Privileging the Pretty

August 31st, 2006

I just finished reading a quite-good science fiction novel set on a Terran colony world modeled after a middle-eastern theocracy. The setting allows the author to examine the role of women–the book is clearly feminist in theme and tone–and is very nicely realized. The only thing that began to annoy the hell out of me was: why is the heroine so pretty? She is, by the time the book ends, probably in her mid-thirties, and spends most of the book (like the other woman of this world) heavily veiled except among other women and with household members; she has a profession; she’s powerful and powerfully angry; a mother in all but biological fact. She has authority, even if she lives on a world where her authority is rarely recognized. So why does the author make her so beautiful in the first place, and why does the author remind me so often of her beauty?

I suppose it is because we live in a culture that privileges beauty and considers that Pretty=Good and Beautiful=Heroic. But I think this is a trap. The rest of the women (except the heroine’s adopted daughter, who is even more beautiful) run the gamut of normal human attractiveness; why couldn’t the heroine have fit into that continuum? Because the author likes her best? Because at some moments of tension it might be easier to evoke fear or sympathy for a beautiful woman than a plain one? That it makes more sense that other characters will respond to her, help her, if her chiseled nose and damask cheek glow in the moonlight? Okay: this happens in real life. There are studies that say that the pretty people get more help in school, get a job faster, get more assistance from store clerks, and so on. And if the writer had been using this as part of her point it wouldn’t bother me; I’d very likely be fascinated. But that’s not what this book was about.

The trap, for a writer, is to use beauty as shorthand, a cheat (in the computer game sense). It’s a trap because if you let your character’s beauty stand for other things, you don’t define those things precisely. You don’t get to hone your skills as a writer. And the reader doesn’t get to know precisely what you meant.

I’m not saying don’t let your princesses be beautiful. I’m just saying: ask yourself why the damask cheek, the flawless sheet of ebony hair cascading to her waist, the dark violet eyes holding hidden sorrows, and the lingerie-model-body. If you’re going to go that far off the norm, there ought to be some reason for it.

47 Responses to “Privileging the Pretty”

  1. Roberton 31 Aug 2006 at 11:54 am

    Or the narrator (not necessarily the writer) has a thing for her. :)

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 31 Aug 2006 at 1:14 pm

    I think the “beauty” thing with protagonists, with women writers at least, comes from reading one too many romance novels where the heroinne is ravishingly gorgeous to begin with or, at worst, the sort of “Good Heavens, Miss Nakamoto, you’re beautiful!” ugly duckling only in need of contacts and a perm. With male writers? Maybe a bit too much wish fulfilment, but there you see it more as the Land of Beer Goggles, where every woman is a serious hottie, even the stereotypical librarian who only has to remove her hornrims and release her severe bun and Va-va-voom!

    I generally have my female protagonists pretty but not ravishingly gorgeous. (Fathom was an exception to this rule, but then it was a novelization of a pre-existing comic book.) Plain old “pretty” works for getting the societal perks that make certain scenes easier but let’s the ravishingly gorgeous creature be someone else, which makes for better tension in a romance and even in non-romantic plots.

    Rosa, my new Wild Cards character, is specifically listed in her bio as “pretty,” which makes a very nice balance to other characters, some of whom are radiantly beautiful, plain or even ugly, though I think I’m the only one one who took plain old “pretty.”

  3. Amanda Weinsteinon 31 Aug 2006 at 2:04 pm

    I think I may know the book you mean, and it is also one I quite liked. May I turn the beauty issue on its head a moment and suggest that maybe there was a good reason to make the main character beautiful? Namely, that by making the main character both beautiful and well-married, it is made clear that she had/has all the conventional options, and that her other attributes—her strength, her education, her anger—are independent attributes. They come from within her, rather than being created by years of hearing the other women click their tongues and say “Oh, it is a good thing her father has money, otherwise how could we ever make such an ugly one a good match?” So from that perspective, it didn’t strike me as overkill at all.

    Even in our own society, there is still somehow the stereotype of the educated, driven woman who is only so either because a) she is not beautiful or b) she does not believe herself to be beautiful. Honestly, if I had a nickel for everyone who looked at me and said “You’re too pretty to be a physicist” or words to that effect, I’d probably have a month’s rent saved up by now. This has always rather bemused me. What, do looks automatically mean I can’t have intellectual aptitude? Or was I supposed to be so focused on those same looks and what they could get me that I wouldn’t want an intellectual career? Both these mentalities are silly, but they do still exist.

    Don’t get me wrong. The message that a woman does not require beauty or a husband to have value is absolutely critical. But the message that a woman can have both beauty and a man who loves her, and still passionately want a career, social justice, etc. is equally important.

