Every time I read The Canterbury Tales, I am amazed at the way in which characters are described most concretely in the way that they look. Physical appearance becomes a way to know people, understand them, and even judge them, which is weird in the case that we, as readers, do not see Chaucer’s characters. The most attractive characters are the most prized, the most admirable, or the most desirable; the ugliest characters are the most corrupt, the most offensive, or the least desirable.
Even the animals in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” are valued as characters based on their physical appearances. Describing the main character, the rooster, Chauntecleer, Chaucer writes,
His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And batailled as it were a castel wal;
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon;
Lyk asure were his legges and his toon;
His nayles whiter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
The rooster’s value is placed on his appearance. His feathers are described as “golden,” his “byle” as black, shining like a jet, and his nails as more white than the pure “lylye flour,” and from this description, Chaucer concludes that “This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce/ Seven hennes for to doon al his pleasaunce,” (lines 2865-2866) implying that this perfect physical appearance allows the rooster to select any of the “seven hennes” at his “pleasaunce”. His good looks are associated with his talent; Chaucer writes that he is the loudest and most accurate rooster, comparing him even to a church clock. The beautiful is also the best, and so he gets all the girls, even though as the story progresses his hubris gets him into trouble, and even though Pertelote, the best looking hen, who I might add is similarly described as physically attractive, patronizes him for being so afraid of his bad dream.
Alisoun, the objectified prize of the “The Miller’s Tale” is described, as Chauntecleer and Pertelote also are, in great physical (and dare I say sexual) detail. Chaucer writes,
Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth,
Or hoord of apples leyd in hey or heeth.
Wynsynge she was, as is a joly colt,
Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt.
A brooch she baar upon hir lowe coler,
As brood as is the boos of a bokeler.
Hir shoes were laced on hir legges hye.
She was a prymerole, a piggesnye,
For any lord to leggen in his bedde,
Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.
Alisoun appears to be the epitome of man’s sexual fantasy. Her “mouth”, the “brooch” that sits “lowe” on her “coler”, and the boots that “lace” up her “legges” showing her every curve make her worthy of “any lord to leggen is his bedde,” but also she is a valued person, a good wife, worthy “for any good yeman to wedde”. The entire story rides on her desirability; it is a story of three men wanting to physically have her, possess her, and touch her as well as their interactions with each other. She is beautiful so she can have her pick of her suitors, even if her pick is more than one, even if her pick mortifies her husband.
Chaucer wrote a long time ago, but I think that the bias he exaggerates still lives. In Intro to Gender Studies, we called it the “Beauty Bias,” the way that those our society defines as pretty are just treated better. It is something people rarely notice, because for the most part, we receive the same bias for our entire lives, for better or for worse. Traits that are not at all related to appearance are somehow judged from appearance.
For example, I am going to use my sister, Annie, who I think is pretty dang cute. First of all, she encounters general friendliness that I would not say all people encounter. There is a Moe’s right by her new apartment in College Park, Maryland that she has been to maybe four times since she moved in on August 7th. When she walks in, after she hears the normal, “Welcome to Moe’s!” whoever is working begins to make, not only what she usually gets, but her husband, Ryan’s order as well, asking her to make sure they are doing so correctly. A friend of her husband’s was shocked to find that Annie is actually quite quiet and pretty nerdy; he assumed that she must be fun, outgoing and maybe even a little crazy just because, as he admitted, she is cute and loved by all Ryan’s fraternity brothers. When Annie and our brother, Mike, applied to work at Planet Hollywood together one summer, Annie got the job over Mike. This may not seem as though it has anything to do with physical appearance, but not only is Mike two years older, he had much more work experience, and his interview was substantially longer. Annie said that she walked into the interview, the guy said, “oh, I see you used to model?” As she nodded he looked her up and down and said, “Okay, you’re hired”.
It is odd to think that we judge personality on something utterly unrelated, physical appearance. Chaucer uses it to inform the audience of vital information; oftentimes, entire stories are dependent upon the assumptions made from characters’ physical descriptions. Honestly, the realization that Chaucer’s method is similar to something that we do every single day brings up more questions than answers. Is typecasting beneficial to literature? Where does the Beauty Bias come from? Is it something that could or should be stopped? What does it mean to say that our society makes judgments purely based on people’s level of physical attractiveness? What is physically attractive to our society? Maybe I’m just hypersensitive to this phenomenon because I am preparing for Beauty of Women’s Love Your Body Day on Wednesday, but I find this idea to be disturbing. It seems to me that in American culture we have only one beauty ideal, which leaves what—90% of the population to be treated as inferior? What do we value if we cannot even see past the beauty bias?