BY CATHERINE HAKIM
ALLEN LANE, £20
THE best way to create a stir is to publish a book that claims that sex sells, and should do so more. Better yet, embed the claim in an argument for women to think and do more – not less – about their appearance and sexual appeal. Then, serve it up festooned in as much statistical evidence as you can get your hands on.
If you’re Dr Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow in sociology at the London School of Economics and an expert on the labour market, this is easy. You’re rolling in evidence and statistics, and in research methods and other ways to make a point seriously. But Hakim’s book shows – yes, with undeniable panache – that if a point is weak in the first place, no amount of statistics will be able to prop it up.
Hakim’s argument that women should use (and be allowed or encouraged to use) their too-ignored sexual assets (“erotic capital”) more in the professional sphere – from the office to the brothel – is not agreeable to many.
But my problem with the book is less political and more intellectual. Because while beautiful people are more popular and admired and thus appear to have an easier life, there is another side to all this that remains unexamined here. Namely, that as much as it can create wealth and happiness, beauty and a preoccupation with appearance can ruin women’s lives, professionally and sexually. It might make them more prone to harassment at work; or have more trouble being taken seriously. They may become obsessed with staying young and plastic surgery, ending up with very low confidence. And many employers may well prefer a woman to be well-dressed, but to have skills that trump the more ethereal mixture Hakim describes as erotic capital (sexual appeal, charm and so forth), like intelligence.
The other big point of the book is what Hakim calls the “sexual deficit”. This is another obvious idea, which says that men are more hungry for sex than women overall. But if men find women’s sexual availability in deficit, why should women bend over backwards to look great? Wouldn’t men be less choosy? Hakim also makes the point that men are increasingly part of the erotic capital dynamic as their appearance becomes a greater source of concern and importance in the workplace.
But then, why do most men in high-powered corporate roles look distinctly unattractive? (American politicians are a different category).
On one hand, Honey Money is “substantial” – published by Penguin’s serious, sciency imprint, Allen Lane. On the other, it lacks the intellectual rigour such a bald thesis would require in order to take off. I wish the argument had been better furnished – with statistics that really showed you something new – as Hakim’s point is a juicy one, whether you agree with it or not.
SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY: COCO CHANEL
BY HAL VAUGHAN
CHATTO & WINDUS, £20
THE American, Paris-dwelling historian Hal Vaughan has it in for Coco Chanel – and the result is a refreshing, controversial book. In it, Vaughan asserts that the queen of French haute couture was a rabid anti-Semite, a secret agent for the Germans and an acquaintance – if not friend – of Goebbels and Goering, with whom she shared the Ritz in Paris throughout the occupation.
As Vaughan points out, most aspects of Coco’s life have been biographised, from her relationship with composer Igor Stravinsky to her vision of chic boy-like minimalism and the little black dress. Well, the mysteries and cautious language surrounding her wartime activities have just had a bucket of cold water poured on them.
Through a good trawl of evidence, Vaughan makes (among others) the following assertions: Chanel was a registered German spy (Agent F-7124, code name Westminster); she traded missions for favours; acted as cover for other agents and tried to steal from her Jewish partners.
Explosive stuff, but if you would like another view of the woman behind those iconic, raggedy-looking cloth suits – then you should pick up this well-written, well-researched and easy-to-read book. It also makes you wonder what else has been kept hushed up about the activities of the chic French during the war.