  4. Muneravenon 31 Aug 2006 at 2:14 pm

    Well, part of it simply may be that most of us are not actually stunningly beautiful, and since part of the fun of writing/reading is experiencing a life very unlike your mundane one, why not have a character who is a real looker?

    Is it really much different than having a character who is unfailingly loyal, or always witty, or courageous without fail, or so smart that she always is ten steps ahead of everyone else? Fantasy and science fiction is rife with such characters. In fact, fiction of all stripes is rife with such characters.

    I do see your point, truly. I much prefer characters who are attractive in some very particular way, like real people are. But then I like characters who are not ideal in any way. I particularly love characters who seem to be ideal in a way at first, but then they fail in the very area I (and he/she) thought was a great strength. I mean, what story in the Bible is better than Peter denying Christ in the garden? It’s Peter! Denying Christ! Holy buckets! And in the LotR books, I love it when Frodo gets right to the Big Moment and then says: Nah, I think I’ll keep it. Heeheehee.

    You know a writer who doesn’t get enough credit for eschewing the stunning beauty thing? Mercedes Lackey. Her books are loaded with plain-looking heroes and even homely romantic interests. It’s in vogue in some circles to bash Lackey, but she does some things really really well.

  5. Lois Tiltonon 31 Aug 2006 at 2:22 pm

    Was the author male or female?

  6. Katharine Kerron 31 Aug 2006 at 4:00 pm

    When I was young and an ardent early feminist, I heard “but you’re pretty, you don’t need to be a feminist!” all the time. The clear implication was that only ugly women were feminists because “they couldn’t get a man”. My response was not suitable for reproduction on a website that chidren might access. This is why Gloria Steinem was so important to second-wave feminism, even though she’s not a deep thinker — she wa beautiful, but she knew that wasn’t enough. As Amanda points out, that’s a very important insight that our culture needs to get. It still hasn’t.

    Real beauty can be a curse. Consider Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, or other worshipped Beautiful Sexy Women in their youth. Marilyn never made it to middle age. Taylor finally decided that Fat and Crabby was okay, and more power to her.

  7. Carol Bergon 31 Aug 2006 at 6:47 pm

    I certainly don’t want to equate beauty and good or ugliness and bad. And I certainly don’t want to equate strong, assertive women with ugliness – or beauty either. I don’t want to make ANY across-the-board character associations with physical attractiveness (unless it is an intrinsic part of the kind of being, ie. angel or whatever). So why describe characters in absolute “value” terms like pretty or beautiful at all?

    Have the point-of-view character describe features or figure, and let the reader glean that character’s opinion of the other’s attractiveness from the actual words used. And we all know that beauty is in the eye…etc.

    I like having one character describe another in terms that imply beauty, and another character describe him or her in terms that imply plainness, or to have the POV character’s opinion of another’s attractiveness change throughout a story.

    Of course, my heroines and heroes are always beautiful in SOMEone’s eyes.

    Currently working with a protagonist who thinks a woman is worth bedding if she has one good feature–even if it is her feet. But then, the sex thing is another matter…


  8. kateelliotton 31 Aug 2006 at 7:42 pm

    And not just Marilyn Monroe or Liz Taylor. Think of poor Marlon Brando. I recall reading an anecdote that centered on his awareness of how he had lost the beauty of his youth.

    I really agree that beauty and/or prettiness can be an easy cop for the writer, one that this culture with its airbrushing and image-is-everything is prone to encourage. There must be a reason – heck, I’ll even accept wish fulfillment as a reason, as long as the writer has actually thought about it.

    otoh, I really agree with Amanda. I can think of a couple of examples from sff novels in which a plain or ugly woman becomes really good at a “masculine” skill only because she is plain or ugly, the implication being that pretty women don’t need to bother. Exactly like the ‘you’re pretty so you don’t need to be a feminist” comment. And I can think of examples in which the writer uses zits or lack of attractiveness as shorthand for a bad or incompetent person.

  9. Mark Tiedemannon 01 Sep 2006 at 11:12 am

    A couple of points. One, I agree with Amanda, but from a slightly different perspective–it is actually, I think, harder for “beautiful people” to defy stereotype, because a particular kind of spotlight is always on them. (We also have to keep in mind how many villainnesses have been stunningly beautiful–and the perverse fact that to be a villain, they had to be more than just beautiful, and therefore ability came with the looks, rather than in spite of it…but that could be another thread altogether.) Paul Newman has gone on record as having been worried in his early career that he’d be typecast as a “hunk” instead of being respected as an actor of ability.

