The changing face of fame

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2011 2:51 pm

Long time reader Dragon Horse has been generating and collecting (top row images are from Dienekes) composite image of various classes of individuals for a while now. It’s really fun to just skim through and make your own assessments (the “global face” resembles darker skinned versions of Amerasians, whose fathers were white Americans and mothers Southeast Asian, to me).

The most well known composites are of nationalities, but he’s also generated and reposted composites of other classes. For example, the average Bollywood actress is Aishwarya Rai. Not literally, but the resemblance is jaw-dropping (compare to the average Indian woman). But most interesting to me were the comparisons of American film actors, male and female, then and now (“Golden Age” vs. contemporary). I’m pretty sure you can pick out which one is which if you’re American. There seem to be two correlated trends here: 1) more feminine features for both males and females, and 2) more youthful features for both males and females. Correlated, because neoteny and masculinization seemed to generally push in opposite directions of trait value. Projecting in the future I assume that the Global Human Celebrity will converge upon a 14 year old girl?

Addendum: One difference between the “Golden Age” and modern celebrities is the attention to a rather buff physique. So though the actors of yore had more rugged faces, their physiques were often rather flabby in comparison to today’s leading men. So I might correct and assert that the future global celebrity will be a baby-faced 14 year old girl with abs to die for!

MORE ABOUT: Composites, Hollywood

Comments (35)

  1. I showed the brown man the Bollywood composite for 2 seconds and then clicked away and asked him who it was. He said Aishwarya Rai immediately. So it ain’t just you.

  2. The modern American actress looks shockingly like Katherine Heigl to me– to the point where I thought it was here before I read that it was a composite. The eyes are different, but not that much. It also looks a lot like another actress if you focus on the eyes, but I can’t remember who.

    It sort of creeps me out how many features famous celebrities share with each other.

  3. modern female = heigl/jessica biel hybrid
    modern male = brad pitt/bradley cooper hybrid

  4. Matt

    “1) more feminine features for both males and females, and 2) more youthful features for both males and females”

    Hmm… Smaller eyes, less arched eyebrows, darker skin tone and squarer jaws for females (it looks like) isn’t what I’d call more feminine. More youthful looks right to me though.

  5. , darker skin tone and squarer jaws for females (it looks like) isn’t what I’d call more feminine

    the darker skin tone has to to do with multiracialism obviously. you have to control for that. but interesting i perceive the jaw differently (in the other direction). the chin seems less emphatic to me.

  6. First two images are mine, and misattributed by “Dragon Horse” and unattributed here

  7. sv

    I agree with Matt about the actresses – Dienekes’ Golden Age composite looks more feminine to me (the modern actress strikes me as vaguely predatory in comparison). Dragon Horse’s Golden Age male looks more masculine to me. The modern face composites both strike me as more androgynous, though as Razib pointed out, the physiques would tell a different story.

  8. Max

    I wonder if androgyny is the norm and facial sexual dimorphism is a societal artifact – look at the !Kung.

  9. Average Ford-Obama president looks kind of like Jon Huntsman, Jr.

  10. Alina-M

    I agree with the comment about androgyny – the modern female composite looks slightly more masculine to me, and the modern male composite definitely more feminine. On the other hand, I also find the modern composites to be way more attractive than their less androgynous golden-age counterparts. It just goes to show you how influenced we are by hollywood, whether or not we realize it…

    Also, androgyny is what’s “in” now in the modeling industry, and that carries over to hollywood, so no surprise there.

  11. RafeK

    I also initially perceived the modern starlets face as more masculinized due to smaller eyes relatively and a wider jaw, However its interesting to note that both the modern male and female have wider gonials and smaller chins relatively to the classic age composites. I think overall the classic female is more feminine but less youthful looking were as the male composite is overall both more masculine and mature.

