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Hotties from History

May 3, 2009

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:

hotties from history

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 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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. ldorazio1 permalink
    May 3, 2009 1:44 PM

    I find the whole concept hilarious…rating historical figures based on their looks. I especially love the egregious omission of the fact that because of different standards of hygeine, we probably couldn’t stand next to most of these people because of the odor. I wouldn’t take it too seriously, though: after all, how esteemed a scholarly source is PEOPLE magazine, after all?!

    Mr. D

  2. Becky permalink
    May 3, 2009 2:00 PM

    I’m not going to lie, a large proportion of my AP US History class involved rating the presidents by hottness (“JFK doesn’t count!!”)

    Personally, Franklin Pierce tops my list:
    Also, Henry Clay was pretty fine:

  3. Lisa permalink
    May 3, 2009 2:29 PM

    Another thing that seems to be overlooked here is whether these people were considered attractive in their own time. Was Mozart known for being a total babe back in the day? And I completely agree that is ridiculous to compare people from other times to our incredibly narrow standards of beauty. As Emily pointed out, these people could have all kinds of other characteristics to make them attractive, such as charisma, intelligence, or a nice rack ;).

  4. May 3, 2009 2:43 PM

    I was very surprised to see the “Historical Hotties” in People magazine.

    I too am a history buff and I know that many of the traits we consider desireable today were not what was used to judge beauty in previous centuries.

    For example, Mary Tudor was considered a very handsome woman in her day; add to that her religious devotion and she was considered quite the catch. She would have been married off at a much younger age too had her father not been Henry VIII and had he actually had a male heir that was not illegitimate.

    My point is that there was much more to a person than just looks in earlier times.

    Best Regards,
    Charline Ratcliff, Author

  5. cellardoor10 permalink
    May 4, 2009 11:16 AM

    I just want to add … some of these representations are questionable at best. That picture of Cleopatra is based on … what, exactly? Do we have representations of her that are reliable?

    In addition, the picture of Mary Tudor is just a bad picture – fuzzy and unflattering. Regardless of whether we know what she actually looks like, there must be better pictures out there.

    Also, yeah, this is kind of shallow on the whole.

  6. Lotus permalink
    May 4, 2009 5:34 PM

    I do remember reading at some point that Cleopatra was not considered particularly attractive in her time either, but was skillful in using her powers enough that it didn’t matter. I can’t believe all the nots for Willy though, that’s a travesty!


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