    The other, though, is we unconsciously (I think) limit our range of what is beautiful. Beyond a close description of features, the attributes that comprise beauty are far more varied than generally recognized, even among those who know physical standards are secondary at best. To be sure, a certain physicallity is associated with beauty, a physicallity in my experience that goes hand in hand with health and fitness. “Vitality” comes to mind as the appropriate ingredient. (Note how in John Barnes’ A Million Open Doors he does something very difficult–tracks a character initially described as at best plain, probably ugly, and by the end of the novel transforms her into an attractive, vital love interest.)

    Unfortunately, we do have a society that values physical beauty above other attributes. But I’m trying to think of any culture that reaches a certain level of power that doesn’t. Even most tribal affiliations demonstrate a proclivity to value some kind of visual perfection. We have managed to commodify it, so it seems more suspect.

  10. Madeleine Robinson 01 Sep 2006 at 11:37 am

    \Is it really much different than having a character who is unfailingly loyal, or always witty, or courageous without fail, or so smart that she always is ten steps ahead of everyone else? Fantasy and science fiction is rife with such characters. In fact, fiction of all stripes is rife with such characters.

    I’m less interested in writing in which a character is unfailingly loyal or always witty or courageous or smart–I’m more interested in the failure of loyalty or wit or courage or intelligence and the consequences of that failure. Nor is the author of this specific book (who is female) writing a wish-fullfillment heroic sorta story. I do understand Amanda’s point about a woman who has, by her society’s standards, everything including beauty, taking a stand. But the author doesn’t just tell us this character is beautiful, she reminds us throughout the book, in rather gauzy terms. In contrast, the character’s adopted daughter, seen through the character’s eyes, is always mentioned as beautiful, but I felt that some of that was the character’s love for the girl as well as her natural endowment. That love explains some of the character’s actions–thus the beauty (and the character’s response to it) has a use in the story.

    I just feel that if you’re going to dwell on a character’s beauty you need to be very aware of the weight of meaning you’re putting on it.

  11. Theo Neelon 01 Sep 2006 at 12:25 pm

    I’ve seen damask. I don’t get damask. I think acne-scarred cheeks when I read “damask cheeks.”

    But that’s beside the point.

    The comparative beauty of character should be a conscious attribute given to the character by a thoughtful author. If the book referenced is well-written, I’d give the author the benefit of the doubt and ask what message the author is trying to convey by having chosen to make her beautiful (as Amanda has already suggested).

    Sometimes an author will be making a statement with the character’s beauty (or lack thereof). Sometimes an author will use beauty as a short-hand. Some characters who are beautiful are set-dressing. Some characters may be beautiful because the audience wants to lose themselves (i.e., imagine themselves) in beauty to escape the ugliness of real-life (e.g., romance genre).

    All in all, relative beauty ought to be a carefully considered aspect of any character, male or female.

    The point may already have been made, but there’s just as much privileging the pretty boys as there is privileging the pretty girls. (E.g., Harry Potter never got acne.)

    It’s a funny thing, though — I tried to buck the beauty = good stereotype by writing a character who was described more than once as “ugly.” Went on about how twisted and scarred his face was, ungainly his body, looked like a human-sized version of Gimli’s brother, etc. Had other characters comment on it. Male character; “hero” of the story. Every single beta reader came away with the impression that he was handsome — male and female readers. I was left wondering if there’s a subconscious pyschological equation of heroism with beauty (and I think that’s been mentioned, too).

  12. Erin Underwoodon 01 Sep 2006 at 1:56 pm

    I was left wondering if there’s a subconscious pyschological equation of heroism with beauty

    Theo, perhaps this is an example of beauty coming in more than one form. What’s that old saying – beauty comes from within or beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We all know people who have average looks, but because of their personality, actions, etc their looks are transformed into something beyond physical beauty.

  13. Theo Neelon 01 Sep 2006 at 3:13 pm

    Erin, I think you’re right.

  14. k1on 01 Sep 2006 at 3:28 pm

    I have sympathy towards Carol’s point of view. That is to say, that beauty in itself is a perception….so while for some Marilyn Monroe may have been gorgeous, for others she did not appeal at all.

    My second point I think, is that if your going to try to promote equal rights in your book, or the feminist point of view, surely it makes sense to make your female charachter non-beautiful. If you make her drop dead gorgeous, the automatic assumption is that the reason she got away with the things she did was because she was so beautiful. Kinda like the way there are stories of women using their good looks to get off speeding tickets and the like. ie men are much more likely to *want* to believe a beautiful woman than they are say an ordinary looking one.

    Final point, is that I would think that in any book, you want your main charachters to have some flaws….you don’t want a godlike charachter which is what it appears this charachter was…super beautiful, smart and courageous. Ugh….people don’t come in those sort of shapes and sizes. We have million of flaws, and too many books airbrush over these flaws, because they don’t examine the person from other people’s point of view thoroughly enough.

