Pretty ugly: Can we please stop pretending that beautiful women aren’t beautiful?

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:
rachel.jpg
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.
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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.

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62 Comments

  1. Gnatalby
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    I agree, Finn clearly thinks she’s hot, as does art garfunkel looking guy who wants her underwear, and Puck calls her a hot jew.
    Totally agree about Liz Lemon, I just don’t think this critique applies to Glee.

  2. shetu.myopenid.com
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I think Lea Michele is gorgeous, but I can see how Rachel would be “perceived” as unattractive by certain people at school, given her social standing. There were plenty of conventionally beautiful, but less popular, girls at my high school who weren’t seen as girlfriend material by many because of their social standing or because they didn’t dress “right.” Someone published an online list of the hottest girls at my school (horrible, I know) and only the popular girls made the list.
    And Finn and that guy with the fro both have crushes on Rachel.

  3. Lydia
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my Jewish female heart. The time-honored stereotype of Jews being smart, interesting or almost anything but sexually attractive still lives . But I think that it affects men too, albeit in different ways. Every time Jon Stewart goes does his self-effacing scrawny-nebbish-Jew-boy routine I want to shake him (because he’s actually attractive, even something of a sex symbol at this point.). Jewish women often get characterized as mousy and nerdy or shrieky, obnoxious shrews. Of course there are the running-away-from-Christian-background type of guys who have a sexual preoccupation with Jewish women (Dated a couple. Briefly.) but that hardly solves the problem, does it? I do feel like that to some extent, even if a girl IS attractive, if her features are a dead ringer for “Jew”, then the associated stereotypes affect the way other people perceive her. I certainly can’t say I never experienced that during adolescence.

  4. Hrovitnir
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    If she was eating junk food all the time, she wouldn’t be a size 4.

    I beg to differ. There are plenty of people who are very slim who have horrendous eating habits. One of my best friends has real difficulty getting above 90lbs, has a flat stomach and for most of the time she was living near me (just over a year) she lived mostly on pies, chips, McDonalds, and home cooked meals packed with butter and cheese and almost no vegetables. And protein powder, to try on put on weight.
    My partner has spent the last four years sharing my ever devolving diet, including a long period where we ate takeaways most nights. While he laments being “fat”, he still has a flat stomach, discernable abs, and defined biceps/quads/calves.
    It’s called an incredibly fast metabolism.
    /off topic

  5. leeraloo
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Exactly. Besides, Rachel has more “love interests” than anyone on the show. Puck, Finn, Jacob (red haired boy), and at least one new character in the back nine. Like I said, I can’t recall people calling her “ugly” except for Quinn, who clearly saw Rachel as an opponent for Finn’s affections and maybe even for her social standing, and used Rachel for target practice for the teasing that kept her on top of the cheerleader social heap.

  6. leeraloo
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Do you know anything about Tina Fey and her past? She was a writer for SNL before she was a performer, and she had to be “polished up” to be put in front of the cameras. She was awkward and dressed in a very casual style that made her quite the opposite of her Esquire posing self now. She didn’t lose her virginity until she was 25, something which she is quite open about. Basically, she WAS Liz. And I don’t think her jokes are funny BECAUSE Liz likes to eat/is awkward/isn’t “cute,” etc., and in fact she’s cute in real life. They’d be funny even if I didn’t know what Tina Fey looked like glammed up on the cover of Esquire or Vanity Fair. They work with Liz’s character, and that’s why they’re funny. I completely relate to Liz. Nothing about her character rings untrue for me because I am so similar to her. Besides, aren’t you kind of playing into the stereotype that only ugly people can be awkward or eat a lot of junk food? Liz is genuinely a socially awkward person AND she just happens to clean up pretty nice, too. Besides, saying you hate another woman kind of runs contrary to what feminism stands for, especially when you go on to acknowledge all the amazing thinks that Tina Fey has done in the world of television comedy.

  7. Toongrrl
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Ugly????? I can’t even resemble any of them on even my pretty and plenty days. There’s a dress-up game featuring Rachel in Dress up Games
    http://www.dressupgames.com/glee/

  8. andie b.
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    It also seems like “ugly” is often shorthand for what is actually criticism of a character’s failure to adhere to traditional gender norms (for behavior and appearance). I don’t know about the characters other than Liz Lemon, but they all sound like independent, ambitious women who have put themselves and their careers or interests before chasing men and looking fabulous. The message seems to be, “no matter how objectively beautiful you are, you will be perceived as weird and unattractive if you don’t conform to traditional notions of femininity. Women and men alike will resent and mock you.”
    This seems especially clear on 30 Rock, where Liz’s single, childless status is a constant source of jokes involving ridicule and self-loathing. A lot of the time I see this trope as something even more indidious than a reflection of unrealistic beauty norms — it’s also a subtle reminder that all manner of “unfeminine” behavior can make a woman just seem… “ugly.”

  9. Kat
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    “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.”
    I’ve heard this referenced as ‘society’s standard of beauty’ on this site and others in many discussions, and I’m officially tired of it.
    Unfortunately, the factors listed above are merely society’s standard of media visibility and basic acceptableness. The standard of beauty can be far more extreme and damaging, and acting like every non-deformed white girl is living up to the expectations set by the media is frankly ridiculous.

  10. Honeybee
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Do you know what it’s like to be a woman at all? Because I have a ton of really attractive friends. But if you go up to each and ask them if they think they are beautiful or ugly – I bet most will tell you they think they are ugly.
    Since 30 Rock is written from Tina’s point of view, and especially based on her past, I don’t think it’s even unreasonable AT ALL that she herself thinks that she is unattractive. Most women do. Which is why I don’t quite get the criticism. I can only assume it’s because people are not aware of all the details and only go by surface value/reaction.

  11. nanabush
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    It’s also frustrating that we’re only comfortable with abject bodies/characters when the actors playing them are in costume and makeup, and can be seen on the red carpet promoting the film or series looking restored to their Hollywood perfection. We see Nicole Kidman looking blonde and small-nosed after starring in The Hours, we see Renee Zellweger in interviews discussing her calculated weight gain (and later weight loss) for Bridget Jones…and this seems to extend to other marginalized representations as well; Sean Penn starring in both I Am Sam and Milk come to mind.
    This phenomenon is equal to that of blackface, in my opinion. There should be a general term for it: the reification of standards of normality through constructing the abnormal as a mask to be worn by the “neutral” body.

  12. Scott Mendelson
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    I have never seen any reference to Rachel being physically unattractive on Glee. She’s unpopular and perhaps socially awkward, but she’s always seen looking pretty sharp and dressed up. Same thing with Lemon. No one whom the audience takes seriously actually refer to Lemon as being ugly. It’s just that her character is so awkward and insecure and the many people around her work for her or view her as a quasi-sibling that they just don’t look at her ‘that way’. Anyone who watches 30 Rock or Glee and isn’t attracted to Lemon or Rachel simply prefers other types of women. Anyone who watches and thinks that the two characters are supposed to be viewed as ugly just isn’t paying attention.

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  1. [...] for women, one that insists that the great majority of women (including actresses and models!) will never actually be beautiful, but must continually strive for it. One that causes real harm. One that is used [...]

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