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.
ub1.jpgub2.jpg
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.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • DeafBrownTrash

    in French, there is a word for “ugly beautiful” for women who look “unusual” by society’s standards (like mainstream media, Hollywood, trashy tabloids, women’s beauty mags, lad mags who tell you that being fat, tattooed, dyed, pierced, hooked nose, short hair, or whatever makes you UGLY), but these women are still beautiful no matter what anyone says.
    I believe it’s “belle laide.” Examples would be Tina Fey, America Ferrera or that actress in Glee.

  • Brianna G

    I also object to taking a beautiful actress and using a lot of makeup– like Anne Hathaway in the Princess Diaries. I suppose that frizzy hair, braces, glasses, and overgrown eyebrows aren’t the standard of beauty, but Anne Hathaway doesn’t look like that naturally, and in the book Mia was STILL gawky with unmanageable hair AFTER the makeover, it was just dyed and shorter. In fact, they describe her hair style as looking like a Q-tip– not exactly the sleek perfect tresses of Hathaway’s character.

  • Athenia

    Right on Chloe! References to Rachael’s “ugliness” always irritates me too.
    However, on the other hand, I kind of enjoy the irony. Because I feel like that’s how most of us go through life–no matter how good we feel about ourselves or how beautiful other people think we are, there are going to be people who think you are “ugly.” It kinda shows that beauty is only what we say it is.

  • Becca

    Yes! Thank you.
    Also add to the list commercials for acne where an actress goes “Oh no, I have this huge ZIT!” and she points to like a completely clear and beautiful spot on her face.
    (Although I did just see a commercial with a GUY that has a zit, and it actually showed a zit… it’s the one that ends with the line “He’s a CUTE chicken,” btw…)

  • cattrack2

    Being a bit harsh on 30 Rock aren’t we? If Tina Fey isn’t the lead character on the show she created what would she be? …And if you eliminate the jokes at her expense you wouldn’t have much of a sit com left…
    I think the message of the show that you’re overlooking here is that hardworking, “nerdy”, and “goofy” women have every right to succeed as their male counter parts do. While Tina Fey is certainly attractive, she’s hardly Jessica Simpson, and the point of the show is that you don’t have to look like Jessica Simpson to succeed. You don’t need to starve yourself, cut yourself, or inject yourself to succeed.

  • KatieinNewYork

    I know this is nit-picky and not to the point (which is a point that I dig), but I…don’t remember a lot of references to Rachel actually being physically ugly (except maybe from the Cheerios & co. – where unattainable perfection is the point). It’s more like that she’s so impossibly annoying that no one wants to be with/around her. Except Finn. Yeah, they talk about her having a big nose, which, maybe she has a slightly bigger then “perfect” nose, but it isn’t really about “her”, so much as her wanting to be the next Barbara Streisand.
    Honestly, her appearance is the reason that scene in the bathroom with Susie Pepper works – when Susie compares the two of them saying they are both “mildly attractive”, it’s funny because it so obviously isn’t true. Of course, that could be another can of worms, but still. I think Rachel’s ugliness really comes from her intolerable personality.
    I don’t watch the other two shows, so I can’t say. I do get your point, though.

  • JJ

    *thunderous applause*
    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is something that has been bothering me for quite some time!

  • vegkitty

    I TOTALLY agree.
    It’s especially strange since Lea Michele’s breakout role in “Spring Awakening” was a character who is supposed to be fairly attractive (at least to one of the male characters).
    Also, out of the female characters on Glee, she’s probably had the most boyfriends and men who openly crush on her.

  • http://http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodHomely DireSloth

    TVTropes has an interesting entry on this very topic. Let’s see if I can’t manage to botch the link: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodHomely

  • The Elf Girl

    30 Rock was actually created by Tina Fey, and likely why she plays Liz Lemon. Since she’s also a writer for the show, the comments about her being unattractive may come more from her than NBC.
    That being said, I agree with what you’re saying as a whole. It is pretty ridiculous to cast an attractive person in a part and then claim they’re unattractive. It’s been around for awhile, the earliest thing I can think of offhand (in movies/tv) is Audrey Hepburn playing the title character in Sabrina.

