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When I was born, they looked at me and said, what a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.
—Barenaked Ladies, "What a Good Boy"
Certain ideals are expected to be embodied by male and female characters for them to be seen as attractive to the opposite sex. Sexy female characters are physically desirable; Sexy male characters are strong and proactive. This is a consequence of Men Act, Women Are as applied to sex appeal: A woman's attractiveness is mostly due to her passive physical attributes, while a man's attractiveness is mostly a result of his behavior.
For female characters, passivity does not detract from their attractiveness. In extreme cases, female characters who are very active will be seen as undesirable, or that they can only love a man stronger than themselves. Furthermore, a physically unattractive woman will always be unattractive regardless of how proactive she is. Male characters are viewed as less attractive if they are passive. In fact a dynamic evil man is more likely to be viewed as attractive than a decent but weak man. A physically unattractive man's dynamic qualities can also make him more attractive.
Some male characters who are physically attractive-particularly in a "Pretty Boy" kind of way -- will be seen as weak, less than a man, or suspected of being gay. This holds doubly true if they spend time cultivating their attractiveness (in fact, many male characters with a large female following tend to be disliked by some male audience members -- possibly because he's a threat to their sense of masculinity).
In summary, physical attractiveness only ever adds to a woman's sex appeal while being active may or may not detract. Whereas for men being proactive only ever adds to a man's sex appeal while being physically attractive may or may not add to his desirability.
These differing standards lead to the genders being held to equally damaging but different standards of attractiveness and have numerous Unfortunate Implications.
For women the implication is that your actions are irrelevant to your attractiveness to the opposite sex. As long as you're beautiful, even if you're 105 lbs of useless deadweight or utterly psychotic you're still desirable.
The Unfortunate Implications for men is that men are shallow and only after one thing, thus they don't care if a woman is a dynamic, active character. Also, male characters will end up pulling more than their own weight, emotionally and physically, in works where this trope is in effect.
And, just like the beauty ideal puts incredible pressure on women to be beautiful, the strength ideal puts incredible pressure on men to judge themselves against an impossible standard of stoicism, willpower and physical strength. These pressures have not received as much press or attention on their effects on men and boys, partially due to the idea that men aren't as emotionally fragile as women, that things that affect women are worse than things that affect men. This in turn enforces another Double Standard: That women must be defended from the evil media, while men should be able to just shrug it off.
In the last few decades there has been more of a push to create attractive, dynamic female characters. Unfortunately this often seems to come at the expense of the male characters they are paired with who are portrayed as incompetent and emasculated. It is a hard balance to strike, and difficult to imagine a work in which a beautiful, virgin male character is saved from peril by a grizzled female Anti-Hero who is changed for the better by his pure heart, without the man seeming like a useless wussy-pants whose wuss-ness disqualifies him from being a man and, more importantly, from being saved. See Action Girlfriend for the few couples who approach such a dynamic, like Zoe and Wash from Firefly.
- In romantic comedies, an undesirable woman can easily remedy her faults with a makeover, and, surprise, surprise, discover that She Cleans Up Nicely. An undesirable male's transformation is less of a physical one, and more about growing up and accepting responsibility for his actions.
- The tropes Cute Monster Girl and Green-Skinned Space Babe: Even non-human creatures must be conventionally attractive to human males.
- Beast and Beauty and Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Men want women who are more attractive than they are. If they choose women based on qualities other than looks, then they are suspected of being gay and the women they're with is obviously an attempt to deflect from their gayness. In this dynamic, women are forbidden to want physical attractiveness in their mate. Often because they are above being selfish and petty.
- No Guy Wants to Be Chased, No Guy Wants an Amazon, All Amazons Want Hercules, Best Her to Bed Her: Women want men who are stronger than they are. Some women are seen as attracted to weak men however the assumption is that they are attracted to these men in order to dominate and abuse them. Or, in lighter versions where the man is justifiably weak, she is attracted to him because of his need for healing. The man in these more acceptable scenarios is still a Badass or a former badass.
- Compare male superheroes with their female counterparts... yeah.
- The fact that Faux Action Girls can exist. It's not really necessary to establish them as strong as long as they're hot. A male character who is supposed to be Badass needs to live up to his reputation through acts of strength and manliness, while a female character does not.
- Our so-called modern attitudes regarding sexuality betray this trope. Men are seen to give women pleasure through their actions; while men get pleasure from women's bodies in a way that women don't from men's. Thus the emphasis is on men's technique, or their agency, and women's bodies, or their passive attributes, in sex.
- Pretty much every group of True Companions in Shonen. In good shonen Manga, every character in the group is useful in their own way. Meaning the majority (the men) can be gonks as long at they're also badasses. Women however, no matter how competent, must ALSO be (at the very least) cute. And of course, in poor shonen manga, the females tends to be regulated to being eye candy, her looks being her only interesting point.
- Abhorrent Admirer, Fat Girl, Hollywood Homely, Hollywood Pudgy: Women are basically not allowed to look "plain", let alone be ugly. In the off-chance an ugly woman makes an appearance on screen, chances are she's a Foil to a frumpy yet eventually attractive woman; or she's a villain. Additionally, women are forbidden to look for physical attractiveness in men as it makes them pass off as shallow bitches.
- Bury Your Disabled, Inspirationally Disabled: Disabled men are always seen as sexually undesirable and forcibly chaste. Being unable to take physical action to advance the plot, they can only hope to be supportive characters, or brainy ones, but romance is definitely off the table, unless the story wants to drop an anvil about accepting people for who they are.
- Invoked in Who Wants to Be a Superhero, where the comic covers for the potential contestants had the men with bigger muscles than the real ones, and the women are likewise depicted with bigger breasts.
- Y: The Last Man: The central cast is a badass secret agent and bodyguard, an Insufferable Genius cloning expert and the crucially important survivor. The first two are both women, the last is a Non-Action Guy.
- In WALL-E, while pretty much every robot featured is adorable, EVE is the one who does a whole lot more for the sake of her boyfriend and her directive/career, while WALL-E himself is pretty much thrust into situations he shouldn't be in for the sake of a romantic partner.
- The eponymous protagonist of Chuck is a sensitive, Hollywood Homely Nerd who helps his Action Girl bodyguard deal with her inner demons.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer tends to kick much more ass than any of her boyfriends (master vampires included).
- Firefly has tough soldier Zoe married to sensitive pilot Wash.
- A Prairie Home Companion: In Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
- In The Order of the Stick, it is Elan (the man) that is constantly being referred to as physically attractive; his female love interest, Haley, is more skilled at battle and never mentioned as being especially good-looking. (Since this is a Stick Figure Comic, looks are strictly an Informed Attribute.)