Tag Archives: body positivity

Beautiful Characters

I just came back from a party I went to, mostly to keep my extroverted boyfriend happy, but I ended up having a good time. There was a guest there who I hopefully didn’t stare at too much. I’m bad about staring at people. I blame it on being a writer; often I notice things about people that trigger some writerly thoughts. There’s something about the way they are dressed or carrying themselves that gives me an idea, and I want to stare to imprint the idea into my head, to fully process it, sometimes even to consciously understand what is unconsciously appealing about them. Of course, at the same time I  don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I keep finding my eyes drawn to them when I’m bored, catching myself and looking away in a way that I’m sure people notice. In this case I felt particularly awkward, because she had vitiligo.

Vitiligo is a condition where certain patches of the body lose pigment over time. The  extremities and face tend to change first, so it’s very visible. It’s occasionally associated with more severe diseases, and can cause some stigma and insecurity, but in and of itself, it isn’t dangerous, nor is it contagious. What made drew my writer’s eye wasn’t the vitiligo itself, but the fact that she was very pretty. And I don’t mean pretty despite her vitiligo, or would be pretty if not for the vitiligo. She had vitiligo, and she was pretty, and I was trying to figure out how to describe that.

See, I’ve realized that prose has done a seriously terrible job of handling body positivity, and I don’t think it’s gotten enough finger wagging for that. Most of the criticism ends up directed at visual media, but I think in a way prose can be more destructive, and often is. The typical approach to describing characters is to declare them lovely, plain or hideous, and then offer up a list of traits that support the author’s claim. As a result, thin and blonde becomes officially beautiful, fat and freckled become officially plain, and highly unusual traits, like vitiligo, don’t get to exist at all unless the author wants an ugly character. It encourages people look at themselves like they are unassembled puzzles, and the bits writers have declared unattractive automatically outweigh the officially attractive ones.

That’s not how people actually look. Real people are composites, not only of their physical features, but also of their personalities and attitudes. Often, a larger than average nose or a scar or a rotund waistline occur in a person who, as a whole, is very good-looking. Furthermore, that’s not always the case that removing that trait would necessarily make them look better. So it was with this woman. She had light brown skin, with the area around her eyes and nose white like a raccoon’s mask in reverse, and she had a pleasant smile and soft dark eyes, a light pinkish-purple top that went well with her black hair, and she was pretty.

Visual media at least has the ability to show us people as a whole, and let us make up our own minds. Where a book would just state that Lupita Nyong’o is unattractive because her skin is too dark and Adele is unattractive because she is fat, a picture can’t hide the truth that both of these women are utterly gorgeous. I first realized this when reading a rant on how Emma Watson was too pretty to play Hermione, who was supposed to start out very ugly, and of course this was a sign of cinema giving us unrealistic standards of beauty. Hermione is described as having frizzy hair and buck teeth. Emma’s hair looked frizzy to me, and her teeth… I couldn’t really tell. Teeth have to be pretty dramatically deformed to be noteworthy, and Hermione’s parents were dentists. They would  have taken care of anything worse than a slight overbite, which is often cute. Honestly most ten year olds are cute. It’s how they survive to puberty; they have faces that make adults go “awww, let me feed you.” The critic got it backwards. The movie was honest, and the book was giving us unrealistic standards of ugliness.

As I tried to avoid staring at the woman at the party, I realized I wanted to talk to her about this. I wanted to ask her if she had ever read a book with a character who had vitiligo, and how she would want to be described. I wondered whether it would make her happy to hear that I thought she was pretty, or uncomfortable; as a trans person I know many people are are uncomfortable hearing certain parts of themselves described in a positive light, and I wonder if that’s a gender dysphoria specific thing, or if it applies to other stigmatized traits. Every way of framing this sounded awkward to me, so I never asked. Instead I’ll address the question to the internet.

To anyone who is reading this, think of some part of yourself that you think a book would blindly deride. How would you feel, if you read a book with an attractive character who had that trait? Are there ways that could be described that would make you feel uncomfortable? Are there ways that would make you feel good? Do you think books have affected how you think about your appearance?

How to Fix Pitch Perfect

This blog is a little bit of self-indulgent experimentation. I like to play a game when I watch a movie that I think has problems. Not movies I don’t like, in fact its often easier to play with movies I do like. I mean movies with what I identify as storytelling problems that go beyond matters of subjective taste; plot holes, inconsistent characterization, sloppy worldbuilding, etc. I take those movies, and I try to think of the single simplest fix. That means keeping as most characters, scenes, subplots and other story elements the same; I have to work as much as possible with what’s there. My goal is not to throw out the story and weave something new out of a handful of scenes and characters I liked, but to find the good story lurking in the muck and bring it out.

