Let’s hear it for the heroes! Tall, dark and handsome?
Hero = handsome; heroine = beautiful?
Bestselling author Susanna Kearsley published a blog last week that asks a thought-provoking question about romantic heroines: — why is it that “some readers, when faced with a blank face, are programmed to fill in the features as ‘beautiful’?”
A disturbing question, too, perhaps.
OK, maybe sometimes tall, fair and handsome.
But what about short heroes? Or plain ones?
Even ugly? Or fat, or bald, or seedy?
How far did I have to go in that list of physical descriptions before you were turned off?
Or maybe you weren’t?
Note that I’m not talking about anything other than physical appearance here. Heroes are fascinating to readers for lots of reasons apart from looks, as the results of our hero poll showed very clearly in 2016. We considered some of the other hero tropes too, back then.
With that question in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me for including this picture of Alan Rickman and Richard Armitage having a black leather moment. Blogs need pictures and this is purely for decorative purposes, you understand… 😉
Napoleon — not tall, dark and handsome, but still a hero?
He doesn’t make my case, of course. He had an awful lot more going for him than looks. Power, for starters. And when we think about Napoleon, our mental view of him is clouded by history and his aura of “gloire”.
No, if we’re trying to create a romantic hero, he can’t be a real figure from history. They have too much baggage. The best romantic heroes have no reality other than the one we readers take from the story and our own imaginations.
So… fictional, yet tall, dark and handsome? But is male (or female) beauty our default? Why?
Have we been brainwashed, at a very early age, by Middle European fairytales? The heroine (always beautiful) is rescued by the hero (always handsome) and the pair live happily ever after. Out of the Black Forest came, not a gateau, but a stereotype?
Think of Sleeping Beauty, for one. Or Snow white. Or what about Cinderella, a filthy and ragged kitchen drudge who was magically transformed into a beautiful princess for the ball. And Lo! the handsome prince took one look and fell in love. Not with her wit or her intelligence or her charitable disposition — she hadn’t said a word — but with her beauty.
Is there a lesson for us there?
(And think of all those glittery fairy princess dresses sold as Halloween costumes for little girls. A lesson AND a profit opportunity.)
Disney (and Hollywood more generally) has much to answer for in the fairytale stakes.
But not all cartoons go for the heroine=beautiful, hero=handsome approach. Dreamworks produced the wonderful Shrek where the hero is an ogre. Not tall, dark and handsome. Not handsome at all. What’s more, he’s green. He also has a paunch and peculiar ears.
And he is BALD. Yes, a bald hero at last!
His true love, Princess Fiona, starts off beautiful and is transformed into the ogress she is underneath. Not beautiful. Yet she is comfortable being her ogress self. Given a chance to revert to her beautiful form, she prefers being an ogress. With Shrek. [Happy sigh.]
Shrek is a rare example of the leavening I think we need. But there are an awful lot of examples on the other side, with stereotypically drop-dead-gorgeous heroes plus stunning heroines who live (of course!) happily ever after.
Do we default to something familiar? Something more like us?
Not many of us are green ogres. White Brits like me may be unlikely to visualise their ideal hero as a man from the other side of the world who doesn’t speak English. We have unconscious biases, even without the conditioning from those blasted fairytales.
When a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, was cast as Hermione in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the London stage, it provoked a backlash on social media. JK Rowling called it racist. She stressed that Hermione’s skin colour had never been made explicit in the Harry Potter books. It seems that many readers just assumed Hermione was white without ever considering the issue at all. Maybe, like Shrek, she was actually green?
Heyer reveals the truth (or what we’ve been taught is the truth)
I was reminded — thank you, Sophie — that Georgette Heyer had summed up our cultural bias towards physical beauty in her usual masterly way. In The Convenient Marriage, Society assumes Lord Rule has made an offer for the beautiful Lizzie Winwood, but he has actually agreed to marry Lizzie’s seventeen-year-old sister, Horatia, instead. Horatia is not a Beauty: she does have The Nose, but also unfortunate eyebrows, and she has given up hope of growing any taller. Moreover, she has a stammer.
Rule’s sister, Lady Louisa, cannot believe the news:
“This nonsense about Horatia? What is the truth of it?”
“Only that Horatia offered herself to me in her sister’s place. And that — but I need not tell you — is quite for your ears alone.”
Lady Louisa was not in the habit of giving way to amazement, and she did not now indulge in fruitless ejaculation. “Marcus, is the girl a minx?” she asked.
“No,” he answered. “She is not, Louisa. I am not at all sure that she is not a heroine.”
“Don’t she wish to marry you?”
The Earl’s eyes gleamed. “Well, I am rather old, you know, though no one would think it to look at me. But she assures me she would quite like to marry me. If my memory serves me, she prophesied that we should deal famously together.”
Lady Louisa, watching him, said sharply, “Rule, is this a love-match?”
His brows rose; he looked faintly amused. “My dear Louisa! At my age?”
“Then marry the Beauty,” she said. “That one would understand better.”
Marrying a Beauty, without love, would be understood by everyone. Beauty Explains Everything.
Thank you, Ms Heyer. I rest my case.