(I had to use a picture of Colin Firth because he’s just wonderful. And I mean, physical appearances, he obviously fits the bill. Plus, bow ties.)
In his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde mocks the superficial, ultimately empty qualities Victorian society held in such high esteem. One superficiality he addresses is the undue value societal statutes placed on physical appearance and beauty. The satirical nature of Lady Bracknell’s observation that Cecily’s profile has “distinct social possibilities” emphasizes the value solely on physical appearance over merit or genuine character (Wilde 47). Cecily’s social prospects and potential gains do not stem from effort or intention and are not earned by character or diligence, but exist simply because her profile meets society’s current standards of beauty. The near sarcasm of the assertion, unknown to the character but tangible to the audience, ridicules the importance of a factor as fleeting and unstable as physical features.
The satirical criticism of such permeating triviality continues in the fact that “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing” (Wilde 44). Gwendolyn’s hyperbolic belief assigns undeserved worth to practiced superficiality and facades, even in matters as sacred as love and marriage. Her statement emulates Victorian society’s ceaseless desire to meet expectations and appear desirable at the expense of qualities like sincerity and honesty. Wilde uses this emulation to rebuke society for placing such exaggerated importance on trivial, fleeting aspects such as physical appearance, especially in exchange for truly valuable characteristics and priorities.
Oscar Wilde’s satire The Importance of Being Earnest is clever and light-hearted, saturated with humor, but it is not unlike the satire that should be written of our society today. This play is extensively critical of the ideals of Victorian society, skewed values of superficiality, arbitrary propriety, impermanent wealth, and evanescent appearances, ideals that, when stripped down, are mirrored quite prominently in our own society, especially in regard to appearance. Our culture is suffocated with sickly fame, unfounded and undeserved, with the practice of assigning value to lives based on the size of their bank account, with shamelessly criminal, unrealistic expectations of beauty and attractiveness and worthiness that all but demand superficiality and emptiness from their targets. Physical appearances are transient, and anything built upon them will be so as well. Worthiness is not determined by the ephemerality of appearance.