Beautiful girls are bitchy and ugly girls are nice: Ugly Betty‘s “laws of the universe”

beugly.jpgA few weeks ago, I wrote about the disappointment I often feel when otherwise progressive TV shows miss the mark when it comes to female beauty. One of the shows I mentioned was Ugly Betty, which ranks among my favorite TV shows of all time. I love Ugly Betty for, among other things, its biting satire of the fashion and beauty industries, its appropriation of the oft-mocked telenovela and its showcasing of a female lead who is neither white nor painfully thin. What I don’t love about Ugly Betty is the assertion that slapping a pair of glasses and some braces on America Ferrera and making her hair frizzy makes her “ugly,” because, come on, just look at America Ferrera.

Last week’s episode of Ugly Betty was a perfect example of the show’s mixed success in taking on issues of female beauty and other gender issues. The episode, titled “Million Dollar Smile” (full episode here) begins with Betty preparing to finally have her braces removed. When a fire alarm interrupts her orthodontic appointment, she goes to work, where she’s accidentally knocked unconscious and, while passed out, has a vision of how her life might have turned out if she had been born with perfect teeth and had never needed braces.

As it turns out, Betty’s life would have turned out terribly, because having perfect teeth makes you a bitch.

In Betty’s perfect teeth alternate universe, she’s not the ugly sister anymore, she’s the pretty one. As her guide (her orthodontist, wearing a white angel gown) explains, “according to the law of the universe, there can only be one really pretty sister,” so Betty’s older sister Hilda had to be the chubby, dowdy one. Betty, on the other hand, was pretty and popular and smiled her way into a job as personal assistant to Mode Magazine’s creative director, the evil Wilhelmina. In real life, Betty was hired because she was unattractive, so that her womanizing boss Daniel, the editor in chief, wouldn’t be tempted to sleep with her. Real-life Betty worked her way into Daniel’s heart by working her butt off, and by repeatedly saving his. Perfect-teeth Betty, under the tutelage of Wilhelmina, becomes just as scheming and heartless as her mentor, and becomes Managing Editor. Because of Betty’s perfect teeth, everything is thrown out of whack. Her father, with the money he didn’t have to spend on Betty’s braces, started gambling and now has someone threatening to break his legs. Betty’s friends and colleagues hate her because she’s so manipulative. And her nephew Justin, Hilda’s son, doesn’t exist because “being the ugly sister is a highly effective method of birth control.”

So there you have it: Being pretty makes you bitchy, and being ugly endows you with compassion and empathy. So go ahead and hate on those pretty girls, because on the inside, they’re hideous. You can’t be both beautiful and kind, ladies, just like you can’t be both beautiful and smart. It’s just the “law of the universe.”

The message that the pretty popular girls are actually rotting from within is nothing new in popular culture – we’ve seen it most recently in The Devil Wears Prada and Mean Girls – and the idea that beauty fades over time, while kindness and intelligence are forever, is the moral of more stories than I care to count. But why does encouraging women to be kind and hardworking shouldn’t come at the cost of encouraging them to hate beautiful women? And exactly how does the message that beautiful equals bitchy square with the constant pressure that’s put on women to invest time, money and energy in the pursuit of beauty?

Ugly Betty
isn’t the only show to argue that being beautiful can change the course of your life. Who could forget Jon Hamm as Dr. Drew Baird, Liz Lemon’s dreamy love interest on 30 Rock? Drew, because he’s so good-looking, lives in what Liz calls “the bubble”: he’s so beautiful that people treat him like royalty and somehow, despite a complete lack of medical knowledge -he doesn’t even know the Heimlich maneuver – he made it through med school. Nor is Ugly Betty the last show to reinforce the rule that ugly people are nice and beautiful people are mean: In promotional clips for the new Showtime series The Big C, Laura Linney’s character says to one of her students, played by Gabourey Sidibe, “you can’t be fat and mean, Andrea. You can either be fat and jolly, or a skinny bitch. It’s up to you.”

