Handsome Ted and the Politics of Beauty
What made it so easy for Ted to prowl around?
Recently I saw this documentary series called Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. While I’m not a great fan of crime documentaries, a lot of nagging by Netflix introduced me to the much-publicised story of this extremely wicked and vicious serial killer, who raped and murdered more than 30 young women in the United States in the 1970s.
Bundy was active for almost half a decade from 1974 to ‘78, fleeing from the clutches of law enforcement and maiming, murdering, and raping college-age women who he would usually abduct from university campuses or surrounding areas. The details of his murders are grotesque and involved necrophilic sexual acts.
It must leave us in consternation that a person could navigate through seven different states in the US, killing and raping women without much caution, without being apprehended.
Just after his first or second murder, Bundy’s girlfriend told the police that she suspected him of showing those unusual qualities which they had described in their lookout advertisement. But the police did not pay much attention to this intelligence, or to many other leads pointing to Bundy.
He was considered so handsome and charming that many girls, even once they knew he was behind those excruciating murders, were infatuated with him, and many people felt he was being falsely implicated. A woman named Carole Ann Boone even married him while he was on trial for all these murders.
However, his end was not very good as he was killed in the electric chair in 1989 while people celebrated his execution by bursting firecrackers, because the decade-long investigation and trial had shown the public the grotesque and evil method of his murders.
What was the element that made it so easy for Ted to prowl around?
There was his typical ‘Americanness’ of course, the image of a White, handsome, successful man whom everyone sees with warm eyes and cannot imagine doing anything so heinous.
I am very sure that police personnel must have been looking for a Black man with a history of crime, or a man who had evidently lost his sanity. It would have never occurred to them that a White, good-looking, well-dressed and well-educated law graduate could be this dangerous serial killer.
And this image of him being handsome and representing White privilege helped him escape the scrutiny of White law enforcement agencies for that long.
The entire episode makes it evident how social constructs of physical beauty and their idealisation and idolisation by a culture implant in people and society a blind spot regarding certain groups of people, and in victimising other groups.
Would the police have taken half a decade to apprehend Ted Bundy, and the courts another decade to execute him, if he had been Black?
An idea of beauty characterised by certain features of physical appearance, connected to a preconceived idea of how such a beautiful person will behave, is what led to the delay in arresting Bundy. The politics of beauty which is characterised by the concept of power, and the share in power of certain ethnicities, provided they marginalise certain other ethnicities, leads to stereotyping and prejudice.
This enforced and “common-sensical” notion of beauty that emanates from social relations and power relations in a very racialised culture has victimised certain groups of people, such as African Americans in the USA, while benefitting European Americans in almost all social, political and economic affairs.
If we see how in our south Asian culture the notion of beauty is constructed and practised, it is very similar and sort of a dummy version of what is practised in Europe and North America.
Our present concept of beauty comes from the imperial capitalist notion emanating from the empires of this West, an imperial notion of Beauty that we understand and relate to today, different from the beauty identified by many communities that could insulate themselves from the onslaught of the imperial West and its tantalising cultural imperialism.
The politics of beauty today rests on the power of the White West which has permeated through the cultural boundaries of the world and established itself as the standard of beauty.
Surely if Africa or any African country had been the predominant imperial capitalist power, spreading tentacles of cultural imperialism on the slouching back of political and economic imperialism, the entire world would have been trying to be Black and seeing black as beautiful.
The eyes don’t see, the mind sees. It’s not how something looks to our eyes but how we relate to it enmeshed in the power structure sprawled around us. It is the politics of power that establishes our notion of what is beautiful.
Waseem Ahmad studies social work at the University of Delhi