In the Romance discussion Sherwood Smith writes:

I absolutely loathe romances in which all one or the other brings to the relationship is beauty, and the reader is clearly expected to think that sufficient unto itself. Feh.

Oh, yes! Oh, yes, indeed!

I also hate the assumption that beauty=goodness, that beauty is something that everyone agrees about, and that beauty is something everyone aspires to.

Don’t get me wrong, finding someone aesthetically pleasing is kind of important if a romance is to happen. But I have never gone out with anyone (for more than a sec) who didn’t have something else going on as well. And, frankly, smarts and humour are vastly more important to me than anything else.

For a romance to work you have to engage with both of the lovers. If one of them only has beauty then that’s the end of my interest because the only people I’ve ever met who went out with people solely because of their hotness have been shallow and gross and not folks I want to spend any time with. Certainly not a whole novel’s worth of time. Erk.

I’m also irritated by books where everyone agrees that the hero or heroine or both is hot. I’ve never known anyone who was a universally acclaimed beauty. There’s always someone who looks at the so-called beauty and shrugs. For example, I don’t get the appeal of Gwyneth Paltrow, Paris Hilton, Matt Damon, or Leonardo diCaprio. They all look plain and boring to me. I also find it hard to see beauty in stick-thin men or women. I look at them and think, “Oh, honey. I know where we can get you some really good pasta followed by olive oil ice cream.”

So when in a book everyone is falling over themselves about the beauty of one character I don’t believe it. I’ve never seen that kind of over the top response to a person’s looks.1 Not unless they’ve swallowed a love potion of something. I know it’s a cliche but beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

One of the many things I adore about Pride and Prejudice is that not everyone agrees that Elizabeth is beautiful or Darcy handsome. They don’t even think it of each other on first meeting. Their attraction slowly grows. And millions of readers over the last almost two hundred years have totally bought it.

  1. The only times I’ve seen everyone stop and stare is when a person is Bill Clinton or Halle Berry. Fame is the real head turner. []


  1. Justine on #

    tis now edited for clarity.

  2. sherwood on #

    i have actually met a couple of people who had nearly universal beauty, which I came to consider one of those things like a song with nearly universal appeal (“chariots of fire”, which made an otherwise forgettable movie) and it obviously had its dangers as well as its pluses, but I deal with that elsewhere.

    I share your turnoff in everyone’s reactions being the same. but what really chaps my chitlins is when attraction is equated with love. As well as when it is implied there is one kind of love. Or the assumption that mutual attraction is the same degree of intensity. Reading and writing romance seems most fun when one explores around the overlaps and gaps between differing degrees of attraction and how those can evolve–or not evolve. And, as you say, writers who handle it with wit and insight (instead of the tired old superlatives) go on my favorites shelf.

  3. Ben Payne on #

    Well said. I agree completely…

  4. janet on #

    The flip side to the universally-acknowledged (sorry) beauty is the historical romance in which other characters think the heroine is “skinny” and “boyish” but we the readers are supposed to understand that this means that the heroine is slender and beautiful by today’s standards. Nudge nudge wink wink. Drives me nuts.

  5. Ariel Cooke on #

    So true…the only exception to this rule being Margaret Mahey’s Catalogue of the Universe in which the heroine is universally considered beautiful but she is redeemed by her own irreverent, detached attitude about other people’s reactions to her. It is almost as if her beauty is an exotic dog which the owner knows will elicit comments and doesn’t want to be rude about.

  6. Margaret C. on #

    This makes me think of that annoying song where some man wails “You’re beautiful” over and over again. What about romances like Katie Fforde’s where the heroines are older, slightly overweight women with flyaway hair? And the male romeos are always gorgeous, with hard bodies, who act churlish until all of a sudden they admit that it’s all been a silly mistake/ruse and they secretly have the hots for older, slightly overweight women with flyaway hair.

  7. liliya on #

    AS byatt’s ‘Possession’ has two wonderful, passionate, cerebral main romances plus a number of quirky smaller ones, and many many discussions along the way on what is love, what is possession, what desire, what beauty. One character, Maud, has the mixed blessing of being beautiful; here she is looking in the mirror and brushing her yellow hair:

    ‘a beautiful woman, simone weil said, seeing herself in the mirror, knows ‘this is i.’ an ugly woman knows, with equal certainty, ‘this is not i.’ Maud knew this neat division represented an over-simplification. the doll mask she saw had nothing to do with her, nothing. the feminists had divined that who once, when she rose to speak at a meeting, had hissed and cat-called, assuming her crowning glory to be the seductive and marketable product of an inhumanely tested product.’

    you should add ‘possession’ to your romance reading list. wonderful book (and nothing whatever to do with the film, which was a total, dreadful travesty and had gwyneth paltrow in it).

  8. Chris S. on #

    Of course, when seeing someone makes you happy, that someone tends to become beautiful in your eyes. So, “You’re so beautiful,” can sometimes mean, “You make me so happy”, and isn’t that a nice thought?

  9. Justine on #

    Sherwood: Agreed. Though “Chariots of Fire” as universally loved music? I don’t think so. I am not a fan.

    Janet: I can’t stand that one either. Blerk.

    Margaret C: Don’t know those books but they seem to fit solidly in the wish fulfillment category.

    Liliya: Yes, Gwyneth Paltrow—always the mark of quality. Not!

    I very much enjoyed Possession (though I confess I skipped a lot of the poetry—I’m bad!). Definitely my favourite of Byatt’s books.

    Chris S.: Zackly. Fer instance, I reckon my Scott is dead beautiful! 🙂

  10. sherwood on #

    Justine: one can find exceptions to everyone, but after that thing came out, for a while I heard that song everywhere, and across the spectrum of ages, ethnicities, genders, what-have-you. Could be it was only popular in Socal, but it seemed to hit the bigtime grid.

    And a year later some comic said something like, “Have you ever tried to watch chariots of fire with the sound turned off? Whoa. Snore.” and the audience hit the roof with laughter.

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