Beauty as good: why we’re confused by handsome on-screen villains

ImageJamie Dornan is a beautiful man.

The former model, with his brooding eyes and chiselled features is far from the stereotype of what an actor playing the part of a serial killer should look like.

Serial killers are supposed to be weird-looking, as if the inner darkness is supposed to manifest itself in their appearance.

Maybe that’s what made the Dornan character in the five-part BBC drama The Fall whose first series came to an end earlier this week so disturbing.

We don’t associate beauty with evil.

Evil is supposed ugly.

So as we watch this gorgeous man brutally kill women on screen, we are confused, searching for a reason; desperately trying to find some good in him. Because the images on our television do not compute. He doesn’t look the part.

In the programme, when the investigators first see the e-fit of the serial killer, even they are taken aback.

“Could he really look like that?”, one asks.

And detective Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson) replies, mesmerised by the sketch: “Even a multiple murderer can have his share of good qualities. Or a pretty face.”

Psychologists call our ascribing positive characters to good-looking people and negative to those society considers less attractive as the What Is Beautiful is Good effect.

In Hollywood films, the heroes are the best-looking people on the screen. And the ‘baddies’ do not conform to our pattern of beauty and often display physical characteristics that are out of the ordinary – you only have to do an image search of Bond villains to see what I mean.

And Disney cartoons are also to blame for exaggerating the positive physical attributes of the characters we are supposed to like and making the bad guys less attractive. A study by Doris Bazzini published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2010 found that in Disney films, friendliness, goodness, moral virtue, intelligence, romantic involvement and socioeconomic status where attributed to the physically attractive.

In thisbeauty bias that exists in human societies, people deemed more attractive do better in just about every area of life. Attractive people earn more, they are assumed to be more friendly, they are less likely to be found guilty in court and are given more lenient sentences when they are. Psychiatrist Dr Igor Elman has even suggested that ‘prettier’ babies are more loved by their mothers.

But here’s the thing about the What is Beautiful is Good effect. It means we are judging a book by its cover. And we’re judging that book based on arbitrary standards society defines as beautiful. When we do that, we make assumptions about who the goodies are and who the baddies are. And the danger is, it will cause us to overlook those who might not look the part.

It is only Beauty in its original form that is the ultimate in goodness. All else falls short.

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One thought on “Beauty as good: why we’re confused by handsome on-screen villains

  1. This is why it is good that a ‘handsome’ man played the part of a serial killer. Let’s have more like this and lets have more ‘unattractive’ people playing the part of the good guy/gal. Media has a big influence on our thinking. We may judge a book by it’s cover but we are less likely to do this if we are exposed to books which do not match their covers.

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