  • ElleStar

    I’ve not seen much Glee, but from what I experienced in high school, it’s not too far off the mark that Rachel would be considered “ugly.” In high school, I looked a lot like Rachel. I fit the conventional beauty standards of height and weight, had no unusual scarring or birthmarks (not that those are ugly, but those often seem ugly to others), and looking back now, I was actually pretty. But I was still considered “unattractive” by my classmates.
    I wasn’t blond-haired or blue-eyed. I was smart and quiet when girls were “supposed” to be bubbly and dumb. I made some unfortunate clothing decisions. I wasn’t waif-ish thin and I had too many muscles. Therefore, I was unattractive to most people in my school.
    Looking back, I can see how stupid the whole thing was and that I was pretty. That doesn’t change that others didn’t see me that way.
    It seems that Glee might be reflecting the reality of a lot of girls.

  • davenj

    TVTropes has a great entry on this called “Hollywood Homely”.
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodHomely
    There’s an enormous list of examples for this trope.
    All of this is just an example of how lookism is going strong, and will be for the foreseeable future.

  • fifthie

    ?
    Rachel is somewhat pretty. They say so in the show.

  • jak

    I don’t disagree with the basic premise here, particularly on 30 Rock and Liz Lemon.
    However, I don’t think that Glee ever says that Rachel is ugly (just annoying and badly dressed). In fact, in one episode, Puck says that “Rachel was a hot Jew, and God was telling me to get in her pants.”
    Additionally, I’m impressed that Ugly Betty managed to keep up Betty’s sense of style at all over the seasons. I kept expecting more of a “Devil Wears Prada” type transformation, where she suddenly becomes super gorgeous and fashionable.
    Devil Wears Prada- now there’s an example of what you were saying. In what universe can Anne Hathaway possibly considered fat and frumpy?

  • PeggyLuWho

    This is exactly the reason why I can’t watch 30 Rock. It’s so frustrating for me.

  • Dawn.

    I completely agree, Chloe. It is so frustrating when otherwise progressive shows are beauty standard fails. I think the media, particularly television, has a long way to go in this regard. Media executives must think we’ll all throw out our TVs in disgust if someone physically unconventional stars in anything. Even cable news does this, i.e. feminizing Rachel Maddow.

  • Blitzgal

    They do this in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, too. Michael Cera has made quite a career for himself playing the average nerdy everyman, but they’ll cast women like Kat Dennings to play his nerdy female equivalent. It simply doesn’t scan.

  • Comrade Kevin

    I honestly wish that we didn’t have these societal expectations to contend with regarding feminine beauty. When I wrote about my own experiences, I think I was mostly responding to the idea that women seem to be shoved in one of two directions: do I cultivate my body or do I cultivate my mind?

  • TeenMommy

    About to be nitpicky, but:
    Rachel of Glee actually departs from that “slap glasses on her, and she’s ugly” thing in a certain way: the other character routinely refer to her as hot and pretty. Finn has always found her hot, so has Puck — I believe he called her a hot Jew — satisfying both his needs and his mothers’ desire for him — in one episode.
    Other characters have said that she’s be attractive if not for her awful personality.
    Other characters have said she’d be hot if she didn’t dress herself in the way she does.
    But none of those things are the same as the normal “Pretty girl wears glasses, nobody can tell she’s pretty anymore” trope. Instead, it’s, “She’s pretty, but.”
    The only person on the show I remember truly critiquing her looks was that evil show choir director they hired for about five minutes, but he also hated almost everyone else as well.

  • chirizca

    I can’t comment on Ugly Betty because I don’t watch that but my understanding of Liz Lemon’s character being ‘ugly’ is that is part of the joke. She is obviously a good looking woman but her job is one in which she’s surrounded by very superficial people who are used to looks being everything.

  • sara

    Right with you on how ludicrous it is that so many TV shows and movies pretend beautiful actresses are not pretty.
    That said, I do think the Liz Lemon and Rachel examples to actually touch on a truth: When objectively physically attractive women don’t conform in their behavior, dress, or priorities to certain common assumptions about what women–and particularly what pretty girls–are like, people do seem to have a harder time recognizing that they are attractive. I’ve certainly had that experience, and when I moved to a new environment where people did recognize that I was attractive, it was really disorienting. That seems to be at least part of the issue with both Liz and Rachel.

  • winniemcgovens

    “I wanted ‘Maryanne on Gilligan’s Island’ ugly, not ‘Cornelius on The Planet of the Apes’ ugly. T.V. ugly, not ugly ugly.” via Simpson’s episode.
    TV “ugly” is a weird thing, and we could dissect it forever. I can’t really remember any old shows though that did really push away from the idea of “tv ugly” and go for a more realistic approach so I don’t think this is anything new, maybe just more extreme. Clearly this is more true of women than men, “tv ugly” for men definitely can go allot further than it can for women.

