"Facial Profiling"
October 15, 2009, 01:13 AM
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Slate has an article pooh-poohing old systems of trying to classify personalities by physical type and then worriedly reporting on new studies showing that maybe there is a correlation between say a heavy brow ridge and aggressiveness after all.
Facial Profiling Can you tell if a man is dangerous by the shape of his mug? By Dave Johns
What the article leaves out is how fully the arts have always participated in "facial profiling." It was never just some pseudo-scientific fad.

Back when images were expensive but words were cheap, novelists used to devote an extraordinary number of words to describing the looks of their characters, precisely with the assumption that the reader could pick up hints about the character's character. For example, Dashiell Hammett, a Communist, spent two full pages on a minute description of detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon: blond, 6'-3", and so forth — pretty much the exact opposite of Humphrey Bogart. (Robert Heinlein was more forward looking: he never described what his characters looked like, allowing readers to assume wrongly what Johnnie's race is in Starship Troopers.)

Personally, I could never make head nor tail out of what somebody was supposed to look like from these old novelist's descriptions of facial features; evidently, however, readers in the old days could. By the way, European diplomatic correspondence in the monarchical age devoted a lot of time to just this problem, with ambassadors providing lengthy verbal descriptions of the looks of princes and princesses that the monarch back home might want to marry his offspring to in dynastic alliances.

Similarly, a quick way for researchers to generate new but plausible hypotheses to test about the relationship between physical features and personalities would be to interview Hollywood casting directors. These middle aged ladies have an encyclopedic knowledge of what audiences assume about the correlation between looks and personality/behavior.

At the leading man level, it's pretty obvious that Russell Crowe, with his sizable brow ridge, looks more like a gladiator than Johnny Depp. It wasn't as obvious that Depp, with his '70s rock star cheekbones, would make a good pirate, but once you come up with the idea of an effete pirate with the personality of a Rolling Stone, then it all fit together.

Of course, with stars it's fun to see them play against type — Crowe as a mathematician — but with minor roles, casting directors need to find faces that won't confuse the audience as to what this minor character's function in the plot is supposed to be.