Laurie Toby Edison

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Ugly Betty

Debbie says:

Despite my long-time fascination with the concept of “ugliness” (everyone writes about beauty; almost no one writes or talks or thinks about ugliness), I haven’t been paying much attention to the TV show Ugly Betty, which may be why I found this article on the show moving to England so interesting.

Among the things I didn’t know:

Ugly Betty is based on a hit 1999 Colombian soap opera, and has been sold to more than 70 countries, many of which have made their own versions.

Each country has modified the show to suit their cultural ideas of what constitutes ugly. In Germany, for example, the actress playing Betty had to wear a 50lb fatsuit.

However, all nations seem to agree that thick glasses and a mouthful of metal are markers of universal hideousness.

In India, Betty is so popular she featured on stamps.

Journalist Tess Simpson doesn’t only talk about the show: she also provides an excellent brief overview of the history of the ugly woman in literature (from Jane Eyre via Jo March to Bridget Jones).

She’s a bit more confused when it comes to social reactions to beauty:
In real life, few of us naturally warm to stunning women (ie rivals); similarly, impossibly beautiful characters on screen do not generally appeal to us. It has not always been this way. For centuries, beauty has been identified with goodness until the two have become almost synonymous. In Biblical times, imperfections such as hare lips were seen as punishment for sinfulness.

Today, that kind of prejudice is felt in the pressure on women who don’t conform to our ideas of beauty to ‘fix’ whatever is out of kilter, be it their teeth, their nose or the size of their breasts.

This seems internally contradictory: if we aren’t drawn to beautiful women, where would the pressure to “fix whatever is out of kilter” come from? And isn’t the “ugliness as punishment for sinfulness” concept reflected in the persistent contemporary description of eating too much as “sinful”?

Simpson gets back on track when she talks about the trend of “uglifying” beautiful actresses (she mentions Charlize Theron and Cameron Diaz; I always think of Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth) and also about our deep cultural expectation that Ugly Betty and her ilk will suddenly transform from Ugly Duckling into Swan, which apparently at least the U.S. Betty shows no signs of doing.

But the most telling sentence in the whole article is the last one: “Who knows, glasses and a mouthful of metal braces could yet be the next big fashion must-have for 2007.” Here Simpson is simply wrong. The signs of “ugliness” may vary from culture to culture, and decade to decade, but one thing is sure: Whatever our complex cultural attraction to ugly duckling characters may be (sympathy for what they represent, recognition for what we see in ourselves, hope for the transformation into swan, and so much more), it is not about wanting to look that way ourselves, and especially not about being willing to make an effort to look that way.

And even if it were, the fashion houses and designers who control these things would hardly play along.

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3 Responses to “Ugly Betty”

  1. Lynn Kendall Says:

    Cultural assumptions of beauty do change; one of the things literature can do is record current standards for the edification of the future.

    Here’s a passage from Charlotte Bronte’s final novel, Shirley, in which two young men are discussing the important business of choosing a wife.

    ‘Would you take an old woman?’

    ‘I’d rather break stones on the road.’

    ‘So would I. Would you take an ugly one?’

    ‘Bah! I hate ugliness and delight in beauty; my eyes and heart, Yorke, take pleasure in a sweet, young, fair face, as they are repelled by a grim, rugged, meagre one; soft delicate lines and hues please—harsh ones prejudice me. I won’t have an ugly wife.’

    ‘Not if she were rich?’

    ‘Not if she were dressed in gems. I could not love—I could not fancy—I could not endure her. My taste must have satisfaction, or disgust would break out in despotism—or worse—freeze to utter iciness.’

    ‘What, Bob, if you married an honest, good-natured and wealthy lass, though a little hard-favoured, couldn’t you put up with the high cheekbones, the rather wide mouth, and reddish hair?’

    ‘I’ll never try, I tell you. Grace at least I will have, and youth and symmetry—yes, and what I call beauty.’

    from Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, chapter 9; emphasis added

    However, all nations seem to agree that thick glasses and a mouthful of metal are markers of universal hideousness.

    When I was thirteen, I was a skinny little thing with a mop of hair, glasses (bifocals!), braces, and buck teeth. I also didn’t dress much better than Betty — probably worse. And I’d been told over and over that I was the smart one; my next younger sister was the pretty one.

    So I built my self-esteem around what I thought and felt and achieved, rather than how I looked. This was surely aided by the rural, working-class culture I grew up in, where “She’s a good worker” was the highest compliment a woman could receive. Maybe that’s why becoming fat hasn’t devastated my self-image. In fact, I am far more confident of my looks and self-presentation than I was when I was slender and young. And pretty, dammit. I was pretty and didn’t know it.

  2. susan senator Says:

    This post really tapped into something I’ve just started thinking about, as a 44 year old “attractive” woman who, like everyone else I know, diets, has thought about botox, never feels good enough. I wake up, assess the sagging skin, the new wrinkles, the extra pounds that snuck up on me somehow, and I start my day with a little bit of a sad feeling because of it.

    Why do we need to be more attractive, weigh less, etc.? Is it to attract others? And what’s the point of that, if we are already in a good relationship (married, or whatever)? But we all do. My cousin “needs” a tummy tuck. She is stunnng already, slim, happily married… why do I “need” to lose another ten pounds? For whom??????
    Excellent post.

  3. Lynne Murray Says:

    I came late to this show, but have developed into a true aficionada of it, not only because of the brilliant lead actress (who was also great in Real Women Have Curves, by the way), but also because of the wonderful writing, the wit and heart and sly comments on Latin versus Anglo culture. Even the music has a hint of Latin flavor. I have to say I don’t like the telenovelas [sp?]–which are now being brought to the US with great fanfare. As a rule they are all cliches and make American soap operas look positively profound. But I found it charming that Betty’s father is constantly watching these and Selma Hayak is frequently shown in cameo as the actress in the over-the-top dramas on the small screen.

    Another personal note watching Ugly Betty, is that America Ferrara in this role looks amazingly like a dear friend of mine looked in her 20s (no braces but otherwise identical). I always thought my friend was beautiful as well as was brilliant. Although she was quite volupuous and she and I shared a total disinterest in clothes and make up. I remember one guy saying after she got a good job and wardrobe, “She looks great, and she used to look so awful.” She never looked awful, she just concentrated on achievement rather than appearance.

    I’m happy to report that she’s now attained great professional heights doing what she loves, and has been happily married for over a decade to a man who adores everything about her. I don’t think my friend was ever an “ugly duckling” but as she traveled in more professional circles, she has become elegant in how she dresses, has her hair cut etc., while cultivating her skills and her character, not obsessing about an impossible fantasy of appearance.

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