Entertainment—meaning books and movies—has a problem.
Actually, it has a horde of problems worse than a pack of orcs, but the one I’m talking about is what I call the supermodel syndrome.
This is my complaint: where are all the ugly people?
Please don’t take that the wrong way. I don’t mean to be demeaning, insensitive, or cruel. By ugly, I mean people who, for whatever reason, haven’t been given the good looks genes. The type that will never win a beauty contest or get slapped on the front page of People Magazine or Sports Illustrated.
I was thinking about this the other week, and as I ran through a mental list of the books I’ve read and the movies I’ve watched, I noticed a pattern.
For the most part, the important characters have an appearance that falls anywhere on the scale from above average to flat out gorgeous.
Their defects are mostly of an emotional or mental nature.
Occasionally, you get a blind character like Daredevil, but rare is the person whom society would deem unattractive, unless they’re conscripted to the evil side—I’ll get to that in a minute.
This is true in books and movies, but I’m going to pick on movies since they’re more visual and deal with actual people.
Society Places a Huge Emphasis on Appearance
What we don’t realize is how damaging that can be. Or maybe we do realize it and are too dismissive to care.
There’s nothing wrong with characters who are “put together.” Goodness knows I love Thor, Peter Quill, and Black Widow as much as the next geek. It’s not intrinsically bad, and we don’t get to decide how good-looking—or not—we are.
Watching movies and TV shows, it’s clear Hollywood has erected a golden standard when it comes to main characters.
- The dude wouldn’t be complete without a sharp, charming look
- The chick needs that risqué flair
That’s fine, but since when have people fit so nicely into a contrived box? Last time I checked, the number of people with ordinary features is more than Marvel superheroes.
It’s unrealistic to assume that everyone on the team looks amazing, can be attractive in whatever they’re dressed in, and could run for beauty queen or king of the department.
It’s not true to real life.
What’s more, after an endless parade of “supermodel” characters, they stop becoming relatable and seem more like templates of cultural demands than actual people.
The Unintentional Message
Think for a second about the message we’re sending—intentional or not, it doesn’t matter.
With the focus on people who are the equivalent of eye-candy for most mortals, what does that do to the unattractive people in the world? How do you think that makes them feel, to see the good-looking characters saving the day, showing their smarts, snagging the hot romantic interest?
I suppose that in some cases it might be a circumstance of wish fulfillment, where they can live out their dreams of having the perfect hair or a dazzling smile through the characters. But my guess is that’s not often the case.
Ugly Equals Bad?
What’s worse, when you do happen to run across an “ugly” character, it’s usually in the form of the villain or one of their minions.
We want to portray the appeal of the good side and contrast it against the repulsive evil side. I get it. However, taking that view is too narrow and doesn’t accept the fact that someone’s looks reflect their actions.
It’s stupid and selfish to demand that the people we want to cheer for should also be people who are good for the eyes, and that anyone not up to visual par is shoved into the villain’s camp because, shudder, their physical features disturb us and we want a justification for disliking them.
Here, then, is the picture:
- If your appearance lives up to this cultural standard, you have a good chance of being the hero or an otherwise important person. Yay you.
- If you’re crippled, deformed, horribly scared, or otherwise unsightly, the best you can hope for is to wallow in the prison of the evil side or maybe, if you’re lucky, end up as a lowly servant in the castle where the hero lives.
Lauding good looks and debasing inferior looks is a practice rooted in naturalism. If it has a pleasing appearance and is able to function properly, it has inherent value. If not…
You get the idea.
This isn’t true across the board. Every rule has an exception. But it’s definitely the norm. And that’s a shame.
The Cure for Supermodel Syndrome
It’s simple. Start writing books and producing movies that involve people who make us uncomfortable. Who we wouldn’t go out of our way to befriend. Who refuse to fit into the cultural supermodel syndrome box.
Put them in the center of the stage and let their story unfold.
I want to write a story about a boy who’s crippled. A fantasy series I’m planning includes a girl who bears the scars from a fire when she was young.
The possibilities for poignant character arcs and profound stories are endless.
Would you like to see more unattractive characters in movies? Do you think the “supermodel” trend will change anytime soon? I would love to hear your thoughts.