  • Cola

    This is why I love Mad Men. The women on the show are beautiful, but many of them are unconventionally so. Peggy, for example, is not treated like an “ugly” character (unblossomed, perhaps, but not ugly–the men seem to find her desirable enough) but even for the period she’s not conventionally attractive. Her hair is kind of blah and her clothes are frumpy (I haven’t seen the third season, so this could have changed).
    Even Joan doesn’t cleave to standards of weight/beauty, but she is widely regarded as gorgeous.
    Um… no puns intended…
    Anyway…

  • makomk

    Ah yes, Hollywood Homely (can you tell I’ve spent way too much time on the TV Tropes wiki?) It’s quite interesting how this almost always seems to happen with ugly female characters, especially given that it’s probably the polar opposite of good storytelling…

  • bifemmefatale

    “Jolie-laide”, actually, but close enough.

  • GeekGirlsRule

    I can’t say for Glee, but I always thought that the comments on Liz Lemon’s looks were supposed to underscore that no matter how thin or pretty you are, even if you fit the conventional standards, you can never be thin or pretty ENOUGH. And that men will always use your looks to denigrate you and silence you, even if you do look like a beauty queen or a porn start. So, I don’t know that that casting an ugly actress would have added anymore impact.
    Although I could happily see the end of throwing glasses on a woman and deeming that to make her ugly. Puh-leaze.

  • Doug S.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodHomely
    As usual, the TV Tropes Wiki has an entry on this.

  • Tread

    I disagree with your assessment of America Ferrera’s character of Ugly Betty becoming less and less “ugly” for no apparent reason. The metamorphosis of Betty becoming less “ugly” is part of the plot. The premise of Ugly Betty was for Betty to discover herself in the high pressure and infinitely cruel world of a high fashion magazine. The current season has really delved into Betty discovering that working for the magazine has changed her into someone she wasn’t when she first started working there. There are some positive and negative aspects to her evolution, but the important message the show has always had is embracing who you are.
    I think Ferrera’s character still has the unrefined touch that many of the other show’s characters do not carry, though she has become more fashionable as the seasons have progressed. This is largely due to the character’s self-growth and her growing confidence that maybe she really does belong at MODE Magazine as she brings a unique and thoughtful perspective to the often vapid, shallow world of fashion. As Betty has embraced that self-assurance, her outer appearance has changed to match her inner self-confidence.
    It was clear from the start of the show that, one day, Betty wouldn’t be “ugly” anymore.

  • KungFuGurl

    I definitely agree with what you are saying here. However, I always thought the jokes on 30 Rock regarding Liz Lemon’s physical appearance were highlighting the ridiculous nature of beauty standards, instead of playing in to them. For starters, Tina Fey is writing the jokes about herself. To me it seems that Fey is illustrating how impossible it is to keep up with mainstream ideas of beauty. You are right that she is beautiful, but her less-than airbrushed appearance is continuously contrasted with Suri, who is a caricature of the young, hot, hollywood type. The other female character, Jenna, constantly plays into the stereotypical ideal of female beauty, usually to her detriment. Despite these other, more “acceptable” models Liz Lemon is confident in her lifestyle and continues to be content thriving on junk food and indulging in movie nights even though the other characters on the show may mock her choices. I feel like when jokes are made regarding Liz Lemon’s appearance it is to highlight the absurdity of the other characters or the notions themselves. Although Suri and Jenna are beautiful, blonde and exceptionally groomed they are not relateable characters. Liz is very relateable for many women. I mean how many of us have been made to feel unattractive for being less than perfect? Oh and lets not forget shen she rocked “Tom Seleck” on the show,

  • Hypatia

    Case in Point –> HERMIONE!
    There are plenty of conventionally unattractive male actors in TV/movies, why can’t it be so with female actors?

  • Lise Marie

    I can’t speak to anything with Glee, but I feel like part of the “Liz Lemoning” of Tina Fey is meant to point out how ridiculous our beauty standards often are. I mean, it’s obvious that Tina Fey is beautiful. Perhaps the references to her as “ugly” are laid out so the joke is on us, the viewer – or the character making the joke. Does that make any sense?

