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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Is it unfair to dislike someone because of his face?

The TV show Blacklist was recommended to me recently, so I watched a couple episodes on Netflix. The premise of the show is that a criminal mastermind, played by James Spader, knows all about crimes the FBI doesn't even realize have been committed, and has connections to all of them. The other main character, a young female FBI agent, played by Megan Boone, spends half of her time histrionically demonstrating how upset she is at various plot developments, and the other half gruffly barking out orders to other FBI agents. (How many new hires behave that way?)

I didn't like the show. But, I have to admit, part of the reason for that is because I can't stand James Spader's epicene, smug face. To see him is to want to punch him. For me, at least.

We've all been taught that hating someone because of the way he looks is the height of unfairness. No one has any choice about the face he was born with, we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, etc, etc.

Ergo, I must be extremely superficial.

But what if the face does say something about the person? Is it possible to discern character from a face?

What do you see in Spader's face? To me, he looks soft, and spoiled, and conceited, and maybe a little coy. Not a winning combination.

I could be wrong. Maybe he's hard, and tough, and brutally honest with himself. (If he is, he does a great job of hiding it.)

The role Spader plays on Blacklist is that of a supercilious guy. And yes, one shouldn't mistake the actor for his role.

But was it typecasting?

The role Spader may have been most famous for before was in Sex, Lies and Videotape, another Spader vehicle which just didn't do anything for me. And I can vaguely recall being put off by his face even back then. Here he is as a younger man:

There's something about that carefully arranged hair and those dandified clothes and that air of self-importance that, well, makes me sympathetic to violent people.

With those feminine cheeks of his, Spader actually reminds me of Linda Kozlowski from the Crocodile Dundee movies:

Come to think of it, I found her off-putting as well.

That's probably unfair. If you get to know someone, after a while you'll simply associate their face with their personality, and like or dislike them accordingly.

But sometimes, you don't have to wait to get to know them: their narcissism just emanates from their faces, as Ted Cruz and Barack Obama demonstrate here.

Obviously, it's unfair to dislike someone because he's ugly, or because of his ethnicity, or because of his mix of hormones. No one has any control over those things.

But if it's because his face broadcasts smugness, that's different.


Steven said...


he really looks like a smug rich boy in pretty in pink. I think the character may be a sociopath too. He was better looking then though I think.

I don't get that from the more recent photo though. He looks like a jolly benevolent gay man to me. Reminds me of Stephen Fry a bit. Epicene is a good description.

I know what you mean of course. I have had that with other faces. Probably everybody has.

Science has shown people can predict traits from faces with more accuracy than guessing. The facial width to height ratio stuff for example.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I have a hard time seeing him as good-looking even back then; he was far too soft.

If you saw Blacklist I think you'd see what I mean about him projecting the same qualities as an older guy.

I try to separate stuff you can't help from stuff you can, and I realize that no one is responsible for their hormonal mix, but I have to admit, I find an effeminate egotist more off-putting than I do a masculine one. I'm not trying to justify that reaction, I'm just saying I have it.

Steven said...

That's interesting. Its probably because you find it easier to accept a masculine man with an alpha persona.

You probably find an effeminate guy (one less ideal for a leadership role in hunter gatherer times) acting high value more contemptible on an instinctual level.

Perhaps you see yourself as above him in the tribal dominance hierarchy so his entitlement offends you and makes you want to put him in his place.

I'd postulate something along those lines from an evolutionary psychology perspective.

Or maybe its just a reflection of your own particular value system. You do seem to value and respect masculinity more explicitly than most.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I think your analysis is correct.

The only thing is, I don't particularly enjoy being around alpha guys, especially guys who think of themselves as alpha (who are almost always holes). It's not relaxing for some reason. I'd almost rather be around gay guys, with whom I have nothing to prove. But yes, there is something about a conceited effeminate man that is just viscerally off-putting.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong with disliking a face based on perceived pleasantness. Matter of fact, I think that nature endowed the human face with so many qualities to equalize the mating chances. I do NOT believe in survival of the prettiest. I think that is one of the evolution 'just so stories' that the man-blog-world believes in.

Many movie stars have become famous and popular simply because their faces are likable. Was James Stewart classically handsome?

Re: Spader, I don't like his face but I do find it attention-grabbing. I've been seeing the ads for this show on buses and they caught my eye. That's important in an actor.

I despise Chris Cooper's face and won't see him in anything.

"The other main character, a young female FBI agent, played by Megan Boone, spends half of her time histrionically demonstrating how upset she is at various plot developments, and the other half gruffly barking out orders to other FBI agents. (How many new hires behave that way?)"

LOL. That is true of most of the bitch ass female characters on TV shows nowadays. I find this a huge turn off and don't watch them. They mistake being perpetually annoyed with being authoritative. Seinfeld had a funny show about this. George Costanza just sat in his office looking annoyed and everybody thought he was doing Important Things.


John Craig said...

