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?

Be honest.

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?


Julia Buckley said...

I would argue that, since everyone's definition of beautiful is different, there really ARE a lot of very attractive people in the world--they're just not attractive to everyone. And so it is in fiction. I think oftentimes I make a character attractive to ME, in my mind's eye, by taking the author's words and then coming up with my own precise image, colored by what I find most appealing.

But I find my favorite fictional characters attractive for all sorts of reasons: their humor, their nobility, etc. But this MAKES them attractive, just as it does in real life.

Sandra Parshall said...

In all the studies done of what people find attractive, the great majority go for symmetry -- even features, nothing out of sync. Tiny babies respond with pleasure to this type of face and react negatively, sometimes with outright fear, to a face with features that are oddly sized or spaced. So the human brain seems to have some hard wired concept of what is beautiful, right from he start. It's not surprising that models, actresses, other popular women in the public eye have facial similarities. I think we have to learn to see beauty in unusual faces.

Sheila Connolly said...

I think men, both in film and in print, get a lot more leeway--it's all right to be "interesting-looking" if it's a male.

Some related questions: in a book, how much information about a character's appearance should you provide? How much room do you leave the reader to color in the details for a character? I would guess the reader assumes the character has all of his/her body parts, unless otherwise mentioned. But do you need to specify age? Gender? Skin color? Height? Or must many of these details be inferred from comments made by others?

Describing your protagonist is particularly hard, unless you fall back to that silly concept of the woman studying herself in the mirror as she brushes her teeth. And in that case, even if she were gorgeous, would she comment on that to herself?

Christinekling said...

Excellent topic and blog post, Sandy. When you watch a kid playing a video game, he will tell you that's him on the screen. I think the same thing happens in fiction, only readers are often a bit less aware of it. We want our books to succeed and we know that it is far easier for women to enjoy the experience of identifying with and "becoming" a beautiful woman. Men can more easily identify with the male lead if the female is beautiful - as they are hard-wired to be attracted to beauty.

So, in my view, it takes an immensely gifted author to succeed at making the reader love and identify with a woman who does not fit our traditional view of beauty. That's why I am so in awe of the the female character Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When we first meet her we don't think she is beautiful and we have no desire to be like her. He MAKES us fall in love with her.

So, I think we make our heroine's beautiful because we know there are enough other problems with making readers love our books - with plot, setting, character, etc. Why put up more barriers?

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
Good topic, Sandra, albeit one ripe for a plethora of responses.
I echo Julia, I suppose, in my hope that readers look beyond popular definitions of beauty. The Russian terrorist in my novel The Midas Bomb was beautiful, but she was also evil--certainly not attractive. On the other hand, one of the main protagonists in my "Clones and Mutants Series" is a beautiful lady, but she possesses more inner beauty than outer, plus a fine mind.
An answer for Sheila: I like to call myself a minimalist writer. By that I mean I give just enough description to allow the reader to add his or her own details, thus personalizing the story. Reading is already a passive activity in many ways, so I feel that allowing the reader to participate in the creative process is a plus. I'm sure others will say I'm just lazy, but, in my content editing, I often strip out what I consider over-the-top descriptions to let the reader participate.

Vicki Lane said...

Good topic, Sandra. I personally dislike heroines who look like models and maintain size zero figures in spite of eating like longshoremen. I may just be jealous. I also tend to mistrust heart stoppingly handsome men (in fiction and in life.)

I like it when the author gives us the basics -- approximate age and body type, hair and eye color and leaves it to us to make our own picture.

Mary Ann Corrigan said...

Great post, Sandy. Protagonists who are not beautiful, like Havers, appeal to me more than gorgeous ones, who strike me as unrealistic in their perfection. Sheila raises good questions about how much detail to provide about a character’s looks, an issue I’m confronting as I finish up the first book in a series. I describe my heroine’s hair, height, and body type because she’s self-conscious about those features. I leave everything else up to the reader’s imagination. After her handsome fiancé cheats on her, she’s attracted to a man whose face is “almost a train wreck.” He does, however, have a great body and a megawatt smile that transforms his features. I hope that’s enough to make him acceptable to readers.

