I still remember my inner fan-girl screaming the minute Joe Goldberg and his crooked smile first appeared on Netflix’s You– a psychological thriller that has managed to ensnare millions with its addictive narration led by an enigmatic boy-next-door (note: spoilers ahead).
Here’s how it goes: excruciatingly cute literary dilettante Joe meets budding writer Beck and boom, there’s your perfect love story just around the corner. I mean, what could go wrong between a boy who reads and a girl trying to find her written voice in New York? Well as it turns out, a lot of things: Joe is an aggressive stalker, murders anyone who comes in the way of him and Beck, and eventually kills her in a bid to cover up his blood-stained tracks. That’s when a disturbing realization hit me: girls all over social media weren’t defending Joe out of sympathy, they were defending him because he was a hot psychopath. We all know the uncomfortable truth that if Joe Goldberg were “ugly”, 99.99% of girls would call him out for being a sick pervert despite his chilling ability to rationalize his actions, and Youdefinitely wouldn’t fare so well.
The buzz surrounding Yougot me thinking about the way media portrays attractive people in general, and how we as viewers seem to subconsciously ignore their toxicity. Just imagine the backlash Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey would have gotten if he wasn’t played by someone as good-looking as Jamie Dorman - probably something around the lines of a depraved rich businessman with a weird kink involving college girls. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize the insidious ways in which media ties together looks and personality.
Consider the wildly popular twelve-seasons-running American television series Big Bang Theory. It revolves around four scientist friends and their quirky quotidian lives in an apartment, with a special spotlight on theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper. Despite all its geeky humor however, the sitcom inevitably ends up stereotyping nerds as socially “uncool” and even boring. There’s a reason why Sheldon Cooper isn’t “handsome” in the conventional sense, there’s a reason why his girlfriend Amy wears clothes that are monochrome, and there’s a reason why Penny’s the one female character who has a line of male admirers.
Yes, you guessed it. Nerds and style just don’t go together (hence Amy’s predictable wardrobe), and it’s acceptable for Penny as a “pretty” waitress to constantly pass snobbish comments about Sheldon’s interests. Even Amy, by the very virtue of her physique as a neuroscientist, embodies the dim-witted notions surrounding women in STEM, including unfemininity and a disdain for grooming. In fact, intelligence and success are never defining qualities for the female scientists Amy and Bernadette from the perspective of the male characters: they are always used as a means to entice their romantic interests.
You’re not alone if you haven’t thought about these things. Notions of looks and a supposedly ‘cool’ personality are so deeply entrenched in Western sitcoms that it’s hard to tell otherwise. I’m equally guilty of holding double-standards, whether it’s the fleeting moments of rationalizing Joe or defending Edward Cullen when he wouldn’t let Bella see her best friend in the supernatural teen-romanceTwilight.
If there’s one show that’s somewhat championed the male under-dog, it comes from Asia. In 2005, the Japanese film adaptation of the real-life virtual romance Train Man was an instant sensation among female viewers from as young as eighteen to thirty-four years old. It follows the story of a young male otaku (a derogatory term referring to a community obsessed with a particular hobby, such as manga or anime) who saves a female from being harassed on the subway. As a token of appreciation, the young woman sends him a set of Hermes tea cups, thus suggesting her social status as a rich socialite. While the two lovebirds eventually have a happy ending, it’s not without strings attached: the “train man” eventually changes his look and dressing style, and leaves his community behind. This only goes to re-emphasize the sad stereotype that geeks can’t pursue beautiful women without making any adjustments. Indeed, in an ironic twist, some people considered the male lead Yamada Takayuki to be too “good-looking” for the role.
We all like to think we have an uncontrived disposition that goes beyond the superficiality of passing judgements based on the way people look. But think again: some of you might be familiar with the social experiment carried out by the United Nations in 2016, where six-year-old child actress Anano was treated in radically different ways based on her appearance. In one setting, she was dressed nicely and given a neat appearance which then elicited kind concerns from onlookers on the streets and at a restaurant. UNICEF then used make-up to make her face look dirtier, and dressed her in unwashed clothes to give an unkempt look. Unsurprisingly, people became much more hostile and one man even requested for her to be taken outside, after which the experiment was put on hold due to ethical concerns. While the actual aim of the experiment was to draw attention to the way millions of homeless kids are treated worldwide, it also shows the cruel extent to which having good looks can elevate one’s social status.
In yet another psychological study conducted last year, researchers from the University of Texas found that even small uncontrollable variations in body shape can shape the way people form opinions about others. Waist-to-hip-ratio size ration for example was an important attribute indicator for women, while men were frequently associated judged based on their shoulder width relative to waist size. Needless to say, fatter body types got more negative traits like carelessness and disorganization whereas leaner physiques got positive characteristics such as determination and curiosity.
Findings like these have been corroborated in a multitude of other spheres, including workplace dynamics. According to a study funded by Procter & Gamble, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston University, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, for example, women who deck more make-up rank higher in competence and trustworthiness. The American Economic Review also found that women who wear make-up can earn 30% higher in pay than non-makeup wearing workers.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame people for holding such clichéd thoughts considering the pretentious Photoshop world we live in. From advertisements to social media influencers, everything is packaged in an unrealistically spotless, pristine way. We even have dating apps like Tinder, where a person’s looks is crucial to the number of matches they receive. I’m not saying that being attractive is a bad thing – we all have certain desires when it comes to celebrities and romantic partners. What I am saying, however, is that we need to go beyond those looks and realize when we’re being downright hypocritical towards people who don’t meet our definition of “good-looking”. Perhaps now is a timely reminder for the classic English idiom, never judge a book by its cover.