While beautiful people bank millions in Hollywood, we—the lowly, ugly proletariat—watch on. And while it's easy to pass judgement on stick-thin celebrities, easy to shake our fists at the injustice of a world that privileges a level of physical attractiveness that is unattainable for most, easy to point to standards of beauty that have long been biased in favor of thin, white, cisgender women and say, "not cool"—have you ever considered that so-called "hot" people might also be oppressed because of the way they look?
The fairly-alright-looking actor Charlize Theron recently testified to this phenomenon in GQ: "How many roles are out there for the gorgeous, f***ing, gown-wearing eight-foot model? When meaty roles come through, I've been in the room and pretty people get turned away first." This recent statement has been pretty annoying to a lot of opinionated internet people. But while the web debates it, we wondered if there's a sociological basis for Theron's claims.
Deborah Carr is a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. In an interview with Broadly, Carr affirmed what most people already intuit: physical appearance shapes the way people are socialized. "From the time people are young children, they are rewarded for being attractive," Carr said, adding that the more beautiful a child is, the more likely they are to succeed in their social and school lives which in-turn helps gorgeous young people develop superior self-esteem—an asset to them as their personalities and minds develop. "Often there is a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'—the positive treatment that attractive children receive makes them more confident, friendly, and secure which perpetuates their popularity and social desirability," Carr explained.
OK, but what about the oppression that hot people endure later in life? Is there such a phenomenon? "Most research shows that attractiveness reaps rewards rather than disadvantages," Carr said, but added that research shows there are exceptions to this. "First, we're more likely to stereotype highly attractive people as self-absorbed and thus presume they may be less good at tasks like parenting. Second, a particular female body type—voluptuous women—are evaluated as 'less smart' in studies where subjects rate pictures of women along a range of personal traits," she said.
Theron's claims point to beauty as a barricade between her and the most profound Hollywood roles—not parenting. So Broadly called upon yet another sociologist, Michelle Newton-Francis of American University, to see if there is any substance to Theron's gripe. "Let us not forget that Theron is a model-actress that has been given access to social and economic capital in Hollywood precisely because she is attractive (and has talent)," Newton-Francis said, adding that Theron is a member of an elite class and trades her beauty for profit. So, basically, Theron has likely benefited because of her beauty more than she has been professionally stunted by it. "This does not negate the idea that substantive roles—and leading roles—for women in general are scarce and particularly so for more mature women or women of color," Newton-Francis added.
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But just because beauty is, in general, "privileged," that doesn't mean physical attractiveness can not also oppress people like Theron. It's complicated; Newton-Francis explained that Theron's dual role of model-actor has made her subject to social stereotypes related to those fields of employment—models are often thought of as less intelligent or capable than other people. "While it is a stereotype—women who model are perceived as attractive but also perceived as less intelligent or lacking skill—of course, this is not true," Newton-Francis said.
"I see both privilege and marginalization operating on a variety of dimensions in Hollywood," she said. "In addition to the way in which attractiveness serves as both privilege and marginality, it may well be that Theron is coming up against sexism and ageism, which is unfortunate but common in Hollywood." Newton-Francis' point about ageism and sexism correlates to other statements made by Theron in her GQ profile. On these dual evils, Theron said:
"We live in a society where women wilt and men age like fine wine. And, for a long time, women accepted it. We were waiting for society to change, but now we're taking leadership. It would be a lie to say there is less worry for women as they get older than there is for men...It feels there's this unrealistic standard of what a woman is supposed to look like when she's over forty."
It is important to take a nuanced approach in our attempt to understand the role that physical attractiveness plays in socialization. As Newton-Francis explained, "Theron can be both privileged and marginalized on attractiveness." And it's not just limited to the world of the high-glamour millionaires. "One of the major points is to think about the ways in which attractiveness is profoundly limiting to all of us," she said.