Madeleine Robins 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.