In one of my earliest blog-essays here I wrote:
For most genre-fiction-- particularly those media which, unlike prose, hinge on depicting the appearance of the characters-- the standardization of sexual attractiveness is a useful narrative tool. In romances, for instance, it's almost de rigeur to depict both hero and heroine as meeting a bland standard for attractiveness. This is not because the narrative is trying to convince anyone that homely people don't mate in real life, but because it's advantageous to the narrative's smooth progression to depict only good-looking people becoming romantically entwined. As long as the hero and heroine meet a basic standard of attractiveness, an audience-member is less likely to be thrown out of his/her participation in the story to think, "How can Character A possibly be attracted to Character B?"
Though my essay touches on some of the disadvantages of this standardization, other critiques by such low-wattage luminaries as Julian Darius and Kelly Thompson show little or no awareness of how this standardization-- or objectification, as some prefer to call it without exception-- serves a consistent narrative purpose. This purpose remains constant regardless of the intensity utilized in a given work, be it one of GLAMOR, TITILLATION or PORNIFICATION.
By way of demonstrating this consistency, I cite an excerpt from this post by fan-blogger Barry Pearl. In this essay Pearl quotes from an interview with Silver Age IRON MAN artist Don Heck:
“I used to think of Pepper Potts as Schluzie from Bob Cummings’ “Love That Bob” (TV Show). She was always interested in the boss and never could go out with him, and she’s thinking of all these dumb broads Stark is going out with. Happy Hogan was just a pug type, like Joe Palooka.” “Stan called and said he wanted Pepper to be prettier,”Heck laments. “That wasn’t my idea. As far as I was concerned, that killed it. If she’s homely and she winds up going out, then it’s a big deal. If she’s prettier, who cares? “Then, Stan said, ‘Make Happy handsomer.’ I liked him with his banged-up ears and crooked nose. He was fun to do at that point. When suddenly everybody had to be pretty, then I didn’t like him.”
Here we have what many fan-writers would automatically assume to be an appeal to the male reader's groinal region. Don Heck wanted to depict support-character Pepper Potts as a slightly homely young girl, modeled on, but not quite as homely as, the actress who played the part of "Schultzie" on TV's "Love That Bob." Under editor Stan Lee's direction, Pepper soon became as "model-gorgeous" as any of the jet-setting babes with whom Tony Stark cavorted. I believe that writer Archie Goodwin finally tossed in a note about how Pepper had transformed herself, but clearly Heck was justified in feeling that his conception had been put aside.
However, note that Lee also wanted Heck to make the pug-ugly character of Happy Hogan handsomer. Why would an editor require that if he's just trying to appeal to horny young boys?
The truth may lie in the fact that Lee was less concerned with giving Heck the latitude for more naturalistic-looking characters-- with which I do think Heck did a fine job-- and more concerned with developing the characters in the soap-operatic style that he Lee had started developing for the Marvel superhero titles.
Soap opera, of course, is all about romantic torment. Rarely on real soap operas does one see a homely girl catch a handsome guy, or a homely guy nab a real looker. Why? Because, even though such things do happen in real life, they seem unlikely to the audience, which expects that "beautiful people always win," particularly with respect to the prize of "other beautiful people." It's a pecking-order that most if not all human cultures internalize, and even when one sees exceptions, many rationalize the deviation by saying something like, "X married Y for Y's money."
Stan Lee's scripts for IRON MAN show Tony Stark going out with various models and rich bitches, but as far as romance goes, only Pepper Potts resonates as a real romantic interest. I surmise, though, that Lee thought his readers would find it incredible had the playboy started dating his homely secretary. Hence "homely" must change to "hottie."
At the same time, Lee surely wanted to promote the "triangle" aspect of the Tony-Pepper-Happy relationship. In the original Heck version, most readers could imagine Happy and Pepper together, but not Pepper with Tony, nor Happy providing any competition for Tony if the playboy decided to date his homely secretary. Therefore I surmise that Happy gets a makeover so that he will appear as a credible romantic rival.
Such were the demands of beauty in the innocent Silver Age. In Part 2, I'll examine some modern permutations.