Saturday, January 05, 2008

On Beauty

Subtitle: Why are the beautiful people always evil?

In the bad old days of bodice-ripper romances, the heroine was a very beautiful, fiesty virgin who had no real idea of her looks. Frequently, she thought she was terribly plain (the old "Why must I be slender and blonde, with such large breasts, when all the other girls of my village are stocky and strong, with small breasts that never get in the way when they're carrying oxen to market?" lament). But the hero (macho to the point of cruelty) nonetheless saw the sparkling, defiant beauty hidden behind her ponytail and paint-stained overalls, and fell into a mad passion and a love that dared not speak its...etc etc.

Fast-forward twenty or so years, and we've turned a corner so sharp we're facing back the other way. The beautiful heroine is No More. In her place is a gal with a few extra pounds, hair that's unmanageable, and tiny little flat bosoms. She doesn't have the time or money for designer togs and expensive manicures (but she can still go out without make-up, so she can't be truly ugly). She's meant to be like you and me. She's meant to be normal.

But the gorgeous blonde with the dainty hips and giant bazoombas hasn't gone away. She's still the Evil One.

You know how it goes. Improbably gorgeous hero falls for klutzy heroine, cellulite and all (and if I read one more hero who gets turned on by stretch marks, I might vomit), but then heroine sees him talking to the gorgeous blonde, and hatred fills her. How dare this tiny little pixie with her Kate Moss eyes and her perfect manicure horn in on our heroine's territory? How dare she be so skinny? And beautiful? How dare she have such perfect hair and large breasts? What a bitch. She must be destroyed.

Inevitably, she turns out to be the hero's ex, and incidentally Satan in disguise. So it's okay that our heroine hates her. Because she's eeevill!!

Which does, of course, lead me to wonder how damn stupid the hero was that he couldn't see past the big bazoombas and the fluttery eyelashes to the soul-sucking demon within. Our heroine could see it straight away. Or could she? Did she hate the ex because she knew, instinctively, that she was evil? Or just because she was beautiful?

And why must the Beautiful People be eeevill!! anyway? Can't we have a pretty person in a book who's, well, quite nice, actually? Must she be eeevill!!? Why is it that our ordinary heroine (who is of course unutterably beautiful to our hero, who is probably an ancient vampire warrior from a time when women had some padding on them, dammit) can't stand the beautiful one? Why is she made into a creature of pure eeevill!! again and again?

It can't be jealousy. Because that would imply that the author has some sort of complex about beautiful people, which in turn would imply that the author isn't herself perfectly attractive. But we all know that romance authors aren't all old, fat and ugly, so that can't be it.

A while ago--not long after the birth of her child, I think--Gwen Stefani was quoted as saying that she'd worked damn hard to achieve the fabulous body she has, and she was damned if she was going to pretend she hadn't (I can't remember the exact quote, and I sure as hell am not going to bugger around all day Googling it). Being beautiful is a full-time occupation. Not many people roll out of bed looking like Gwen. Gwen doesn't roll out of bed looking like Gwen. She works hard and it pays off.

Maybe, then, this hatred of the Beautiful People is a kind of jealousy. Not because she's prettier than the heroine, but because she works harder on her appearance. She does the stomach crunches that we don't want to do. She spends half her salary on highlights. She denies herself chocolate and burgers. She works hard. So, are we jealous of the way she looks, or the effort she puts in? Are we jealous because she's maximising the assets God gave her? If she exploited a talent for playing the piano, would you despise her for that?

You don't tend to get beautiful heroines any more. And when you do, they're not aware of or interested in their looks (this goes double on TV, where everyone is beautiful and unaware of it). Well, that's bullshit. You don't walk around looking like a catwalk model and get to behave like an ordinary person. Next time you're anywhere near a beach or a pool and you spot that gorgeous girl in her bikini, don't send her death rays. Watch how she's treated. Men hassle her. Women hate her. Whenever she's in a bar, she gets drunken come-ons, often from men who don't understand 'No'. She doesn't keep male friends for long, because inevitably they make a pass at her. She can never be sure she got her job because she's actually good at what she does. If she turns up anywhere looking less than perfect, she gets five times the hassle an ordinary woman does.

So why do I never read about this in a book? Why is the beautiful heroine unaware of her looks? Why is the beautiful ex automatically eeevill!!? Maybe if someone wrote about a beautiful heroine who dealt with the crap beautiful people have to deal with, then we wouldn't all hate them all so much, and they might get a better deal in books.

That's my thought for the day. Any takers?


  1. Gods,...THANK YOU.

    There are a lot of beautiful women out there who work their asses off to get that way....AND THEY HAVE BRAINS.

    Yes, can you tell this is a personal pet peeve of mine?? Wonder why??? LOL.

    I started reading romances at age 12. The old historical ones, pretty much the way you listed them, girl doesn't know or see how beautiful she is and must have some man show up to show her she is.


    You can be beautiful. And smart. And fit.

    It just requires work. And, I think more heroines need to have that in their makeup.

    That might be a writing goal of mine this year. Fit, gorgeous...and WORKS for it.

  2. My first instinct was to broad-brush and say the authors were being catty (no offense to you or my protagonist), but then I thought about it again. Three things popped into my brain immediately.

    First of all, if people took out all the self-created drama and replaced it with exercise, they might look that good, too.

    Second, here's an anecdote (which I can't spell). Everyone sees a burly bodybuilder and assumes he's a muscle headed narcissist. Really? I challenge anyone to talk to ten body builders and see if more than half of them aren't great guys who just happen to have a passion for lifting. That's the male reflection of the beautiful girl in the bar (who everyone assumes is into no one but herself). I happen to know a beautiful blonde who does nothing more than help others, care for her family and friends, and work tirelessly on her career...and our tenth wedding anniversary is this year.

    Third, and this is probably the most obvious, I'd say we're all suffering from celebrity overload. If I hear one more senseless article involving the name Spears or Simpson, I may vow to omit the letters "M,S,N,B & C" from every story I write in the future.

    Great post, Cat. Keep up the good work!


  3. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

    With that said, I do enjoy romances where the heroine is more "average." Sometimes I like reading about someone with whom I can relate. Someone who might've been picked on as a teen or not very popular and awkward—I loved the ending to Sixteen Candles ... aaahh! I want to know that those of us who don't look like Angelina Jolie (and who can only do so through plastic surgery), can also get the hot guy and save the day. (I guess that's why I loved Bridget Jones.) No amount of working out or spa trips or professional make-up applications can turn my looks into something I'm not. But what it really boils down to is women feeling comfortable in their own skin wherever they fall in the hotness scale. Confidence is sexy. And I think that books and movies which show women—from sexy Marilyn to plain Jane—struggling with their own insecurities (beause everyone has them) are more realistic. I'll root for a heroine no matter what she looks like. And relying on stereotypes (skinny, narcissistic women and plain best friends who never get the man) is so last century. :)