Hotties from History
The other day in discussion group the topic somehow came around to the idea of judging historical figures–especially women–on their beauty. That’s what I thought of when I came across this image from People‘s recent “100 Most Beautiful People” issue:
This History major in me loves that this was included in this issue; after all, I got more excited than anyone when I found out about Leo IX’s incredible hotness or saw an engraving of John Burgoyne (dreamboat!). Looking at historical hotties is fun and seemingly harmless.
But this sort of “Historical Hotties” feature reduces these men and women of great accomplishments to nothing more than their physical beauty. Who cares about Nefertiti’s influence on religious life in ancient Egypt or Mozart’s music? All I want to know is if they’re hot enough to be on my bedroom wall next to Zac Efron and Aaron Eckhart!! And as we all know, physical beauty is hardly the only factor contributing to a person’s “hotness”. Perhaps Shakespeare’s sonnets were what made him hot; maybe Cleopatra had a magnetism that attracted people to her.
We also need to realize that what is “hot” to a twenty-first century American public was not necessarily what attracted people in Tudor England or ancient Egypt. Failing to note this diversity of beauty only serves to narrow our understanding of beauty in the modern world. If we judge historical figures by the same narrow standards by which we judge Taylor Swift and Eva Mendes (both also found in this issue), how can we widen the definition of beauty in our own time? It is interesting to note that the only two historical figures on this page who were voted “hot” by People.com voters are Martha Washington and Nefertiti, both of whom are light-skinned, thin women who could probably have fit in easily among the other “beautiful people” in this issue.
I understand the draw of the “historical hotties” concept: it lets us humanize historical figures, imagine their lives beyond dates and battles. It’s always nice to be able to conceptualize the ruler, artist or thinker you’re reading about as a real person with feelings and social interactions. It’s not inherently bad to do this. But what is dangerous about People‘s feature is the narrow definition of beauty that it encourages: beauty is, in this case, physical beauty, and must fit into our modern, western standards of what beautiful is. It does not take into account accomplishments, personal characteristics or a diversity of ideas about beauty. And c’mon, you know there’s something wrong when less than 40 percent of people think Cleopatra’s a hottie.