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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


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?" Of course there can be negative feedback against this narrative strategy, as when film-audiences begin to find this or that actor too pretty or too shallow, or when a comic-book series like LOVE AND ROCKETS places an intentional thematic emphasis upon the depiction of characters who do not meet the consensual standard for attractiveness. However, neither of these forms of negative feedback take away the basic applicability of the narrative strategy of standardization, which is loosely coterminous with what people mean when they speak of sexual objectification.

The matter becomes more complex when dealing with genres that mingle the conflicts of sex with those of violence. Most of the genres that would fall under the rubic "action-adventure" follow the same basic pattern as the romance-genre. Male heroes are usually as buff and squarely handsome as their parallels in romance-novels, although in the more outre superhero books, the musculature of some characters can become exaggerated past the hypothetical standard for attractiveness, when the desire for sheer physical power to win battles takes the place of romantic conquest.

Female heroes, however, have to make more of a transformation. In the non-fantasy worlds of action-adventure, it's difficult to imagine an action-heroine who could conform to the willowy female aesthetic that appears on romance book-covers. It's somewhat more possible in a more overtly fantastic world, where a superheroine with a willowy look could possess extraordinary abilities despite her looking no more powerful than a throw-rug. However, it's more characteristic for female heroines, even those who do not specialize in combat, to meet a median standard for buffed fitness and facial attractiveness. And just as male musculature can be exaggerated to a level of grotesquerie, the same is true for the fatty secondary sexual characteristics of female characters, usually with hilarious results. Still, despite such overindulgences, the majority of heroes and heroines in the action-adventure genres tend more toward the "Golden Mean" of attractiveness as opposed to the extremes. And this level of objectivization, like the type practiced in the romance-genre, exists to facillitate reader-participation of a certain level.

The most hackneyed critique of such objectivization is that it supposedly dilutes the ability of audiences to perceive the real world in all of its homely, messy normality. Of course, it would seem to be highly debateable as to whether "normality" is a virtue when it is the aim of a given work to depict a fantastic world where it is quite reasonable, on the fantasy's own terms, for all princes to be handsome and all princesses beautiful (and sometimes busty, in the case of warrior-princesses like Xena). If one granted that exception, then maybe the "dilution" argument would work better with respect only to works taking place in a more "realistic" cosmos. However, I don't even think the objectification charge sticks in such less fantastic realms. I see the tendency to standardize attractivness that one that is rooted in an inescapeable narrative requirements: in the need to convince a wide cross-section of audience-members as to the characters' desireability. This requirement can be satirized or circumvented in certain works that have different objectives, but for the works that desire a basic level of reader-participation, it would seem to be instrumental.

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