The sad truth is that the stereotype that being beautiful makes people treat you differently has some basis in fact. According to one 2005 study, beautiful people earn about 5% more than their less attractive colleagues (though I’d be interested to know how the researchers determined who was beautiful and who wasn’t). The study also found that people with “below average looks” earned about 9% less than their average-looking coworkers. For men, there seems to be a correlation between height and pay: according to the same study, the taller a man is, the more he makes (among white men only, go figure). So there’s evidence that conforming to dominant beauty standards makes you more likely to succeed. But there’s no evidence that having things handed to you, as Pretty Betty did, makes you meaner or more manipulative than a person who doesn’t enjoy those advantages.

The irony, of course, is that everywhere else we look in popular culture we’re told that people who are overweight and ugly are dumb, mean and lazy. Think of Homer Simpson, or Harry Potter’s horrid cousin Dudley. Think of all the doofy, lazy husbands in sitcoms. Size and appearance are a form of shorthand for people’s personalities, allowing us to make assumptions about them without getting to know them. It’s this shorthand that can lead to discrimination and to the kind of long term wage disparities that the above study discusses. Equating skinniness and beauty with bitchiness is no better. At the end of the day, the message is the same: What you are on the outside determines who you are on the inside.

For women especially, this is a no-win situation. We’re told to avoid being fat or ugly at all costs, to strive to be beautiful whatever it takes. At the same time, we’re told that beautiful women are bitches, and that less attractive people are, by virtue of being less attractive, nice. But here’s the thing: There are mean fat women and nice skinny women, too. That’s the tricky thing about the reality that human beings are all individuals – they’re all different, and they’re rather complicated, which makes it awfully unlikely that assumptions about their personalities will be anywhere close to correct. That goes for fat people, skinny people, ugly people, pretty people and yes, even people with perfect, pearly white teeth.

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22 Comments

  1. davenj
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    “I love Ugly Betty for, among other things, its biting satire of the fashion and beauty industries, its appropriation of the oft-mocked telenovela and its showcasing of a female lead who is neither white nor painfully thin.”
    Painfully thin? When does being thin start being painful. Been thin all my life, and up to this point it hasn’t ever been physically painful.
    It’s a bit ironic that a post railing against equating bitchiness with beauty uses one of the same tropes that props up that very stereotype.

  2. Becca Stareyes
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Huh. I don’t watch Ugly Betty that often, but it sounds almost like a premise like that* could be played for farce, to mock the ‘pretty girls are bitchy, and ugly girls are sweet’ trope, especially in an extended dream sequence where you can slowly build in absurdity. OTOH, that would require being able to go so over the top that no one (okay, almost no one) could see it as playing the trope straight. It might be a situation where you can’t go enough over the top to not look like you’re playing the trope straight.
    (Also, I tend to think of a line from Discworld, where Agnes is reflecting on being described as ‘but she’s got a wonderful personality and lovely hair’ — that she wouldn’t mind it, except for the ‘but’.)
    * Betty dreams about what her life would be like without braces.

  3. paper tiger
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    It’s sad that some people think this way, but I’ve never met an intelligent person who believes this tripe. So don’t worry.
    I don’t like people using the wage differences between people to make loose points about how society views ‘ugly’ people – how much you earn depends on SO many factors it does not make sense to use those stats in this way.
    Also, there really is no such thing as ugly.

  4. bal
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    The studies on earnings and attractiveness almost exclusively use researcher/expert ratings of photographs or interviewees. There are usually 2-3 raters and ratings are compared to produce an average rating of attractiveness that has high inter-rater reliability.
    Some biological studies of attractiveness use facial symmetry rather than subjective ratings. But rated attractiveness has been found to be fairly consistent across cultures.
    About your point–I agree wholeheartedly. It’s truly deplorable how these sort of stereotypes can affect women’s lives (and men’s for that matter).

  5. Veronica
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    “As it turns out, Betty’s life would have turned out terribly, because having perfect teeth makes you a bitch.”
    I think this review is an under reading of both the episode and the program. While there are plenty of problematic things about this show, the satire was so thick, overlooking that does it a disservice. If there was an underlying message, I think it fell more in the idea that sometimes the things we hate about ourselves (i.e. braces) and cause adversity can build character. It’s a hokey program. To critique art, you have to treat it within its genre.