    We never get a person’s thought runing something like

    “God, I wish that person would smiling at me like that, its slimy”….

    instead when someone is examined from a third party point of view, we get reactions to something they have done…or conversations. Hardly ever get a third party person’s thoughts about our heroic charachter.

  15. kateelliotton 01 Sep 2006 at 3:31 pm

    Charisma and sexual appeal also are different attributes than physical beauty per se.

    Vitality, as MarkT notes, is often one of the elements common to all three.

    I think that vitality is seen as attractive across all cultures, whereas specific physical features or forms may be considered beautiful in culturally specific ways.

  16. Katharine Kerron 01 Sep 2006 at 5:47 pm

    According to assorted pop psychology works, beauty is associated with symmetry and proportion — but these tend to ignore cultural traits like artificially elongated skulls and artificially oversized breasts, to say nothing of elaborately artificial hairdos, which pop up in all sorts of cultures.

    Vitality is considered beautiful in many cultures, yes, but some emphasis a passive languidness in women, such as in Victorian England and the American upperclasses of the same period, that verges on illness. The consumptive woman was considered the height of beauty by many back then. (I’ve just been reading a bio of Alice James, which makes this point over and over again.) Or the drugged woman, too, like Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal.

    In DAGGERSPELL I deliberately made Branwen the “most beautiful woman in the kingdom,” and then I showed where it got her — fought over by men and driven ultimately to suicide. This was a purposeful theme on my part, but I do get emails and comments from readers who seem not to have “gotten it”..

  17. kateelliotton 01 Sep 2006 at 6:10 pm

    I did think about Victorian England and America, and the upper-class glorification of the comsumptive, passive woman, but I can’t help but feel that was an aberration. And I’ll bet that in many walks of life at the same time, vitality still retained its appeal. Not to mention that the passive weak women of the time would have a darned hard time having healthy babies, so in a way it must be always a short lived fashion.

  18. Jellyn Andrewson 01 Sep 2006 at 6:39 pm

    Harry Potter never got acne.

    I would not call Harry beautiful at all. Average, perhaps.

    He has a facial scar. Even if it is ‘cool’ because of how he got it and the shape it’s in, to other wizards and to us. To him, it’s something he’s self-conscious about.

    He’s first described as small, skinny, with a ‘thin face’, and ‘knobbly knees’. He’s forced to wear clothes that don’t fit him and are secondhand. And he has glasses. Personally, I think glasses can make people look more attractive, but it’s certainly common perception that it’s the other way around.

    If you want to look at beauty in the wizarding world and Rowling’s books, I think you need to look at Cedric Diggory, Draco Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle, Mad-Eye Moody, possibly Snape. Oh, and how can I forget Gilderoy Lockhart?

    And then there’s Hermione.

    Hermione has hair that is probably perfectly fine hair, but she only looks pretty when she does something with it, like for the Yule Ball. And she has oversized teeth that she ‘fixes’ with a bit of luck and a bit of deception. Against her dentist parents’ wishes.

    I think Rowling does a fair job of giving us descriptions from Harry’s point of view. Most people he doesn’t like are ugly in some fashion (Dudley, Snape, Umbridge, Pansy). People he looks up to (his parents, Sirius, Cedric) are handsome.

    It would perhaps be an interesting study to see how his descriptions of Sirius change over the course of several books. Circumstances play a part, but Harry’s opinion of him changes a few times as he learns more about this godfather of his.

    So, overall, I think Rowling did a fairly good job. Even the pretty people do despicable things. I’m just a bit sad that Hermione didn’t think being smart and talented was enough.

  19. Katharine Kerron 01 Sep 2006 at 6:48 pm

    The passive weak ideal was certainly confined in Europe to the upper middle class and the upper classes — the only ones who could afford to support such women. It probably was an exception to the rule, but this exception does crop up in other cultures, such as China, at various periods. The woman with bound feet as a erotic object is another classic, non-western example. as are the “fragile flowers” of upperclass Japanese socieities, and the women in purdah in India, harem women of various times (harems differ from the state of purdah), the classical Athenian house-bound wife, and probably others of which I know nothng. The Chinese ideal persisted for centuries — footbinding began before the Mongol invasions and was finally eliminated maybe 20 years ago, when the very last of the “lotus feet” women began to die of old age.

    Beauty as vitality is a very real theme, but my point was simply that it’s not a universal. I don’t think there -is- a universal standard of beauty. Women are expected to fit the current style of beauty just as they are expected to wear the current styles of clothes. Bodies don’t change as easily as dresses, unfortunately, so you get foot-binding, ancient Roman hipbinding, today’s breast “augmentation”, and all the rest of the crap handed to girls.

