“So Beautiful It’s a Curse” Trope

My favorite historical figure is Hannibal Barca-the Carthaginian general who marched elephants into Rome during the Second Punic War.

File:Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War.svg

Carthage is on the tip of modern Tunisia: look to the right of Numidia and up toward Sicily. Carthage (the city) is right at the star. 

Hannibal was a military genius and even though he lost the war against Rome, his battle strategies are still studied today. I could spend hours just writing about his brilliance and my adoration of this man, but author David Anthony Durham has done most of that work for me. His historical fiction novel Pride of Carthage (2005) is what drew me into Hannibal’s world and over all, this is a very good book. Durham cites a bibliography, crafts rich and compelling characters on both sides of the war, and animates historical figures who have been dead for 2,200 years.

Yet he is incapable of writing women. While he does a decent on the historical women of Hannibal’s wife and sisters, Durham also writes a love story as a side plot line set against the larger back drop of the Second Punic War. The love story is about a foot soldier, Imco Vaca, who Durham creates and this woman, Aradna, a Greek who follows Hannibal’s army as a camp follower.

While Imco is an interesting character, rising through the ranks of Hannibal’s army, surviving the war and even conversing one on one with the Carthaginian general, Aradna’s greatest attribute is her beauty. This wouldn’t be so bad, if she weren’t introduced as a woman so beautiful that her entire back story is being raped by various men, starting with her dead father’s friend. Throughout the novel, Aradna falls into the trope of So Beautiful It’s a Curse. And the writing does not feel as if Durham is portraying the mindset of 200 BC, but his own ideas that beauty is a reasonable excuse to rape someone. We’re supposed to feel terrible for her after we read her tragic back story, but during the novel we’re told to accept that her beauty will attract men because that is naturally the way things go for beautiful women. Durham takes the responsibility off the men and reminds his readers that it is the woman’s job to not get raped.

When she’s not fending off men by rubbing herself in excrement in the hopes the smell will keep them at bay, she’s being pursued by Imco. By this, I mean he saw her bathing we get an uncomfortable look into Imco’s mind about how he wants to have sex with her. From the start of their interactions, she is an object. Throughout the novel the two meet up periodically by chance and Imco is always lusting after her. He’s in love with her beauty and this is the relationship readers are supposed to root for.

What bothers me the most is that even though she’s not interested and feels he’s just another man trying to attack her throughout most of the novel she finds him trapped under the dead bodies after the Battle of Cannae and she rescues him. Then they fall in love because the man needs to win the woman in the end. She is, after all, his prize.

There are so many things wrong with how she is written and where her arc goes, but I think one of the most important things to point out is that her story is sexist against both men and women. Against women, the obvious is that it perpetuates rape culture and also denies the woman agency unless it’s to aid a man and be his love interest. Against men it portrays them as sex-driven animals who can’t control themselves if a beautiful woman is around. I don’t understand why a man would want to portray his own sex in such a negative light, but that’s what Durham does.

This trope vilifying beautiful women as tragic figures destined for unwanted attention and rape is one that I didn’t understand when I first read the novel in high school. All I understood was that I never wanted to be Aradna. Because she was sexually assaulted she was the literary example of my greatest fear. It is terrible when young girls cannot look up to female characters without feeling as if being a woman is wrong and sinful somehow. I thought that her Aradna’s beauty was the cause and I didn’t want to be beautiful. And because beauty was her defining feature, I didn’t want to be a woman. I wanted to be Hannibal: the respected general with an intricacy of thought I still marvel at, not Aradna the beautiful woman followed by tragedy

I love Hannibal Barca, but I can no longer love the novel Pride of Carthage because it represents all of my fears of rape culture and places fear into women readers. I will not read something that makes me afraid or ashamed of my sex and these are the real evils of sexism that feminism combats. Feminism is needed because of how flippantly women are hated and how often we are told to hate ourselves. I’m a feminist because I refuse to hate myself and I will fight so that others can also understand the love and respect women deserve.

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8 thoughts on ““So Beautiful It’s a Curse” Trope

  1. This is a very beautiful and vulnerable piece…thank you for sharing with me. I have never read Pride of Carthage, but if I ever choose to, I now have insight about what to watch out for.