Coco --
True about Stewart, though I'd rank him ahead of Tom Hanks in the looks department. Both played Everyman-type roles, though back in Stewart's day directors were less willing to cast less-than-good-looking stars.

Chris Cooper is a great example of a guy with an inherently unlikable face, which is why he gets cast so often as unpleasant characters. I'd characterize his look as a perpetual just-woke-up-in-a-bad-mood type of look as opposed to a conceited look. But he also knows how to act nasty, so he is typecast as the bad CIA/military guy a lot, as in The Bourne movies.

Funny line about Costanza. Makes you wonder how many people actually do that.

Anonymous said...

What's really shocking about these pictures is what a cute teenage kid Spader was, and how badly he has aged.


John Craig said...

Coco --
Sorry, I just can't see him as good-looking, he's too soft and epicene.

Steven said...

He looked very smooth.

Anonymous said...

Its funny from experience people with his sort of face and people like me just do not get along.

He looks dodgy.

John Craig said...

Steven --
He looked as if he was trying awfully hard to impart that impression.

John Craig said...

Anonymous British Commenter --

From Merriam-Webster:

Full Definition of DODGY

chiefly British : evasive, tricky
chiefly British
a : not sound, good, or reliable
b : questionable, suspicious
chiefly British : requiring skill or care in handling or coping with

I agree with all three of these definition when it comes to Spader. I can't imagine getting along with a fellow who looked like that either.

Anonymous said...


Spader was very good at projecting the air of privilege and smugness that I (judgmentally) associate with East Coast "white privilege" upbringing. In the 80's, I had a med school classmate who went to high school with Spader - Spader was two years behind him- at Phillips Academy. My classmate wasn't close to him, so I don't know anything about Spader's personality. My classmate was a grounded, humble guy, with no pretenses, so I was clearly wrong to project certain qualities onto all private school kids. But Spader knows how to play the stereotype (such as the attorney in Wall Street).


Anonymous said...

Personally, James Spade has never appealed to me, not finding him attractive - I have no idea what his actual personality is like - for all we know, he could be a decent person. I remember seeing him in Baby Boom with Diane Keaton, a good movie. That was one of the last movies that my dad watched at a movie theater. I remember that he enjoyed the movie, laughing at Diane's character's experiences, especially when her character was living in New England.


John Craig said...

Brian --
Yes, Spader did a great job of portraying someone with a strong sense of entitlement.

I knew a bunch of kids from both Andover and Exeter; some were rich, spoiled ninnies, some weren't. But I guess a much higher percentage were than at most public high schools.

The thing is, narcissism takes a lot of outward forms (styles), and the narcissists at your (or my) local high school would have been less likely to fancy themselves as privileged prepsters and more likely to see themselves as jocks, or brains, or tough guys, or whatever. But the underlying personalities wouldn't have been all that different.

John Craig said...

Birdie --
Good point; looks can always be deceiving. (Somehow I doubt they are in Spader's case, but I could certainly be wrong.)

Anonymous said...

hi john,

off topic, but why dont you put up a post about elon musk and tesla/space x.

particularly whether he's a jobs type marketing man/con man/liar...

there seems to be a fair amount of dirt floating around about his ugly divorce as well.

i'm curious to get your opinion about the guy... all the paypal guys like peter thiel and elon musk and max levnich just seem tremendously different from even zuckenberg/gates et all...

just a suggestion.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I'll make a note of it, but may not get to it for a while. I'm not all that familiar with Musk, but have never gotten the impression that Tesla is any sort of con. The cars seem a touch overpriced, but people who drive them seem to like them, and the stock is trading up in the stratosphere, but Musk himself has said it's probably overpriced.

But, as I said, I know nothing of him personally. I'll get to it eventually.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Just took a quick look. There's nothing about Musk that jumps out at me and says "sociopath." He's not a Jobs-type pure marketing guy because he wrote code himself which he was able to sell at age 12. And he majored in physics, not what a marketing guy would study. Plus I haven't heard anything about his personal history which smells particularly bad.

Steven said...


Below are a couple of relevant links in case you ever want to look into that.


A prominent expert on Russian rockets who Elon Musk hired in the early days said about Musk, "he is the smartest guy I've ever met, period". He lent Musk some textbooks about rocket science and said Musk practically memorized them. "He would quote passages verbatim from these books".

Musk is the chief engineer at spacex.

He is very clever at funding his ventures, making the most of subsidies and innovative financing. I suppose that's part of his cleverness.

Steven said...

Sorry, CTO- chief technology officer. And CEO. And that's his talent, combining technological genius with business genius. And the stated goal of his ventures is to improve the future of humanity in key areas- sustainable energy, space travel and the internet.

I was thinking of investing in Tesla a year or so ago. Knowing what Musk was doing and his ability, it seemed to have huge growth potential. I should have done- the stock has gone up by like 70%.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Thank you. Yeah, no question, he's brilliant.