    I do find they modern female composite more attractive but I don’t think it is due to feminization or masculinization the samples are chosen for different effects. The classic composite is based on oscars winners which are weighted more toward acting ability as well as beauty, were as the modern sample is of women voted by men as most attractive. Look at the orginal samples on dienekes site not all of the women in the classic sample would even be considered especially attractive. I think the modern face is more beautiful because it conforms better to golden mean ratios. I think it would eve more attractive if more feminized.

    Intial impression
    Modern Male = Brad Pitt/Chris Pine
    Modern Female = Jessica alba/cindi crawford

  12. Alina-M

    Also the golden age starlet has more contrast between her features/face (especially the lips, but also nose and eyes) which might contribute to her overall more feminine appearance, since the same face in higher contrast is considered more “feminine” for whatever reason, according to studies

  13. Semolina

    “future global celebrity will be a baby-faced 14 year old girl with abs to die for”

    Andrej Pejic needs to workout:

  14. Jason Malloy

    The golden age actress is younger and more feminine looking than the modern actress (e.g. fuller lips, shallower eye sockets, wider eyes, lighter skin tone, glowing complexion, and baby fat).

    The modern actor is younger and more feminine looking than the golden age actor.

  15. Dragon Horse


    I always placed on my blog that the actress composite came from your site, not mine.

    Thanks for the nod Razib, I will comment later.

  16. Dragon Horse

    Anyway, I agree with Razib and some of the others general comments. A actress friend of mine had an interesting thought. She said that in the past, many actors were on Broadway or maybe just acting in movies and television evolved out of theater. In a theater you cannot see the actors features very well, unless you have very good seats, so you need an actor who looks like a MAN from far away and one who is obviously a WOMAN. I don’t know I agree with this being the overall reason for the difference. Specific facial features are not as important.

    Another theory I read (and unfortunately I can’t recall where) is that women in developing nations tend to like men who look more masculine or ‘rugged” (Clive Owen, Clark Gable, Eastern Slavs in general lol). Men like women who are ‘bigger bodied”. For example, I don’t think the average traditional tribal man in the Middle East or Africa wants a woman who looks like she can “rape him” or beat the hell out of him with some fancy martial arts. LOL So gender dimorphism is more important in a society on the margins, than it is in a society where most people have the basics in life guaranteed.

    Personally, I think that Hollywood, has pushed a more masculine woman since the 1970’s, and I believe this coincides with two things: The rise in pornography (speaking of Playboy, etc) and Feminism. It has become cool to see a woman who is sexually aggressive (in the past this would be called a slut-whore) and who can potentially go toe-to-toe with a man (nearly impossible in real life) – think Jessica Biel in Blade or Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. We want a woman who looks like a woman, looks youthful, but also has an “edge” to her. A woman “equal to a man” but NOT A MAN.

    As far as men, it has already been mentioned that male facial features have feminized, but their bodies are hyper -muscular. I imagine many male actors are more muscular and toned than many Roman Gladiators (Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Lautner, Brad Pitt). I can’t really say why this is…other than these men look “young” for their age, so more fit and vigorous, and also display a “hyper manly bodies”.

    I wonder if in the past in most situations in the world, if a man’s physical attractiveness mattered much at all? I’m not talking about someone that is hideous, but just average. As long as he has “means”, does it matter when many marriages are arranged? Obviously, the woman’s appearance mattered greatly (and still does). Was “appearance” manly a result of male selection of women?

    I think on my own, I’ve also tended to notice that two very attractive actors/singers tend to have beautiful (hyper feminine) daughters, but very effeminate sons looking sons (a good example is Angelina Jolie and her brother, who look very similar). A more semi-attractive man and an attractive woman, can have children who go either way (Mariska Hargitay looks like a more masculine version of her mother, Jane Mansfield, due to her body builder Hungarian father, Micky Hargitay).

    This all goes back to something I believe, besides some very basic things like hip/waste ratio, maybe V shape in men’s torso, large beast (for your population), height in men, lighter skin (for women of their population), and symmetry of the face that are almost required to be considered “beautiful” the other 75% is culture. Both sets of faces above are symmetrical, that has little to do with what is contemporary beautiful. Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington are VERY Symmetrical, that does not mean that Denzel Washington will be more attractive to the average white American woman than a less symmetrical and shorter Ethan Hawke.

