Why Pretty HS Play Leads?

My son took me to see a high school play recently, and I noticed that among the cast, the pretty/handsome/hot kids had the lead roles, and the cast was on average prettier than the supporting crew.  I mentioned this to my wife, who was in drama club in high school, and she told me this was one of those things everyone knew – others would try out, but the prettiest kids were favored.  The effect is strong, stronger than could be explained by a weak correlation between acting ability and prettiness.

If viewers prefer to watch pretty people, I can understand why commercial plays would favor the pretty.  But I was surprised to see such transparent favoritism in what is supposedly an "educational" activity.  I doubt parents would knowingly tolerate a high school math teacher giving higher grades to the pretty; why do they tolerate similar behavior from drama teachers?

My wife tells me that choir teachers favor pretty singers for choirs when many people will listen, but not when only a few will listen.  Perhaps this is about parents and teachers wanting to make their school’s students look good in all ways compared to other schools?

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  • eric

    While you seem shocked(!) by evidence of lookism by adults, the bottom line for kids should be: it’s going to get better. If you remember, looks matter much more to teenagers than adults.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/StatsGuru/ David Pinto

    When I was in high school in the 1970s, our drama director played against this. There was a woman at the school who did recieve a lead part despite being over weight. She also tended to use multiple leads if she could. They would split the performances.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/cberndt/ Colleen Berndt

    Don’t we have a selection bias here? It takes a confident person to place themselves on stage before a crowd. I would think there must be some correlation between attractiveness and confidence. If true, then I would suspect that confident/attractive people would be disproportionately represented in auditions for the highschool play.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I don’t feel surprised (suspiciously), because this would already seem explained by the known halo effects of attractiveness – attractive people are judged as smarter, more ethical, etc., it doesn’t seem surprising that they would be judged as having better acting ability.

  • LP

    I’m with Colleen — in high school, self-esteem is very often very tied to looks, so these attractive, confident kids will audition more and will perform better during the audition. In my high school, the drama program was dominated by 1. the beautiful people, and 2. the student body leaders. Civic involvement was a way for even the funny-looking kids to acquire confidence.

  • agent00yak

    I am not sure that applying the improper discrimiation rules of other academic subjects to drama is correct. Of all of the subjects in school, drama is probably the most orthogonal.

    Is it really that bad to send the message “You probably won’t be able to do this if you are ugly.”? Uglyness is something that is probably at least as fixable as stupidity, so fixing it should be encouraged. In math a more proper analogy would be typical HS math competitions going to the quick instead of the ones who take a very long time on the problem but always end up with the right answer. The quick ones are also rewarded during test taking scenarios.

    Someone can be a good mathematician/engineer even if they don’t work things through very quickly. An ugly person might have a lot of acting talent. However, this won’t matter if they can’t pass tests/be aesthetically pleasing.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Colleen and LP, there seems to be bias among the people who try out, and who therefore feel confident enough to go on stage.

    Eliezer, if it was just a halo effect, would there be an impression among drama folks that there was a choice bias?

    Agent, if drama is orthogonal to education, why is it in school?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Tangurena/ Tangurena

    High school, at least in the US, is a popularity contest. I’m going to refer you to an essay, “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” by someone else who also lived near the bottom of the popularity continuum. It is my belief that adults actively suppress their memories of just how rotten they were as teenagers and pretend that they were in some sort of “golden years.” This selective amnesia also contributes to the mouth foaming “declining morality of today’s youth” rants that oldsters have been whining since, oh, about the time of the invention of writing. I’m sure Plato whined about it.

    In some movies, one could look at the people who were portrayed as “ugly” and with observation notice that they were actually pretty people who were made up to be ugly. Examples would be Ugly Betty (including the Colombian original, sample google search) and Jaws’ girlfriend in Moonraker (watched last weekend). It is hard for “ugly” people to even get roles portraying non-beautiful people. To me, it smacks of the racism in the early 20th Century where almost all portrayals of negros in movies were actually whites in blackface.

  • Anna

    Most drama teachers have been in the industry for some time therefore they understand how the world works within that frame. I have been producing professional shows for more than 5 years. I have no choice but to be bias. I have auditioned many talented and gifted individuals but had to refuse them due to the fact that they where not marketable. It is better to teach children realistically how the industry works or simply give false hope to children that are not pretty/hot/handsome/charming etc.? I can’t imagine a math professor telling a student that he/she will be a brilliant mathematician when the student has a D-average. I teach ballet and just the other day a 14 year old asked me if I thought
    she could be a prima ballerina. I honestly was stumped for an answer and changed the subject. Although she is a great dancer, she weighs 170 pounds and realistically it probably will never happen. Should I have been honest and said so and risk destroying the child’s dream? It’s not right but i think that’s what your wife meant by saying that in the industry, that’s just the way it is.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Anna, surely the main purpose of high school drama is not to prepare people for careers as actors – the fraction of them who will become professional actors is far too low for that to many any sense. Surely the story is that drama is part of a good broad educational experience. But then why should pretty people be favored for that purpose?

  • Dave


    Someone can be a good mathematician/engineer even if they don’t work things through very quickly.

    Um, well, no, they actually can’t. In spite of the rigorous grounding in reality (for engineering) or Platonic uber-reality (for mathematics), both engineering and mathematics have at least a smidgen of social grounding to them. A slow person otherwise capable of being a good mathematician or engineer would quickly find themselves sidelined as mentors/peers/competitors/clients ignored them or swiped their ideas. Slowness is far too high a handicap to overcome, if one is merely good.