  • middlechild

    Come on…we know what it means. “Hollywood” ugly is “mortal” attractive. They’re not casting Tina Fey to be cheesecake, nor or they casting Lea that way (though she is lovely and she rocks it on the red carpet, I would not say she is “conventionally attractive,” at least not by Hollywood standards; she still has slightly less feminine facial proportions than the typical 20 something actress on a hit show, unless that actress specifically cast as the “fat” or “gawky” friend” or something).
    Besides…I thought it was understood by now, at least by every critic who has reviewed Glee or 30 Rock, that these shows’ funny, interesting female leads are most definitely not “ugly.” They are attractive, but accessible-looking for the typical female viewer. Their roles do not depend primarily on their looks, but the personalities of their characters and their characters’ insecurities.
    One last thing–don’t blows against Liz Lemon’s looks typically come from characters we know not to take seriously (at least in those moments) like Jack or her writers? Don’t the jokes at her expense cheekily mock stereotypes (i.e. in Liz’s dreams, she’s blond) about looks and aging in women versus men?

  • Miriam/Heddy
  • leeraloo

    I wish I was as “ugly” as Lea Michele, Tina Fey, and America Ferrera. But I kind of feel like this is a misinterpretation of “30 Rock” and “glee.” On “30 Rock,” Liz isn’t really made out to be ugly, biologically speaking. It’s more that she doesn’t put much effort into her appearance. Tina is basically writing Liz as an alternate universe version of herself. If you read interviews with Tina Fey, she doesn’t seem to understand this “sex appeal” that she’s gained in recent years. Besides, most of the criticism lodged at her (which, technically, she lodges at herself) on the show is about her social awkwardness. They’ve made comments a few times about her cleaning up nice. As for “glee,” Rachel mostly only gets called “ugly” by the cheerleaders who hate her, and it becomes fairly clear that they’re basically just jealous of her. Again, if there’s any hatred or distaste going her way, it’s because of her personality, her “Tracy Flick” competitiveness. In fact, there’s that whole episode where she gets a “sexy makeover” and it doesn’t really work in her favor. No one ever says that she’s ugly and means it, at least not as far as I recall (and I’ve seen each episode more times than I care to admit). Besides, even if these complaints about “glee” have some grounding, then the same could be said of their treatment of guys, in a way. Artie is made to be the “ugly nerd,” when CLEARLY he is the cutest guy with the best male singing voice on the show. Not that that makes it fair, but it is interesting to think about how Hollywood does this to every gender. They rarely hire actors who are actually “ugly,” meaning not conventionally handsome or pretty, and prefer to fug hot people up momentarily. It doesn’t seem to even be a gender issue there, not necessarily. Just the necessity of beauty for marketing and success in the entertainment industry.

  • smechmann.wordpress.com

    Here’s my theory: I think perhaps that the constant references to the ugliness of Liz Lemon comes from Tina Fey herself. Granted, I think Tina Fey is beautiful and when I bought a pair of “Liz Lemon” glasses, my husband was thrilled (he loves girl nerds). But. . . I suspect that growing up, Tina Fey was not considered beautiful, and like many of us, went through quite an awkward period. Those feelings of inadequacy – whether it be about your hair color, texture, length, weight, skin, height – never go away. I was not considered “pretty” by conventional standards until maybe my college years, and even then, I had some road blocks. I think 30 Rock, and maybe Glee (I haven’t seen it) do deal with these issues of female beauty by challenging us to have these conversations.

  • jolenetara

    Thanks so much for this article. I really enjoyed Glee this fall too, but Rachel constantly being called ugly drove me up the wall- if anything, in my opinion, she’s probably the most beautiful actress on the show when we use current societal conventions for beauty. It’s funny that you bring up Anne Hathaway, Brianna, because that’s who she kind of reminds me of- her and “Belle” from Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast. She certainly doesn’t remind me of anyone I’ve ever heard referred to as anything but beautiful.
    I did find one character/actress to identify with a little bit- Mercedes, played by Amber Riley, is gorgeous but definitely “plus sized” (even if I wanted to, crash dieting for the rest of the year wouldn’t make me as thin as Rachel). But of course, on the show, she’s still the backup singer to Rachel very often.

