I have long blamed Shakespeare, but I fear it was unjustly so.
Richard III is a classic example of the evil character who looks the part. His deformities and his ugliness are indicative of his murderous character. Yet while Shakespeare exaggerates Richard’s appearance, such exaggerations did not originate with him. From Richard’s death and the installment of the Tudor dynasty, both Richard’s evil nature and his genetic shortcomings were played up in support of the politics. For Shakespeare’s part, he is probably no more (and possibly less) susceptible to using this literary device.
The blame may be due the ancient Greeks. Their literature and even society reflected the idea that good looks, good character, and divine favor all went hand-in-hand. The Athenians used the phrase καλοι κ’αγαθοι (Kaloi k’agathoi), roughly the equivalent of the English “the Great and the Good.” In their case, the notion of beauty was part of that phrase. The literature of the Greeks and Romans, of fairy tales, classic novels (Frankenstein is often cited), and various works into the present day use this imagery.
Also to this day, the bias remains within society. Studies show that people are more lenient in their evaluation of beautiful people than they are with ugly people. In fact, in some cases, the bias might be justified. There are statistical correlations between beauty and intelligence and between beauty and capability that underlie people’s prejudice. Features that people associate with human beauty (e.g. facial symmetry) may be recognized as such because they correlate with genetic fitness.
This returned to my mind as I began watching the British TV series Happy Valley. The show has been on Netflix streaming for some time and has long been recommended for me (by Netflix, naturally). Mid-March, however, it is going away, so I figured I’d give it a whirl.
The show began its first season in 2014 and, while not specific, would seem to take place in the present (at the time). It focuses on a police sergeant, Catherine Caywood, living in a region sometimes referred to as “Happy Valley” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a persistent drug abuse problem. Caywood, played by British television actress Sarah Lancashire, is a middle aged woman who has suffered the loss of her daughter to suicide, a tragedy that has weighed heavily upon her personally. As a new and serious crime unfolds, she doesn’t (at first) realize that it is tied to her own past troubles.
Lancaster looks the part of a blue-collar, middle class worker. Similarly, a major supporting character playing an accountant fits the mould in both appearance and grating personality. I’ve mused on this before, but European productions seem more comfortable with casting “regular-looking” people in major roles. However, Northern England is not all plain folk. Oddly enough, it is the criminals of this story that are fairly good-looking. In fact, the more amoral and scheming the criminal (and in many cases, competent), the better he/she looks.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I believe the show specifically identifies everyone’s goodness or wrongness via the character’s looks. I can name some clear counter-examples. I would be surprised, however, if there weren’t at least some deliberation behind the casting of this store.
The show itself is very good. Like River, it excels at portraying the mental and emotional struggle caused by traumatic events. It also stretches the story well beyond the boundries of “the good guys versus the bad guys.” We might find our loyalties flitting around between different characters as we slowly learn more about them. One figure might come to seem more heroic as we learn more while the “root for the villain” urge falls to the wayside as we learn just how deplorable the person actually is.
The show ran for two seasons, and I’ll probably be hard pressed to get through both of them before it goes away. I’m a-gonna try, though.