“The fox’s hair is blue highlights and ringlets, her eyelashes dusted gold, her wide mouth lipsticked peach orange. Everything clashes. She is still breathtaking…”
Almost without meaning to, when I wrote Scale-Bright I filled it with beautiful women. Some of them so absurdly alluring they can pull off this outlandish combination of blue, gold, and orange!
The reasoning for this was shamefully superficial — most of them are goddesses or shape-shifting demons, all traditionally depicted as lovely; Chang’e is meant to be one of the most enchanting in heaven while the White Snake and the Green Snake are meant to be seductresses. But honestly, ‘it’s traditional’ isn’t that wonderful of an excuse; I genderflipped one of the gods without hardship, and bringing these mythical figures to a modern world is hardly in keeping with tradition. Folklore is terribly, terribly obsessed with prettiness (whether it is a sign of virtue or indicative of voracious danger); no reason for us, today, to necessarily emulate it.
There are two exceptions, though – Julienne is human and coded as average-looking; Houyi is described in passing, and the most visual detail about her is ‘a frame tall and muscle-taut, a ruthlessness of being’. It probably implies some measure of attractiveness, but it’s not one within the range of traditional culture-enforced feminine desirability. In my far-future SF, one woman has ‘an aggressive jawline, a sharp nose’ and is ‘densely built’. General Lunha is introduced weapon-first, through her armor, her ‘bestiary of blades, gathering of guns’, and her history as a veteran tactician of many wars. Houyi, in her back story, is also introduced first through how she dresses (like a man), and her bow and arrows. Olivia in Scale-Bright is perhaps a blend of both, entering the page marked by her strangeness and her style: ‘a woman bleeding under the clock tower. She wears a vivid shade of good emeralds from eyeshadow to stiletto heels, marred by that one slash of red’.
Hau Nidane stands at the pole of the white circled henge, her shoulders broad as the sky, her legs set like the trunks of windbreaking trees. She wears no crown and needs no throne to rest upon. Her open arms circle the span of all that Rider Bray is and will ever be. (‘Our Fire, Given Freely’ by Seth J. Dickinson)
I really like this description – it concerns Hau Nidane’s physical presence, her majesty, what she does rather than whether her looks please observers. But even in the absence of description, I get the impression that most of us are primed to assume the characters we read are pretty, and casting choices in visual adaptations of any sort tend to agree; this goes double when the character is a woman, so much so that even ‘average’ (and I encounter this often in YA reading!) is taken to mean ‘she’s really pretty but doesn’t know it’ or ‘she’s pretty but not as breathtakingly gorgeous as her supermodel or immortal fairy friend’ or ‘she’s a girl next door but cleans up well’. It takes explicit descriptions of hideousness to drive home that a fictional lady isn’t attractive, and even then the lady in question tends to be of a more advanced age. To push the idea that your fictional lady carries no potential to be drop-dead gorgeous is tremendously difficult. To take the focus away from her appearance is close to impossible, and that’s why I don’t think saying she’s ugly fixes the problem either; it’s still a matter of appearance, a judgment of how attractive — or not — she is. And I think that’s irrelevant. We like characters for their wit, personality, strength, weakness; it’s rare, I feel, that we read books for the beauty of the characters.
The man’s rugged visage–hanging from the upper window of the tenement building–was captivating. The rest of him was less so, as it was a mangled wreck of shattered limbs and shredded torso strewn all over the street at Nyx’s feet.
Nyx toed at the burst flesh of his admittedly once-fine form, now split and oozing a sour blend of offal that brought to mind the pungent stink of rotten bodies at the front. (‘The Body Project’ by Kameron Hurley)
The least I can do, personally, is to not abet that assumption of attractiveness by explicitly smearing prettiness cream all over my written ladies. In a way I think I have done a little of that — some characters I’ve written are frontloaded with what they do, what they want, what they’ve accomplished rather than what they look like, or told through terms that suggest fitness, combat readiness, traits that have to do with their professions rather than their faces or the aesthetic, sexual pleasingness of their bodies. That’s what I want to do more of.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew, a finalist for the John W. Campbell New Writer Award, is a science fiction and fantasy author whose stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tor.com, GigaNotoSaurus, and several other magazines and anthologies. Her novella Scale-Bright, an urban fantasy featuring characters from Chinese mythology, is available from Immersion Press.