  • Chris H

    Ugly Betty’s transformation is a complex issue. One of my big complaints with the show, actually, is that they seem to have striven not to allow Betty Suarez to evolve past the character as she was in the first season. She’s a professional in a world-famous fashion magazine who’s continually making blunders of both appearance and behavior that she should have been savvy enough to avoid by the end of the first season. Particularly annoying to me is they insist on keeping her a naïve Pollyana, which stretches my credibility even without the magazine setting; she grew up in Queens, for FSM’s sake. Every Queens girl I ever knew would have been able to chew Betty Suarez up and spit her out by the time they entered sixth grade, never mind as adults. Betty acts more like a farm girl from Iowa who was really proud
    This isn’t to say that I think she should have become another Mode clone, either. That would have been an equal failure. What I think should have happened—and hasn’t—is that the writers should have worked at having Betty grow into a personality that was a more successful synthesis of her home and work, one that was uniquely her and yet not so obviously awkward (and often inept) at navigating the office politics at Mode.
    For me, the most interesting storylines in Ugly Betty for the past two years have increasingly been those of the supporting characters: Mark’s ambivalent relationship with Betty and his mentorship of Justin as he works out his own conflicted identity, for example. The latter story has been one of the most genuinely touching parts of the show, especially considering that Mark started out as a well-done but stereotypical bitchy queen. Her sister Hilda’s growth as a businesswoman and her relationships with men has also been fascinating, and even Amanda and Wilhemina have proved to show more than their original roles promised. Betty herself, I feel, has stagnated, and that’s a big part of why the show is being cancelled.

  • Lydia

    I’m also pretty damn tired Hollywood trying to pass off beautiful women as “average” or “ugly” by putting glasses on them. But if we’re going to stop pretending this makes them ugly, can we also stop pretending that America Ferrera isn’t conventionally beautiful or that casting her in Ugly Betty was such a “big risk?” She was already highly visible by the time that show premiered and had several successful film roles under her belt, one of which was in a mainstream teen film. She’s got a gorgeous face by any standards, perfect skin, perfect body proportions, even if she does have a tiny bit more weight on her than a standard Hollywood actress. (although, honestly, I don’t know what that is anymore since defying the “standard” has gotten so hip by now.) I’m almost as tired of people pretending that America Ferrera is some kind of subversive beauty as I am of people trying to say that Jennifer Lopez or Beyonce aren’t thin.

  • a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi

    The term you’re going for is jolie laide.

  • asseenontv

    You make a great point. Hollywood wants to do stories about the trials and tribulations of unattractive people, but they don’t want to actually gives these people employment opportunities in acting.
    As for 30 Rock, I’m not sure if the criticism applies quite as well. Tina Fey is the star because it’s her show. Also, jokes about her being ugly would seem mean and unfunny if she really was ugly.

  • SillyCat

    Part of Rachel’s “unattractiveness” is also the contrast which is played up between her and Quinn Febray, the blond, all-American cheerleader type. Rachel looks very ethnically Jewish, a theme which the show plays up repeatedly. Thus she is an inherent outsider, whose looks can be sexually appealing to the white, gentile men, but who will never be as “pretty” as her white, Christian competitor. I think this is particularly true for Jewish women, more so than Jewish men (like Puck) who are allowed to pass far more often. Just think of that horrible Details issue (covered by Jezebel), which announced as breaking news that “some Jewish girls may be hot!” The magazine then made the Jewish models pose with cream cheese and talked about their noses.
    While the author of this post may consider Jews to be white, that is only really a recent, largely American development, owing much to the white/black dichotomization of our national society. Jews may be considered white in comparison to blacks, but in comparison to white, Anglo, Christians, they are demoted to an intermediate racial category.

  • Human Bean

    To be fair to Ugly Betty (which I actually hadn’t watched much of until this season), Betty’s changes in appearance have been part of an ongoing story arc –that is, the character herself has been making conscious and deliberate changes to her appearance–so it’s not just an attempt to erase the old more-genuinely-ugly Betty.* And I’ve been more or less liking how they’ve done that. They show Betty as wanting to change, but they also show how she’s pressured to in some ways, and how sometimes she’s psychologically torn a little about whether she’s compromising her true self or something.
    That said, you’re spot on about the overall trope in Hollywood, that an “ugly person” = a beautiful person + glasses and bad hair.
    *Just to be totally perfectly clear, that’s that the character was much less conventionally attractive, not the actress herself.

  • mary_magpie

    I absolutely love Glee, but I do believe that despite it trying so hard to be diverse and progressive, it does fall short of that ideal.
    Although I have to say, I don’t think the show explicitly states that Rachel’s character is shunned for her looks or for being ugly. Yes, they make fun of the way she dresses, but mainly the students seem to dislike her for her “annoying” personality, and her tendency to run over or push aside her peers in her attempt to be the one and only star. In fact, this past season focused a lot on her growth as a team player, and that while she should be recognized as the star she is, it shouldn’t be at the expense of her friends.
    There were also a few episodes where other characters recognize her as being attractive and sexually desirable. I could give examples, but I worry that it would give away spoilers.
    Not to say that the author’s argument isn’t valid. I totally agree that Liz Lemon-ing is rampant in many television shows, and there is a definite need to have a more diverse cast of female leads in all shapes and sizes. But I feel that Glee’s writers wrote Rachel to be unpopular not because of her looks, but for the other reasons stated above.