    The exceptionally thin look of today’s media stars might be considered an example of “fake vitality,” come to think of it — not the slender young women who work out, but those who are so emaciated you can see the tendons in their faces and whose collarbones look like a knick-knack shelf. In adverts they project an image of vitality and energy, probably with the help of amphetamines (Hollywood has run on drugs since the early 1900s), but in their lives they doubtless sleep a whole lot, as starvation victims always do.

  20. kateelliotton 01 Sep 2006 at 8:50 pm

    But surely the common link to the binding of women, either through actual binding or through cultural pressure (and I thought immediately of Heian Japan and of footbinding in China), is class oriented, the creation of a class of women who not only don’t need to but can’t work or really perform much of any physical function except, well, be available for sex. In some cases they are allowed other skills, cooking, writing poetry, singing.

    Indeed, I think the current fashion for the emaciated media star is a related phenomenon. ‘Cuz I don’t think of thinness as a sign of vitality in any meaningful sense.

    I certainly agree (as I said above) that there is no universal standard for beauty. But I do think vitality is as close to one as we have. And for good reason.

  21. Katharine Kerron 01 Sep 2006 at 9:06 pm

    Definitely the various ways of making women passive and frail are class-related — but we are apes, and what the alpha apes do, the other apes want to do. There are plenty of historical records of lower-class Chinese girls whose mothers bound their feet in the hopes they would “marry up”. Many did, but not far enough up to have the raft of servants that a foot-bound woman requires to avoid a life of pain. Recently, just for an example, I ran across a story of a footbound woman who married a shopkeeper in San Francisco’s Chinatown early in this century. When the ’06 earthquake hit, her husband had to carry her away from their burning home, because there was no way she could have escaped at the hobbling rate of speed she was capable of. And yet she was only a petit bourgeois wife, not an upper-class one.

    That is what’s so dangerous about these Alpha Stereotypes, as we may call them. People in no position to maintain them ape them, and they suffer for it. Luxury is another quality that can represent beauty in a culture, just as vitality is one.

    I’m not really arguing with you, Kate, btw — just developing a line of thought in a slightly different direction..

  22. Theo Neelon 01 Sep 2006 at 9:28 pm

    Jellyn, point made.

    I was thinking movie Harry when I wrote it.

    I think there’s also an element of “beauty is as beauty does” that happens in a reader’s mind. Rowling can go out of her way to be balanced with physical beauty one both sides of the good and evil chasm (as you capably pointed out) — but in readers’ minds, the relative attractiveness of the character is still painted by their actions.

    I’m fascinating by the translation that happens in readers’ minds. As I mentioned above, as a new writer, it’s something that I’ve encountered unexpectedly. (Apparently, as with Harry, I do it, too.) It would be an interesting study (probably already been done) to look at the extent to which the actions of a character temper the physical image in a reader’s mind. I’ve seen first-hand how readers ignore — out and out ignore the words on the page and create their own mental images based on the actions of the character. More than one time.

    Probably something for all of us to be aware of as we write.

  23. Vivian Francison 02 Sep 2006 at 11:50 am

    The super-thin look that emerged in fashion in the 1990’s came out of a trend for hyper-realism, I believe. The thinness is supposed to bring our attention to the physicalness of the body in the sense that it is made out of bones and skin and other anatomy sorts of stuff.

    Probably, this type of awareness of the body is “successful” in fashion art because, in part, of both the aforementioned vitality and fragility. Attention to this kind of physicality serves, I think, as a reminder of life as a physical existence and the ease with which damage can occur. It is the push-pull between both life and mortality that helps the photographs succeed as art. There is also a push-pull between the depiction of hyper-realism and the “classic” supermodel beauty.

    The super-thin trend, I think, was the result of searching for a contrast to one of the basic elements of fashion art–idealized beauty. By no means am I saying that being naturally skinny isn’t attractive. All types of body are beautiful. It is unfortunate that the fashion world focuses almost exclusively on one trend, so those who don’t naturally fit it are unrepresented.

    Coming back to beautiful protagonists in books–one reason for giving a character extreme beauty would be to create an extreme contrast with some other element. I’d agree that gratuitous beauty doesn’t strengthen a story any.

  24. Danion 03 Sep 2006 at 1:29 pm

    Madeleine — would you mind sending me the name/author of the book that your wrote about originally? I’d be interested in reading it to see if I see the same things that you have.


