“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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