Re-reading War and Peace in recent weeks, I have been reminded of one of the most monumental pieces of miscasting in the history of the motion picture industry. For those who have never read the novel, a central part of the drama depends upon the fact that one of the major characters, Pierre Bezukhov, is fat, ugly, and awkward. So who did the Hollywood moguls choose to play the part? Henry Fonda, of course—-a man uniquely unqualified to assume this particular role. That the original plot was thereby fundamentally transformed seems to have passed the casting directors by. At least in the magnificent Soviet epic of the same novel, Pierre is played by Sergei Bondarchuk, a man with a great face for radio, who was thus without doubt the man born to be Bezukhov.
Hollywood has always struggled with physical ugliness, except in the case of occasional criminal or comic characters. As such, it is part of a wider American phenomenon. Indeed, American culture has been preoccupied with physical beauty for generations. Writing in the British political organ, Tribune, in 1947, George Orwell commented on the conspicuous absence of fat and middle-aged people in American magazines, dominated as they were by ideals of beauty, especially feminine beauty. For sure, there are indeed lots and lots of very ugly and overweight Americans, as a casual stroll down the streets of any American town will confirm. You just generally do not see the fat and the ugly in magazines, movies, commercials, situation comedies, or soap operas—-those great engines of American cultural values. One might in fact say that the aesthetically challenged are perhaps the most under-represented category in the American media, a truly marginalized minority.
The practical moral significance of this emphasis upon physical beauty should not be underestimated. It is part of a much broader approach to life. The morality of the modern western world is increasingly based not on coherent arguments rooted in commonly agreed assumptions about human nature, society, or the common good but on emotional reactions linked to principles of taste masquerading as ethical imperatives. For example, the advent of psychological and emotional categories as key criteria in assessing criminal activity reflects the introduction of a strong subjective element into discussions of morality and has led to the practical prioritization of the aesthetic. The tautological silliness of the term ‘hate crime’ exemplifies this. After all, when one reflects on it for a moment, one has to ask how many crimes are actually committed out of deep love, or even simply mild affection, towards the victims. Other aspects of the judicial process also point to the rising importance of the emotional and the subjective: Does the murder of the homeless man with no one to speak up for him deserve less punishment than that of the married woman whose family are able to provide moving victim impact statements at sentencing?
The dominance of visual media is a major part of this turn to the emotive and the aesthetic. Given the preoccupation of the modern world with physical beauty and the ubiquity of the entertainment industry, the visual has taken on a powerful moral energy which perhaps it has always had but is now remarkable for its omnipresence and omnipotence. Take, for example, sexual morality: attitudes in this area have undoubtedly been influenced by televisual narratives which portray beautiful people acting in ways that would traditionally have been regarded as ugly, anti-social, and immoral. Yet this ugliness is somehow sanctified by the aesthetic appeal of the actors and of the carefully formulated morality of the plots.
This is one reason why arguing for traditional sexual morality is so hard today and set to become even harder. Indeed, the assumption that there is an argument to be had, that one can actually argue for traditional morality in the current context, is itself increasingly problematic. In an emotive, aesthetic culture, all one needs to do is present a certain moral narrative with a particular style and an attractive feel, and the argument is often not simply over but is simply circumvented in its entirety. Think of the red carpet at the Oscar ceremony: It will witness a seemingly endless parade of the most beautiful people in society; and behind that parade will lie a multitude of abortions, broken relationships, promiscuity, greed, selfishness, infidelity, and general amorality. Yet none of this will count for anything in the face of the power of the aesthetic. Perfect teeth, fine bone structure, and a wonderful complexion do not simply cover a multitude of sins; I suspect they have played their part in helping to redefine at a fundamental level what actions count as sins in the first place.