Fantasy Heroines and Beauty Standards

Erika Johansen, author of The Queen of the Tearling, wrote an article on Buzzfeed titled “Why We Need ‘Ugly’ Heroines“. While I agree with the majority of what she said in the article, I found her to be a little hypocritical.

In her article, Johansen talks about there not being enough realistic heroines in fantasy novels. You’ll often see covers with barely clad women and if they’re decently clothed, they’ll often have large cleavage. On top of that, she talks about how most heroines are pretty or beautiful. She also talks about how in books with female heroines or books geared towards a specific audience, there needs to be a (usually useless and unrealistic) romance story stuck in there somewhere.

These points are all valid and they’re points that I completely agree with. And in fact, Johansen’s heroine, Kelsea, is not beautiful at all. In fact, she stresses at the very beginning of the book that Kelsea is very plain and not at all pretty. However, Kelsea notices right away that all her guards are super good looking and she notes that her guardians never showed her a mirror because she was so ugly. In other words, Kelsea focuses too much on the way she and others looks.

I admit – I stopped reading the book after the first three chapters and went straight towards reading the reviews for the second book, in hopes that our heroine matures a bit. Nope. Apparently not. This is a bad habit. I should read the whole book myself to form my own opinions about the book instead of relying on others. But I have a hard time forcing myself to finish a book when I find that the character is unlikable.

I also think that constantly stressing Kelsea’s plainness also perpetuates the idea that heroines only think about appearances. In fact, in the second book Kelsea suddenly becomes pretty. In fact, she loses weight because apparently being “chubby” means you’re also plain looking. Because after she loses weight, she magically becomes beautiful. Um… what? Maybe this is an author trick to make readers realize that these points aren’t true. But do you really take two books or more to get your point across? This opinion might be an unpopular one but I enjoy books more when you don’t notice a theme or message screaming at your face. There’s still themes and messages but you don’t notice that the author is actively bringing across their own messages and beliefs. Or when you notice that these messages aren’t from the character but rather from the author. Then I end up getting turned off.

I obviously haven’t read the entire series so maybe these issues are resolved by the end of the third book. Maybe my points are invalid because I haven’t actually finished the book yet. But thinking about these issues and the issues the author brought up made me think about beauty standards in fantasy novels.

I feel like any novel that focuses too much on beauty standards, whether the heroine is beautiful or whether the heroine is plain, only strengthens the cliche that heroines need to look a certain way. Why focus on their looks at all?

One reason, I felt, Hermione (Harry Potter) made such a great character is not only because she was intelligent and kick-ass but also she didn’t care about her looks at all. The complete opposite of Kelsea, who cared about her looks very much. I only mention Hermione as an example because almost everyone knows who she is.

I guess my point started off from Johansen’s article on Buzzfeed in that a heroine who focuses on her looks (disregarding the fact if she is “ugly” or “pretty”) still adds to the idea that fantasy heroines have to look and act a certain way. Another thing that bugged me about Johansen’s Buzzfeed article was also that she put quotes around “ugly” but not quotes around “pretty” or “beautiful” because honestly, those are all subjective words. They mean different things to different people. What you consider pretty or beautiful or smoking-hot might not be what another person considers pretty or beautiful or smoking-hot.

I don’t know if this made any sense. I feel like my posts these days have ended up as word vomits, haha.

Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Fantasy Heroines and Beauty Standards

  • I agree that “ugly” and “beautiful” can be pretty subjective. Everyone has a different perspective on what they think describe those words. I feel like Johansen is trying to make a point but isn’t sending the message properly from what is described from the second book. Maybe accepting the heroine for who she is and not needing a change can also show that the character is beautiful in her own way. Then again, I’m not the story writer here :’).

  • Haha, when I was reading her article, my first thought was “Hermione.” I think it’s an absurd idea to want to throw out looks altogether. Every human is concerned with their looks and mating and it’s simply in our DNA as living creatures. I think it’s more important to try to expand what is considered pretty. Like you said, smoking hot is subjective and I think it’s far more effective to have a heroine with imperfections (like that frizzy haired Hermione) but other great qualities and moments where she is considered beautiful, even if the majority may not find her strikingly gorgeous all the time.

  • I agree with Johansen’s point about how so many heroines aren’t realistic and relatable. I also agree with you that she seems hypocritical! If looks truly don’t matter, why focus on it so much? It also makes it sound like being plain and/or chubby is a bad thing, when it’s not. Like you said, it’s all subjective, and I think a heroine can still kick butt without going through some sort of beauty transformation.

    I also have the bad habit of reading reviews and letting that determine whether I should read or watch something. I think it’s gotten to the point where I want to make sure something is worth my time before I really invest in it!

  • It’s a shame you could not finish the book but I would never force myself to read a book if I didn’t like it! You shouldn’t feel bad at all, not even for “judging” the book when you haven’t read the series. I’m sure someone would pipe up and tell you if it improves. For example, I only read the first Harry Potter book and told people that I didn’t like it, but they were quick to tell me that I should try reading another book because it gets better. But if I were you, I wouldn’t make yourself read the rest!

    I think that a lot of the articles on BuzzFeed are trash, to be honest with you. One of their writers actually took one of my photos from Twitter and took it out of context, making me look like an idiot. I gotta admit I shouldn’t be saying this kind of stuff since they are a very good customer of the company I work for.

    It is sad that a lot of fictional heroines are written as pretty, hot or beautiful characters. Or if they are “ugly” then they change and become more attractive to everyone. Books should really embrace a character for who they are, not try to feign some character development and morals by making them appear more attractive to other people. What the fuck. If someone is unhappy with their appearance, writing a novel with some focus of them feeing comfortable and beautiful in their own skin is valuable, fresh, and so real, compared to writing some shit into it about how they change and fit some description of what society thinks is attractive.

    I think your posts have been really awesome Rezina. You have discussed things, of course from your point of view, but things that you have an agreeable opinion on. Even though everyone’s opinion is different, you are very humble about what you think. :)

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