What the hell does aesthetic beauty have to do with movie quality?

Today, I tried to debate the fashion industry with someone who writes about fashion.

Never do that. Seriously. It’s a waste of time. You  might as well be trying to convince Satan to serve iced water in Hell.

For the record, I’m not comparing the person I was debating with to Satan with that statement. I don’t even know her. She might be a very nice person.

Nor am I saying the fashion industry corners the market on being set in their ways. There are people like that in all walks of life.

I am, however, comparing the fashion industry to Hell. 

I don’t talk about beauty standards and body image very often. They’re topics I don’t feel comfortable discussing. Mostly because I was absolutely the teenage girl everyone’s so desperate to protect with their railing against the anorexic models, and disgust at sexy clothing and accessories for pre-pubescent girls.

When I was a kid, I’d spend hours going through magazines like Seventeen, Teen Beat, YM, Teen Vogue, Teen Magazine. Because we moved around so much, I was desperate for the approval of my peers, so I’d spend a lot of my free time devouring pop culture as fast as the world could produce it. And when I was finished reading the magazines, I’d tear out pictures of the attractive stars I had crushes on, tape them up all over my room, and then cry for hours about the fact that I would never be what is considered beautiful by Hollywood’s standards.

You see, while I wasn’t fat until I was an adult, I did have a curvy build much bigger than the sizes in which they made the “cool clothes” in the 80s and 90s. All the conditioner and ironing in the world doesn’t hide how much coarser my hair is than the average white woman because my father’s side is Native American. And unless my face magically changes, I’ll have to settle for “cute” until my dying day.

Cute is like a death sentence to a teenage girl aspiring to marry boys like Tom Cruise (Hush up, you! Back then, we didn’t know he was crazy!), James Van Der Beek or Brad Pitt.

Something the people on the other side of the fashion debate (the side that says the fashion industry and the media don’t shape society’s beauty standards, women and girls shouldn’t let strangers tell them how to feel about themselves*, and the fashion industry and media don’t need to change) don’t seem to understand is it’s not always as easy as putting a smile on your face and just knowing you’re beautiful. Especially when the rest of the televised world is telling you you’re not by never casting anyone who looks even remotely like you.

But this post isn’t about that. I’d love to go off on a tangent about how film reviews like the one I’m going to talk about could affect the future of the entertainment industry. I’d like to spend time going through the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles of Upstate New Yorkers grabbing images of some hometown hotties and email the writer proof he’s wrong. More than anything, I’d love to point out to him how incredibly shallow he is—and not just because some feel he’s judging an entire region by their aesthetic appearance alone, and the ruling isn’t good for us. But I won’t. It wouldn’t do any good, and none of that has anything to do with my point.

My point: What the hell does aesthetic beauty have to do with movie quality?

Some back story: Jeffrey Wells, of Hollywood Elsewhere, wrote a review of The Place Beyond the Pines (which was filmed in Schenectady, NY) in which he says the movie is unbelievable because (among other reasons) Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne are too beautiful to live in Upstate New York. Mr. Wells submits that beautiful people gravitate to big cities, and Upstate New Yorkers have a “genetic look” (whatever that means) that is far from the look that gets one granted membership to the beautiful people club. In fact, anyone who lives in any “blue-collar hell hole” that resembles Schenectady is blessed with that “genetic look” he mentions.

Some people are offended. Some think it’s stupid those people are offended. Some others think it’s just plain stupid for Mr. Wells to have mentioned it.

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie, but I submit that seeing the movie doesn’t preclude one’s ability to formulate an opinion on whether or not aesthetic beauty affects the quality and over all believability.

My case: Let’s ignore locale, for a moment, and just focus on the question. Can the aesthetic beauty of the performers affect how believable the plot of a movie is?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. I mean, in this society, no one’s going to believe a person would kill for an ugly stranger unless they, too, want the victim dead. Which of us would ever expect Prince Charming to run away with the ugly stepsister without first getting to know her? And how could the dork win over the hottie without sprouting into a handsome man after high school, or at least becoming filthy rich? As much damage as it may or may not do to our impressionable youth, a lot of story lines don’t work if the performers aren’t society-standard beautiful.

Does this apply to all movies? No. There are tons of story lines, even in this shallow society, that work no matter who the performers are. White, black, Asian, Latino, European, gay, straight, bisexual, male, female, transgender, gender fluid, Christian, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, WHATEVER. They just have to have a pulse, and make you feel and believe their performance.

For example, the character Marty McFly was all about values and attitude. Playing an elf in almost any fantasy film requires poise, grace and the ability to pull off that level of formality most of us have never seen off the silver screen. Any action flick in which the hero eventually wins the girl after saving her could have an unattractive lead and still be believable because a lot of people, regardless of gender, develop strong feelings for a person who saves them from something traumatic. And the girl he wins could be unattractive because you can’t rescue someone from a traumatic situation without getting to know at least a little bit about them, like how strong their spirit is, how they perform under pressure, how they handle being helped…the possible character traits to observe are relative and endless.

But does the aesthetic beauty of Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne make this particular movie unbelievable? Even if you’ve lived in Upstate New York all your life, the answer is no. Have you seen some of those farm girls? God damn!

Joking and film location aside, I’ve either lived or played in “blue-collar hell holes” all my life. And statistically speaking, there are as many smokin’ hot men and women living in them as anywhere that doesn’t produce movies, TV shows, porn or music. You just have to know where to look for them.

I’m not offended by Mr. Wells remarks. I’m not celebrity beautiful, and I don’t have a team of makeup artists, hair technicians and Photoshop professionals to make me look that way, and I’m okay with that. I’m not from Upstate New York, and I don’t feel the need to defend the overall aesthetic value of the Capital Region.

I’m not even particularly concerned with the well-being of the world if critics start grading our entertainment solely on the aesthetics of the performers. None of us listen to critics anymore, anyway.

I object to his assertion simply because I feel that unless the character’s appearance is a major plot point (and in this case, it doesn’t sound like it comes into play at all), it’s got nothing whatever to do with the story line, which means it doesn’t affect the quality or believability at all. In short, it wasn’t worth mentioning, and came across like a jilted lover. “My ex is way too good for you.” Wonder what Schenectady did to him!

But if I were to defend the aesthetic beauty of Schenectady, I’d only have two words for you, Mr. Wells. Union. College.

I win.

*For what it’s worth, I agree with the idea that women and girls shouldn’t let strangers tell them how to feel about themselves. 

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