Tuesday, August 27, 2013

She Was Not Beautiful, But...

This is a great list of lady protagonists who aren't beautiful but (insert laundry list of attractive features).

I'd actually really like to discuss this phenomenon with you, and why perhaps you think it continues to happen. 


  1. That is honestly something I'd never heard of until seeing this just now. A few of them look like bald attempts at a deluded narrator, but the rest are just weird.

    If we assume no ironic subtext, I would say we're supposed to take from it that someone has a very exclusive standard of what a beautiful woman entails, and they don't want the "credibility" of that standard to diminish by letting imperfect people into it. They're trying to impress someone (or themselves) with their high-level taste. Even within that, though, some of these are bizarre. I can understand zeroing in on one feature that attracts or repulses, but the generalizations just don't look right.

  2. The opening line of GWtW comes to mind here. I see it made the list. In this case, I suspect it was because the author really wanted to describe the way someone who is not conventionally attractive can, through force of personality, convince people that he or she is. Mitchell wanted to get out there that Scarlett was good at manipulating the people (men) who held all the overt power in her society, but as a consequence, she tended to alienate her fellow woman (whom she wrongly dismissed as irrelevant).

    Having said this, I think Mitchell could have gotten away with spending less time on Scarlett's actual features. Once you get out there that someone is not as physically perfect as she seems at first glance, you erode that with too much detailed description imo. We all have a mental picture of what this might entail, and it may not be in perfect agreement with the author.

    Overall, though, I suspect authors will do this because they want to avoid the "Every heroine must be gorgeous" stereotype, but they don't want to have an unattractive heroine either (we are so conditioned as children and young adults to believe that any woman worthy of a story must be more attractive than average at least). It's also possible that the author knows that "too beautiful" women will sometimes elicit hostility or jealousy from female readers, but that female readers also sometimes like to fantasize about being the protagonist (and girls or women tend to fantasize about being beautiful), so they're trying to toe the line between these two possible reader reactions.

  3. I have to agree with Lauren. These examples all smack of "unreliable narrator" to me.

    Beauty and attraction are such subjective standards in the first place that I think it is hard for a writer to say, "This girl is beautiful but not," and have that mean the same thing for every reader.

    Women are often judged by their beauty - as much by other women as by men - and it can feel like a natural jumping off point for an author introducing a character. Saying "beautiful but not" feels like a lazy way to attempt to make the character unique - to separate their character from every other one out there in the ether. If a writer wants to describe a character, I prefer they just do it, rather than make a value judgement for the reader. So in addition to the wobbly narration, it feels kinda like a shortcut method of characterization.

  4. A lot of them seem like an excuse to describe a beautiful woman in excruciating detail while pretending not to. It feels demeaning, in an odd way, breaking a woman down into puzzle bits and holding them up, determined to find the fault in each one. How much of a nightmare would it be to think of someone looking at you that way?

    Then there's the woman portrayed as not fitting the 'popular beauty norm' of the culture depicted in the story, but *clearly* would be considered a knock-out at the time and place the story was written. Thus she becomes an exotic outsider, her admirer demonstrates his strong-minded independence by finding her attractive despite her 'flaws', and the prurient preferences of the audience are satisfied.

    I've also seen it done from the POV of the woman, where she lists her own faults, or compares herself to a 'traditional' beauty, or overheard herself described as plain or ugly as a child and never got over it. A very common trope in romance, where her self-doubt becomes one of the obstacles to the happily-ever-after. But hey, any excuse for a movie make-over montage.

    How often, I wonder, is a woman portrayed as attractive without bringing up any physical attribute at all?

  5. Thank you guys all for writing back! These are awesome and they helped out a lot in thinking about this. Sorry for not following up as quickly as I should have- my sister was having a baby.

    Yeah, when I read the article originally, all sorts of things occurred to me and then felt immediately dismissible. Some sort of weird power thing (in a "she had not power over me" sort of way); trying to sound high minded and like the sort of person who wouldn't leer at a woman even though they're describing them from head to toe; trying to make the women sound interesting by insisting they're not just a pretty face.

    Honestly, I think partly the whole thing has a synergy in my head with all the movie and TV things that try to insist that an incredibly gorgeous woman is "just okay" or even kind of dumpy, because for whatever reason you like, they only want to put hot actresses in front of us even if that's not what the script calls for.

    But yeah, only one of these has much of anything close to a negative term in it- no "she had a sallow complexion and limp hair, but man could she tell a joke". Yeah, honestly, I think on reflection I do tend to fall into the "wanted to set her apart but couldn't bear to write about an actually unattractive woman" camp.

    And for some reason all of this makes me think of the sister character from Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, who was actually described as quite unattractive, but I think was hands down the best character in it.