  25. Mark Tiedemannon 03 Sep 2006 at 1:52 pm

    The consumptive Victorian female…I suspect that was an ideal, kind of an echo of the ultimate flower of the age of chivalry, which was a static icon. Men–and probably women, though not as often–“worshiped the form, but they never wanted to actually have sex with these examples, hence the ease with which such women could be toppled from the pedestal by the intrusion of the carnal (i.e. vitality) which is dynamic rather than static. I find something perversely ill about this idealization, which I suspect a lot of Victorian contemporaries did as well. It resulted in a break ultimately and spawned several movements in reaction. I agree it was an aberration, but a psychologically interesting one.

    I mean, the consumptive beauty is an image an idealized sort of man might worship and thereby experience a range of sympathetic (and pathetic) emotions without ever risking the consequences of actual involvement.

  26. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 3:49 pm

    Kit, I think the point you’re making about standards of what is beautiful differing, often markedly, across different cultures and different eras, dovetails in an interesting way with Mad’s original point.

    That is, one way to tell if writers aren’t really thinking outside the box of their own culture is if, in these skiffy-future and fantasy-past cultures, the standard of beauty they are waving around is simply the modern Hollywood standard.

  27. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 3:51 pm

    Mark, certainly it’s well attested that the underworld of prostitution, French post cards, and the keeping of mistresses was in full swing during the Victorian era.

  28. kateelliotton 03 Sep 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Vivian, I’ve never heard that explanation (hyper-realism) for the rise of the emaciated model before. It’s interesting. Do you have some more background on that?

  29. Katharine Kerron 03 Sep 2006 at 6:54 pm

    Well, these consumptive-type women often did marry, and many died in childbirth because they were too frail to carry a child at all. It was also a fashion among Victorican British husbands (I don’t know about Americans) to have their wives photographed while sleeping or at least, pretending to sleep — in other words, completely passive.

    It may be hard for us to imagine now, but these women were considered desirable.

    BTW, I highly recommend the Jean Strouse bio of Alice James. Well-written and informative.

  30. Vivian Francison 04 Sep 2006 at 12:55 am

    To be honest, reading the above comments about fragility/vitality gave me only a vague memory from college of hyper-realism and Kate Moss. I looked through ‘The Photography Book’ published by Phaidon in 2000 and found a picture of Kate Moss by Juergen Teller. Here is what the book says about it:

    “The idea underlying the new fashion photography of the 1990s is that we have to make do with a threatened physical existance, and that we are fragile. Teller’s models are thinly clothed or nude, and slender to the point at which we become conscious of skin, bone and sinew–basic ingredients.”

    This from the page on Mario Testino also relates:

    “[Mario Testino] represents an elegant tendency in fashion photography at odds with the newest brutalism of the mid-1990s: ‘This trend for hyper-realism and ugliness is exciting, but I don’t think it is doing what it is supposed to do.'”

    The other ideas are my own, and to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

    It is disturbing enough to think that a “standard” for beauty is created because it is “new”, but the possiblity that it is created in the search for stronger/better art is even worse, somehow.

  31. Vivian Francison 04 Sep 2006 at 2:05 am

    I hadn’t heard that about Victorian women posing for photographs as if asleep. I’m wondering if the limitations of early photography also played a role in this. Exposure times were so long that various contraptions were often used to keep people who were sitting or standing from moving about and ruining the picture. They also had to make an effort not to blink.

    One textbook I had even had a chapter titled something like ‘The Peaceful Dead and the Corpse-like Living’; the irony being that the dead looked more life-like than the living. (Photographs taken after death were common, esp. of children, and sometimes the body was posed as if asleep.)

    I wouldn’t be surprised if photographers from this period decided they could take more flattering pictures of their clients by having them lie down and close their eyes. Especially if, as others have ably discussed, there was already a trend for women to appear passive. No doubt Victorian men would have preferred to appear corpse-like.

  32. Vivian Francison 04 Sep 2006 at 2:29 am

    Theo, I find that once I’ve formed a picture of a character in my head, I don’t like to change it. This can be slightly annoying when a character who is blond keeps getting referred to as having black hair by the author.

  33. Katharine Kerron 04 Sep 2006 at 5:11 am

    Vivan, the sleeping wife fad continued long after faster films and plates were available. It’s really only the earliest daguerrotypes that required those enormously long exposures.

    one way to tell if writers aren’t really thinking outside the box of their own culture is if, in these skiffy-future and fantasy-past cultures, the standard of beauty they are waving around is simply the modern Hollywood standard.

    Kate, I think that’s a very important point. Perhaps the crux. If a novel set in the later Middle Ages, for instance, said something like, “she was extraordinarily beautiful, with her swan-like long neck rising from her plump body to an oval face, set off by her amazingly high forehead and plucked hairline. When she walked, her swayed back and slumped shoulders indicated perpetual pregnancy . . .” I wonder how many modern readers would go EEWWWW instead of realizing that this -was- the standard of beauty in 14th century Europe.