    All these things just set a base for what is attractive, but that’s about it.

  17. John Emerson

    The older actors are not buff but I think of them as husky rather than flabby. A functional but not especially camera-ready sort of beefiness. Somewhat the same way that the fantasy-object woman doesn’t seem designed for childbearing.

  18. @Alina-M “Also the golden age starlet has more contrast between her features/face (especially the lips, but also nose and eyes) which might contribute to her overall more feminine appearance, since the same face in higher contrast is considered more “feminine” for whatever reason, according to studies.”

    I noticed that too. I’m pretty sure that’s an artifact of studio portrait style differences between roughly the first and second halves of the 20th Century. Specifically, many portrait photography manuals suggest a stronger overhead lighting to cast a particular “butterfly” shadow between the nose and upper lip that was considered attractive, particularly in women. When color film and printing became more popular portrait lighting styles changed considerably, with the now-routine eye-level 60/40 split lighting.

    Having spent quite a lot of time studying old natural-light photos of school, camp, and athletic-competition photos from the last 150 years or so, where there’s no particular selection for “ideal” face or body types, I agree with Razib’s observation that today’s body types for both (American) men and women are far more buff. For men consider the soft, low-muscle-definition shapes of the (still extremely fit) Harry Houdini or Jack Johnson. As for faces, my strong impression is that before roughly WWII, perhaps even more than now, faces of both men and women tended to be rounder and thicker in a way that probably reflected higher subcutaneous fat. See Houdini again, or Valentino and Chaplain. While no less popular than, say, Brad Pitt today, their faces were far less “masculine” than mid-century stars like Bogart, Grant, Dean, or Hudson.

    That doesn’t invalidate Dienekes’s or Dragon Horse’s compilations — for instance they may have taken lighting and head-tilt variations into account. But I think would tend to make computational comparisons more difficult.


  19. Justin Giancola

    ^^ awesome points figleaf!

    I think the actual ages of the people in question is a serious consideration. And the amount of make-up (atleast obvious make-up) in the golden age group.

    Not being a golden age film conosour I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb to say that atleast the male actors seem much older than their modern male counterpart, who seem to be getting increasingly younger. So I think an important point to keep in touch with is don’t confuse masculine with old, or “grizzled” (weather-beaten or tough-life) as I often like to say. And conversly like a lot of people have been alluding to youthful with femine.

    I think a good points were made about a trend in androgeny. I think many of the images of women today adopt masculine vibes, in the make-up, postures, facial expressions, that we now take forgranted as feminine where they are contributing to hyper stimulation we find more attractive or at least harder to ignore. (similar to points brought up by Dragon Horse.) But I think it’s important to stress not to fall into the trap of equating things that are beautiful with feminine.

    Semolina’s example is an excellent example of a very androgenous face…some people will want to look at it and say femine though. I think this is cultural training(and I’d be curious how first impressions would be between men and women). I would say by and large his features are mostly masculine but very flat, as in lacking projection. If you scroll through all the pictures some are clearly more obvious than others.

  20. Justin Giancola

    I also want to throw something out there as far as age. I think we over emphasize an attraction to youth. I think what we often deem an attraction to youth, particularly in men, is simply to more beauty. Ie. smoother hair, more firm and vibrant skin and less accumulation of injury or asymmetry. I think you simply have a higher probability of posessing those things at a younger age, or better put not losing them. Being in school the girls I find most attractive in my classes I’ll often find out are closer to 20 than 30, regardless of what I guess them to be, which would often be mid 20s. And I find this to be a general (though not absolute) trend everwhere since moving past my mid 20s. And being that I’m not a twit these aren’t girls that display very juvenille behavorisms. The last person I was involved with was my age. 🙂

  21. anon

    As if plastic surgery has nothing to do with it.

