Once upon a time there lived a beautiful young girl, who lived in a castle surrounded by all these mean people who had warts on their noses and a limp. Then one day she ventured into the forest and found herself a handsome prince who took her away so she’d never have to look at the ugly people ever again. Then they lived, in their deluded world of pretty, happily ever after.
During one of his quick rants featured on his Youtube channel, comic book legend Stan Lee asked “Why is it that in every movie the hero is good looking? If you’re not good looking can’t you be a hero?”
While some might start complaining that it’s rich, for the man behind all these characters played by highly attractive actors, to make this kind of criticism, the truth is that we’re barely starting to see average looking protagonists who are able to defeat the villain without going through a makeover or constantly being told they’re plain or ugly.
If you think about it, you’ll see that even the heroes being sold to us as the most average looking people are actually really attractive. They throw on some thick-rimmed glasses, braces, and a pocket protector, so that we’ll buy that they’re just like us. Yet once they acquire their powers or come into their own, they turn into these icy cool beings that would never be caught looking basic.
They strut around, never slouching, and continue to be the sharpest wit in the room. They’re so perfect you wonder why they ever had any issue in life. Why didn’t they consider getting contacts, if that’s all it took for them to be loved and praised?
When we think about the audience hero movies are geared towards, mostly teens and children, it’s troublesome to see this idea constantly repeating itself, because what seems to be the underlying message. If you’re physically gifted, you’ll be happy. If you don’t get your act together, you’ll end up trying to destroy the world.
So, how does this paradigm mold our perception of good and evil since childhood? If you consider that pretty equals good and ugly means evil, whatever the future holds will only be positive if you have perfect skin, a flawless body, and straight teeth. This also means that all the body image talk we give kids, about how what matters is on the inside, is just a façade. How can it be true when Captain America or Superman look like quarterbacks who work as Vogue models too? No matter how much we try to make kids believe in themselves, they’ll still hold the idea that none of that will matter unless they’re perfect on the outside.
Lee’s commentary then goes on to tackle another issue with contemporary media, “And why doesn’t the hero ever fall in love with a plain looking female? Think what that would do to the morale of girls who don’t look like Playboy Bunnies.”
Even the dorkiest of heroes secretly pines for the girl who looks like she should be on the cover of every magazine instead of bussing plates at the local diner. Wouldn’t it be more believable if the girl working her way through med school actually looked like the millions of young women out there? If storytellers, be it writers or filmmakers, truly wanted to reach out to real people, why don’t they help us fall in love with the love interest because of her wit or brains, like they hint our hero does?
Another issue with the girl of the protagonist's dreams is how she inevitably falls for him once he’s passed all the trials and obstacles. Is it possible that she’s seen as a prize? It’s not about the hero evolving as a human, but instead he’s simply doing all this to get her attention or be worthy of that big kiss before the credits roll out?
And what happens to young girls who watch these films and see that regardless of how amazing they might be, they still have to stick to their role of the damsel in distress? Is it possible that this message is given from the start when we see a fully developed twenty-one-year-old playing fifteen with none of the perils of puberty? This is a complicated situation where esthetics trump the story and its social message. It looks prettier, sounds like a nicer story, and even has a magical imaginary scenario. But is it worth it?
If we start placing beauty before substance, both in storytelling as well as popular culture, the message will be quite clear: we’re hypocrites, because we tell you to focus on who you are but really wish you were more attractive. Then, we cannot blame young generations for worrying about their weight and appearance from ages as young as ten. We can’t pretend to be shocked when teen girls are asking their parents for cosmetic surgery when we’re constantly presenting them with an ideal to follow.
Can beauty be translated into kindness? Does the shininess of your hair mean you put others before you? Do cheekbones carry a heroic IQ? How can we change these perceptions to ensure that audiences will get the right message? Perhaps if we started focusing on stories that demonstrate how everyday civilians can do great things, we’d start opening the conversation for character journeys that could inspire, instead of being part of the myriad of messages telling audiences they’re not good enough.
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