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22nd of July 2018


When Beauty Collides with Power - The Good Men Project

Throughout literary history, a common theme of many a tale revolves around heroes. Epic poems, fairy tales, short stories, and novels of every genre have had a central savior whose behavior is often excused because of gender. The hero is most often a male, and he can be insentient, calculating, or emotionless without fault because he is a man.

This is the case in every nook and cranny of our tell-tale society, from the bedtime stories we read to our impressionable children to the required reading we give our high school students. Our most famous princesses—up until very recently—have all been damsels in distress who are saved by a gallant man. The female characters are created to have what society dictates is important in a woman: beauty, daintiness, and a fighting chance to be “the fairest of them all.” What are we still glorifying for high school students? Plays like “The Taming of the Shrew,” where a man has trained a woman to act the way he sees fit. He is cold and callous in his demeanor, but he is often celebrated.

And this would not be so bad if heroines were allowed to act the same without being faulted. Even when the central character is a woman, the way she is allowed to save the world is completely different. She must save it with kindness. There must be love. She cannot be cold or emotionless. She cannot treat people apathetically, and a caustic personality would just label her as problematic, even if she is the only protagonist. Her virtue is called into question. It becomes controversial, whether she is good or bad.

Which brings us to our central point: the anti-hero versus the anti-heroine. It is much easier to make an audience fall in love with the anti-hero. He can have a bad side and still be a beloved character in the story. Yes, the things that make an anti-hero an easy character to get behind are arbitrary and superficial, such as money and a pleasing aesthetic, but this is again not extended to both men and women.

Being beautiful or rich does not make a female character likable. In fact, having authority is likely to work against her, rather than in her favor. A woman who uses her power or beauty to succeed is not going to be considered a heroin if her personality isn’t what it is expected to be. That is, if she isn’t altruistic or emotional at any point in the story, she is a controversial character at best.

One can even take it a step further and consider “bad” personality traits that all women are said to have, such as jealousy. Women are universally linked to behavior that is triggered by envy, and when this happens in a story, the audience’s impression of her almost immediately becomes negative. She turns into the famous trope of the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” However, when a man shows deplorable behavior because he was simply so in love that he couldn’t stop himself, it’s often excused because there are other redeeming qualities about him.

Our society’s views on men and women may have begun to change, but this difference has not yet made substantial strides in literature. The heroine is allowed to be powerful and strong, but not without some level of decency or grace. She must be polite. She must be politically correct. She must be sympathetic and benevolent. Without these basic traits, she is too problematic to be a likable protagonist. Perhaps the answer isn’t to do away with these ideals, but rather to hold male characters to the same standards and expectations.

This becomes infinitely more complicated because of the growing support for the LGBTQ community. We have begun to distance ourselves from the idea that there are only two genders, so what does this mean for protagonists and antagonists in the literary world? We haven’t yet made the necessary steps to wholly include the LGBTQ community in our story arcs and themes in order to have an answer. Perhaps this is the tree from which the change we want will blossom, but much like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

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