  6. FeministyMama
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I agree with you, Chloe – this is one of the best shows on television. I have a deep, profound love for Betty, and I think the show is one of the most well-written, complex (beneath every stereotype is a much more rounded-out character), aesthetically pleasing there is.
    I also think you’re right that there’s an obsession in television and film with the pretty & bitchy/ugly & sweet binary, but I think you might be missing a few things. For one, this show is often all about camp and illustrating themes (and truths) in really dramatic ways. So, of course, making Betty “pretty” would lead to disaster. That’s what the show is about.
    And two, this episode was about Betty’s road-not-travelled. Right before she was knocked unconscious, the museum guard looked at her Marcified ID and said, “that’s not you” because she’s not the creepy blonde (closer to the contemporary, American version of perfection) in the photo. Betty may have occasionally seen her braces or her not-”painfully thin” look as something of a detriment to her career or her life, and her dream was all about examining what that life could have been like. But Betty is also an optimist – she always sees the best in herself and others; she always makes the best out of difficult situations, and I saw this dream as her saying, “Sure, I could have been ‘perfect’ and had incredible professional success, but maybe my family and friends wouldn’t have fared so well. Maybe my life would have been lived only on the surface and the meaningful things, the things that aren’t skin-deep – like relationships and being good to people – wouldn’t have been so perfect.”
    I know I just spent a lot of time on this but, like Betty, I’m going to see the best. If you were deconstructing “Dollhouse,” though, I’d be on board!
    Lastly, can we focus on the really important stuff: the magic that is Judith Light! Or that Justin has a boyfriend. Hilda. Oh, Hilda.
    I could go on, but it’ll just get crazier. Anyway, I’m glad you wrote about this show!

  7. Martine Votvik
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I think that eppisode was more about Bettys fear that she would loose something essential of herself when she removed the braces.
    And come on who could fault Betty for believing being beautiful would make her mean?

  8. Comrade Kevin
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    You are right to point out that the stereotypical notions inherent in our love/hate relationship with beauty are harmful, but the very idea is self-reinforcing.
    I have known beautiful women who are not bitchy and “ugly” women who are nice, but many of my female friends still bear scars they received from being shunned and scorned by the popular girls back in grade school. That degree of cruelty makes a powerful impression and I think it never really subsides. And since the popular girls were often the most beautiful, I can understand why this stereotype has persisted for so long.
    There’s a grain of truth to it, but unraveling it is really tricky.

  9. Shinobi
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I think one of the things that is important about the whole “pretty girls are bitches” trope in fiction etc is not whether or not the girls are actually pretty, but whether they THINK they are pretty. While I certainly think there are themes in fiction and media that pretty people are nothing but pretty things to look at, I think the pretty = evil trope speaks to something else.
    It is not the act of being pretty or attractive that makes you evil. It is the act of knowing/acknowledging that you are attractive and using that to your advantage that makes you evil.
    In a way this makes the message even more insidious, you have to BE pretty to be successful, but you are not actually allowed to acknowledge that you ARE pretty.
    Anyway, I know this is something that I have internalized pretty well. It is not okay for me to think I’m pretty, even if other people do, and it is not okay for me to use what looks I have to my advantage either.
    Or maybe that’s just me.

  10. feministnc
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never seen the show (although my sisters loved the original Colombian telenovela) but it looks like the stereotypes you outline regarding outside looks determining our inside beings are everywhere and I agree that it’s hard to understand exactly how it works vis-a-vis other non-feminist mandates that societies impose… It’s probably just a version of the universal narrative of the unlikely hero.
    However, there are more concerning narratives in Ugly Betty, and those are the racial ones. In this article (http://www.npr.org/blogs/newsandviews/2008/05/mark_sawyer_ugly_betty_just_pl.html), Mark Sawyer discusses how the structure of the sitcom is set up to support white male privilege, with the visions of black femininity and Latino masculinity being degraded in the process (also, the show offers a very poor vision for Latinas, given Betty’s role as a ‘helper’ of Daniel).