I think its a good mental exercise for writers. It has certainly helped my editing skills. The downside is that at the end I’ve got a story that I think is pretty good, but that I can’t do anything with, because its not mine. Then I thought, “maybe I can turn this game into an interesting blog post?” And then I thought, “no, nobody’s interested in that.” And then I argued with myself for several months. Today I have several blog posts I’m wrestling with and a pressing desire to post something, so I’m going to give this a try. Please give me some comments if you want to see more posts like this, because while I sometimes use this blog as a place to think aloud (see my endless meanderings on the nature of theme) I also want it to be a fun, interesting place for people who, you know, aren’t me.

I wrote for a bit back in November on my issues with Pitch Perfect. I think the biggest issue was that the overarching conflict didn’t make sense. The Bellas kept reusing the same song in all their performances. They knew from the judges feedback that this was a problem, and yet they didn’t solve it until the final scene because… saving costs on choreographer’s fees? Epic final dance number? It made the characters seem like idiots. To make up for it, there were a number of secondary issues. The team wasn’t getting along well. Why? Personality conflicts between team members besides the two protagonists weren’t established. It seemed to be just there to pad out screen time. One of the leads has an anxiety condition that makes her throw up unpredictably. Again, this doesn’t come with convincing characterization that fits in with her being stressed and anxious. Also, it’s really gross. Oh, and a lead singer has a random rare medical condition that isn’t life threatening, but might damage her voice. This only comes up when the writers need it to, and is solved with a lucky coincidence when the writers needed things to be happy.

Now, it is good to have multiple obstacles and conflicts, but stories that feel tight and well-written have an overarching problem, and the supplementary obstacles tend to feel like natural compliments. They are realistic consequences of the paths the characters choose, or they are thematically related to the main conflict, or they tie in some other way. This story feels like the writers cobbled together whatever they thought would give their characters a problem.

The story starts with the group leaders, Aubrey and Chloe, trying to assemble a new team. The old Bellas looked like this.

Same body type, same race, perfect teeth, perfect matching stewardess outfits suggesting they are available for ogling but not "sluts."
Same body type, same race, perfect teeth, perfect matching stewardess outfits suggesting they are available for ogling but not “sluts.”

Later on, twice characters will comment on how the new team is less pretty, by which they mean two characters are fat, one of the fat ones is lesbian and gender non-conforming, one is scrawny and flat chested instead of lean yet curvy, and one is tall and sex obsessed in a “I love sex because I love it” way, instead of a “I like to be pretty eye candy for you to objectify” way. These two mentions cause problems at the time but are lost among the morass of poorly developed side conflicts.

Why not make that the central conflict? Pit the Bella’s desire to sing and have fun and be judged primarily for their singing against society’s tendency to evaluate women aesthetically first, and treat all other attributes as secondary. It’s an interesting, realistic problem that is culturally relevant and, in keeping with the rules of my game, works with material that is already there.

In my amended version of the story, the Bellas used to win because they combined genuine musical talent with sex appeal, but as old singers have graduated over the years, the leaders, Aubrey and Chloe have struggled to find replacements. Because the visual style of the Bellas is very rigid and narrow, they can’t count on always finding women who fit that aesthetic while also being able to dance and sing. Aubrey and Chloe decide that sex sells and start prioritizing looks over ability, and the quality of their group declines rapidly.

Now the story has an explanation for why they picked the same song over and over again. It has a range and choreography that accommodates the skill level of their singers. It’s a sign of how far the Bellas have fallen. (As I write this I’m aware that if the scene explaining this backstory was executed poorly, it could fit the “dumb but sexy” stereotype of attractive women. There are also ways of writing it to make it clear that these aren’t bad or dumb people, just people trying to compete at a level that is beyond where they are. For example, if the women know they suck and leave because they themselves are fed up, it makes them look self-aware and intelligent.)

Now Aubrey and Chloe are trying casting based primarily on singing ability, but sticking with the costumes, choreography and genres they are used to (obviously not the same song anymore, because we’re leaving that with the old film, but the same style). It’s not working. People are making jokes about how Fat Amy* looks in the stewardess uniform, instead of listening to how goddamn fantastic her voice is.

