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Beauty, from "Taxi Driver," a movie with Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd

Subthemes: Physical Characteristics, La Femme Fatale, Different than Sexy, Only Skin Deep

Before the eyes of a lonely taxi driver (Robert De Niro as Travis), a breathtaking woman “in a white dress” (Cybill Shepherd as Betsy) walks by. Right there, on a sidewalk in New York the most beautiful woman he has ever seen appears and he falls for her, completely enthralled, completely smitten. Several aspects of beautiful women suggest themselves from the scene where she appeared like an angel.

Physical Characteristics: Researchers have investigated why a person is thought to be very pretty and have found some obvious characteristics (as refined by the norms prevailing in the strata of society). Facial features have symmetry, such as the person’s eyes are balanced, large, and far apart. Skin has smoothness without moles, splotches lines, or other blemishes. A slim neck helps as does a bright smile beaming with good teeth and plentiful hair. The eyes, nose and mouth are neither too large nor too small and they complement each other. These physical attributes come from nature; unlike a rainbow or a shaft of sunlight, however, all of them can be enhanced.

La Femme Fatale: Not at all a femme fatale who tries to achieve some hidden purpose by using feminine wiles, Betsy doesn’t tease or flirt with Travis. Mostly she listens in wide-eyed astonishment to his fervent forwardness. But for millennia men have maligned, mistrusted and mistreated women because of their physical allure that unhinged the men. Mata Hari exploited this power as did the seductive Carmen who led the poor soldier astray. Manipulative women who trick men with their looks have been a staple of life and literature since long before Cleopatra’s allures caught Marc Anthony. A fairer interpretation, however, would be that in a patriarchal world, where men held almost all the chips, the one asset a woman could play was her looks.

Different than Sexy: Although sexual attraction often swathes someone described as “beautiful,” the word connotes other aesthetic qualities; it is not typically a synonym for earthier terms like “gorgeous,” “knockout,” “bombshell,” “looker”, “smashing”, “stops traffic,” or “hot”. An appearance is conveyed by “beautiful” that is more sublime and angelic. Marilyn Monroe was erotic as compared to Catherine Deneuve; Sharon Stone compared to Audrey Hepburn; Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde” compared to chaste Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain“; Jane Russell’s poster-girl looks versus beatific Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” Prostitute vs pulchritude?

Only Skin Deep: A person’s wrapping tells little about their inner gift. Put differently, “Never judge a book by its cover.” A beautiful person might not be a good person. Folklore suggests that widely admired looks can foster narcissism, selfishness, and a failure to develop nice qualities, which Carly Simon called out in her song, “You’re So Vain.” Or from a different perspective, the outer shell ages and withers, but couples that have been married for decades still see each other as beautiful inside. Nor does an ugly face belie a wonderful person behind it. Didn’t Beauty see through the Beast? In “Taxi Driver,” Cybill Shepherd remains mostly eye-candy because her personality never develops.


Movies teem with wonderful-looking actors and actresses yet the suddenness, simplicity and looks of this scene stand out. A man is transported by a glimpse of a striking woman – everything about her instantly appeals to him. He was bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by a beauty.

To consider subthemes of Beauty that are not associated with this movie scene or the other three creative works discussed in this set, please visit Additional Subthemes. Read this for more about Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other movies discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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