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‘Yeah, it was alright,’ a friend sighed after reading the Booker-nominated Swimming Home, ‘but I don’t understand why main characters always have to be beautiful.’

Why are heroines almost always pretty? Lena Dunham’s nakedness in Girls drew both praise and criticism for depicting an ‘imperfect’ female body on mainstream television, challenging our preconceptions that the heroes and heroines of films, TVs, books and art must always be honed to perfection. The campaign for real beauty has made real strides in recent years, but I thought it would be interesting to investigate why it is that our attitudes to beauty, particularly female beauty, are so deep-seated. Using literature as a touchstone for the cultural imagination, we find that the bond between goodness – either moral goodness, or special skills – and aesthetic beauty is much older than we might believe.

It’s no accident that beautiful heroines in medieval literature were referred to as ‘fair’. Etymologically, the original meaning of ‘fair’ was ‘beautiful’, but as increasing numbers of beautiful female characters turned out to be exemplary moral figures, the second sense, meaning ‘just’ or ‘good’, emerged as well. Right back to Chaucer and the earliest literature written in English, we have linked beauty with goodness, and insisted that protagonists possess both. Petrarch referred to his beloved Laura as ‘Heaven’s fairest habitation’, thus creating another link between the good and the beautiful: a ‘fair’ woman was both divinely pretty and divinely good. But, of course, ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ characters could easily be physically beautiful as well as ‘good’ ones, and, by the Renaissance, an anxiety had developed in literature about how to tell the difference between them, if their exteriors were the same.

In Much Ado About Nothing, this anxiety is expressed in the form of oxymoron, as Claudio struggles to understand how the beautiful Hero could have committed adultery: But fare thee well, most foul, most fair! farewell, Thou pure impiety and impious purity! The contradictions in the word-pairs (‘foul’ and ‘fair’, ‘pure impiety’, and ‘impious purity’) support the feeling of injustice when a good-looking character performs a bad action. It doesn’t fit with his or her exterior, meaning that characters in Renaissance plays are often in disguise, or fear that others are too. Hamlet tells Ophelia to ‘paint an inch thick’, referring to the heavy makeup that women wore at the time, completely concealing what lay beneath.

By the mid-19th century, the idea that a person’s appearance provided clues to their true character gained some scientific backing with the theory of phrenology, which claimed that the size and shape of the head revealed personality traits. In Jane Eyre, Jane describes Mr. Rochester’s head as having a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen. In other words, he has a round, swelling forehead, but a slightly flat bit near the hairline – suggesting that he is clever, but not as generous as he ought to be. Sounds wacky, but we still say things like ‘he had a friendly face’, showing that we still believe appearance, particularly facial appearance, holds some keys to a person’s character. Of course, TV and film should work harder to portray a range of realistic characters on our screens, and particularly in the lead roles – but perhaps the pattern of pretty protagonists isn’t just a product of a 21st-century obsession with looks. The connection between physical beauty and moral goodness has been literally written into our characters for over seven hundred years – and so, today, it’s hard to shake the attitude that what we see is what we get.

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