Saturday, May 5

Why an Über-Sexy Appearance Doesn’t Absolve an Ugly Attitude

There is the old cliché where a super-hot mean girl has it out for the protagonist. In fiction, we seem to have embraced the fact that, just because someone is exceptionally attractive does not excuse their bad behaviour, or signify that they will triumph over others.

At least, that seems to be the case with female characters.

In film, television and literature we see the hot nemesis crop up time and again. Where would our heroines be without these smoking women to thwart them? Well, they would be hashing it out with a woman who was as blemished on the outside as she is within. Not good! That might cause the readers to feel...sympathy.

I'm not here to slander the attractive mean girl trope, or to say it should never be used. No, I want to discuss the importance of why sexual appeal does not excuse an unattractive attitude, and how I'm noticing a real double standard on this issue between the sexes in fiction.

In novels with a female protagonist – whether targeted at teenagers or adults – it's not at all uncommon to find that the heroine isn't physical perfection. Few women come close to their own ideal of physical beauty, and having a protagonist who isn't described as looking like a super model helps more readers relate to and empathise with her.

However, it is rare to find a book where the male romantic love interest is not described as being physically attractive. After all, what heterosexual woman isn't drawn to a man who radiates sexy physicality?

I'm not going to suggest that we start a fugly male character lottery and populate more novels with less-than-shagtastic blokes. I'm not irked by attractive guys in fiction (far from it) but rather the idea that a guy can be the ultimate "bad boy" and still remain in the protagonist's – and the reader's – favour, simply because he is gorgeous.

I am a firm believer in sexual tension and conflict between characters...but when I read about a man who insults a woman at every turn and she is still drawn to him, despite being constantly aware of what a jerk he is, I'm a little put out. Is this the type of man the writer wants me to fantasise about? Is this a protagonist I'm supposed to empathise with?

I've read my fair share of books with less-than-angelic male love interests and enjoyed plenty of them. Whether I was just younger and more susceptible then, or the concept was fresher earlier on, my patience for these anti-feminist flings shrivels with each new volume I read.

If an unattractive male character treats a woman in an offensive and sexually suggestive manner, he is quick to be labelled a sleaze and everyone can agree that he's walking around with one scrotum too many. Yet if His Horrible Hunkiness tries the same is somehow acceptable?

Let's not be naïve children who spout that what's on the inside is the only thing that matters. We acknowledge people's looks before we even speak to them. Still, I'm far more likely to be drawn to an adequately good looking chap, whose personality shines through and enhances his charisma, than Adonis the Arse.

What are your thoughts? Is attraction to a fictional character more reliant on looks or attitude? Do you think there is a double standard?


Alexia561 said...

Great post! Yes, I think there's a huge double-standard where a good looking guy can get away with almost anything. I'm glad to finally see that every heroine doesn't have to be a supermodel, now I want to see the same standard applied to the males. They don't have to be ugly, just mildly attractive instead of uber-hot.

Sid Carter said...

"If an unattractive male character treats a woman in an offensive and sexually suggestive manner, he is quick to be labelled a sleaze and everyone can agree that he’s walking around with one scrotum too many. Yet if His Horrible Hunkiness tries the same thing…it is somehow acceptable?"

But that is reality, isn't it? Life imitates Art and vice versa.

All of us have double standards, except the ones who are self-aware.

"Is attraction to a fictional character more reliant on looks or attitude? Do you think there is a double standard?"

Our attraction or revulsion to a character depends on who we think we are and how we perceive the world. Often times you notice that people take the side of the evil character, because they can relate to them or perhaps the protagonist is someone they hate (reminds them of someone at work), so they like it when the villain beats the crap out of the protagonist and such.

So much human psychology at play, that this can be a whole topic in itself.

That reminds me, I should get back to drafting that post -writing it in the form of a story...

R - R A F said...

I might be mistaken for a gaming geek who doesn't care much about the subject, by writing this comment. But bear with me for a bit while I try to explain this... :)

I write fantasy or sci-fi fiction taking inspiration from characters and stories happening in Dungeons & Dragons, the pen and paper classic role playing game. Even when I write realistic characters, I tend to think them in RPG terms first.
This means, that many of my characters have "gaming stats", some even start as pure gaming stats and become fully-fledged fictional characters later.
This also means that they're all balanced in their abilities/traits, following the rules of the game.
Under the current rules, this usually means being either very very good/able in one ability/trait and mediocre in others, being quite good in two, or more or less good in three. Never more than 3 traits are actually good.
Now, beauty is not a "stat", but Charisma is. And Wisdom, too, and it's the stat of empathy to a certain degree, and insight. A sensitive character has to have high Wisdom. To be both sensitive and socially skilled means having both high Charisma and Wisdom, or at least having them moderately good.
Keeping in mind that one of the six base stats is always going to end up penalized, it's clear that to be both socially able, AND sensitive, the character is probably not going to have good physical traits, at most average, at best he'll have one good. So... Bear with me a bit more, I'm finishing this blurb...
A typical male hero usually has some kind of good physical trait. This will mean that either sensitivity or charisma is going to be mediocre, independently from good looks.
Good looks though have to match some traits to a certain extent. A guy with low Constitution is not going to be 6 ft or very well built, and a character without good Strength isn't going to be very muscular. So that's it: a character who is handsome, sensitive, AND charismatic is... Very rarely going to happen. The only way it would work would be if he used either his Charisma or Wisdom/Sensitivity as his "heroic attribute". This would point at a magic user, not a warrior or other macho things. You know the funny side? There are indeed two warrior "classes" that truly uses Charisma to fight: Paladin and Bard. Translating this to real life, it means that the male protagonist who is both handsome and sensitive+likeable is one of two types: the very driven-by-a-cause Charming Prince type, or the artist/rock-star. You know what? I think it's truly realistic! :) And the other realistic side of the coin is that if the character also has to be physically imposing, either he'll loose a bit on sensitivity or in sheer charisma or social awareness. And again, I think it's realistic.

Funny as it may be, I think my "gamist" way of building characters makes for more realistic characters than most purely fictional ones.
And to return to the topic, after all this I hope I demonstrated that it's actually more common to have a handsome guy act in non very likeable manners, it's a matter of balancing out one's talents. Handsome AND likeable will probably means that the character's "dump-stat" will be a physical one, resulting in at least one discernible and meaningful imperfection/ugliness, be that being too gaunt, fat, or small, or of bad health.
Last funny tidbit, the Charming Prince (aka Paladin)type, often manages to stay physically decent, but you know what's the reaming stat to dump at that point? Intelligence! :D