    Many male authors are incapable of writing strong female characters, with the exception of Shakespeare, as an influential example.

    I admire your own admiration for Hannibal’s mind and strategy and I appreciate your sharing of what you value.

  2. Also, I wanted to comment on your overall point about the trope. I think it is downright immoral to blame rape on a woman’s beauty…honestly. What needs to be done is for us as the human race to be honest about what we have been taught about the “nature of men” vs. the “nature of women”, and be critical in her thinking. Men are not naturally inclined to rape. Women are not naturally inclined to be raped. The most obvious disproof of this lie is the reality of men being raped. If men can be raped by women (as well as men), then how come it is only in the woman’s nature to be raped? And also, then why don’t we excuse women for raping men? These questions may seem ridiculous, but it is the nature of rape culture that is ridiculous. There is nothing in male biology that justifies rape…period.

  3. It’s funny you should mention this (though there are few things less funny hat your subject. I actually had the good fortune to study under David Durham in college. After he moved on from my school, I found the time to read the first book in his Acacia series: The War with the Mein.

    In my time with David, I found him to be a mild, thoughtful man with an interest in the narratives of marginalized people, particularly those, like him, that did not fit neatly into the little boxes their society provided.

    Despite this, however, I must admit that I took issue with some of David’s writing in Acacia as well, notably that involving his female characters. Acacia is extremely socially conscious fantasy, if one were so inclined I think they could probably make a drinking game out of each time a character examines their privilege, and David goes to great lengths to show us how female characters, bound by many restrictive elements of their society, often end up being more powerful than their traditionally heroic counterparts.

    The common thread that I see here is that Durham’s attempts to connect with the feminine, while more than grazing archetypes of female power, tend to anchor themselves on fear and discomfort. Durham makes his best attempt to get inside the female psyche but, finding the fear and supreme unfairness of rape culture and perhaps unwilling to solve a problem that is insolvable for any individual, merely channels it rather than offer a story that challenges it. For a man this could potentially be a valuable reading experiance but it’s not hard to see how a female reader could find it unsettling.

    David is, of course, not alone in this. George R. R. Martin is another fine example in the same genre.

    I don’t know if you feel this is the same issue, but one thing I wish we’d see more of is fiction that is neither acts ignorant of what women go through nor spits it back at them out of desire not to demean them.

    • I can definitely see how he plays with the notions of privilege, especially in how well he weaves in people of color.

      I tried to read Acacia and had to stop after I was so fed up with how Corrin (spelling?) was treated. There was sexual tension between her and the two Mein brothers just to heighten the threat of danger around Corrin’s situation.

      I agree that Durham does try to connect with the female experience, but it seems as if he only really sees the suffering and even then not in the wide context that it exists in.

      Durham’s book on Hannibal is one of my favorites so writing this critique was really difficult. Thank you for sharing your insight in knowing him personally (where did you go to college?)

      Could you explain your last point a bit more? I’m not sure I’m following you about the ignorance and demeaning aspects of fiction.

  4. I definitely felt that Corrin’s story was weaker than the rest of the book, sad given David’s clear liking for her. While it didn’t spoil the book for me, I definitely know people who couldn’t stand it.

    I admit that having studied with him, I’m biased towards liking him, but I think he deserves the credit I give him. He is an intelligent and forward thinking writer, however one of the most interesting things about reading his book was seeing his own issues with privilege play out in the text. He clearly has his own issues, as we all do, and it was fascinating to see how they affect a world of his creation.

    As for me, I went to Hampshire College, a little hippy school in western Mass. It was a great place to study, and David’s class was a definite highlight, even if it had an abnormal amount of fantasy-hate in it (from the students, not David).

    You also asked about my last point. I feel that when male writers don’t directly address the inequalities of gender it gets read as an attempt to white wash it or disrespectful of women’s struggles. It’s definitely a prevailing social norm to ignore the complexities of power, rape, and violence against women and that’s a significant problem, however the flip side of that coin is that when writers do adress these issues it has to be “a very special episode”, if that makes sense. It’s obviously important to spread the word about these issues and to give people who have survived violence representation in our collective imagination, however, what I feel David has done, and a lot of writers along with him, is become trapped in the horror of it.