  11. konkonsn
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    “…according to the law of the universe, there can only be one really pretty sister…”
    Looks like I’ll have to give my sister the bad news. :P

  12. Chelsa
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m having trouble articulating this… but it kind of reads a little like a revenge fantasy to me.
    Like, “unattractive” girls are kind of lesser than the “pretty” ones, but take solace in the fact that their insides are nicer? That whole “beautiful on the inside” trope. So Betty realizes that while she may not have it on the outside (which is another rant altogether), she’s got it where it counts and everyone is better off for it.
    Maybe someone else can expand on my rant. lol

  13. LindseyLou
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the overall premise of this post. But because I have a desperate love of all things “30 Rock,” I will defend the Jon Hamm character. To me that storyline was making a valid point–people will treat you differently if you are “good looking” by mainstream societal standards. One of my best friends and I are constantly in disagreement about how nice mutual acquaintances are. I usually think they’re very nice, and she usually thinks they’re shitty. She is just as smart and attractive as I am and much, much funnier than I am. But because she is “overweight,” (again, by mainstream societal standards) I do think people treat her differently and say rude things to her. It sucks balls, but there are a lot of shitty people out there. “30 Rock” was obviously hyperbole, but I definitely saw the point they were trying to make.

  14. VT Idealist
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Also, you can’t be pretty and smart at the same time. This was apparently the theme from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. The cute, perky weather girl turned out to be a very smart meteorologist. Only the smart but ugly persona had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and wore large glasses. (You know, if it’s that big of a deal, why can’t these women get contacts or lasik or something?)
    I think this is another case of women can’t win. Boo on you if you’re ugly. But if you are deemed pretty, then you’re either all looks with no smarts, or you’re a manipulative bitch.
    Unless, of course, you’re a Disney princess or the heroine of a romance, in which case you’re allowed to be both pretty and nice.
    Pick a trope. They contradict each other anyway.

  15. borrow_tunnel
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Very well written. Someone correct me if I’m wrong though, I thought we heard a while back here on Feministing that when you separate that 5% increase in pay for attractive workers into males and females, it is really only the attractive male employees who earn more. Or that being an attractive woman only benefited your husband’s earning potential. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

  16. Aaron Boyden
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Better nutrition growing up (which is correlated with wealth) tends to make people taller. Lots of other things correlated with wealth (lack of stress is a big one) seem to contribute to general good health growing up (including no doubt making additional contributions to height). Lack of health issues and reduced environmental pressures seem to contribute to both higher IQs and better looks. So one problem with a lot of these studies is that all sorts of things correlate with one another because of complicated interrelationships (in particular, a horde of other things correlate with wealth, and with health, and both of those correlate with one another), so it’s very hard to know whether a given correlation between A and B in a study is because of some causal link between A and B, or whether A and B have nothing to do with one another but are both influenced by the same third factor. I have, for instance, encountered a study which noted that IQ and height are correlated, and in fact the correlation is close enough that if you assume IQ is a causal factor in income, it’s sufficient to explain why taller people have higher incomes. I don’t know if they bothered to investigate the reverse, whether perhaps the correlation between IQ and income was spurious, because it’s the fact that higher IQ people are likely to be taller that might produce their higher incomes, with IQ not mattering at all, though really they should have have checked whether that might be possible as well. They probably didn’t check that; once people find a correlation that looks intuitively plausible to them, they tend to assume it’s causal, and not look nearly as hard as they should for possible ways it could be spurious.

  17. daytrippinariel
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    The popular girls, at least where I went to school, were not necessarily the most physically attractive. But they were the girls most willing to conform to a certain beauty standard: i.e. wear expensive clingy clothing, dye their hair, work out a lot, lots of makeup etc.

