October 2, 2012

Physiognomy As Character

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I was thinking this morning about physiognomy as character.  AKA beautiful people are good, ugly people are bad.  Young women are good, old women are evil.  Even more subtle, typecasting such as a man who is beefy with reddish hair and freckles is a bully.  Gap-toothed women are licentious.  Smaller traits that have been thought of as equating with the way a person is.

I was thinking about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter, how the authors play off types.  With names like Draco Malfoy and Cersei Lannister, how can these characters be anything but bad, you know?  They’re both blonde and slim and tall and evil.  But the authors give them more humanity than that.  They explain the characters’ motives, so that you understand them and identify with them.  It’s like George R. R. Martin says, “The struggle of good vs. evil takes place within each character, not between characters.”  (I'm paraphrasing poorly.) In aggregate, these characters tip toward the evil side of the scale.

But we do this every day, don’t we?  We judge people by their looks.  It’s stereotyping, but it is human nature to stereotype.  Back when you could die at any instant, you had to quickly assess the situation and decide what to do.  You had to profile, big time.  Your life depended on it.  To this day, we depend on judging things quickly and altering our actions accordingly.

But we also have to fight against stereotyping and profiling, don’t we?  People ~ the world in general ~ is much more complex than we are comfortable with.  We like things to be black and white, when really they are all shades of gray. 

As an idealistic child, I was way into quotes, and we had a dictionary that had a huge section of quotes, which I poured over.  One from Oscar Wilde said this:  “It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.” Gosh, I remember thinking on this for days.  It didn’t seem FAIR, you know?  It really bothered me.  I wanted so to believe that your worth equated to what you did, to being good, and I so wanted to be good.  Why would the world be a place where looks matter more than character?  But, as we all know, looks matter a  whole lot.  That’s cause we judge.

It’s a whole other discussion to talk about whether physiognomy equals destiny.  If we look a certain way, are we subtlely and not so subtlely urged to be that thing?  If we look sweet and innocent (as I did), are you urged and expected to be sweet and innocent?  If you look pugnacious, are you urged to be pugnacious?  And names.  Is someone named Wiener bound to be a philanderer?   Is Art bound to be an artist? 

Chicken and the egg questions to be sure. I used to think we were much more molded by our surroundings until I had kids.  My two were who they are from the moment they were born.  In the womb, actually.  So I trend a little more toward nature than nurture nowadays.

So it was interesting to come across this article about a new breed of hunters, especially since I was pondering people’s preconceived notions about hunting the other day. Like this line:
Her friends and “hippie, blue-state parents” were dumbfounded. “Won’t you be the darling of the right wing?” her father says.
We are complex beings. That’s what makes the balancing act that is writing so hard. If you are trying to mirror the real world (not just provide stereotypes for entertainment), you have to work hard to make them real and unpredictable yet not “out of character.  

 Food for thought.

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