Saturday, October 12, 2013
Must every heroine be beautiful?
By Sandra Parshall
In a recent New Yorker blog, Adelle Waldman raised provocative questions about “the problem of female beauty” and the prevalence of beautiful women characters in fiction. She suggests that men are so powerfully drawn to beautiful women in real life that the valuation of women by their looks carries over into fiction.
Waldman quotes novelist Lionel Shriver’s complaint that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” These fictional women have many extraordinary qualities that appeal to the books’ male characters – and, by the way, they’re gorgeous too.
Waldman also offers examples of books, such as Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, in which the male characters’ pursuit of beautiful women is more pointed. Walter, the ardent feminist in the Franzen book, is attracted only to beautiful women. Walter’s son can’t enjoy sex with his pretty girlfriend unless the light is on and he can see her lovely face.
Beautiful heroines are the norm in crime fiction, of course. Beautiful and young. Miss Marple was a special case. Only in recent years have we begun to see older, less attractive women running around chasing criminals and getting into nasty scrapes, and they are still a novelty and rarely have romantic relationships. Men can age, as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch does, but their love interests will likely be young and hot forever. Many women readers love Barbara Havers in Elizabeth George’s books because she is plain and dumpy, but you’ll notice George has yet to give Barb a real love life complete with romance and hot sex. Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli is supposedly plain, but she’s married to a devastatingly handsome man, and as the books have gone on her looks have been mentioned less and less. And look who plays her on TV.
How do you feel about this?
You will no doubt say that you can you cheer for a heroine who is middle-aged, overweight, gray-haired, and plain of face.
Do you want to read book after book about her, if her life is realistically limited by her age and looks?
Will you believe a handsome man, who can have his pick of gorgeous women, feeling sexually attracted to her and pursuing her passionately?
What about the mousey young woman with thick glasses, an overbite, and a high-pitched nasal voice? If she’s smart, is that enough to make you keep reading about her?
Are attractive women inherently more intriguing? Do we assume more interesting things will happen to them because of their looks?
And while we’re on the subject, how do you feel about unattractive male protagonists?