family, one that I miss now that I don’t have cable anymore. (The show was streaming on Netflix for awhile, and may still be, but picking-and-choosing episodes whenever you want is just not the same.)
I still remember the first iteration of this tradition, and the first episode of the show I ever saw. The episode in question is a classic, one of those “Oh, it’s this one!” episodes, an episode worthy of a Saturday Night Live parody with Pamela Anderson. Let’s see if this rings a bell: a young woman is undergoing yet another treatment to make herself look normal. Her face is wrapped in bandages, and there’s much fretting about how awful it will be if this treatment fails, if this poor woman is doomed to a life of ugliness. After dragging out the suspense as far as it can go, the doctor removes her bandages, one layer at a time, eventually revealing that—Surprise!—the woman is actually incredibly beautiful. Turns out everyone else just has pig faces, and thus a different standard of beauty. The woman is then exiled to a community of other attractive-to-us but not-to-them, and Rod Sterling slyly reminds us that what we consider ugly and beautiful doesn’t actually matter when it comes to enforcing the norm, and that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
Is the episode cheesy? Sure. The more cynical viewers of the twenty-first century would probably guess the outcome five minutes in. But I first saw it as a little girl, and it blew my mind. All girls get told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or that it’s skin deep, or other such platitudes that even in elementary school we all know are a load of crap. And yet I’d never seen the idea expressed in any concrete way. I’d heard the platitudes but I’d never stared at them straight on. I’d never seen ugliness called beautiful, or beauty called ugly. I’d never realized that the definitions of both were essentially meaningless.
Moreover, the episodes illustrates something else about beauty that I wouldn’t truly appreciate or understand until I was older: that, at its core, beauty is about conformity. We decide on a standard of normalcy and that is how we define beauty. Beauty is good. Deviation from that normalcy—ie, ugliness—is bad. And this dichotomy is so incredibly toxic and harmful and yet even the most progressive among us will accept it without question.
It’s strange to think that a black-and-white TV show produced fifty years ago could have had some small part in forming my interest in and understanding of body politics. And yet that’s exactly what happened. As facile and simplistic as the episode is to me now, it jump-started a revelation that I kept close as I navigated the treacherous waters of puberty and adolescence. How’s that for a plot twist, Mr. Sterling?