I've been thinking about yesterday's post and why the issue of pretty heroines bothers me so. It ties in to a few personal issues I have, as a plain woman with an extremely attractive family, I'm sure, but also with what I perceive as a problem with society at large.
I said yesterday that I don't mind so much if the romantic lead is beautiful; I roll my eyes, but the world is apparently not ready to break the "beautiful people date beautiful people" barrier, nor reverse the equally icky "shlubby guy with hot girlfriend" trope. If the love interest has to be beautiful, well, that's the hero's failing. But when the competent, witty swordswoman or reporter or political analyst or what-the-heck-ever needs to be pretty, as well, then that's where it crosses the line for me.
Girls growing up have it drilled into their heads that being "pretty" is the best thing they can possibly achieve — whether the people doing the drilling are aware of it or not. We know we're bombarded by imagery — in books and magazines, on television and in movies, in advertising — and we've come to accept that. A quick Internet search can turn up scores of articles and blogs decrying the culture of superficial beauty. That's not news.
No, it's far more insidious than that.
Here's an experiment: tell someone you're not beautiful. Not in a "fishing for compliments" way, not in a half-joking, half-embarrassed, "please tell me I'm wrong" way. Straightforward, honest, and unapologetic. Tell them you're okay with it, because you have other qualities — intelligence, humour, athletic ability, artistic talent, whatever — and that, in your opinion, is more important than looks.
Don't say it to straight male friends, who will run away as the "Does this make me look fat?" alarm triggers in their heads. Say it to your female friends. Watch what happens. (Note, this will only work if you really are plain, not Hollywood Homely, so be careful.)
There will be panic.
These people, who love and adore you, will rush to tell you that you are so beautiful, even if you don't see it. You may not be traditionally good-looking, but you are pretty, whether you think so or not. You might even get anger: how dare you say you're unattractive? All in all, by the end of the conversation, they will reassure you in every way possible that you do, somehow, possess physical attractiveness.
There will not be one comment about the attributes you said you prized more.
I've done this several times. I've tried it on several occasions with different groups of people and with varying levels of transparency, starting from completely out of context and ending up in the context of this exact discussion. What I said each time, for the record, was something akin to this: "I'm smart, funny, a good singer, and one heck of a fiction writer, and I know it, but because I know I'm not beautiful, people think I have low self-esteem. What's up with that?"
Every time, the result was the same. People scrambled to reassure me that I was beautiful, pretty, attractive, etc. etc., that I was just blind to it all. They assumed my matter-of-fact opinion about my looks meant I somehow thought I was Lon Chaney in the 1925 "Phantom of the Opera" silent film.
I told them that this wasn't helping; that by attempting to convince me of something that not only wasn't true but that they themselves knew was untrue but felt compelled, for some unknown reason, to say, they were in fact lowering my self-esteem.
I tried to explain that this attitude hurt me. That by insisting I believe an untruth about my looks, rather than be secure and content about the truth of them, they're valuing those looks above the skills I actually value. That no matter how intelligent, witty, perceptive, caring, or talented I may be, if I'm not beautiful, I'm still deficient.
One or two people stopped and thought about it. The majority got defensive, and told me they were just reminding me that I was beautiful whether I liked it or not, and that that didn't mean I wasn't smart as well. Still others just became more convinced that I needed compliments that much more. Eventually I gave up, every time.
This attitude frustrates me more than almost anything else. We're steeped in it; our society is permeated in it. We continue to tell our little girls this as well. Mothers love to tell their daughters they're beautiful, but how many of them tell them they're clever? How many parents introduce their daughters as "my witty little girl"? Sure, it's great to be all those things, but in the end, we must be pretty, even when it's not true.
When I see this creeping into my literature — my escape, my world-that-is-not-my-world — this is when I begin to cry. Literature is supposed to be the window of the soul, and all that, so can we please, please give up this idea that a female character is lacking if she's not beautiful? Please.