  22. Tom Crispin

    Were the age ranges of the modern and golden age samples comparable? If not the age differential could be statistical rather than a change in societal preference

  23. Scott McLoud

    The “Golden Age” actress looks a lot softer to me than the contemporary actress; while the contemporary actor looks softer than the “Golden Age”. Yes, I get that you pointed out a feminine convergence; but I wonder if it’s more an androgyny convergence.

  24. Chris Rennick

    To my eye the golden age actor/actress appear to be more capable looking, with a certain toughness and even intelligence. The modern actor/actress appear to be built for sex and not much else. Are we witnessing casting couch evolution? Or are there larger forces at work? With the billions at stake I can imagine that the new successful looks are focus group tested. And with so much cosmetic technology the new look might not even be “real.”

  25. Patrick1

    Now if they could only act as well as those of the Golden Age.

  26. Bob

    Congrats on the Instalanche!

  27. Speaking of aging, I’d just add that another consideration for actor/actress-based shifts might be matched by the rather radical downward shift in audience age demographics.

    Looking back over time the more square, less craggy, and more gracile chins and jaws of the model contemporary actor can be found in “teenage heartthrob” actors going way, way back. Bobby Sherman, Michael Landon, James Dean, Mickey Rooney, etc., fit a profile of which David Duchovny is more of an exaggeration than a complete outlier. What they have in common, by the way, is that they an aggregate look that tends to appeal to actual women (particularly younger women) as opposed to what men (particularly older men) prefer themselves or else believe women prefer.


  28. Muffy

    I would guess that the increase in buffness/fitness over time is due to the fact that there is more nudity/semi-nudity on screen now than during the Golden Age. There’s really no point in having a great body if you’re wearing a suit on screen all the time, like in classic films.

    Overall — which is also probably related to the increased nudity on screen — I would say that there has been an increase in the sex appeal of the stars over time.

  29. John Emerson

    For men consider the soft, low-muscle-definition shapes of the (still extremely fit) Harry Houdini or Jack Johnson.

    If “buff” excludes Jack Johnson, that pretty much tells you that buff is very loosely related to athleticism or strength but is primarily for the mirror and the camera (i.e., feminine and juvenile in the terms of this post).

    If you look at the real athletes of today, they’re not necessarily buff either. It depends on the sport.

  30. tim johnson

    One key factor contributing to the difference between male actors of the 1940s-1970s and today’s actors is the former group had lives before acting. They usually had real jobs before acting, as opposed to the brat pack lifestyle of today’s male actors.
    Steve McQueen and Paul Newman represent the last actors who could actually wield an axe or shovel authentically, and Newman mostly was acting. Can you imagine Tom Cruise or Leo DiCaprio even trying to split wood with an axe? They would look pathetic. Harrison Ford reportedly was a carpenter before he acted; I can’t bring to mind any roles in which he showed familiarity with tools and manly work…..
    Cruise, DiCaprio, Estevez, Sheen, and many others, also can’t even ride horseback authentically……
    It’s part of a generational cultural change connected to the affluence pervading our society so that most kids no longer have to work, especially at jobs that require physical activity.

  31. mockmook

    My mind is failing me in coming up with golden-age male stars who were flabby.

    The ones that stick in my mind were all very thin (compared to today’s “buff” stars).

  32. MPerry

    IIRC, someone di a poll a few yeas ago of young U.S. women, older U.S. women and young and old Brazilian women. The question was simple: Who is more attractive Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Younger american women chose Pitt by a pretty wide margin. Older American women and all Brazilian women chose Clooney by a similar margin.

    I”m not sure exactly what to make of that.

  33. Robert Sendler

    Salon had a fascinating article on this some time ago….

    Roll Out The Barrel

    Oct 24, 2000 | I’m in love with a bigamist.

    “The Bigamist,” that is, in which film-noir doughboy Edmond O’Brien plays Henry/Harrison Graham, who courts, impregnates and marries Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino) while still married to Eve Graham (Joan Fontaine).

    After seeing the film 10 times, I began to understand my fetish. I long, and even lust, for something that is nearly unattainable these days: the lug with a barrel chest.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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