"I am Fat Amy. I am gorgeous, I rock, and this suit is a metaphor for your oppressive gender roles!"
“I am Fat Amy. I am gorgeous, I rock, and this suit is a metaphor for your oppressive gender roles!”

Enter Beca. Yes, she spells it with one C, to show she’s a rebel or whatever. She has the looks of a classic Bella, but the exact opposite attitude.  She’s a natural loner, and doesn’t even want to go to college. Her dream is to go to LA and become a DJ. In the film, she claims her father is making her go and being unfair, which I didn’t think was a fair characterization. He’s saying that he’s okay with her goal, but he thinks college will give her more options if that doesn’t work out, and also give her some experiences that she will treasure later on. He even offers a compromise; if she tries college for one year, on his dime, and gives it an honest effort by joining clubs and attending classes, he will let her do whatever she wants after that. All of this is not only reasonable, but its a much better deal than most kids get. In the end, the film proves him right. Beca joins the Bellas grudgingly but learns to enjoy it and learns some valuable people skills.

In the film that was actually produced, Beca fixes Chloe and Aubrey’s problem for them by making new songs with her DJ skills. In mine, the same thing happens, but now she’s not coming to an obvious conclusion that the two of them should have thought of ages ago. They are already trying to make new music, but they don’t know how to experiment outside of their comfort zone. Beca shows them how to combine different genres, so everyone can show off their individual style and the performance still looks good. The other thing that changes is that, while she is a good DJ, she doesn’t know how to schedule rehearsals, choreograph dances or design costumes. In the movie, Chloe and Aubrey pretty much throw the reins to her, but I think its more interesting to force all three to work together, and show that struggle to learn to cooperate.

This conflict lets them have ups and downs that flow organically from the central conflict. Some of their initial experiments might not go well, setting them back in enough competitions to keep them as underdogs. Beca and Aubrey can both have interesting character arcs. They are both preoccupied with an unrealistic image; Beca with the preoccupied loner who Just Doesn’t Care, and Aubrey with the perfect sexy yet pure and effortlessly talented feminine goddess. For both of them, those stereotypes do somewhat express who they are, but they are just that; stereotypes, images too limited for any real human being to live as for long, at least not without going crazy. Beca needs to understand that in the real world, constantly isolating yourself from people doesn’t make you happy. Aubrey needs to value people for who they are as people, not just who they are on the outside, and that includes valuing herself for more than just how attractive she is to others. Both of them need to learn to not be so scornful of people who aren’t like them.

The other cast members, meanwhile, learn to be fine with who they are, to stand up against a society that puts them down for being themselves. They need to tell Aubrey, to her face, that being stuffed into outfits that don’t go with their body type and dance like a trophy wife just gets them mocked for not fitting this specific standard of beauty, and that’s shitty. They aren’t ugly. They’re all beautiful in their own way; none of them are everyone’s cup of tea, because in the real world different people have different tastes, so why don’t they just be themselves and let their own natural beauty come out? And more to the point, they didn’t come to look pretty or to win, they came because they liked singing, so why don’t they just focus on singing? Over the course of the movie, they learn to collectively shift their priorities from putting on a show with audience bait, to putting on a show that expresses who they are and that they all can feel proud of, regardless of whether they win or not.

At which point, naturally, society reward their non-materialistic, individualistic choices with the a capella championship. It’s a very Hollywood ending, but not in a bad way. In real life, something born of authentic passion can often triumph over something calculated to be popular.

Also, this final number really was fantastic.
Also, this final number really was fantastic. You would have given them first place too.

I have a few more personal tweaks that I would like to add to the above story. I wouldn’t want the protagonists to all be conventionally pretty, and all the unconventionally pretty characters to be side characters. Perhaps I would make Beca more obviously punk or goth, with piercings, tattoos and a mohawk. There are several clumsy attempts at a capella puns that I would cut, as well as two random anti-Semitic jokes that are in really poor taste. I would also make Beca apologize to her Dad for being a brat to him when he was actually being pretty awesome. Still, I think I’ve covered all the major plot problems. I’ve given it a structure that seems organized, but still works with the characters, something that can be light and fun but feels like it has more substance underneath. Also I had fun writing this.

So what do you think? Good story? Good post? How would you fix this story, or other ones that you’ve seen? Would you be interested in seeing more posts like these?

*For those who haven’t seen the movie, Fat Amy is the name she chose for herself, because she knew people were going to call her that anyway and she wanted them to know she didn’t give a fuck. I love her.