  • LexiconLuthor

    I LOVE your use of Liz Lemmon as an example of an “ugly” woman.
    Tina Fey is beautiful. Conventionally. In every and all aspects. And though I’m not a “Glee” fan, the woman in your picture is beautiful as well.
    I too am tired of this!
    Handsome male counterparts get to have their handsome-ness translate into gettin’ the ladies and making the dollars, so why can’t our beautiful (and handsome) women get the same benefit?

  • Christina

    The other thing that has been irritating me lately about 30Rock is the incessant jokes about Liz Lemon’s bad eating habits. It seems every episode now there’s something about her being “gross” with food and yet… she’s still that slim, shiny-haired, able-bodied woman. Give me a break. If she was eating junk food all the time, she wouldn’t be a size 4.

  • BethanyL

    I agree with you that Hollywood and television’s attempt to create supposedly ugly characters is annoying, and their failure is pretty blatant.
    That said, I think that the roll of Liz Lemon’s physical appearance and the commentary on it by other characters in the show is not as cut and dry as you lay out. I see it as part of the show’s satire and absurdity. The show doesn’t seem to take itself seriously in making the claim that liz is unattractive, rather they put most of the criticism of they way she looks into the mouth of a character that the audience only marginally trusts and likes, Jack Doneghy. Jack kind of represents this ridiculous male, conservative, business-y perspective (almost to a Colbertian level of mockery), and so we’re suppose to see his views of Lemon through that lens.

  • tan

    I could have written this post! It was the same for me in high shool.
    It’s almost like the students somehow collectively decide who is hot (just like the tv show writers) and if you are not the hot one, than you must not be hot and are undateable. I still have weird issues about how I feel about myself because no one was interested in me and I had no boyfriends. :(

  • mandoir

    I completely agree.

  • MaggieDanger

    Word. I hate Tina Fey. Yes, she’s a successful woman in comedy and television, which is really rare, and I don’t doubt she’s a very strong, talented woman who ate a lot of shit to get to where she is. But most of her jokes since 30 Rock began focus on how she’s not cute, she’s not cool, she’s not likable, she likes to eat like a pig, etc. and it’s so funny because she’s actually totally cute and boys actually do totally want her! Blech.
    I used to think comedy was one of the few arenas in Hollywood where people COULD look unconventional – fat guys, weird-looking guys, loudmouths, etc. There were never enough women, but the few women who succeeded were generally pretty crass, weird-looking, and not “traditionally feminine” (think Roseanne). I always really liked that, because it was a step in the right direction of appreciating people for talent regardless of their looks. But now Tina Fey has started this trend of “joking about how you’re not a hot girl” thing that’s only executed from the safe space of “you actually ARE hot.” It’s lame, it’s panders to feminine self-loathing and actually deepens it, it submits to the patriarchal ideal that women consider a man and attracting men more important than anything.
    I’m sorry, but as a feminist, I really hate Tina Fey. I’m so relieved to finally read an article that talks about the problematic nature of 30 Rock.
    (Oh, and Fey’s “I’m geeky and a loser!” thing where she only makes general Star Wars references? Uh, having seen Star Wars doesn’t make you a geek or on the fringe of society. She wants to bank on ugly geeky girls and she has no clue what’s she’s doing because she’s bought into the Hollywood machine. Argh!)

  • middlechild

    …The more I think about it…at least in the case of complaints about 30 Rock, the more I think that protesters miss that the “Liz is ugly” trope is part of the comedy.
    Tina IS attractive, but she’s also older and slightly plainer than the typical TV female lead. (I think the rules are a little bit different in comedies like 30 Rock and the Office.) Notice that the slams at her age and looks come from bloated egos like Jack (even if Jack is a favorable character on this show). Liz is used to satirize sexism and ridiculous appearance standards in image-conscious industries like show business….standards that hit women harder than men. That and I think her self-deprecation satirizes fears about aging and appearance that a female audience can relate to.
    Someone above beat me to it and mentioned that Rachel does look Jewish, and thus, is not quite as “conventionally pretty” as her foil, Quinn. That said, I’ve seen more coverage of Lea–including vampy photos, red carpet pics, and praises of her performance on the show and her overall sex appeal–than of Diana. A lead who can play “insecure” once in a while is more interesting.