  34. Kathrynon 04 Sep 2006 at 1:16 pm

    I read an example where the author seemed to want the best of both worlds.

    The female protagonist was thin and blond (other attributes escape me), while aware that these two features were not considered beautiful by those around her. They were giving the reader a hero of beauty fitting their own expectations yet no need to deal with potential vanity or other issues of beauty. This was especially irritating as the theme was not explored or developed, coming across as trick to get out of not having a beautiful protagonist.

  35. kateelliotton 04 Sep 2006 at 6:51 pm

    those quotes from the photography book are quite interesting, and kind of creepy, when you really think about it.

    yeah, I think that’s a very good example –

    They were giving the reader a hero of beauty fitting their own expectations yet no need to deal with potential vanity or other issues of beauty.

    of the problem of a writers not being to step away from his/her own narrow concept of beauty.

  36. Vivian Francison 04 Sep 2006 at 7:37 pm

    Katharine, exposure times for various processes from 1841 to 1878 were generally between 10-90 seconds, although could be as low as 2-3 seconds. The first few years of daguerreotype photography did have extremely long exposures–10 to 20 minutes in bright sun–and was considered pretty much unusable for portraiture as a result. (Although many intrepid individuals tried it anyway).

    With exposure times below 1/60th of a second there is a fair risk of bluring from movement. I consider 1/30th an acceptable risk, if there isn’t another choice. The longer exposures of early photography processes meant that people had to hold unnaturally still–often with awkward results. To the best of my knowledge, head and torso braces continued to be used for decades, esp. for the processes requiring exposure times approaching a minute or more.

    Photographers were aware of the unnatural appearance that resulted, and some at least tried to find ways around this limitation. Photographs of woman posed in the appearance of sleep couldn’t take hold if society didn’t like them. However, I think the innovation of such pictures would most reasonably have began with the photographers–in an attempt for a more natural yet clear picture.

    Maybe there could be a “art-fiction” genre, where artists and their trends change society in unprepared for ways. The artist for ‘good’ and the artist for ‘bad’ could face-off with their watercolors and PCs. : ) Actually, this is reminding me of a book called, I think, ‘Wave without a Shore’ by C.J. Cherryh. It really is a face-off between artists, although there is a lot more to it than that.

  37. Vivian Francison 04 Sep 2006 at 8:00 pm

    Kate, I agree. So, when does ‘realism’ become ‘brutalism’? I would prefer a good range of physical appearances in a book, but I also like a certain amount of, I don’t know what, love? respect? for the characters and their appearances.

  38. Katharine Kerron 05 Sep 2006 at 5:26 am

    Vivian, that’s all very interesting neep. But it has nothing to do with the subject, really, since the fad for sleeping wife portraits came about because husbands wanted it, not because of technical reasons. There is plenty of original writing on the subject that makes it clear.

    You seem to be trying to explain the taste for passive woman away. I don’t understand why. Tastes differ from age to age.

  39. Madeleine Robinson 05 Sep 2006 at 2:15 pm

    Am I wrong, or wasn’t there also a vogue for dead-or-sleeping children at the same time?

  40. Katharine Kerron 05 Sep 2006 at 5:25 pm

    Madeleine, I believe so, yes.

    Of course, child mortality was so high in those days that the death pictures are perfectly understandable. Women also made commemorative needleworks and paper collages for their dead children, too.

  41. Vivian Francison 05 Sep 2006 at 11:15 pm

    Okay, let me be clear. I am in accordance with the following statements: standards of beauty change;
    the idealization of passivity in women fits my image of the Victorian era; once the fad for these photographs began, any number of husbands would have wanted their wives photographed in a sleeping pose since such pictures would have fit with their ideals.

    My line of thought was sparked by wondering whether or not the fad could have first begun with a photographer trying to create the best photographs possible given the limitations of long exposures and other difficulties. These limitations were severe enough that, in my opinion, they cannot be excluded from an analysis of poses from this period. Victorian photographers were aware of the visual deficiencies that resulted, and many of them tried to minimize the blur from movement and unnatural stiffness. One popular Victorian pose was to have two sitters pose as if playing chess, since it created a natural reason for the sitters to be in positions that could be held for an extended period. In my opinion, the naturalness of a reclined pose and the relative ease of keeping still would have made such a pose appealing to photographers on those grounds alone. Of course, it could never have become a fad no matter what the reason for the initial pictures had been, if such a pose didn’t resonate with a number of people.

