On our expectations of actors' looks--without talking about 'Girls'

Jaime J. Weinman blames fairy tales for the sexist double standard in TV and film

I was going to write something about the controversy over the Girls episode “One Man’s Trash,” and specifically the arguments over whether Lena Dunham and Patrick Wilson were a plausible couple. I decided what I wrote didn’t really work, and besides which a) There’s probably enough Girls discussion already, and b) The discussion of these issues tend to turn a writer into Rex Reed or, even worse, John Simon. (If you think people are unpleasant about Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham, just read that collection of Simon’s horrifically nasty comments about Liza Minnelli – we have a long way to go before we can match that guy for sheer hate.) So I’ll let that episode go for now.

But the discussion did illuminate something for me about our expectations when it comes to a character’s looks. We all know about the famous sexist double standard for looks in film and television. An ordinary-looking or overweight man is more likely to be paired with a beautiful woman, while the opposite pairing almost never happens. Even a woman with looks that are just unconventional – like Liza Minnelli, see above – will sustain the types of attacks that a Dustin Hoffman, say, doesn’t usually get once he becomes a star. But even though we’re more used to that kind of pairing, it still jars us more in fiction than it would in real life. Jason Alexander is married to a tall, good-looking woman, but it looked silly to us that George Costanza was going out with tall, good-looking women. Woody Allen’s ability to get women on the screen is more puzzling to us than his ability to get those same women in real life. And so on.

The main reason for this is that in real life there are many different reasons why people would get together, beyond looks – which, after all, are subjective. But the actors are often playing characters who don’t have any of the redeeming qualities they have in real life. Woody Allen in real life is smart, talented and successful. But the people he plays in films are usually not very smart, talented or successful. (He was most plausible as a romantic lead in Annie Hall, one of the few movies where he really played someone on more or less his own level.) You can believe that the real Larry David could attract someone for reasons other than his money, while it’s hard to believe that of the fictional Larry David, since his bad qualities are so exaggerated.

It’s also very hard to establish any other reason beyond looks why characters are attracted to each other. It can be done, it’s just very hard, and maybe impossible to judge until you see the actors on film together. Writers try to do this all the time; any time there’s a couple, they try to establish some reasons why they’re in love, so it’s not just a superficial physical attraction. And a lot of the time, the reasons are unconvincing: they’re compatible because they engage in “witty” banter that isn’t witty at all, or they both like some poet the scriptwriter vaguely remembers hearing of.

In the end, a lot of movies, TV shows and even stories about romance are basically about physical attraction whether they intend to be or not. Maybe it goes back to fairy tales. In a fairy tale, the Prince and Princess get together in the end because he’s handsome and she is beautiful – there is no other reason given why they belong together, and we wouldn’t believe it if there was any other reason given. Most romantic movies and TV shows are sort of fairy tales, and they have the same thing going: when a man and a woman hook up, it’s because they’re the most beautiful and magnetic people in a world of beautiful people. In real life, when someone who is not conventionally beautiful is attractive, we accept this as a matter of course; different people are attractive for different reasons. But in TV and film, our expectations are founded on that early fairy-tale experience and the experience of watching all those movies that are disguised fairy-tales. It almost seems to require a special explanation, even if it shouldn’t.

Not that conventional looks are the only thing that can make a pairing convincing. If the actors can create a real chemistry between them – whatever “chemistry” means – then even a Ralph and Alice Kramden type of pairing can make a certain amount of sense. If Melissa McCarthy ever gets to play a big-screen romantic lead, I doubt it would matter who she was paired with, as long as she played someone less abrasive than her usual film characters: she’s so naturally charming that I doubt the question of her viability as a romantic lead would come up in the public’s mind (studio executives, on the other hand, would probably consider this ridiculous, and then go right back to pairing Seth Rogen and Kevin James with sexy young women).

And sometimes it’s not even about looks so much as personality. David Spade is not a terrible-looking guy; despite his height, he wasn’t even the least plausible girl magnet on Just Shoot Me – that would be Enrico Colantoni, a wonderful actor but not quite physically right for the part of a Casanova. But because Spade projects such horrific smarminess, it never made any sense that he got as many women as he did on his shows. The fact that Finch on Just Shoot Me kept getting women who had no good reason to be attracted to him became a running joke with the writers as the show got more and more Finch-centric (and worse), to the point that they eventually broke the fourth wall and made fun of it at the end of this episode. It wasn’t really about looks there; it was really about the simple fact that so many TV characters get endless dates even though they’re horrible people. That’s arguably worse than the old fairy-tale tradition of having them get dates because they’re pretty and perfect.

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