A thoughtful essay titled “A First-Rate Girl” by Adelle Waldman gave me pause this morning. She writes about our perception of female beauty in every day life compared to how novelists portray female beauty (in short: they don’t get it):
I have a friend who dates only exceptionally attractive women. These women aren’t trophy-wife types—they are comparable to him in age, education level, and professional status. They are just really, notably good looking, standouts even in the kind of urban milieu where regular workouts and healthy eating are commonplace and an abundance of disposable income to spend on facials, waxing, straightening, and coloring keeps the average level of female attractiveness unusually high.
My friend is sensitive and intelligent and, in almost every particular, unlike the stereotypical sexist, T & A-obsessed meathead. For years, I assumed that it was just his good fortune that the women he felt an emotional connection with all happened to be so damn hot. Over time, however, I came to realize that my friend, nice as he is, prizes extreme beauty above all the other desiderata that one might seek in a partner.
I have another friend who broke up with a woman because her body, though fit, was the wrong type for him. While he liked her personality, he felt that he’d never be sufficiently attracted to her, and that it was better to end things sooner rather than later.
Some people would say these men are fatally shallow. Others would say they are realistic about their own needs, and that there is no use beating oneself up about one’s preferences: some things cannot be changed. Those in the first camp would probably say that my friends are outliers—uniquely immature men to be avoided. Many in the second camp argue that, in fact, all men would be like the man who dates only beautiful women, if only they enjoyed his ability to snare such knockouts. In my experience, people on both sides are emphatic, and treat their position as if it is obvious and incontrovertible.
To me, these stories highlight the intense and often guilty relationship that many men have with female beauty, a subject with profound repercussions for both men and women.
You’d think it would also be a rich subject for fiction writers—after all, our attitudes about beauty and attraction are tightly bound up with the question of romantic love. But, in fact, many novels fail to meaningfully address the issue of beauty. In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.
This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there.
When a novelist does examine beauty more closely, the results are often startling. Two of my favorite male novelists do not fall into the trap that Shriver delineated. They are clear-sighted and acute chroniclers of the male gaze.
Read the rest here. I haven’t read the books mentioned in the piece, but this line made me laugh: “So begins one of contemporary literature’s worst relationships.”