Somehow, amid a culture war backlash against Rachel Zegler, the actress starring in Disney‘s forthcoming live-action Snow White remake, the conversation turned to her appearance. That in itself is no surprise: both famous and unknown women are always subject to rude, unsolicited commentary about their looks. But in this case, people seemed to be making a broader anatomical observation.
It began with right-wing journalist Inez Stepman suggesting on Twitter that “the new crop of starlets” in Hollywood, including Zegler, “have eyes too wide apart.” That post was quoted by another Twitter user, who added photos of Anya Taylor-Joy and Halle Bailey in an effort to demonstrate the pattern. That, in turn, led to a shitpost from a crypto bro who weighed in with an explanation. These actresses, he claimed, all have “herbivore eyes,” which makes them “look easily predated upon.”
“We used to like more big eyed predator women (eyes closer together),” he wrote. “We used to like female lioness, now we like deer.”
This, like so much online content, is nonsense made up for likes and engagement, and there’s no reason to assume the author truly believes it. Alas, the discussion confirms that this kind of drivel has gained real traction of late. Creators of all stripes have asserted social and political norms based on misunderstandings of phenotypes (the sets of observable, genetically influenced traits, such as eye color, in individuals) and applications of long-discredited pseudosciences, including physiognomy (a study of the supposed correlation between face or body structure and psychological characteristics) and phrenology (which falsely held that cognitive faculties could be determined by analysis of a person’s skull shape).
That the latter two have been historically used as a basis for scientific racism and eugenics accounts for their popularity in far-right circles today. Ideologues assert the inherent value of European features, pushing white supremacy in language that sounds (at first) more clinical than rhetorical — avoiding open bigotry. Meanwhile, a cohort of beauty TikTokers have lapsed into similar junk theories as they seek to describe and categorize physical attributes, coming up with bizarre distinctions like “angel” or “witch” skulls and subdividing women into “feminine” and “ultra-feminine” groups. In the same vein, someone like hypnotist Lori Bell Herring can build an audience by performing “face readings,” giving physiognomic evaluations that purport to reveal someone’s authentic personality.
Amateur, irrational analysis of faces and skeletal structure is also key to the booming practice of “transvestigation,” in which conspiracy theorists paranoid about transgender people attempt to prove that almost everyone besides themselves is secretly trans, usually by means of convoluted diagrams overlaid on photos. Here, as in the examples mentioned above, the “science” is completely bogus, and consistently bent toward a desired result. There is nobody the transvestigators wouldn’t accuse of being trans if they felt like it; before you can finish saying “J. Robert Oppenheimer,” they’ll produce a meme framed as evidence of his “female skull.”
Underlying the various strains of this trend are profound anxieties over race and gender. The faux intellectual advocating for proliferation of “white” genes may fear a so-called “great replacement” by nonwhites in the global West, a conspiracy theory that has prompted deadly hate crimes. Transphobes are obsessed with policing identity along a strict sexual binary, while some conservatives have developed prescriptions for how men and women “should” look, in accordance with their “traditional” gender roles — meaning not just their outward style but their bodies as well. Incel communities are particularly committed to these standards, blaming their lack of a dating life on perceived misfortunes as slight as a narrow chin.
Given the regressive quality of any pseudoscience that aims to deduce a person’s essential nature from their image, it’s no surprise that this worldview was re-popularized on troll forums including 4Chan, where the phrase “the physiognomy never lies” is a highfalutin way of calling someone ugly and mentally defective at once, as though the exterior self somehow mirrors the interior mind. The knee-jerk attack has, of course, migrated to other platforms, finding new users in those who demonize LGBTQ groups, often accusing their enemies of having “groomer physiognomy” or exemplifying a “pedophile phenotype.” How convenient, when fighting a stranger online, to be able to tell whether they’re a sexual predator by their profile picture alone. Another mocking refrain, “Why do they always look like this,” aims to establish as fact that liberal or leftist politics are inseparable from unattractiveness.
So it’s not a coincidence or random digression when you see criticism of a feminist Disney princess morph into a referendum on facial features, skull shape or body size. That’s just how “anti-woke” culture warriors move the conversation from social justice, equality and representation to the often racist, sexist and transphobic stereotypes they’d rather pursue. Why debate the issue when you can call your opponent genetically inferior? It telegraphs the contempt that is the movement’s sole animating principle, without the need for anything like relevant facts or context.
Really, it’s a perfect metaphor. The reactionary right pretends to have a philosophy based on universal, inborn truths that no reasonable person could deny. But in the end, their ideas are only skin-deep.