Sandra Parshall said...

Have any of you seen the movie Enough Said? The romantic lead is James Gandolfini. It's hard to watch the film and listen to jokes about his weight, while knowing this talented actor is now dead at far too young an age and his weight probably played a major role in his health problems. All that aside, it's interesting to listen to two women discussing his unattractive body. One woman is his ex-wife, and one reason she divorced him was that he had become sexually repulsive to her. The other woman is currently having a relationship with him, and obviously is able to look past his less than enticing body because he has a delightful personality and treats her well. But the more she listens to the ex-wife, the more conscious she becomes of the man's paunch and overall physical unattractiveness. Usually we see this kind of situation from the man's viewpoint -- he turns to a younger, beautiful woman when his wife ages and puts on pounds. But women have the same thoughts and feelings toward men. It's worth noting that in The Sopranos some beautiful women were attracted to Tony (Gandolfini), not because he was physically desirable but because he was powerful. It is often said that men are drawn to beauty while women are drawn to power, and these attractions are deeply rooted in the instinct for survival and perpetuation of the species.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

As a reader, if the male protagonist experiences love at first sight and falls for a beautiful blonde, I close the book and won't open it again. What a cliche!
As a writer, I add a few pounds to my female protagonists and bring them more in line with the real women I know. And I agree with Mary Ann that Barbara Havers is a terrific character.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

American female stars have to be young and "beautiful," but the Brits do better, at least on TV. Inspector Morse (no spring chicken himself) was attracted to a long string of women who were at least in their forties and who looked like real-life women, not like mannequins. And I've seen the same actresses in other crime shows and dramas. My real pet peeve, though, is books--by both men and women--in which one of the highly valued attributes of female beauty is the ability to eat enormous quantities of food without gaining weight. In my world, we call that bulimia. Or dumb metabolic luck, in some cases. The contempt I've seen expressed over and over in fiction for women who order a salad for lunch in order to maintain a healthy weight is gratuitous and infuriating.

Kris Bock said...

I do get tired of super-beautiful women in books(and I am also suspicious of super-handsome men). I suspect some of the prevalence comes from the tropes handed down from more sexist times. Some may come from author wish fulfillment – we are our heroes, so we write them as we would like to be.

I write romantic suspense, but I tend to describe my heroines and heroes briefly – rough height, hair length and color, and that's about it. Readers can fill in the rest for themselves, making them ordinary or beautiful as they prefer.

NABNYC said...

I generally divide modern American mysteries into two categories. The first is the Superhuman style of protagonist, which I found to be simplistic and tedious. In those books, the protagonist (male or female) is always the smartest, best athlete, super-rich because of their invention which they sold for millions, and so on. These books are cartoonish, and do not interest me.

The second category actually goes back to Laurence Sanders' books starting with The First Deadly Sin. The male protagonist was a middle-aged, overweight, out of shape, decent enough guy, probably bought his suits off the rack at some modest-price department store. His wife dies in the first book, and he eventually meets someone else, but he's no romeo. He also does not solve the crime because he's the smartest, and he's not particularly athletic. He is dogged, hard-working, and sticks with it. Great character. Rockford was a little bit like that. Columbo.

For women protagonists, I think it's critical that they not be beautiful, although they don't have to be unattractive. I prefer the typical professional female in her 20s or 30s, hard-working, not rich, just trying to earn a living, dating guys but not yet married. She's more interesting. There's more room for character development because things have not dropped in her lap -- she's had to work hard for whatever she has. She has to be a little tough, but not in a violent way, just enough to cope with the crimes that will come her way.

I have just finished my first mystery, and the above is a fair description of my protagonist. She's not a superwoman, she's just a normal female trying to get by in a world that is often a little tough on women. I like to think she's a very interesting character.

Polly Iyer said...

Yup, I've written drop-dead gorgeous women in two of my six books. One is a retired high-priced call girl. I figure if men are going to pay big bucks for a woman, she'd better be beautiful. The other woman's beauty is the reason she's a tragic figure. So, it depends on the story and the genre to take a cliche and make it work.