  18. Devoted_Toucan
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    “(though I’d be interested to know how the researchers determined who was beautiful and who wasn’t)”
    I know someone provided an explanation; just thought I’d add that they might have simply asked ‘the public’. A guy came into one of my Psychology classes a few weeks ago and asked us to take part in his study, which included rating the attractiveness of each face he showed us. (Hopefully I didn’t mess up the results by marking every face as “neutral”. :| )
    I’m glad the part about there being some truth behind this was mentioned. I was gonna say, unfortunately (we know) people do tend to be treated differently depending on how they look, and it often does become reflected in personality.
    Hm. But aren’t we shown/told mixed messages about being “beautiful”? I mean, there’s not just the crap about “beautiful” girls/women being bitchy. There’s ‘hot-but-dumb’, ‘hot-but-has-”ugly-ducking-syndrome”‘, etc. We know some films and shows present the supposed “hot” girl/woman as nice. Although Chloe doesn’t say it’s implied in everything, the “There you go” makes it all sound very clean-cut…that’s-how-it-is. If the last films to imply this about women were ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and ‘Mean Girls’, then more films don’t give this impression than films which do. Even the “beautiful” women who play the ‘beautiful-but-bitchy’ characters seem like quite nice (and obviously still “beautiful”) people in real life. Enough folks buy into reading about celebrities to see that many women who are portrayed as ‘beautiful-but-nasty’ on-screen are ‘beautiful-and-nice’ off-screen. There are also enough movies and shows depicting “ugly” girls/women as “bitchy”, “bitter”, or/and “stupid”, etc. So, there’s really mixed messages in different on-screen shit…most of which are bad. :p
    I think people are just obsessed with finding flaws with each other to make themselves feel better. And what better way to do this than on-screen. You know – where everything’s light-hearted and, just so people don’t feel guilty afterwards (and perhaps so that they find some level of hope depending on how well they feel they relate to whatever character/s), everything ‘works out’ in the end.

  19. Toongrrl
    Posted April 1, 2010 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    What happened to bitterly funny and snarky female characters that either weren’t pretty-pretty or didn’t give a flying fart about it so much, like Helga G. Pataki,the late but great Bea Arthur (she WAS a character) Eliza Thornberry,Daria Morgendorffer,and the recent Bessie Higginbottom? Does a girl have to be either homely/kind or beautiful/witchy? When I was a tween, I remembered an article about Mary Kate Olsen’s anorexia, where they explained that there was an article about the twins, saying that one was the “fat nice one” and the other was the “skinny mean one”, obviously the former was the worst option!!!! And an Olsen twin fat???
    Well here’s some clips of those females in their glory:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-qizJXk1Kg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFkBlo3hWhg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrcTKQ9ly3w
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHYCwbnBtMU
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Gls1VGPqr4

  20. Chas
    Posted April 1, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    You laud the show for its “showcasing of a female lead who is neither white nor painfully thin”, but I think it’s telling that said lead is not ‘allowed’ to be attractive. Curvy latina girl in a feature role? Better slap glasses, bad hair and braces on her so people don’t start questioning the stereotype that only thin white chicks are attractive.
    I don’t watch the show because I’ve never felt I needed it spelled out to me that the fashion world is bitchy and cruel, or that superficial people may be unkind and judgemental to those who don’t look conventional or follow trends. The show’s themes have always just come across as crashingly simplistic and obvious, from the ads and snippets I’ve seen. I really don’t see how it can be claimed as having anything to do with feminism – I agree with the poster who reminds us that it’s ‘just a hokey show’.
    I also agree with Toongrrl – What DID happen to “bitterly funny and snarky female characters that either weren’t pretty-pretty or didn’t give a flying fart about it so much”? Why are women on TV now only allowed to be “homely/kind or beautiful/witchy”? Bring back Daria I say.

  21. borrow_tunnel
    Posted April 3, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    This article may shed more light on the issue:
    “Rearticulating Ugliness, Repurposing Content: Ugly Betty Finds the Beauty in Ugly.” You’ll have to look it up though I can’t find a link.

  22. Femanon
    Posted April 4, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    I wrote about this a while back, looking at movies where the pretty girl is always the bitch, the girlfriend of the protagonist’s crush, the girl who tries to steal the protagonist’s boyfriend, etc. It’s the less attractive girl who gets the guy in the end, while the pretty girl gets rejected, dumped, and basically knocked off her pedestal, because naturally, being pretty means you don’t actually deserve love or success because you’re just a pretty, dumb bitch.
    What does this mean for pretty girls? Am I less deserving of some things because of how I look? I am pretty but I also consider myself a nice person, and very smart – hell I just spent this past weekend at Anime Boston being a superdork. But naturally because I’m attractive I don’t really belong there, right? My ex was totally right in dumping me in favor of a girl who fits the nerd stereotype a bit better, and I totally deserved that heartbreak because I MUST be a bitch.

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