After months of nudging from Jos and from my sister, I finally watched an episode of Glee. And then, because I loved it so much, I tried to watch every episode ever made so that I wouldn’t be distracted from my work by the temptation of unseen plot twists and musical numbers. It was Glee binge, and it wasn’t pretty.
Speaking of not pretty, isn’t Rachel totally ugly? I mean, just look at her:
Hideous, right? One of the running themes of Glee is that Rachel, played by Lea Michele, is talented, but annoying, badly dressed and physically unattractive. In other words, they Liz Lemon her. Yeah, I just made that a verb – and it needs to be one, because there’s a lot of Liz Lemoning going on these days.
For those of you who don’t spend an embarrassing amount of your time watching sitcoms on Hulu, Liz Lemonning originates with NBC’s 30 Rock. The most frustrating thing about 30 Rock, an otherwise excellent show, are the constant references to the fact that Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon is ugly. The thing is, Tina Fey fits conventional standards of female beauty almost to a T. Liz Lemon, like Rachel, is a flawed character, but the constant references to her ugliness are just absurd. And while beauty is of course subjective, these two women absolutely meet our culture’s standard of female beauty: they’re young, white, slim, cis-gendered, well-proportioned and able-bodied, with long shiny hair and smooth skin. They may not be Victoria’s Secret models, and they may have brown hair and glasses, but they certainly still meet society’s standards of female beauty.
Writing about this very problem, the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein writes that 30 Rock “didn’t have the nerve to cast an actually frumpy actress in Liz Lemon’s role. About half the jokes focus on Lemon’s looks, and they’re all undercut when the camera focuses on the slim, beautiful Tina Fey.” Klein believes that the lack of nerve reflects “American television’s terror of putting normal-looking people on screen.” And he has a point: The closest we’ve gotten to an actually frumpy actress in a lead role lately is America Ferrera in Ugly Betty.
I personally think that Ferrera is gorgeous, but she’s clearly a departure from the depictions of female beauty that we’re used to seeing on TV. And that departure didn’t last for long. In the first few seasons of the show, Ugly Betty‘s creative team was clearly taking some big risks: they had cast a lead actress who defied the standards of female beauty, and then they went out of their way to defy those standards even further, giving her heavy bangs, glasses, braces and dressing her in unflattering, unfashionable clothes. Betty was ugly, as ugly as any leading woman has been allowed to be in popular culture in some time. It was exciting to see a major network taking such a big risk, and to see viewers responding positively to a heroine who didn’t look like every other heroine on the screen. But in more recent seasons, references to Betty’s ugliness have started to feel like Liz Lemoning, because visually, a lot of that original ugliness has been done away with. Her hair has been pulled back off her face, and it’s longer, straighter and shinier than in earlier seasons. Her clothes are no longer unflattering, and while she still dresses in garish colors and flashy prints, the garishness and flashiness are now far more fashionable, perhaps because they’re designed by the same costume designer who masterminded Sarah Jessica Parker’s wardrobe on Sex and the City.
So, what does it mean when even the “ugly” women on our screens are conventionally beautiful? Firstly, it means that the bar for female beauty is being set higher than ever: if Tina Fey, Lea Michele and America Ferrera are “ugly,” what hope is there for the rest of us? It also means that we’re being told one thing and sold another. We’re being told that there is a space on television and in popular culture more broadly for women who defy conventional beauty norms, women who are “ugly.” Hell, there’s a whole show about a woman who’s ugly! It’s right there in the title! But in reality, those “ugly” women look an awful lot like the beautiful ones.
With progressive shows like 30 Rock (which was conceived and is written by a woman, and which has a fair bit of feminism to go along with its funny), Glee (which tackles a host of issues from sexuality to disability, with varying levels of success) and Ugly Betty (which is one of the first primetime shows about a Latino family, and which also tackles sexism, homophobia and the many faults of the fashion industry), this is particularly frustrating. These shows are meant to represent progress in a TV landscape that’s dominated by male writers and super-hot actresses, in which minorities and minority issues are sorely underrepresented. And in many ways, they do signal progress. But when it comes to female beauty on television, it seems that standards are becoming stricter, the range of permissible shapes and sizes smaller. Sadly, these otherwise progressive shows are part of that problem.