    It’s theoretically possible that one could be a great mathematician without the ability to work things through quickly, but I don’t believe any such have ever existed (the internet may enable such a one to manifest). Slow but great engineers are probably impossible. Engineering implies clients, who can buy fast and great for not much more than slow but great, at considerably less risk.

  • Keith Elis

    It’s not that the halo of prettiness leads drama teachers to see better acting ability where none might be. Rather, audiences see a quality play as part of the halo of pretty actors. If drama teachers want parents to think their plays are good, then, on average, we would expect to see the prettiest kids in lead roles.

  • anna

    I am not saying say that high school drama is to prepare people for careers as actors although it may introduce students to the art of performance which may in turn lead children to be inspired to become actors. Unfortunately, in the industry, the reality is that pretty, handsome, charming, etc., people are considered to have an advantage as it is easier to market them. A good drama teacher would know this. I’m not saying it’s right but that’s the way it is. Shouldn’t a good broad educational experience be as close to reality as possible?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Anna, I don’t see why a drama class should give students a realistic experience of being a professional actor, any more than a writing class should give a realistic experience of being a professional writer. Shall we have grades on writing assignments depend on whether your parents are famous enough to get people to buy your book?

    Keith, interesting suggestion.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Shouldn’t a good broad educational experience be as close to reality as possible?
    In no way, shape or form. If closeness to reality is what we’re aiming for, then why bother with education at all? Just shove the kids out into the labour market.

    Education is about using tricks, and protected “unreal” situations to prepare the kids for the real world (and possibly to implant values). We need to be very clever about this – similarity to the real world is not automatically the optimum route to teach about the real world. So in this case, the issue is not “are biases in school drama close to those in industry” but “are the biases in school drama useful or detrimental for this preparation”?

    The main advantage of choosing pretty leads is that it reveals to kids the pro-beauty bias in acting (and in most of society). The main drawback is that it boosts the confidence of those who will probably do well anyway, and dimishes the confidence of those who won’t.

    Now, from a anti-Biasing point of view, this seems beneficial – true information is imparted, and the cost is only in people’s self-image. But the information imparted is utterly trivial, and will be learnt quickly out in the world anyway, while the self-image cost is difficult to reverse. So I think that on balance, over-promoting pretty leads is a bad idea.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Also, part of the experience of school drama is acting–maybe good actors who aren’t especially pretty should get their chance at an audience. Another purpose is being part of a good-sized project while having other people depend on you. Again, this is as well-served by choosing the best actors as by choosing for looks.

  • Paul Gowder

    Also, to the extent perception of prettiness by audiences and/or casting directors is endogenous to perception of prettiness by the actor him/herself, which is further endogenous (again!) to perception of prettiness by others, there’s something like a potential path-dependent vicious circle going on here.

    That story sounds something like this: someone (by pure random chance, or as a function of non-inherent beauty markers like being able to afford high-quality clothing) tells KidA (s)he’s pretty, so (s)he dresses better, works out more, stands with better posture, acts more confident, etc. etc., so (s)he’s perceived as prettier by more people, who reinforce it still more, etc. etc., and before long we have the high school theatre stat. Another kid, equally physically attractive controlling for clothes posture etc., didn’t have the benefit of the random praise and consequently doesn’t make the attractive choices along those dimensions. Things start to look pretty arbitrary and unjust for that kind. And maybe that kid ought to be promoted to lead in the school play, just so (s)he can have the opportunity to have attractiveness reinforced too.

    (If this sounds a lot like the “poor people and minorities are just as smart, but were held back by social factors” argument for affirmative action, well, good reading!)

  • Yan Li

    Drama is an aesthetic experience. Looks are a part of the deal.

  • Tom West

    While drama in school might be a a learning experience, school plays that are going to be presented to the students and parents are not utterly protected. Consistently fail to get the students and parents to see your productions, and you can probably watch the drama program wither away.

    Which means that you have to market the program the traditional way.

    (One could test this by examining whether non-public drama exercises suffer the same bias.)

    As well, I think there’s a very good chance that pretty “leads” also function to market drama to the participants themselves. I think there’s a very good chance that even “ugly” participants feel more positive about a production led by “pretty” people (except for those directly cut out of the lead) because (1) the production will be more popular with the outside world, and (2) there’s the halo effect of working around “pretty” people.

  • michael vassar

    Dave: Neils Bohr was a famously slow “Great Physicist”. Einstein wasn’t particularly fast either, nor, I believe, is Hawking.

  • Bruce G Charlton

    Actually, on average pretty people will be better actors than ugly ones, because ugly people contain more people with ability-damaging geteic mutations, and people who have suffered ability-damaging stresses in untero and in early life.

    It isn’t just a ‘halo’ effect. A fully-meritocratic selection of actors would still contain a greater than random proportion of pretty ones.

    The harsh fact is that good looking people really are, on average, better at things-in-general than ugly people (why is why we evolved to be attracted to good looks – ‘good looks’ is the look of vigorous, healthy, able people). And this does make it harder for the exceptions – ugly people who are really good at stuff.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Bruce, in my post I acknowledged there may be the effect you describe, but claimed it was not plausibly strong enough to account for the effect I see.

  • Anj

    Although the thread is old, I tought I will still post my views.

    Math, Science are far more objective fields than Drama. In Drama rather than encouring real talent, teachers (especially middle and high school) give too much importance to marketing or prettiness (unjustified). Thats’ where the Drama field is failing. If teachers are more logical or rational, I believe Drama will see better days, better talent and better audinece.
    I tell my kids, if you want better life stay with Science and Math and keep Drama , Signing as side dish/hobby. Getting job in Drama is so difficult and the baised producers make it more difficult.