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 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 a complete and utter bitch you're still desirable. And if you're not born beautiful enough, no matter what you do, Failure Is the Only Option for you.
The Unfortunate Implications for men are that men are shallow and only after one thing, thus they don't care if a woman is a dynamic, active character, and that women have no worth beyond their looks. 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 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.
- The author of Rurouni Kenshin, Nobuhiro Watsuki, believes that men should be strong and women, cute. There are few, if any, women able to fight any Big Bads or against Kenshin and his team. Though in Kaoru's case it isn't so much that she's weak, but that everyone else is too strong.
- Creator of Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa designs her characters with a specific variation on this principle: "men should be buff! women should be va-voom!"
- Ooku is set in a feudal Japan where a plague has made women the dominant gender, men being reduced to communal babymakers and prostitues (and are generally considered too precious to waste on dangerous jobs like soldiering). The main exception is the capital, where the shogun gets a harem of men for her personal use, and while they're theoretically her bodyguard, they tend to be on the pretty side as well. Later one shogun gets the idea of using men in a fire brigade where their muscles can be put to better use.
- Played With in the original Marvel Family: all three members had Strength, Wisdom and Speed, but while Billy and Freddie also had Stamina, Power and Bravery, Mary's additional powers (which came from goddesses) were Beauty, Grace and Skill. Averted in the Post-Crisis reimagining, where the three all had the same powers from the same (male) benefactors.
- This is the gender norm in A Song of Ice and Fire—men are expected to bear arms and fight while women are expected to sit around and keep house. Arthur "The Sword of the Morning" and Ashara Dayne, siblings whose deaths in the aftermath of Robert's Rebellion were much-romanticized as a result of this trope, exemplify this; Arthur was a Master Swordsman and member of the Kingsguard while Ashara was World's Most Beautiful Woman at the time. Characters that subvert these expectations, such as Brienne of Tarth and Asha Greyjoy (both warrior women) are met with derision. Even in cases where it can't be helped, like Tyrion being a dismal warrior due to being a dwarf,note are seen as no excuse.
- 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 (except for Fat Momma, who wasn't depicted as any prettier and was instead depicted as a massive, hulking powerhouse).
- Stargate SG-1: Kar'yn and Rya'c use this trope for their wedding vows:
Kar'yn: Rya'c, your heart is pure and your spirit strong. You give me strength and joy and I will stand by your side always.Rya'c: Kar'yn, you are as beautiful as the sun and my love for you is like the morning rays that dawn over an endless day.
- In the second edition of Fantasy Hero for the Hero System, there was a description of what it meant to have a characteristic higher than 20: "Songs are written about the man with 25 Strength or the woman with 24 Comeliness."
- In Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, the "Frankenstein's Monster" and "Bride of Frankenstein" backgrounds are almost identical, but males get a strength bonus while females get a beauty bonus.
- The many, many armor sets of Monster Hunter tend to abide by this trope. The male version will often look tough and hide the wearer's face, while the female version will generally focus on looking graceful, keep the wearer's face visible, and in some cases, boast a little Fanservice. The image up top is a more specific example: The male Aelucanth armor set is designed to invoke the image of an intimidating insect, while the female version strongly resembles a butterfly. Aesthetics aside, the game generally averts this trope with regards to the Player Character; both male and female hunters are equally as capable of becoming badass G-rank hunters and neither have a gameplay advantage over the other.
- Gets a lampshade hung on it in The Book of Unwritten Tales's sequel by protagonist Wilbur Weathervane. In a parody of the "Adventurer's Shop" found in most games he comes across two sets of armor. The male version looks decidedly badass, featuring plate coverings, spikes, and a really nice helmet. The female version... not so much, resembling more a platemail bikini with a tiara. When Wilbur asks the proprietor about the two sets, he is positively shocked to find they actually boast IDENTICAL defense and agility bonuses. Having a background in armoring and metalwork, he feels the need to point out the incongruity there, but fails to convince the shop owner. The lampshade is further hung when a female third character enters the shop and Wilbur asks for her opinion on the matter, hoping to get a natural ally in the argument. Unfortunately, she is of the gold digging persuasion and perfectly comfortable with using feminine wiles to get men to do what she wants, so the bikini makes perfect sense to her.
- The reason why the first man and woman in Philippine Mythology are named Malakas (strong) and Maganda (beautiful) respectively as they were born on split bamboo.
- The official motto of the State of Maryland is Fatti maschii, parole femine:* "Manly deeds, womanly words." (Some higher-ups became uncomfortable with the outdated connotations, and changed the official translation to "Strong deeds, gentle words," but this doesn't really change the basic facts...)
- 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. Technically they both have No Biological Sex, but for audience purposes they are fairly obviously gendered.
- The world of A Brother's Price features a broad Stereotype Flip of most gender roles, set in an analogue of the nineteenth century. Therefore the noted attributes of women are strength, confidence, intelligence, competence etc, with ugliness being a detriment but fairly minor, but although men are expected to be able to run a household and raise children their beauty is extremely important.
- Lada and her brother Radu from 'And I Darken' invert this trope. Lada is strong and fast and cruel, and described by all who comment on her appearance as very ugly (except Huma, who says she could put in some effort and be prettier.) Radu is gentler and more academic, as well as shyer and weaker (though with the time skip he comes into his own, and it's probable that Lada's and his father's bullying made him more shy than natural) and extremely handsome.
- 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. Even the episode where Wash demands to go on a mission while Zoe stays on the ship isn't the trope being played straight. He wasn't jealous of his wife's Action Girl status, he was jealous of her Platonic Life-Partners relationship with Mal.
- 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.
- Outsider: The Loroi have a much higher ratio of women to men, so the men are kept safe while the women go off and fight or do whatever else is necessary. They think of this as a natural biological and cultural evolution for any warrior race, since it makes reproduction far more efficient than any monogamous model. It takes Beryl a bit to wrap her head around the idea that humans have about the same number of males and females.
- Sword Princess Amaltea: Thanks to the story being held in a Matriarchy world, with gender roles reversed, the females are the dominant gender, and while most of them are attractive, their looks are not such a big deal as their intelligence, cleverness and overall, pride and strenght. Males otherwise hold little to no power, especially if they're not royal-born, and their good looks are all that matters, to the point they keep their manes long and are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the females.
- SpongeBob SquarePants: Sandy Cheeks is considerably stronger than SpongeBob, who can at best be just Weak, but Skilled enough to compete with her in karate. While SpongeBob himself isn't considered particularly "pretty", he has a few noticeably girlish features, such as his eyelashes and appears to be somewhat mindful of his appearance.