    What I found interesting was that a fad, which reinforced a stereotype detrimental to women and society, could possibly have been started by an artist trying to create a better or stronger picture. In this case, I am unsure whether the photographer would have identified a passive image of women as detrimental. But, to come back to the general vicinity of Madeleine Robins’ post, I wonder what responsiblities an artist should consider reasonable? If an author knows that making all their ‘good’ characters beautiful and their ‘bad’ characters ugly will make their book stronger, does that excuse the stereotype he or she is reinforcing?

  42. Vivian Francison 06 Sep 2006 at 12:09 am

    The photos of young children taken after death are pretty difficult to look at, especially since they often do seem as if they are just sleeping. It is hard to believe they can never wake up.

  43. Madeleine Robinson 06 Sep 2006 at 1:38 am

    I don’t see how reinforcing a stereotype can make a book stronger, per se. It’s a kind of shorthand, a cultural agreement: “the guy with the cultured British accent must be the bad guy,” or “the traditionally prettiest girl is nasty; it’s the non-traditionally pretty girl who’s the heroine; or “the Italian is a thug.” Going with this sort of stereotype may make your work–and the reading–faster, because the writer doesn’t have to figure out another concise way to delineate the character. But that may not be the same as making it stronger.

    There are genres in which beauty or attractiveness may be important–in romance it’s usually important that the female be beautiful (the man doesn’t have to be, so long as he’s attractive). Of course it’s fun to subvert expectations by playing with these cultural agreements. Darth Vader opens his mouth (so to speak) and sounds like Gomer Pyle; the Italian thug has a mother complex and anxiety attacks; the devastatingly handsome Gilderoy Lockheart turns out to be shallow and cowardly, and so on. I think my original post was really about awareness of your own biases. I tend not to want to make my protagonists beautiful; I like interesting more. So sometimes I have to remind myself that (for whatever reason) the character I’m working on needs to be beautiful. I’m just saying, because human culture responds to beauty, that it shouldn’t be used lightly. Make a character beautiful, but know, for yourself, why you’ve done so.

  44. kateelliotton 06 Sep 2006 at 2:33 am

    Yeah. I think more than anything – not just with privileging the pretty, or reinforcing stereotypes of beauty – as writers we must always be aware so that we are questioning the choices we make (even if we then choose to stick with that choice) rather than just writing stuff down because it’s easy or facile or expected or because we’re just not thinking outside a shallow view of the world.

  45. Katharine Kerron 06 Sep 2006 at 3:19 am

    Vivian, that’s perfectly clear now. Thanks! Alas, I have no information on how the fad started, only that it was widespread and lasted after cameras had improved.

  46. Vivian Francison 06 Sep 2006 at 7:32 pm

    Ah, okay. Indeed, I cannot see how a dearth of imagination and an unwillingness to examine preferences would strengthen a story. And, when I am in a rush or on automatic these things could be overlooked. Hmm. This has given me a new idea. There is a line somewhere between biases and individual vision. Something to think about later.

    My previous line of thought was leading in a different direction; what if an artist/author had to choose between being socially responsible and creating a stronger work of art? Both the Victorian photographer and the contemporary fashion photographer found ways to make their pictures more closely depict their individual visions. Ways to make their work stronger. And considered without the context of society, there is nothing detrimental about a picture of a woman sleeping or a picture of someone very thin in an ad for clothing. They only become detrimental within the context of a society that idealizes passivity or exclusively depicts thin individuals.

    If it were me, I hope I would choose social integrity over artistic integrity. But I think it would be tough to give up the realization of my vision on paper. (This could make an interesting dilemma for a character)

  47. Mark Tiedemannon 06 Sep 2006 at 8:28 pm

    Beauty as vitality is a very real theme, but my point was simply that it’s not a universal. I don’t think there -is- a universal standard of beauty. Women are expected to fit the current style of beauty just as they are expected to wear the current styles of clothes


    Once beauty is objectified, you’re right. And it goes through phases. When you go back through Playboy )I know, it may not be the most P.C. source, but it is instructive on this point) and look at the body types that they put forward as “ideal”, it changed from the Fifties onward. (And contrary to a lot of popular opinion, they were never as homogeneous as some assert.) Attempting to objectively portray “what is attractive” is one of the most damnably difficullt things. In fact, it borders on impossible, because outside the narrow confines of particular line of art, what real people find attractive is not objectifiable.

    And by the way, men have suffered (not as much, perhaps) from having to fit certain expectations of popular appeal. In the post-enlightenment period, it was the men who were expected to have great calves. Beards, body hair, musculature–all these things have applied to male appeal through the ages as much as breast size, leg length, waistline, etc. have for women. We overlook them because of the range of choice accorded males in all other aspects of life.

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