May 01 2014
One of the most basic – and pervasive – tropes around is that “beauty equals goodness.” The heroes are attractive, handsome men and beautiful women, the villains are have scars or other physical deformities. It’s something so intrinsic to storytelling that we don’t even think about it. Hell, the wildly-popular Wicked is basically an examination and subversion of this idea.
It’s when you really start to think about all the examples that it gets a bit strange. It’s easy to admit that “beauty=goodness” is a thing that happens in stories, but it’s less easy to admit that it may have seeped into your own understanding of fiction. It’s the bias blind spot. Or, as I like to call it, the “everybody thinks they’re an above-average driver” effect.
After mulling it over below, looking at some examples (and counter-examples), I came to a rather startling conclusion. Perhaps you’ll agree with me.
Think of a popular movie, and chances are you can find an example of this trope off the top of your head. Star Wars is on everyone’s mind this week, so that’s as good a place to start as any. When you think of the heroes in those movies, you think of this guy…
And this guy…
Quite comely, no? But when you think of the Star Wars villains, the ones that pop readily into mind don’t quite have the same attractiveness factor. We’ve got Mr. “Degradation of the soul (dark side) = degradation of the body”…
We’ve got Mr. “Yes he looks badass, but are you forgetting what he looks like under the hood?”
And of course, if you’re looking for an extreme, who could forget Mr. “Physical manifestation of pure greed and sloth?”
Again, this isn’t an earth-shattering revelation here. Sci-fi, fantasy, and anything in spitting distance of a fairy tale lean on this premise all the time.
There’s nothing wrong with the trope on the surface. Lining up your good guys as beautiful and bad guys as ugly makes for some lazy storytelling, but it doesn’t seem to be inherently wrong. Where the line starts getting fuzzy, though, is when the trope gets hammered home enough that viewers start ascribing a causal relationship to it. Not “beautiful and also good,” but “beautiful, therefore good.”
It might be no more than a surface reaction. It might be famously subverted in a hundred different ways. It might be something that we’re getting better at noticing. But it’s there, damn it. It sneaks under your guard. It’ll catch you when you’re sleeping.
How many of you have seen The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly? A classic deconstruction of the Western genre if there ever was one. And a clever title, all things considered. Because, really, what makes Eastwood’s Blondie “The Good?” Blondie, Angel Eyes, and Tuco are all varying degrees of ruthless, cold-hearted bastards. In that time, in that place, the lines between mercenary, bounty hunter, and bandit weren’t exactly clear-cut. Blondie is the least worst of the three, winner by default, but at best he’s a ruthless, calculating con artist antihero. But he’s The Good, and if you forget it, the movie will remind in, in big, bold red text:
Tuco, “The Ugly,” is by far the most sympathetic of the three, considering his motivation and the abuse heaped on him during the movie, but Eastwood has the blonde hair and pets a kitten, so he’s the good guy. Except, wait, no he’s not. If you watched the movie, you saw what it was doing – three greedy mercenaries fighting over treasure, a big old middle finger to traditional Western ethos of black-and-white morality – but didn’t you still kind of root for Eastwood?
I know I did. Even as I appreciated how I was being manipulated, it was still effective. Like a strategic low-cut top, just because you identify the ploy doesn’t make it any less distracting.
And the funny thing is, I’m not even sure I have a problem with it. Let’s talk Game of Thrones. For my money, Tyrion, Jon Snow, and Arya are about as close as you get to protagonists in the books. In the show, the field is a little more wide-open, but I’m talking source material here. Just pretend the show doesn’t exist for a second.
The books go to great length to describe the misshapen, ugly, stunted demeanor of Tyrion. A few of his charming nicknames include the Halfman and the Imp. In case you were wondering, if you want to get technical about it, an Imp isn’t a cute thing. It’s not someone being clever or charmingly “impish.” An imp is a demon:
When you read the books and picture Tyrion, you wouldn’t be off the mark picturing someone who looks like this:
Or even like this:
It’s a given rule that when any story makes the leap to TV or film, the characters get more attractive by at least 50%. That’s how you explain something like this…
(The *whole point* is that he’s a monster… what is that, freaking sunburn under his mask? Real ugly, there, Butler)
Back to Tyrion.
Even when I was reading the books, I was picturing something way closer to Peter Dinklage than a truly “beaten with the Ugly Stick” Imp. The reason is the trope we’ve been discussing. Because it works both ways, too. As my brain conjured up pictures for the characters I was reading about, I liked Tyrion and was rooting for him, which made him look better in my head.
And I’m okay with that. As long as we recognize that real life doesn’t have these rules, letting there be some fluid causality between a character’s looks and their actions isn’t a bad thing. I would tack on modifiers saying “as long as you know it’s there, and as long as it’s doing some productive, narrative work,” but… does it need it? Maybe we can be okay with it being exactly as shallow as “Peter Dinklage is handsome and that makes it more fun to root for him.” Having your outer appearance reflect your inner character is an endlessly fascinating trope in and of itself, both played straight and when it’s subverted. I’m sure I would have been heavily in favor of someone throwing acid on Joffrey’s smug little ferret facing and melting it up good, if that had happened in the books.
In short, the knee-jerk reaction of “well, the best way to do it is to decouple the two concepts entirely. What a person looks like shouldn’t have anything to do with who they are.” I mean, yes, but… that’s so boring. It’s fiction. There’s so much interesting stuff you can do when you take a trope like this and bend it ever-so-slightly…
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