A 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.