The Idea That Beauty Equals Goodness

| Friday, December 7, 2012
Today's Tune: Hopeless Wanderer

Only a few days left to snag this lovely signed copy of BITTERBLUE by Kristin Cashore. Get it while it's hot. Or something. (Also, had to disable anonymous comments, sorry. The spam was out of control.)

There's this insidious thing that happens in novels and on television, and I started to notice it as a teenager. It didn't always happen, some books were better about it than others, but it seemed like far too many had a dynamic that made me uncomfortable even before I realized what was eating at me so much. After reading a lot of books and a lot of essays of analysis about those books, I finally realized what bothered me.

It's the correlation of physical beauty with goodness, and physical unattractiveness with evil. Of course, I'm referring to a very specific sort of "beauty." More on that in a moment.

Many people have discussed this topic at length, and I encourage you to read up more about it after you're done with this post. This is a topic that I feel very strongly about bringing to the forefront and making people think about. It's one of those things that's easy to let slide and not examine very closely, and that's what makes it so dangerous. We are constantly being fed this idea of what beauty is, and that it's our ultimate goal to achieve this sort of beauty, and if no one ever talks about it and refutes it, those ideas remain unchallenged in our mind. This is an especially dangerous issue for young people, because this is what they're being fed while they're still formulating their own personalities and ideals.

I know you guys know what I'm talking about. How many times have we read an MG or YA book and found that all the "good" characters are described as physically attractive, while the antagonistic or "bad" characters are unattractive? And it's not just "pretty" or "ugly," either. It's a very specific kind of pretty or ugly.

"Good" characters aren't just generically pretty. They have clear skin. Flawless hair. Unnaturally gorgeous eyes. They're not just good-looking. They're perfect.

They're also usually white, able-bodied, healthy, and thin. They may have other signature features that code them as a very specific kind of "pretty:" the kind of pretty that allows no room for the slightest physical variant.

Now let's think of "bad" characters. How often to we read about the "skanky" girl who wears trashy clothes and too much makeup to distract from her horse teeth? Or the "catty" girl who's a little overweight? Or the evil aliens that are little more than shriveled slime creatures? The mad scientist who's confined to a wheelchair? The once-beautiful young man who was horribly disfigured, which reflects the blackness in his soul, or whatever? The one Black character in the whole book, who happens to be the turncoat who ruins everything?

This is not an accident. This is social conditioning at work. Most readers will notice that the main characters are pretty, but they may not notice that they're rarely anything other than the societal beauty "norm." It's not enough to check yourself on making all the good guys unnaturally attractive and all the bad guys creeps with lanky hair and bad breath. You also have to be mindful of whether you're constantly portraying beauty and goodness as something that is straight, white, able-bodied, and thin. Is this the only thing (or the major thing) that qualifies as "beautiful" in your world? Why?

It's not enough to have a token minority sidekick character who hangs out with the good guys. We need to break down this idea that only a specific sort of person is worthy of a starring role. And I know I'm treading on thin ice, since I'm a super-white lady and it's not as though I'm hurting for representations of myself in leading roles. Even so, it's important for all of us to seek to break down the reasons why we always reach for a certain kind of character when we're picking sides.

Having a diverse cast is a good thing. Portraying a variety of people can have an incredible impact on those who are desperate for some positive representation. As always, I don't suggest jumping in without research because someone told you that you should, but I do recommend sitting down with your work and considering why you made the choices you did, even if they were subconscious. We need to find it in us to allow for different sorts of people to share the spotlight, and do so without constant angst about their "imperfect" physicality. Not everyone wishes they were a skinny white girl with a "normal" body. They just wish that they could see someone more like themselves.

Food for thought. What do you think? Do you notice these sorts of patterns in the books you read?


{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: December 7, 2012 at 5:48 AM said...

We absolutely do notice this, and we hope that more YA authors (and other people who influence the way young people look at the world) will take on the challenge of portraying a more diverse, less status-quo world. It's not easy to combat some of these ideas or "defaults" that we've internalized subconsciously... but discussing it in posts like this help raise awareness.

(Btw, one show that's really great at diversity is Battlestar Galactica.)

The other thing that we notice that kind of bothers us is how, good or bad, EVERYONE in TV/movies is attractive. Casting for American media is so ridiculous that way. (Whereas Brits, for example, tend to have more normal-looking people more often.) It would be nice if we didn't have to airbrush all our celebrities or coat them in makeup and other products.

And the great thing about books is, there's no Photoshop for words. We (authors) can portray our fictional characters in truthfully human ways. And we should.

{ Catherine Stine } at: December 7, 2012 at 6:08 AM said...

Yes, it's true in many cases. Personally, I can't stand the typical vanilla type hero or heroine. I always put some physical and emotional flaw in mine. For instance, in my latest, the male lead limps due to a soccer injury, for which he had to get pins in his leg. And some of my villains are quite charming and handsome. Good to mix it up in terms of stereotypes.

{ prerna pickett } at: December 7, 2012 at 7:12 AM said...

yup, it's noticed, but I don't think it's quite as blatant as it used to be. Yes, we definitely need more people of color as main characters, but the bad guy isn't always unattractive or disfigured (this usually is true for male characters, can't say the same for female baddies). This topic is getting more and more public support which is good. I think we'll see more diversity in the future. Or at least I hope we do.

{ JeffO } at: December 7, 2012 at 7:15 AM said...

Great post, Stephanie, and reminds me of something I've been meaning to blog about for a while, regarding character color/race in books.

I will go out a bit on one limb here, since I don't read a lot of YA or MG, is that there IS (or used to be) a lot of the 'pretty-but-mean cheerleader' and 'hunky, egotistical jerk jock' typing in a lot of books. Quite often the really pretty girls and heartthrob guys are depicted as shallow, vain, and nasty (and, frequently, dumb).

{ Old Kitty } at: December 7, 2012 at 7:26 AM said...

I always get upset when evil/fear/badness are equated with "black" "dark" or "disabled". :-(

So yay for your post! More of you please! :-)

Take care

{ erica and christy } at: December 7, 2012 at 5:42 PM said...

I'm with perna that it happens less in recently published books than I've noticed in the past. And also with Stephanie that OMG could someone make a show without all-perfect-looking people (or the one obvious character with a flaw)!

{ Sarah Hipple } at: December 16, 2012 at 1:48 PM said...

Yeah. I noticed that I pretty much only had white people it in my own writing, which is why I made a conscious effort to start including non-white characters as well. It's sad that that's default (although since I'm white & live in a mostly white community, maybe its really just natural for me).

But I'm definitely working on expanding beyond that. The problem for me is that I don't want to incorrectly depict anyone else's culture b/c I don't know about it. So I've stuck with minorities with my type of a background. But eventually I'll have to start learning about how others' cultures really influence their speech/actions/homelife/food.

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