The great divide: what makes a woman attractive

'She does rather look like someone who has been recently hit hard in the face with a frying pan'
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The Independent Online

I don't know why it should be news when one actress is rude about another – whatever next, "Vet cures sick hamster"? That's generally what they do for a living as far as one can see. But on a quiet day, Minnie Driver's comments about the physical attractiveness of other British actresses seemed worth reporting. Remembering only in the nick of time that, of course, she loves all her colleagues, she supposedly said that it was amazing that you could cast Dame Judi Dench, a "very small, round, middle-aged, lovely, mothering type" as Cleopatra.

The Sun immediately went on a grand tour of the most famous British actresses. Dame Maggie Smith "lacks stunning beauty"; Brenda Blethyn "has a mumsy image"; Glenda Jackson "hasn't a high opinion of her own physical attractions"; Emma Thompson has "the looks of a public school hockey player"; and, most devastatingly, "it was talent that made a star of Vanessa Redgrave".

Miss Driver promptly went into backtracking mode, and insisted that she had meant that it was wonderful that you could be valued for your talent and not your beauty in Britain, which sounded like not much more of a compliment. In America, she insisted, you had to be as beautiful as, er, Minnie Driver before you could be cast at all, and wasn't that terrible.

All very curious. I think she is underestimating herself considerably, to be honest; she is an actress of considerable charm and an unforgettable laugh, but she does rather look like someone who has been recently hit hard in the face with a frying pan. However, her comments do draw attention to a fascinating divide between European and American notions of attractiveness.

Given that she was talking in the main about women in their sixties, I think many people will concede that these British actresses are, in fact, a group of unusually magnetic and sexually compelling women. Brenda Blethyn seems creamily beautiful and glamorous to me; Judi Dench may not be very tall, but, my goodness, the crack in her voice; Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave when young were both famously lovely; and Emma Thompson, like all of them, has, apart from her splendid bones, the sexiest attribute imaginable, unmistakable intelligence, physically embodied. Put any of these women in the same room as, let us say, Drew Barrymore, and see who people look at.

The point of this – and I feel uncomfortable discussing actresses of this stature solely in terms of their sexual appeal – is that the terms of desire in Europe are apparently much wider than it is in America. It isn't just that desire in Europe is often a much more baroque phenomenon, tending to focus on the demure convent school mistress with a hundred lovers, or Napoleon's famous message to Josephine – "Returning Friday. Don't wash." It's more that sexual appeal can be identified in many other things than a narrow interpretation of physical perfection. Intelligence can be sexy; voices can be sexy; wit and conversation can be sexy.

The argument isn't really between a culture that is uninterested in sexual appeal in its favourite actresses and one that is more interested in that than their talent. Fairly deplorably, some degree of sexual magnetism helps a great deal in promoting the career of an actress in Europe, and it is hard to think of any successful ones who have little or none. Rather, the difference is between an industry that still values a complex sexual appeal and one that foists a banal and simple one on its consumers.

The basis of attractiveness in America, it often seems, is the successful makeover; not the fact of beauty itself, but the assurance of self-improvement. At the bottom of the food chain, there are those rather horrible daytime television shows in which a fat slug is extracted from her mauve velveteen jumpsuit to be bathed and given a haircut to the overpowering joy of the studio audience.

At the top of the tree, the fact of beauty isn't enough; it needs to be supplanted with a narrative of amelioration. When Vanity Fair declared Hillary Clinton the sexiest woman alive a year or two back, the basis for the claim was fairly clearly that she didn't look as bad as she used to. The amount of newsprint expended on Chelsea Clinton's new hair is understandable only if you see it as a moral tale of self-improvement and Triumph Over Adversity.

And actresses, too, can't rest on their laurels. They have to be seen to have improved: to be getting cleaner, thinner, tidier. Kate Winslet was always beautiful, but she didn't triumph until she lost two stones. And sexual appeal in America is so identified with narratives of improvement that it tends to be found even where there is not, in truth, much of an improvement; Minnie Driver herself may have lost a lot of weight, but one can't really say that she looks more seductive in consequence.

It's a simple notion of beauty, and not, to a European audience, a very convincing one. A short period of modesty would be very welcome, and a bit less sounding off on the subject from people who seem to have forgotten what a truly fascinating, magnetic and individual adult woman actually looks like.