    In seeing the inequities of the female experiance, it seems that many make writers can’t fully handle it and focus, not on the experiance of being inundated by it that women face, but on the male experiance of seeing it all at once and expressing that to others. For men that can be extremely useful, but women know, they saw it long ago and kept going.

    It’s hardly just men who do this, I feel like the popular conception of the ‘lifetime movie’ is essentially the same and I’m sure there are many female writers who do it too out of the same desire to correct an imbalance in our culture. But this just leaves two exaggerated extremes rather than an accurate picture of the situation and, given the differing sensitivities of readers both can be potentially upsetting or even triggering.

    Basically I think that it’s important to tell stories that feature and give voice to the dark sides of the female experiance but also for them to have the same narrative significance as events in the stories of men. Having a weird PSA moment can spread awareness but it can also impress an experiance that is all too prevalent already upon the reader.

    I hope that makes sense.

  5. Hi cherylsconfections. I hope you don’t mind a note from the author in question.

    I just wanted to say how much I appreciated your discussion of women in Pride of Carthage. Usually, when someone wants to take me to task for something it’s done in a negativity rant that I can’t take anything from. Not the case with your comments – or with those of your readers. So thank you for your honesty and the tone in which you express it.

    I won’t respond point by point. I’d rather just let you know that I read, and I’m glad to have read, your thoughts. If I could just respond to one thing, though, it would be your comment that my portrayal of Aradna’s travails represents my “own ideas that beauty is a reasonable excuse to rape someone”.

    No. So much “no” on that. I can say unequivocally that I believe no such thing. Of course there’s no reasonable excuse to rape someone. My skin crawls at the idea.

    The novel is filled with horrors. Part of what I wanted to do was show the human toll of such barbarity. In the ancient world. By extension, in ours. But it’s not because I support it. Just the opposite. It’s why I begin the novel by dedicating the book to my son, in the hopes that his life will be “free from the madness of these pages”. (I’d already dedicated an earlier book to my daughter. And then one of the Acacia books is for her. And a middle grade series I’m working on now…)

    I am sorry if the book made you not want to be beautiful, or not want to be a woman. Neither was my intention – or ever would be. It’s both enlightening and disconcerting to hear you say that.

    nightwing17 – Hi! Thank you for you kind words. (And I take your issues with Acacia in stride.) I’m particularly pleased that you wrote “I admit that having studied with him, I’m biased towards liking him”. That could so easily have been “I admit that having studied with him, I’m biased towards NOT liking him.” That would’ve destroyed my day. (And have been remembered ever after.)

    Interesting to hear your thoughts on Corinn (yes, spelled correctly). In particular, I was struck by: “Corrin’s story was weaker than the rest of the book, sad given David’s clear liking for her.”

    Yeah, I do like her. Not only do I like her, I think the trilogy is more about her than any other character. She grows and changes more than anyone else. If you asked me which character I like the most (after declarations that I love all my characters and can’t really choose) I’d say Mena. But if you asked me who is the most important character in the trilogy (though not necessarily in the first book) I’d say Corinn.

    So, I may have failings. Or… I DO have failings, but the two most important characters in the trilogy are, to me, the sisters. The women.

    (As an aside, I once had dinner with one of my foreign publishers. My editor (a woman) was my champion at that house. The publisher (a man) urged her to tell me to make the trilogy more about the men in the final book. I didn’t, which may have won me no points with him. Whatever… They still published it.)

    Again, though, thanks for the time you’ve spent reading my writing, and for the personal responses you’ve had to it. I can’t always get everything right. And I also hold my right to disagree (quietly) on some of your points. But I still learn from them, and will do my best going forward.

    All the best – David.

    • Wow. I never expected to hear from you and thank you for taking the time to write back to me. You are one of my favorite authors and, as an aspiring author myself it means so much that you’re taking the time to respond to criticism.

      It is great to hear your personal perspective on writing female characters, as Aradna was my only criticism of the book.

      I know my own writing is far from perfect and it is always great to be reminded that sometimes even our authorial heroes stumble and recognize their imperfections.

      Thank you again.
      Cheryl

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